Monday, 23 December 2019


Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, is famous for the International Ice Festival held in January every year.

We caught the overnight train from Beijing to a) save on accommodation costs and b) for the experience. We had never been on a sleeper train before and were a bit apprehensive initially. But it was pretty great and the beds were comfortable.

Soft sleeper

Harbin is S's colleague's (let's refer to him as Y) hometown and his trip back home coincided with ours! It was ultra lovely to have someone take us around and - quite importantly - someone who was able to speak Mandarin.

Compared to other cities we visited, Harbin was refreshing, psychologically and literally as it was 3 degrees when we arrived! There were significantly fewer people and interestingly, an absence of ride-share bikes.

Saint Sophia Cathedral - built-in 1907. Unfortunately, it was closed and we couldn't have a look inside.

The city owes its origin to the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway through Manchuria (Northeast China) by the Russians at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. It became a haven for refugees from Russia after the Revolution of 1917 and for a time had the largest Russian population of any city outside the Soviet Union.

In 1921, Harbin had a population of 300 000, including 100 000 Russians. However, by the 1950s, the majority of Russians had emigrated to other countries or expatriated to their home countries.
Russian influence is evident in the buildings and the cuisine. In fact, Y told us he had to learn Russian when he was in school.

Zhongyang Dajie is the main tourist thoroughfare; it is the city's historic quarter where the densest cluster of Harbin’s old restored buildings can be found.

Next stop was Lao Dao Wai, an old district of Harbin and where Y's father grew up. There were two roads rebuilt with 'Chinese Baroque' style 2 storey stone houses. I originally thought the buildings had been restored, but Y told us they were simply reconstructions and the original buildings were demolished. We didn't visit Harbin in its peak season (aka winter), but the streets were eerily quiet. We ducked into an information centre for warmth and stumbled upon some of the local vodkas, with a casual alcohol content of 85% ?!?!

Further away, there were entire blocks of dilapidated buildings fenced off. I wonder if they will all eventually get a facelift or - as Y said - if they will simply just get a new 'skin' once the area is "restored" for tourism. In some respects, it reminded me of my visit to New Orleans many years ago where the French Quarter was polished and pristine. And yet a mere stones through away from the tourist thoroughfare, it was almost as though there was another city, less polished and quite tired.

We stopped at a bakery that Y visited as a kid and tried traditional cookies and ice cream. This was the only building that was open and everything else was fenced off.

Lunch was at Huamei, a restaurant that serves Russian (or "Russian") food. We had the Chinese version of borscht and some other dishes that were probably not particularly Russian. When in Harbin.

After lunch, we went across the road for the second ice cream for the day. Oddly enough - for a city that is bitterly cold for the majority of the year - Harbin is known for its ice cream. In fact the stall, Madieer, first opened in 1911! Similar to the first ice cream, it was incredibly tasty and what I imagine real ice cream should taste like (most of the "ice cream" in the supermarket is not actually ice cream)

For dinner we went looking for street food.

Guo Bao Rou - the original sweet and sour pork. It is not very sweet and has a stronger emphasis on the sour (vinegar). Incredibly tasty.

The next day we headed back to Zhongyang Dajie for some breakfast before visiting the Unit 731 museum.

Harbin is also known for red sausage, commonly referred to as Churin's sausage.
In March 1909, a Russian immigrant, Ivan Yakovlevich Churin established “Churin’s Sausage Factory and started production of northeastern style sausages employing Lithuanian staff. Harbin Red sausage is a typical cured and smoked pork sausage as they were made in Poland or Lithuania.

Finally some non-sweet bread!!!

There is something that could be said about what we are taught in highschool during history classes, but - embarrassingly- it was only a few years ago when I learnt about Unit 731. If you don't know anything about it, read here. It is pretty grim. Especially the immunity provided by the US. The museum is located on the grounds of the original Unit 731 and is well designed and thoughtfully planned; the exhibits illustrate the full picture, of how the unit came to fruition and how it ended.

After the museum, we met up with Y and had an amazing lunch (Shandong pancakes) at LaoChang ChunBing, followed by the final ice cream.


Harbin was one of my favourite cities on the trip. A city steeped with such an interesting and amazing history. Definitely not a city on people's radar outside of the Ice Festival, but still worth visiting outside peak season. I am interested to see what the city will look like in another 10 years. Will the Russian architecture and history be preserved or will everything get knocked down for new developments.

Interesting articles:

Note: My camera randomly decided to work again on the second / final day in Harbin.

For an overview of my China trip refer to this post.

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