I've just arrived in the city of Harbin in northern Manchuria, wondering what the devil for. I'm wearing a fleecy hat and two pairs of trousers even as I write these words in my hotel room. As for the streets outside, I assure you, the Michelin man himself would not be able to spend more than five minutes in them without needing emergency cheek-and-nose resuscitation. By seven minutes, when I've tried braving it, I am speechless with chin paralysis. By ten minutes the cold has penetrated through the fifth layer of my clothing and death through hypothermia is the faintest puff of wind away, unless I can make it to that karaoke bar on the corner.

I've just arrived in the city of Harbin in northern Manchuria, wondering what the devil for. I'm wearing a fleecy hat and two pairs of trousers even as I write these words in my hotel room. As for the streets outside, I assure you, the Michelin man himself would not be able to spend more than five minutes in them without needing emergency cheek-and-nose resuscitation. By seven minutes, when I've tried braving it, I am speechless with chin paralysis. By ten minutes the cold has penetrated through the fifth layer of my clothing and death through hypothermia is the faintest puff of wind away, unless I can make it to that karaoke bar on the corner.

I'm enjoying it, though. Manchuria is the part of China that curves upwards into Siberia like a sinister eyebrow. It's where hundreds of thousands of White Russians ended up in exile, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. It is also where the Japanese arrived in China, bent on their failed war of conquest. But I'm here as a tourist to look at the ice, and I remain open-minded as to whether we tourists have a more enjoyable time of Manchuria than the White Russians or Japanese did.

To get here you can still catch the train out of Peking - though not, unfortunately, one of the cheerful trains full of girls in coloured hats and flowery dresses heading south. Instead it is one of those grim trains full of men in dark leather coats with bottles of vodka in their briefcases, heading north.

Then you spend a night on the tracks, rubbing ice off the windows, staring out at arc-lights, train yards and vast quantities of steam. By the arrival of dawn, you are looking at a land so stricken by frost that you cannot imagine how anything can possibly survive. The snow on the rails is grey and sooty and dry. But here it also has a none-too temporary look. Manchurian water, in other words, is a kind of whitey grey sub-rock that accumulates over everything like ash (and, in extreme summer conditions, has been known to turn briefly into a clear liquid).

Anyway, a pinky blue fog is hanging over the land. You see clumps of houses with smoking chimneys. Some poor bastard in a furry hat with the ear flaps down, emitting steam like a power station, is trundling on a bicycle beside the tracks. You remember the worst you ever felt waking up in the morning (to go to a new job, say, with a hangover, in the rain, after a beautiful holiday) and you have to admit that getting up to cycle to work in a village outside Harbin in midwinter looks roughly a million times worse.

Except that this is a land of suffering, where bare hands on frozen steel may be the least of your worries. How about experimentation in germ warfare? Or the use of slave labour to build railways for ore-carrying trains? Or landscapes blighted by cities of chimneys belching yellow and orange smoke? Or colossal blast furnaces into which recalcitrant workers periodically tumble? Slipping and sliding round these sunless streets, you try and try - but fail - to imagine how greatly you would have had to suffer to remotely consider coming to settle in a place like Manchuria.

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