A little over a century ago, Harbin was a collection of sleepy Manchu fishing villages. That all changed in 1896, when Russia was granted the right to build a railway across Dongbei. By the 1910s, Harbin was a veritable ‘Moscow of the East’ where citizens of Russian nationality outnumbered the locals. Today this unique history is still visible in the well-maintained buildings of the old town. Something of an open-air museum, these preserved streets make Harbin worth a visit outside of winter, when it’s still warm enough to really enjoy them.
The greatest collection of Russian-era architecture is to be found lining Central Avenue (Zhongyang Dajie). This 1.4km-long, cobblestone-clad avenue is a hit parade of Russian Baroque and Belle Époque buildings, all painted in pastel colours that are reminiscent of Moscow’s imperial era edifices. Keep your eyes out for the black plaques that detail their original owners: a Russian trader here, a Jewish violinist there. Architecture enthusiasts will also want to explore the smaller, less touristy streets branching off Central Avenue, and – a few blocks to the east – the romantically crumbling facades along Jingyu Jie.
A visit to St Sophia’s Cathedral (88 Toulong Dajie) is a must for everyone. This Eastern Orthodox church’s green onion domes and gold crosses could have been lifted straight out of Moscow. Inside the cathedral, black-and-white photos show the lives of the white Russians who fled to Harbin from the Soviets and the Han Chinese who came from famine-stricken provinces to work on the railways. However, there are no explanations in English, and few even in Chinese. Far better curated is the museum at the Harbin New Jewish Synagogue (162 Jingwei Jie), which details how the city became an enclave of relative tolerance for a community of Jews, who by 1920 numbered over 20,000.
But there’s more to Harbin than just its history. At the Siberian Tiger Park, for example, you can ride an armoured vehicle past packs of Siberian, white and Bengali tigers.The fact that you can pay to feed them live chickens (for 60RMB) and cows (for 2,800RMB) will put off some people, but this is a reputable wildlife centre and an important breeding centre, and these big cats have plenty of room to roam.
Finally, skip the nearby Polarland Aquarium, where the polar bears are kept in disturbingly small spaces,and instead head to the Harbin Amusement Park behind Puzhaotemple. It boasts one of China’s largest Ferris wheels, at 110m.
After a long day of exploring Harbin’s historic streets, reward yourself with hearty Dongbei fare at one of the Lao Chang Spring Pancakes eateries (66 Zhaolin Jie, near Sofia Cathedral; other locations available). This local chain serves thick pancakes with a variety of simple, yet satisfying, fillings, ranging from scrambled eggs to saucy strips of meat.
Harbin also celebrates its heritage with numerous Russian restaurants of varying degrees of authenticity. We’d suggest skipping Huamei (112 Zhongyang), which is the best known, but also the most crowded, and instead visit Café Lucia (57 Xitoudajie). The sepia photos of white Russians, the statuettes and the lace-covered mantelpiece lend old-world charm, while the piroshky meat-stuffed fried buns fill the belly.
European-influenced Harbin specialities are sold by snack stands all along Central Street. The Harbin sausage (hong chang) is worth a ry. Rather than the over-processed sausages elsewhere in China, the Harbin variety is a big, meaty affair that is grilled on a barbecue and topped with mouth-tingling spices.
Make a lunch of it by buying some da lie ba bread from the window snack stand outside Huamei, and finish it off with ice cream purchased outside the Modern Hotel (89 Zhongyang Dajie). The ice cream sold here is supposedly made according to a hundred-year tradition and is so fresh tasting that you’ll swear they must keep the cow just out back.
Boasting excellent views of the Songhua River, the Shangri-La Harbin
) offers the city’s best accommodation. Come winter, the heated indoor pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and steam rooms are a godsend and during the ice festival the hotel builds its own ice palace in its gardens, inside of which warming hotpots and Russian vodka are served. The 404 well-appointed rooms here start from1,138RMB.
No longer located inside the old synagogue, Kazy International Youth Hostel still offers charming, clean accommodation, located just off Central Street. Dorm beds start from 40RMB and private en suite double rooms go for 55RMB.
Overnight trains from Beijing to Harbin take around ten hours and cost from 154RMB for seats and from 431RMB for sleepers one-way. Alternatively, Air China flies direct to Harbin from 1,280RMB return (including taxes).