Wudalianchi Global Geopark

Wudalianchi 01

Imagine, hundreds of years ago, hearing a thunderous crack rend the air and watching in horror as ash plumed into the sky, blocking out the sun. This was the terrifying reality for the people of Wudalianchi County in Heilongjiang province when, from 1719 to 1721, a sequence of volcanic eruptions sent shockwaves throughout this otherwise peaceful region. As lava rushed up to the surface and snaked its way across the land, it formed two large volcanoes: Mount Laohei and Mount Huoshao. In the process, hardened lava blocked a section of the nearby Amur River, forming a series of five interconnected lakes.

Wudalianchi 03The beauty of these lakes, coupled with the fourteen volcanoes and countless volcanic landforms nearby, meant it was designated by UNESCO as a Global Geopark in 2004. In fact, this scenic area is so integral to the region that its name and the county’s name of “Wudalianchi” literally translates to mean the “Five Conjoined Pools”. While most natural disasters leave behind a trail of destruction and devastation, these volcanic eruptions ended up producing one of the finest natural attractions in China!

The five great lakes, known as Lotus Lake, Yan Mountain Lake, White Dragon Lake, Crane Chirping Lake, and Ruyi Lake, have names equally matching their grandeur. Among them are littered frozen lava cascades, surreal lava stalactites, eerie lava passages, belching fumaroles[1], strangely shaped lapilli[2], and smooth volcanic bombs[3]. These bizarre formations were all produced over millions of years as a result of volcanic activity. After all, with fourteen volcanoes in the vicinity, things are bound to get a little heated! Mount Laohei remains the most popular of the volcanoes and, at a staggering 516 metres (1693 ft.) in height, is also the largest. Evidently sometimes size does matter!

With its shimmering lakes, towering volcanoes, and bizarre lava formations, you’d think Wudalianchi Global Geopark would be a haven for geologists and hikers. Yet many of its visitors are after more than just a glimpse at its natural beauty. According to local legend, over one hundred years ago a young herder from the Daur ethnic minority named Galasangbaiyin lived near Wudalianchi. As with all good folktales, he fell madly in love with a slave girl called Aqimeige. However, when the herd owner discovered their secret affair, he thrashed Galasangbaiyin and locked him in the stables. In a fit of desperation, Aqimeige stole a horse, placed her unconscious lover on its back, and attempted to make her escape.

As she rode away, the herd owner shot her with a poisoned arrow and she fell from the horse, dragging Galasangbaiyin with her. Together they both plunged into a nearby spring and found, to their surprise, that the cool water miraculously cured their wounds. To mark this unbelievable event, Galasangbaiyin inscribed the words “medical spring” on the rock beside it, and Daur herders would swarm to it to take advantage of its healing powers. No one knows exactly which spring is the fabled “medical spring”, but nowadays South Spring, North Spring, South Washing Spring, and Bubbling Spring are all celebrated for their supposed healing properties. Thousands of tourists flock here every year in order to drink or bathe in their waters, hoping to cure whatever ails them.

After some physical healing, you may be in the mood for some spiritual healing. Believe it or not, this volcanic territory, rich with fire and brimstone, is home to a Buddhist temple! If being surrounded by volcanoes wasn’t unique enough, Zhongling Temple is actually nestled deep within Mount Yaoquan’s once fiery volcanic crater. So prepare to get lost on a scenic ride through the lava fields, feel revitalised in the healing springs, or discover more about volcanic landforms at the Wudalianchi Global Geopark Museum. This natural wonderland is simply erupting with tempting possibilities!

[1] Fumarole: An opening in or near a volcano through which hot sulphurous gases emerge.

[2] Lapilli: Lapilli are rock fragments that have been ejected from a volcano during an eruption.

[3] Volcanic bomb: A volcanic bomb is a mass of molten rock that is ejected from a volcanic during an eruption and cools into a solid fragment before it hits the ground. They are typically over 64 millimetres (2.5 in) in diameter.

The Harbin Ice Festival

The Harbin Ice Festival 01

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), local farmers and fishermen in northeast China would look forward to the bitterly cold winter, when temperatures would frequently drop to below -30°C (-22°F) and snow would lay claim to the landscape for upwards of seven months. While most people would dread such harrowing weather, they welcomed it, as it meant they could practice their most beloved winter-time tradition: the making of ice lanterns. First, they would simply pour water into a bucket and leave it outside to freeze. Once it was almost frozen solid, they would gently warm the sides of the bucket and ease the block of ice out.

