The world famous ice festival isn’t the only reason to visit the northern Chinese town.
At first glance, Harbin looks like any other city in mainland China, with aging smokestacks, single-story brick houses and monotonous high rises zigzagging the skyline. Known for its frigid winters—with temperatures plummeting below minus 35 degrees Celsius—this seemingly unimpressionable city, located in China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, actually boasts a surprising past entrenched in Russian history and culture, at one point holding the largest population of Russians living abroad.
Once a sleepy Manchu fishing village, Harbin was transformed into a bustling trading hub as a result of the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway—a project financed by the Russian Empire to substantially shorten the distance to the Russian port city of Vladivostok. Hundreds of thousands of Russians moved in and declared Harbin home, with the numbers growing further as people fled the Russian Revolution, inevitably bringing with them, in memories and belongings alike, bits and pieces of their old life.
The town quickly earned itself a reputation as “Little Moscow,” with its main Central Street resembling Moscow’s famed Arbat Street—one of the oldest surviving pedestrian areas with a 600-year history. Harbin by the early 1920s had flourished into a cosmopolitan city full of European and Russian architecture popular in the belle époque era. But the optimism was short lived, and the old world glitz and glamor was destroyed under three successive regimes hostile to the Russians emigres: the Japanese occupiers, the post-war Soviet army and China’s communist government.
Despite this, traces of Harbin’s elusive Russian past linger for those who know where to find it. Central Street remains a pedestrian-only cobblestone street, about a mile long, now lined with stores, restaurants and malls—and though it is exactly as it sounds (a touristy gimmick), one can still enjoy a stroll down the wide, picturesque path, quickly becoming absorbed in the numerous European-style structures. The centerpiece to the strip is the century-old Modern Hotel, first owned by a member of Harbin’s thriving community of Russian Jews and built in an ornate, Louis XIV style. Friendly tip: snap a shot or two outside the impressive building but forget staying there.
Head to the central district of Daoli and you’ll find the St. Sofia Cathedral, easily the most magnificent building in Harbin. The cathedral was built in 1907 in an attempt to boost the morale of the Russian Army by erecting an imposing spiritual symbol in the heart of the city. It remains a classic example of Neo-Byzantine architecture. The main structure is designed like a cross with huge green-tipped domes delicately perched atop. Many say that under the bright sun, the church and the square that it was built on are reminiscent of the Red Square in Moscow.
The annual Harbin Ice and Snow World (North bank of Songhua River, Songbei District) is one of the largest ice and snow exhibitions in the world; it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and lasts for around two months. The 2012 festival began Jan 5, making it the perfect getaway for Chinese New Year. Think of it as a giant carnival made purely out of ice and snow. You’ll see giant ice sculptures lit up with light-emitting diodes, frozen candied fruits on sticks (be careful not to chip a tooth), zip lines, yaks waiting to be mounted for a photo, and our favorite part: the ice slides.
You can’t go wrong with the Shangri-La (555 You Yi Rd., Harbin 150018, China, (86) 451-8485-8888), especially as it’s located on the banks of the picturesque Songhua River and situated adjacent to Stalin Park. The hotel boasts 5-star luxury accommodation, with 404 guestrooms and suites—the minus-17-degree ice bar hidden in the back of the hotel is a particularly cool touch. Rates from CNY1,488 (B7,452).
The Harbin branch of China’s second largest budget hotel chain 7 Days Inn (Central Street, Harbin, China, www.7daysinn.com) is blessed with a prime location on Central Street and prices starting from as low as RMB117 (B587). But at this price, especially in China, don’t expect any luxury.
There’s no direct flight from Bangkok. You need to fly to Harbin via Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines (from B28,000/9-10hrs. www.flychinaeastern.com) or via Guangzhou on China Southern Airlines (from B21,500/10-12hrs. www.csair.com/en).