Temperatures of -30C mean Harbin is the perfect place for an ice festival.

On the face of it, winter is not the ideal time to visit the northern Chinese city of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province. A biting Siberian wind batters the region, and temperatures regularly dip as low as -30C. Nevertheless, each year thousands of visitors descend upon the "Ice City of China", as Harbin is known. The reason? Its annual Ice and Snow Festival.

The festival is extraordinary, focusing on ice sculptures that are amazing feats of engineering and craftsmanship – and it's a spectacle that can be enjoyed on a short break from Beijing. The overnight train takes about 10 hours, but there are also regular domestic flights that take you from the capital to Harbin in less than two hours.

I arrived by train, emerging out of the central railway station into the freezing cold just as dawn was breaking. I was immediately plunged into the general noise and chaos of a city on the move: men wrapped up in thick coats walked by selling newspapers, others pushed carts with large metal vats balanced on top, weaving in and out of the heavy traffic.

It felt incredibly cold, even wearing winter boots, two pairs of thick socks, Arctic mittens and my mother's big fur hat. Just as the long winters and icy temperatures influence what people wear, it also has an impact on cuisine, with dried, salted and pickled vegetables being more available than fresh vegetables. As for coping with iced-up windows on buses and cars, drivers appeared to make do with looking out of scarily small areas of ice-free glass, or produced blow torches to deal with major de-icing.

In the centre of the large square in front of the station were massive, glistening ice sculptures of towers and temples, showing off the art of ice carving for which the city is renowned. And that, if I may, was just the tip of the iceberg.

The annual festival takes over the whole city. Labourers haul in blocks of ice from the Songhua River, which runs through Harbin; engineers figure out the calculations for the colossal ice replicas of famous buildings; and then sculptors set to work chiselling and carving. Ice sculptures of cellists and other musicians lined the road to one of the city's main concert halls, while frozen cherubs strumming harps brightened up the central reservation of a major highway.

The highlight of the festival is Ice and Snow World, a park covering an area the size of 80 football pitches, and which is filled with ice and snow sculptures. I walked up the ice steps and through the ice columns and towers that formed the entrance. On my left was a massive replica of the Colosseum; one my right stood a pair of huge Egyptian sphinxes, plus a bottle of Harbin beer the height of a tall building. Further ahead were ice reproductions of European castles, pagodas and Buddhist temples. Last year, a Chinese newspaper reported that the park's Dreaming Castle was the largest ice sculpture in the world, standing at 50m high. It took 2,000 workers 15 days to build.

Almost all of the 2,000 or so sculptures in the park are lit up in pinks, greens, oranges, blues and yellows, often changing from one to another in a spectacle of gaudy extravagance. As you wander around the complex, or in my case gently jog around in a vain effort to keep warm, you almost forget that everything has been constructed from ice.

The ice sculptures are now a tourist attraction for Harbin. However, their origins lie in a practical way of life for the people in the region. To prevent their sources of light being blown out by the winter wind, those living in the far north of China used to hollow out ice blocks and make protective lanterns from them. The sculptures are still called "ice lanterns" by the locals.

With average temperatures remaining below zero for about half the year, it's little surprise that ice is part of the local culture. One young woman I met, Di Zhao, explained that making ice sculptures was a collective activity encouraged by the local government when she was at primary school in the 1990s.

"We would put water into a pot or other container, and then put the container outside, as not many families owned fridges at that time," Zhao recalled. "The following day, the water would have turned to ice and you could put anything inside to make the ice colourful and beautiful. Then you'd take the ice from the container and carve it."

Since the first ice lantern festival in 1963 in Zhaolin Park, the celebrations have developed. The festival is now spread across several sites in this city of 10 million inhabitants. Zhaolin Park now hosts a Disney-themed ice and snow festival, while Ice and Snow World focuses on the great architecture of China and other countries around the world.

As Zhao put it: "We may not have the polar lights or sunshine, but we have the ice sculptures as compensation. They provide us with a world of dreams."

Travel essentials: Harbin

Getting there

* You can reach Harbin from Beijing Central railway station using an overnight train.

* Beijing is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Air China (00 800 86 100 999; airchina.co.uk)

More information

* The Harbin Ice Festival runs until 28 February, with the official inauguration on 5 January

* A single-entry tourist visa to China costs £65.25. Apply to Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (020 7842 0960; visaforchina.org.uk), which has offices in London and Manchester.