In January China's coolest city hits minus 15C but they still swim, writes Paul Purcell.

It hurts to breathe.

The air is frigid, still and smokey, the fumes a by-product of the coal-fired power stations tasked with heating China's northernmost major city, Harbin.

Despite layer upon layer of fleece, goose down and Gore-Tex, the first breath I draw as I step on to the thin film of ice covering the runway catches in my throat. My lungs violently reject the stinging cold.

I splutter and cough, then begin to shiver.


It's in sharp contrast to the glorious South Pacific summer I've left behind - a consistent string of warm, sunny days punctuated by the fresh ocean breeze.

But in Harbin the temperature can and regularly does freeze the mercury in a thermometer, and is more than 35C below zero. This makes it the ideal place to host an ice and snow festival, an ambush of Siberian tigers and a small band of White Russians, whose ancestors fled to the city during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

Harbin was founded in 1897 as a camp for engineers surveying the Trans-Siberian Railway, but has since flourished into a sprawling metropolis, home to more than 10 million people in the greater city limits alone.

Though the once-burgeoning Russian population has declined, its legacy is etched into the city's architecture. The most renowned of the traditional Baroque and Byzantine-style buildings is St Sophia Cathedral, which sits at the centre of the city district. The others are mostly in the city's old quarter, a series of decrepit buildings built at the turn of the 19th century that have remained untouched since the majority of Russian expats moved on.

But in keeping with Harbin's heritage many newer buildings are built in the same style, a continuing tribute to the Russians who helped found China's ice city.

Harbin's Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival, every November to April, draws big crowds. Photo / 123RF
Harbin's Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival, every November to April, draws big crowds. Photo / 123RF

Running alongside the old quarter and snaking through the CBD is the Songhua River, the lifeblood of the city's most famous attraction — Harbin International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival.

From November until April each year, the river is frozen solid and more than 35,000 city workers cut gigantic iceblocks required to build the festival's ice sculptures and buildings from its banks.

Tied to the banks is a fleet of ferries, but why the ropes are required during the harsh winter months remains to be seen. The water around their hulls is frozen solid.


The river also serves as an attraction, playing host to snowtubing, dog-sled rides and hundreds of very brave locals who go for a quick swim in the frigid waters beneath the ice.

In January, Harbin's coldest month when the temperature is typically minus 15C during the day, locals and intrepid travellers take part in the annual ice swimming challenge.


Harbin's Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival. Photo / Jillian Murphy
Harbin's Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival. Photo / Jillian Murphy

Outside the city limits, there's no shortage of other drawcards, including the world's largest collection of Siberian tigers along with lions, ligers and jaguars.

In large, open enclosures at the Siberian Tiger Park, hundreds of big cats prowl and roam, spending their days hunting the pheasants and ducks that have the misfortune to land in their territory.

Those hoping to see a tiger's ruthless ferocity first-hand can purchase live chickens, pheasants, ducks, goats or even a fully-grown cow to be put in the enclosure with the predators.

Yet for all its attractions, Harbin has one overwhelming flaw. After years of tension between native Chinese and Russian immigrants, many of the locals have an obvious and inherent distrust of Caucasians.

Most of the Russians who initially settled in Harbin from the 1890s were expatriated during the mid-1960s, bound for South America or Australia. But despite this, reservations are still deeply entrenched.

When travelling through the region it is definitely worthwhile making clear to locals that you're not a Russian, lest you be treated worse for it.

But when you put all misgivings aside, it is hard not to be captivated.

For its tigers, architecture and the snow and ice, which quite literally steals your breath away, it's small wonder Harbin has earned the reputation of "the coolest city in China".