"Harbin" Top 5 Page for this destination Harbin by mke1963

Harbin Travel Guide: 354 reviews and 908 photos

One hundred years ago, as the first train lumbered across the Songhuajiang railway bridge, little did the Russian railwaymen know that the village they were expanding to serve as a waypoint and servicing yard would develop into one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Orient. The village grew quickly between the station and the riverbank, and along the low ridge that ran parallel to the river to the south of the station.
Those railway men built sidings which they lined with sidings, then warehouses and depots. Nearby they constructed wooden, then stone, hotels, offices and all manner of social clubs, schools and hospitals. Just as quickly, the Tsarist 4th Siberian Infantry Division built their barracks, officers quarters, stores, armouries and their little wooden church, dedicated to St Sofia.
The bankers and manufacturers followed, with the merchants, physicians, dentists, missionaries, brothelkeepers and the whole spectrum of Russian civil society. All were anxious to share in the spoils of the mines and factories, warehouses and the burgeoning population, drawn equally by the lure of commerce and wealth. Harbin’s phenomenal growth quickened, and its security, in a vast wilderness of pine and beach forests, great plains and swamps and high mountains. It blossomed into an elegant and welcoming city, where many nationalities and religions worked, lived and died together in the fierce, unforgiving climate. The wooden buildings were rapidly replaced by stone buildings, largely financed by the increasing Jewish population. Harbin may have been a sovereign part of Qing China, but the languages on the streets were as likely to be Russian, French, Hebrew, Arabic, Korean or German as Chinese. It had been many centuries since the first Jin emperor had built his capital nearby, at Acheng, and it had long disappeared into the grasslands again. Manchurian influence had drifted south towards the Shenyang and Jilin.

Once again, the open grasslands and forests of the Songhua and Amur plains were coming alive, and the whole area became, for a short time, of interest to the Great Powers from Peking to Moscow to Tokyo. Like the cherry, which blossoms on bare twigs in the late winter, so Harbin’s colour came early and didn’t last. The turmoil of the 13 year Japanese occupation, followed by years of civil war. The desperate struggle to industrialise through forty years from the 1950s brought little but smokestack industries, pollution and hardship to Harbin. As the short, stubby chimneys belched black smoke over the city, and austerity and the Cultural Revolution closed down Harbin’s physical and emotional charms, the city and its wonderful architecture. It is not a concern that beautiful old buildings and lifestyles vanished, but astonishment that so much actually managed to survive. Now, at the turn of a new millennium, Harbin is reinventing itself, and slowly coming to realize the value of its legacy in cultural, educational and commercial terms.

Although not without its crass architecture and its fallacious hyperbole, Harbin is genuinely one of the warmest cities in China, especially in the depths of winter.
The architectural legacy is quite astounding, and every corner turned brings a new glorious building, every street a friendly native wanting to talk and share stories. The parks reveal a playful, fun-loving population able to forget the minus 25 degrees temperature, and just get on with walking, exercising, running and throwing snowballs.

There is more information on the history of this region on my Heilongjiang Province page.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:One of the warmest cities in China
  • Cons:One of the coldest cities in China
  • In a nutshell:A friendly city, with a lot to do and see. Great for kids!
  • Last visit to Harbin: Feb 2005
  • Intro Updated Jun 8, 2010
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Reviews (49)

Comments (12)

  • balhannah's Profile Photo
    Jan 28, 2011 at 11:35 PM

    You brought up lots of good tips. The ice sculpture's that you have photo's off are incredible.

  • szivhk's Profile Photo
    Feb 18, 2010 at 7:00 PM

    Make sure you go into the bigger synagogue. It has an interesting interior. You can walk up the sweeping staircase. This picture shows the beautiful Jewish Middle School building. I didn't find a way into this building.

  • tuff's Profile Photo
    Apr 7, 2009 at 9:48 AM

    Love your Harbin page tips and pics. It provided a lot of information on my future trip to Harbin.

  • Mar 21, 2009 at 6:34 AM

    I also had a good experience at the Russia Cafe, although on a snowy Sat night in late March there were only 3 tables full. The soup, the salmon and hot potato with pepper sauce all arrived within 5 minutes, so they were all on the table, Chinese style.

  • goutammitra's Profile Photo
    Jul 30, 2008 at 3:24 AM

    You have a very impressive Harbin page. I have read and rated the half. Shall come back for more later.

  • Bonobo2005's Profile Photo
    Nov 13, 2006 at 9:48 PM

    Superior page! I enjoyed reading your several cultural observations between the lines - somethimes with a big smile -, which really adds to what the average guidebook provides! Harbin is high on my wish list...

  • RoseAmano's Profile Photo
    Jun 29, 2006 at 8:03 AM

    Your description of relative positions of hotels in the city is quite helpful. I've long been a "fan" of your Chinese travel journals, and now that we're actually planning a northeastern tour, I've got good reason to read your pages again with detail!

  • May 17, 2005 at 1:29 PM

    Thanks for taking the time to post your visit to Harbin. I learned more from you site than any guide books. I will be visting Harbin for the Ice Festival 2006 and printing out your report.

  • Feb 24, 2005 at 9:07 AM

    Mike, a really good and accurate account of Harbin. I lived in the Big H for 2 years, so it is great to revisit the place virtually. Excellent history lesson too.

  • calcaf38's Profile Photo
    Feb 10, 2005 at 11:04 AM

    Hi Mke: I enjoyed your Harbin pages. I was there a few weeks earlier than you. Funny, I experienced horrid service at the "Russia" with the whole staff hiding. But Harbin is a fun place. You were brave to go there with children!

mke1963

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