They would then chisel a hole in the top and any water remaining inside would be poured out, creating a hollow vessel. A candle would be placed inside the hole, thus producing a windproof lantern that could be used as a jack-light to guide the farmers and fishermen during the long winter nights. As time went on, the popularity of these ice lanterns grew and people began using them as decorations. Artisans would fashion progressively more delicate and artistic lanterns until finally, in 1963, the Ice Lantern Show and Garden Party was born in Heilongjiang province’s capital of Harbin.

The Harbin Ice Festival 05Although it was briefly interrupted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the festival returned with new force in 1985 and gradually developed into a much larger event known as the Harbin Ice Festival, with magnificent ice and snow sculptures blanketing the city for months at a time. In 2001, it was combined with Heilongjiang’s International Ski Festival and was given a new official title: the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Informative though this title undoubtedly is, many people choose to save time by truncating it back to the Harbin Ice Festival!

Nowadays it has grown to become the largest winter festival in the world, taking up over 600,000 square metres (6,458,346 sq. ft.) of space and attracting about 10 to 15 million visitors every year. It is usually held from the end of December right through to the start of February, and boasts the tallest ice sculptures of any event in the world, with some of the “ice buildings” towering in at 46 metres (151 ft.) in height. In terms of location, the festival is separated into three main exhibition areas: Sun Island, Ice and Snow World, and Zhaolin Park.

Sun Island is an island resting within the Songhua River that is used as a recreational area throughout the year. During the festival, enormous snow sculptures dominate the island, delighting visitors with their grandeur and elegance. They are made using compacted snow, which helps to preserve their shape, and are best viewed during the day, as they are not lit up at night. If you happen to be traveling in Harbin outside of the festival times, don’t fret! The Ice and Snow Art Hall on Sun Island is a refrigerated indoor arena where award-winning snow and ice sculptures from the festival can be viewed year-round.

The Harbin Ice Festival 02While Sun Island is undeniably impressive, the festival’s star attraction has always been Ice and Snow World. Over 15,000 people work tirelessly for 16 days in order to create a miniature city made entirely out of ice, complete with dazzling ice sculptures, slides, mazes, and skating rinks. Many of these “ice buildings” are made using ice from the Songhua River and are recreations of real buildings from across the world, such as the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt and the Hallgrímskirkja in Iceland. Some of these icy constructions are so large that you can even walk inside them!

Ice and Snow World dazzles during the day, but doesn’t truly come to life until night-time. When the dark sets in, colourful lights illuminate the ice and produce a truly breath-taking spectacle. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, this area also offers numerous unusual activities, including ice rock-climbing, ice archery, ice golf, and raucous snowball fights. Nothing gets you in the festive spirit quite like pummelling your friends with snowballs!

The Harbin Ice Festival 08Although Ice and Snow World and Sun Island are the two largest venues, Zhaolin Park was the place where the magic all started. It was the site of the original Ice Lantern Show and Garden Party, and to this day remains the display area for the glittering ice lanterns. Much like Ice and Snow World, it is best visited in the evening, when the lanterns are lit up and shimmer like colourful beacons in the frosty night air. The display is typically constituted of over a thousand lanterns, some of which are carved by the locals themselves. They may not be as colossal in scale as those exhibited in the other areas but their designs, which are usually of mythical characters or animals, are beloved by children. After all, this wintry fairy-tale wouldn’t be complete without a few magical creatures!

 

Mohe County

Get ready to feel like you’re on top of the world! Or at least on top of China. Resting at the tip of Heilongjiang province, Mohe is the northernmost county in China. Its most celebrated attraction is the almost perpetually frosty Beiji or “Northernmost” Village, which lies close to the border with Russia and represents the country’s northernmost settlement. Every year, tourists flock to the village to peer across the Amur River at the snowy climes of Russia’s Siberian forests or to take a photo in front of a stone monument that marks China’s most northerly point. Those that are lucky enough to arrive at just the right time are treated to a rare glimpse of the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights.

mohe02Mohe may sound like a winter wonderland, but it is important to note that it can be somewhat inhospitable. Its vast forests are home to bears and wolves, while its subarctic climate means winters can last for up to seven months and temperatures can regularly drop to below -30°C (-22°F)! That being said, these primitive forests are undeniably picturesque and are rich with rare animal species like sika deer, wild boar, snow hares, red deer, pheasants, sables, and reindeer.

