Officially lasting for the months of December, January and February, winter can be one of the most rewarding times to visit the vast country of China. While much of the north and west of the country from Xinjiang to Manchuria will be blanketed in a thick layer of snow during this time, areas of the south and east, such as Hong Kong and Yunnan, bask in the equatorial heat. From ice festivals to fiery hotpots and New Year celebrations, this travel guide to the best places to visit in China will let you plan your winter adventure with ease.
Marvel at Harbin’s architecture and the Ice and Snow Festival
Harbin is one of China’s most unusual cities. Located close to the Russian border, the city developed in the 19th century as a base for engineers building the iconic Trans-Siberian Railroad and it further grew as a centre for Russian aristocratic émigrés fleeing the Bolsheviks following 1918. While the city’s Russian population today is small, its architecture of onion-dome churches, tenements and neo-classical department stores – not to mention the impressive Volga Manor just outside town – is reminiscent of Saint Petersburg and looks at its best during the snowy winter months. While its architecture may be grand, most visitors arrive in the city for the yearly Harbin Ice and Snow Festival where the banks of Songhua River are transformed into a gaudy display of fantastical neon-lit ice sculptures. Expect icy versions of iconic world monuments, in recent years including the Great Wall and the Eiffel Tower, alongside gigantic ice slides and Narnia-esque statues. The best way to reach this mesmerising spectacle is by romantic horse and carriage ride across the frozen river but remember to wrap up warm as temperatures can reach a bone-numbing - 25°C with ease.
Warm yourself with a fiery huoguo in Chongqing
Chongqing is China’s most underrated city. Yes, it may lack the blockbuster attractions of Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong but it has quickly emerged as the country’s fourth-largest city with its rapid growth testament to China’s recent economic transformation. If there is one thing that should draw visitors to the city it is its reputation for dishing out the country’s most traditional and fiery huoguo (hotpots) that will warm you on a cold winters day. For the best experience, make sure to order the spicy red hotpot, which is coloured with red peppers and Sichuanese chillies for intense flavour. Alongside the hotpot, you can order your favoured delicacies, including strips of marinated beef, brains or simply fresh vegetables, which you get to cook yourself in the bubbling red broth. To make sure you sample the best huoguo in the city, take a guided Chongqing food tour where local guides will be able to show you off the beaten track local restaurants.
Hike the snow-covered Yellow Mountains
Over the centuries the Yellow Mountains of Anhui province have been immortalised by countless traditional Chinese ink painters of the Shanshui School and it is not hard to see why: clad in dense vegetation and defined by plunging granite cliffs they are one of China’s most breathtaking landscapes. While the mountains can be visited at any time of the year, they are best seen in the winter months when a light dusting of snow often covers their peaks. The best vista in the mountains is found at the UNESCO listed Huangshan Mountain Scenic Area. During the Tang Dynasty, it was believed that the key to immortality lay at the mountain’s summit and the area became home to a great number of religious hermits and romantic poets. Besides admiring the jaw-dropping view, you can also warm yourself by plunging into one of the area’s thermal springs or go on guided nature tours to spot wolves, eagles and macaques.
Celebrate the Chinese New Year
If you happen to be in China at the tail end of January then you are in luck, as you will get to take part in the biggest celebration on earth. On 28th January, the Chinese people celebrate the New Year of their lunar calendar and this means events, feasts and general merriment across the country that lasts until mid-February. To best experience this spectacle head to Guizhou province, a largely rural area in the country’s southwest that is home to some of China’s most enchanting traditions. The province is home to the minority Miao people, who during the New Year celebrations dress in their age-old traditional clothing and play songs using the ancient lusheng. To see the most of this remarkable corner of China it is advisable to book a guided tour of the region that will take you from its vibrant capital Guiyang to the city of Liuzhou, a remote mountain stronghold of Miao culture. Other cities in China with notable celebrations include Beijing and Guangzhou, which both hold jaw-dropping firework displays and have a vast array of buzzing temple fairs.
Soak up the sun in Sanya
If you want to escape the ice and snow of northern China then head to Sanya, a year-round tropical paradise in the deep south of Hainan province. During the winter months, the average temperature is a balmy 27°C and you can relax on a golden sand beach, snorkel amongst coral reefs or get a massage treatment at one of the resort city’s famously plush hotels. If you are looking to complement the fantastic weather with some traditional culture then it is best to travel west to the impressive Nanshan Temple, which was founded in 1988 to commemorate two thousand years of Buddhist culture in China. While the temple’s location perched on the edge of the tropical sea is seductively atmospheric, the real draw is the mammoth Guanyin Buddha statue that is taller than the Statue of Liberty and sits on a rocky promontory in the sea. For the best experience, Nanshan Temple tour guides can help explain the temple’s rich cultural significance.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has travelled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has a real passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses: Cover photo: Moomen in Snow: https://flic.kr/p/5Wb7cG (Rincewind42, CC BY 2.0), Spicy Noodles: https://flic.kr/p/T35f7d (Alpha, CC BY-NC 2.0), Yellow mountains: https://flic.kr/p/nR26Jy (Michael Tyler, CC BY-SA 2.0), Maio Lusheng players: https://flic.kr/p/9g6EQJ (Anja Disseldorp, CC BY 2.0)