Winters can be harsh in Heilongjiang, China’s most northeastern province, bordering Siberian Russia.
The residents of Harbin, Heilongjiang’s capital, brighten the long, frigid months by carving fantastical frozen sculptures for the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival that takes place in January and February.
Once a mostly regional affair, the festival has grown to be a major international event and competition. So bundle up and pull on your sturdy boots to explore.
Pale winter sunlight sparkles on immense, life-size re-creations of famous landmarks around the world. Hard-packed snow crunches underfoot as you hike to the top of the Athens Acropolis or peer inside the gates of the Forbidden City.
Warm up with an exhilarating ride down a giant ice slide on the frozen Songhua River, then watch the island become an otherworldly land of shimmering ice and brilliant colors. As darkness falls, shades of crimson, sapphire, and lime green blaze forth from the translucent ice blocks.
“It’s quite surreal, due to both the scale and all the lighting—like being in a fantasy movie,” says Christian Stanley of the China Travel Company, which offers tours of Harbin and the festival.
“You feel very small and can’t help wondering how they manage to build all of this so quickly. It’s also hard to believe that within a matter of weeks it is all gone—melted away.”
Take a break from Harbin’s winter wonderland with a visit to the Siberian Tiger Park.
Located a few miles northwest of the city on the Songhua River, the park was established to help protect these magnificent animals, the largest felines in the world. Hundreds of purebred Siberian tigers—accustomed to the winter cold—freely roams the 355-acre (144 ha) nature reserve, along with lynx, leopards, and black puma.
In the know: Visitors must ride in buses encircled by wire mesh, which the curious tigers will occasionally investigate.
This article originally appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.