National parks such as the Huzhong National Nature Reserve have become popular retreats for hunting, hiking, and fishing. Many of the unusual plant species found there are used to brew wine and make herbal remedies according to traditional Chinese medicine. So, even if you get the flu in this chilly place, you’ll never be too far away from a cure!

While the village of Beiji is undoubtedly the region’s star attraction, the town of Mohe is not without its charms. In 1987, the town was tragically destroyed by fire and was entirely rebuilt in a Russian architectural style. From colourful cupolas and arched windows to decorative golden lettering, it looks more like a scene from a Tolstoy novel than a traditional Chinese folktale. These European-style buildings, coupled with the dense woodlands that envelop the town, evoke the atmosphere of a dark fairy-tale. Russia’s influence on the town is still palpable not only in its architecture but also in its tourist shops, which continue to sell Russian nesting dolls and chocolate.

During the close of the 19th century, the region also benefited from a brief gold rush. Statues of gold-panners in Mohe Town act as a testament to the droves of speculators from Russia, Japan, and Korea who flocked here in the hopes of making their fortune. Mohe’s very own Yellow Brick Road, known as the “Golden Path”, was once a famous gold mining region and remains a popular tourist draw to this day. Who knows; during your trip, you may just strike it rich!

MOHE VILLAGE

Harbin

harbin ice05

Venture into China’s bitterly cold northeast and, resting on the south bank of the Songhua River, you’ll find the aptly named “Ice City”. Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, is famed for its frosty winters and spectacular ice festivals. During the winter months, temperatures can drop to as low as −40 °C (−40 °F) and the Songhua River regularly freezes over with ice that can be up to one metre (3 ft.) deep! In spite of this somewhat inhospitable weather, Harbin remains the cultural and economic centre of not only Heilongjiang province but also Northeast China in general. Since the shape of Heilongjiang supposedly resembles that of a swan, Harbin is often affectionately referred to as “the pearl on the swan’s neck”.

Historically speaking, it is a relatively new city set in a region that was once known as Manchuria, which was ruled by the Manchu people. Its name, which was originally a Manchu word meaning “a place for drying fishing nets”, is a testament to the fact that it was once just a quaint fishing village. It wasn’t until 1898 that plans were drawn up to develop this small settlement into a major city. The Russian Empire, which was in the process of financing the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway, wanted to use the city as a base in northeast China to aid with the administration of the railway.

When it was initially established, the city became home to an overwhelming majority of Russian immigrants, who exerted a powerful influence over its culture, architecture, and cuisine. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, refugees flocked to Harbin and, at one point, it had the largest Russian population of any city outside of the Soviet Union. On August 25th 1945, the city came under the control of the Soviet Army, who eventually handed power over to the People’s Liberation Army in April of 1946. In this way, Harbin became the first large city to come under the jurisdiction of the Chinese Communist Party.

Harbin01While much of the Russian-style architecture has tragically been replaced, there are a number of well-preserved exceptions that have earned the city the nickname the “Oriental Moscow”. The most magnificent remnant of Harbin’s multi-cultural past is undeniably Saint Sophia Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church located in the central district of Daoli. This elegant work of Byzantine-style architecture was originally built in 1907 and was eventually converted into a museum in 1997. What could be better than learning about the history of Harbin from inside one of its most venerable historic buildings?

Other areas of architectural interest include Harbin’s Old Quarter, which contains many buildings of the Baroque and Byzantine-style that were built by the Russians during the 19th century, and Zhongyang Avenue, which is an eclectic mixture of stunning Baroque and Byzantine facades, traditional Jewish architecture, Russian eateries, French boutiques, American fast food chains, and Japanese restaurants. While many of the buildings in the Old Quarter are unfortunately falling into disrepair, Zhongyang Avenue is still a lively tourist hotspot that comes alive at night. During the summer, the street is lined with beer gardens that are sure to tempt the thirsty shopper!

