China is known for its world wonders, yet one of its less famous attractions is arguably amongst its most unique spectacles. The annual Harbin Ice Festival is a stunning celebration of all things snow, that takes place in China's most northerly province, Heilongjiang. Each year master sculptors compete to create incredible structures of ice and snow, which last for approximately three months and attract an estimated 10 to 15 million visitors (roughly 1-1.5 times the city's natural population), drawing crowds the likes of which Quebec and Norway can only dream of. If you've never considered visiting this fabulous winter wonderland, we have 10 reasons that are sure to change your mind.
1. This is where records are broken
Ice-sculpting records, that is. Harbin has been known to host sculptures made of ice and snow up to 157ft (48m) tall, almost rivalling the height of Paris' Arc de Triomphe, and indeed, replicas of famous buildings have been made: the Kremlin made an icy appearance amongst the statues of 2015's show.
2. Harbin is a melting-pot of Chinese and Russian culture
Despite its enormous distance from Moscow (including a 5-hour time zone difference), Harbin boasts a wealth of Russian culture, owing to an influx of settlers who fled Bolshevik rule in China's pre-Communist days. Reminders of Russian influence can be found in local cuisine, and a few choice souvenirs and themed bars, as well as remnants of architecture that survived the Cultural Revolution. Come for the ice sculptures, but stay for the worldwide experience of the city's blended cultural background.
3. It's littered with fascinating architecture
China is rightly famous for its distinct and long-lasting architecture, but Harbin's owes much to the city's long and fascinating history serving as a refuge for those fleeing Russia. When you're not ogling the wonders of the festival, take some time to appreciate the intriguing architectural elements that feel distinctly out of place here, including the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sophia (outwardly every inch a cathedral, but the innards have since been gutted and now house a local history museum), and the synagogues that can be found dotted around the city.
4. It's world-class
Having run for over 30 years, the festival now brings in master craftsmen in the realm of ice sculpting, and has truly put Harbin on the map. Whilst there are a number of ice-sculpting festivals throughout Asia, Harbin is one of the best, stretching over 750,000 sq m of dedicated showcase space.
5. The festival runs day and night
Different areas of the three main themed parks dedicated to the festival offer viewing at different times of day, which means the show never really stops. Whilst the structures of Sun Island Park are made to view by daylight, some sculptures are lit up at night with coloured lights, and there are areas of the festival restricted to purely night-time viewing - perfect for round-the-clock fun.
6. The sculptures take over the city
Even if you don't pay to enter one of the main viewing areas, public sections of Harbin still revel in the snowy delights, with impromptu sculptures popping up on main streets. Areas around the river are particularly popular for this, so even a casual stroll can lead you to impressive works of art.
7. It takes a village …
… Or in this case, a city. Over 10,000 workers each year are needed to cut and haul the ice used to create the sculptures, whilst many more artisans and craft workers flock to Harbin to produce works of art from the frozen blocks.
8. It's perfect for cold lovers
If you love nothing more than chilly climes, then look no further. Harbin's lowest temperatures are around -35 degrees C, which is perfect for preserving the festival - and for those who love it cold. There are coffee houses and bars around, so warmth is not entirely scarce, but Harbin's cold season is well and truly committed to winter.
9. You'll have the best holiday photos
From frozen statues and record-breaking artworks that last only a few short months, to an array of architectural styles hard to find rubbing shoulders elsewhere, you'll have some of the most fascinating snaps around when you visit Harbin. Just be sure to keep spare batteries with you - thanks to the temperature, life is soon sapped from conventional batteries, so it's best to keep some extras to hand.
10. The river is an attraction in itself
Harbin's Songhua River is frozen solid in winter, and when it freezes, local residents know exactly how to make the most of it. The river becomes a frozen funfair of sorts, with ice-skating, bikes and even miniature tanks having been used to cross its icy waters - all in the name of entertainment.