Harbin (åå°æ»¨), the capital of China's northern-most province Heilongjiang, is located on the south bank of the Songhua River. At latitude 45° 75' N and longitude 126° 63' E, under the ferocious lashing of the Siberian winds, winter in Harbin is dry and frigid. Average temperatures in January hover around −25 °C (−13 °F). In winter, the Songhua River freezes over, thus providing the main platform for the numerous winter activities which Harbin has come to be internationally renowned for today. That said, apart from the winter attractions, Harbin's chequered colonial history is also another draw for tourists.
With a humble beginning as a cluster of fishing villages under the Manchurian administration in the late 19th century, Harbin has evolved to become the largest city in northeastern China, boasting a population of more than 10 million. Its transformation could be traced back to 1896 when the Russian empire was granted the right to construct the China Eastern Railway as a shortcut to link the Siberian city of Chita to the port of Vladivostok in the Far East. A Russian settlement soon took root in Harbin, with most of its early inhabitants being Russian traders and Jews who were escaping the pogroms. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution saw a further influx of refugees who were fleeing from the Bolsheviks. By the mid-1920s, more than 100,000 Russians were calling Harbin home, making the city the largest Russian enclave outside Russia. As trade flourished, other European settlers also descended upon the booming trading post. At its peak, Harbin boasted more than 160,000 foreigners from 33 countries, served by some 16 consulates and several hundred industrial, commercial and banking companies.
The city came under Japanese occupation in 1932 following the establishment of Manchuko. The sale of the Chinese Eastern Railway to the Japanese in 1935 saw the first exodus of Russians to the Soviet Union and other places. At the end of World War II, Manchuko was abolished and Harbin was briefly occupied by the Soviet Army from August 1945 to April 1946. During this period, thousands of Russians who had fled communism in the Soviet Union were repatriated. Other Russian and European émigrés either returned to their home countries or fled to the US, Australia, Brazil or Israel. The administration of Harbin was formally transferred to the People's Liberation Army with the departure of the Soviet Army.
Legacies of foreign influence are ubiquitous in Harbin. In fact, the city centre is a veritable museum of European architectural styles – from the Baroque and Byzantine-styled bakeries and fashion houses to the abandoned Russian Orthodox churches which dotted the city. Most evocative of all is Zhongyang Dajie (ä¸å¤®å¤§è¡) or Central Street, a cobbled pedestrian street lined with early 20th century buildings in a mish-mash of Russian and European architectural styles. Today, the 1.4 km long Central Street is one of Harbin's main shopping strips. Many of its old buildings have been preserved and converted into shopping centres and hotels, such as the art nouveau-inspired Modern Hotel which was built in 1906.
Before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, there were more than 15 Russian Orthodox churches in Harbin. However, most of these were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Of the handful to remain today, only the Church of the Intercession, also known as the Ukrainian Church, still holds services. That said, among the surviving structures is the majestic Saint Sofia Cathedral, the largest Orthodox structure in the Far East. The cathedral was first constructed with timber in 1907 and had since undergone several rounds of restoration, including a 9-year reconstruction using masonry in 1923. Today, it serves as the Harbin Architectural Art Gallery and is the most distinctive landmark in the city centre.
Remnants of the Jewish presence from the colonial times are still evident in Harbin. There are two surviving synagogue structures in the city. Of the two, the Main (or Old) Synagogue has been converted into the Harbin Kazy International Youth Hostel. The New Synagogue, which was built between 1918 and 1921, had been refurbished and is now home to the Harbin Jewish History and Culture Exhibition, an extensive collection of Jewish religious and cultural artefacts. On the eastern outskirts of Harbin lay the Huangshan Jewish Cemetery which is touted as the largest and best-preserved Jewish cemetery in the Far East. At 836 sq-m, over 600 Jewish immigrants were buried there. Notably, in 2004, Ehud Olmert, then-Israeli Deputy Prime Minister visited Huangshan to worship his grandfather and three other relatives.
It was in Harbin's southern suburbs that the Japanese imperial army operated the infamous Unit 731 concentration camp in which gruesome biological and chemical trials on Chinese prisoners were conducted. The camp is now a very sobering museum.
Russian Imports and Food
Harbin remains a major trading centre for Russian products in China. The Chinese-Russian market, established in 1992, is considered the best place to go to buy Russian products. Here, one can find imported vodka, matryoshka dolls, Russian chocolate, furs, petrified wood, knives and other products, not to mention the customary Chinese tourist souvenirs and handicrafts.
Harbin is arguably one of the few places in Asia where one can find (almost) authentic Russian food. There are numerous established Russian restaurants, the two most famous being Huamei Restaurant (åæ¢ è¥¿é¤å ) and Portman's Restaurant (æ³¢ç¹æ¼è¥¿é¤å ), both located along Central Street. The former was founded by a Russian Jew over 80 years ago while the latter is a ritzy four-storey establishment highly recommended for its Russian borsch. Of course, for those on a budget, there are the Russian pastries and sausages from street-side stalls.
Today, the city's top tourist draw is undoubtedly its winter attractions, particularly the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Inaugurated in 1985, the annual event is one of the four largest winter carnivals in the world, alongside Japan's Sapporo Snow Festival, Canada's Quebec City Winter Carnival, and Norway's Holmenkollen Ski Festival. Although the festival officially commences on January 5 and lasts a month each year, in practice, weather permitting, the exhibitions may be opened for viewing even earlier and for a longer duration. While there are ice and snow sculptures in various parks scattered around the city, the two largest exhibitions are located on the Sun Island, a recreational zone built on the north bank of the Songhua River. Each year, some 15,000 workers carve ice blocks which are hauled from the Songhua River to build awe-inspiring giant scaled-models such as Beijing's Forbidden City and the Great Wall, Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral and Egypt's Sphinx. For a playful touch, icy versions of dragons, sea monsters, animation characters and even play slides have also been included. At night, the sculptures are lit up by multi-coloured lasers and lanterns, creating a magical effect.
On the sidelines of these exhibitions are other activities such as ice skating, ice hockey games, dog sled rides on the frozen Songhua River banks, and even winter-swimming in its icy waters (a local favourite!).
Harbin is also pitching itself as a winter-sports playground for China's burgeoning middle class. Located 200 km from the city centre, the Yabuli Alpine Ski Resort, the country's biggest, has been upgraded and expanded. Rumour has it that Harbin is a frontrunner to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Harbin food is heavily influenced by Russian, Korean, Mongolian cuisines, and of course northern Chinese cuisines, especially Shandong cuisine. Dishes are typically prepared by stewing or pickling in sauces (usually to store perishables ahead of winter). Most commonly used ingredients are vegetables such as cucumber, cabbage, corn and potato. Locals especially enjoy Chinese barbeque or hot pot with their local beer.
A must-try in Harbin would be the northern-style dumplings. Usually blanched in boiling water and served with raw ginger shreds and Chinese vinegar dip, these assorted meat fillings wrapped in translucent pastry skins are staples for the northerners, especially in winter.
Siberian Tiger Park
For a bit of "safari" action, visitors can drop by the Siberian Tiger Park located on the north bank of the Songhua River. Opened in January 1996 with an area of 355.8 acres, the park is currently the largest natural park for wild Siberian tigers. Here, visitors can watch the free-roaming animals from within specially reinforced vehicles. For some "live" feeding excitement, visitors may even purchase livestock such as fowls or even lambs to feed the wild cats.