Harbin

Harbin by CC user princeroy on Flickr

Introduction

Situated in the distant northeast of China, Harbin is the most northerly major city in the nation, home to 10 million people in its metro area. Not being far from its border with Russia, Harbin played host to many Russian train engineers in the past century, which moved here to help construct China’s railway from here to Vladivostok. Their descendants make up a significant minority of the population to this day, thereby affecting Harbin’s culinary offerings, which has given it a unique European flavour not found easily in other parts of China.

While many would bemoan the fact that this portion of the country suffers through a very long Siberian winter, the locals have made the most of this inescapable climatic fact and founded one of the world’s better known winter festivals.

Additionally, like the people of many nations in the far north hemisphere, summer here is celebrated with an exuberance that puts the complacency of people further south concerning good weather to shame. People flood into the streets and drink late into the night, playing games, and eating street BBQ, making it another great time to visit this off-the-beaten-track city.

So if you have extra time in China after seeing all the sights that you came to see, and you’re looking to experience a part of China not often seen, but it at the same time very peculiar and worth seeing on its own merits, then Harbin is well worth your time!

St Sophia’s Russian Cathedral, Harbin by CC user ivanwalsh on Flickr

Cultural Experiences

The significant presence of citizens from Russia in the late 19th century onwards dramatically influenced the development of Harbin’s building stock, making a walking tour of this cities’ Russian-influenced architecture an engrossing and worthwhile activity.

Possessing numerous structures built in the baroque and byzantine style, the existence of the Old Quarter owes its life to the slower pace of growth in Harbin, which is different from the story that other metropolises in China have lived, many of which have bulldozed their heritage in favour of numerous concrete and steel skyscrapers.

One structure of note within the Old Quarter is St. Sophia Cathedral, one of the few Eastern Orthodox churches remaining in Harbin after the heyday of the Russian community in this burg. Today, it exists as an architecture museum, after many decades of forced retirement by the Communist government starting in the 1950’s. Exhibits detail the many amazing highlights of Harbin’s building stock, a great foundation to what you have been seeing with your eyes before walking inside this stunning former house of worship.

Many of the Russians that used to call this city home also identified as Jewish … thus, they built a sharp looking synagogue to pray in every Sabbath.  It ceased to function after the entire population left Harbin following the victory of the Communists in the civil war of the 1950’s.  After China softened its policies in the 1990’s, renovations to restore the structure to its former glory began, and so the Harbin Jewish New Synagogue is an excellent place to learn about the history of Harbin’s former Jewish community.

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival 2013 by CC user tracyhunter on Flickr

Other Attractions

By far, the biggest draw of any attraction in this region is the Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival, which is actually a series of winter festivals consolidated into one massive two-month event. During this time, world class sculptors carve pieces of ice and snow into magnificent creations, while other activities are planned to allow residents and tourists alike make the most of China’s coldest season.

If you are looking to sample Harbin’s unique culinary delicacies, followed by a night out on the town, head to the Zhongyang Dajie, a cobblestone lined street in the downtown core with many Russian restaurants, nightclubs, and boutiques. With regards to the local cuisine, we recommend that you try some Harbin smoked sausage, which is unique to this city in China.  Additionally, Shaokao (Chinese BBQ) and Hotpot will aid greatly in defrosting your insides if you are in town for the Snow and Ice Festival, so feel free to indulge in it while you are here!

With its numbers on the decline throughout Eurasia, preservation of the Siberian Tiger is a vitally important task, a cause to which the people at the Siberian Tiger Preserve are dedicated. In the style of local culture, the protection of the animals has also been made into something of a tourist spectacle.  If you wish, you can purchase meat to feed the tigers, but even if you choose not to participate, getting a glimpse of this great creatures is well worth the journey here!

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