However, when Saint Sophia Cathedral and the other foreign edifices were initially built, many local Chinese people felt that it damaged the city’s feng shui. In response, they donated money to fund the construction of Jile Temple or “Temple of Bliss”, which was eventually completed in 1924. This spectacular work of traditional Chinese architecture is the largest Buddhist temple in Heilongjiang province. Alongside these Christian and Buddhist houses of worship, there is also the Harbin Jewish New Synagogue, which contains exhibitions on the history of the 20,000 Jews who once lived in Harbin.

harin ice festival01Fascinating though these historical buildings undoubtedly are, Harbin’s greatest draw is the International Ice and Snow Festival, which has been held annually since 1985. During the winter months, the city is decorated with stunning ice and snow sculptures carved by artisans from across the globe. The two main exhibition areas are Sun Island and “Ice and Snow World”. While Sun Island predominantly showcases the finest snow sculptures of the festival, Ice and Snow World is a miniature functioning city made from ice, which is illuminated at night to create a spectacular explosion of colour. Every year, over 15,000 people work tirelessly for 16 days in order to bring this winter wonderland to life!

If the thought of careering down an ice slide or winter-swimming in the Songhua River gives you the chills, there’s always the Harbin International Beer Festival, which is held every August. In terms of capacity and scale, it is technically larger than Germany’s Oktoberfest, and features live musical acts, entertaining performances, and, of course, plenty of beer!

Heilongjiang Province

MOHE VILLAGE

As China’s northernmost province, it goes without saying that temperatures in Heilongjiang can get a little chilly! The region is renowned for its crisp snowy scenery and the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, which takes place in the provincial capital of Harbin, attracts droves of visitors every year. The name Heilongjiang literally translates to mean “Black Dragon River”, the Chinese name for the scenic Amur River which marks the border between China and Russia. Sharing both its northern and eastern border with Russia, it should come as no surprise that Heilongjiang’s architecture and culture has been heavily influenced by its neighbour.

Although the Han Chinese still represent the majority, a substantial number of Russian people call this province home, alongside other ethnic minorities such as the Manchu, Korean, Mongol, Hui, Ewenki, Daur, Oroqen, and Hezhen people. Each of these ethnic groups boasts their own colourful cultures, customs, and lifestyles, from the hardy Hezhen fishermen to the skilled Oroqen hunters. Venturing into the icy countryside of Heilongjiang, visitors are welcome to connect with these fascinating peoples and spend time in their isolated settlements. Just be sure to wrap up warm!

heilongjiang02The province has become notorious for its harsh winters, which typically last for five to eight months. With a humid continental climate in the south and a subarctic one in the north, temperatures in January average from −31 to −15 °C (−24 to 5 °F), so don’t be offended if locals in Heilongjiang give you the cold shoulder! The short summers are warm and mild, ranging from 18 to 23 °C (64 to 73 °F). This bitter weather may seem unforgiving, but the province’s numerous mountain ranges are actually home to several endangered animal species, including the Siberian tiger, the Amur leopard, the red-crowned crane, and the lynx.

To the west and the north respectively, the Greater and Lesser Khingan ranges dominate, while the Zhangguangcai and Laoye ranges rise up to the east. Although much of the province is mountainous, the elevations are generally quite low, with very few mountain ranges exceeding 1,000 metres (3,300 ft.) in height. Of the many natural attractions on offer in Heilongjiang, the Wudalianchi Global Geopark and the Jingpo Lake Scenic Resort are undoubtedly the most magnificent. Wudalianchi is a series of five interconnected lakes that were formed when lava from a volcanic eruption dammed a tributary of the Amur River. Alongside the glistening lakes, the geopark boasts a myriad of unusual volcanic landforms, a handful of temples, and its own museum.

Similarly, most of the sights in the Jingpo Lake Scenic Resort were formed thanks to volcanic activity. Jingpo Lake itself is the largest mountain lake in China and is home to the spectacular Diaoshuilou Waterfall. Having been formed by a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred approximately 4,700 to 8,300 years ago, the lake is proof that fire and brimstone isn’t always a terrible thing!

Towering mountains and shimmering lakes aside, the real draw for tourists in Heilongjiang is its gorgeous snow scenery. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you may want to take a trip up to Mohe, China’s northernmost town. This region is home to thick Siberian forests, distinctive Russian architecture, and sparse settlements of various ethnic minorities. Thanks to the town’s northerly location, lucky visitors are occasionally treated to stunning views of the aurora borealis.

For those of you who fancy getting up close and personal with the snow, there are a number of fantastic ski resorts dotted throughout the province, the most famous of which is Yabuli Ski Resort. This resort acts as the training centre for the Chinese Olympic ski team and covers two mountains, with a good range of advanced, intermediate, and beginner slopes. You could even test your skills at the Heilongjiang International Ski Festival, although you may prefer spending the day drinking hot chocolate in the lodge instead!