Located in the far north of China, Heilongjiang Province (黑龙江省) is a core part of the Dongbei (東北) region and experiences harsh -30 degree celsius winters to match its Russian neighbour. The capital, Harbin (哈尔滨) is world famous for its Ice Festival (国际冰雪节) held every winter, which is unsurprisingly the peak tourist time for the city.
Being an Australian, my aversion to the cold meant I was more than happy to venture there in summer instead. However, when researching what to do, many of the results that came up were ice or snow-related, with people saying it was just another dusty, mediocre Chinese city once it thawed.
Having just visited this September, at the tail of summer, I beg to differ.
Blue skies, mild weather and less people: if you’re not going for the Ice Festival specifically, everything else is actually better to explore not in the death of winter. To give you some ideas, here are 5 of my favourite things we did there.
5. St. Sophia’s Cathedral (圣索非亚教堂)
Summer is off-peak so I guess it makes sense that they decided to close off one of the city’s most iconic buildings and renovate it during this time. It is the largest Eastern Orthodox church in the Far East, a testament to the Russian influence that permeates throughout the city. I was a little disappointed I couldn’t go inside and the Byzantine-style exterior was mostly obstructed by scaffolding and fences, but then hey, this view is probably more rare than seeing it in its famous form, right? There is a small fee for going inside.
Getting there: Take any bus bound for, or that stops at, 兆麟街 (Zhaolinjie). Or if don’t mind the exercise, you can walk from Zhongyang Dajie in 20-30 mins.
4. Zhongyang Dajie (中央大街) + Modern Ice Cream (马迭尔冰棍)
Literally translated to “Central Avenue”, this is the main shopping street in Harbin that you typically see in every major Chinese city. Except this one has a distinct European flavour. For one, the path is cobblestone, rumoured to have been purchased from Europe at a price of 100 RMB per stone. Not sure if that’s true but in any case it probably cost the Chinese government a small fortune to lay.
For another, most of the signage features Russian together with the Chinese and English. There are also no shortage of European-inspired architecture. The Harbin Visitor Center itself is worth a look, not only for its facade but also for the interior, which is laid out like a lavish European mansion complete with a fake sky.
But perhaps what is most famous about Zhongyang Dajie is Modern, known locally as ma die er (马迭尔), Ice Cream. With over 110 years of history, the brand has persisted from the Qing Dynasty to now, its milky, refined taste leaving lasting impressions on all familiar with Harbin. The summer weather makes it all the more easy to indulge in!
Russian cuisine is also a big thing. In the evening, we dined at Portman’s, a somewhat prominent faux-Russian restaurant in Harbin with live performances, elaborate chair designs, and Gewasi, a low-alcoholic fermented bread beverage. What did it taste like? Imagine dipping a slice of white bread into a sweet liquid, and then sucking the juice out of the soggy bread. It wasn’t bad, just got too sweet and heavy after a while.
Getting there: Take any bus bound for, or that stops at, Zhongyang Dajie. If coming from the airport, take Shuttle Bus Line 3.
3. Flood Control Monument (防洪纪念塔)
The Flood Control Monument is located right by Stalin Park, at one end of Zhongyang Dajie. Since our hotel was located nearby, we walked past it a number of times and I kept thinking it was a monument to Stalin. I later discovered it was a monument dedicated to the those who controlled the massive flood in Harbin in 1957. It looks far cooler at night, when it is lighted up and features a laser show to the beats of Chinese guangchangwu (广场舞) music.
Around the area are also an assortment of food stalls selling the usual grilled meat on a stick, and eateries selling the not-so-usual fried durian with cheese (I was too scared to try, sorry). There are also no shortage of interesting characters, to a guy selling dozens of puppies in a basket, to this Rilakkuma wandering around on multiple nights.
Initially we thought it was a guy trying to pick up girls. But then when she approached us on our last night, we discovered she was just trying to get publicity for a new business she was starting.
Getting there: Walk all the way to end of Zhongyang Dajie towards the river. Once you pass the underground pedestrian tunnel, it should loom up ahead.
2. Unit 731 Museum (侵华日军地731部队遗址)
Something a bit more sombre, but important. Many are not aware of this, but during World War II in 1938, Harbin (then part of Manchuria in Japanese-occupied China), was the site of the largest biological experimental facility run by the Imperial Japanese Army. It remained a closely guarded secret for decades after, and it was only in 1984 that the Japanese admitted that they had used Chinese (and other Asian) civilians as guinea pigs in a slew of horrific experiments in preparation for biological warfare.
The museum was state of the art, with clear explanations in Chinese and English for all the exhibits and a genuinely cool steel black motif. It was clear to see that the Chinese had put a lot of effort into keeping future generations engaged. The visit itself was harrowing, with some photos extremely graphic and we felt a bit sick afterwards. Perhaps what made this educational relay of history worse was the unsatisfying resolution: in a secret deal, the post-war American administration gave those involved immunity for their war crimes in exchange for details of their experiments. So the majority of them were not brought to justice and instead now occupy high positions in key medical and government institutions in Japan.
Tip: The museum is closed on Mondays and between 11:00-13:00 for lunch on the days they are open, so plan your visit carefully.
Getting there: It takes around an hour from the central area of the city, on bus 338 or 343. Get off at 双拥路 stop. The sign for the parking lot for the museum should be right in front of you. Turn right and walk through it to get to the museum.
1. Harbin Grand Theatre (哈尔滨大剧院)
This literal off-the-beaten-path sight was hands down the most memorable one. A heavily underrated, under-utilised theatre that is absolutely gorgeous to photograph. Designed by MAD Architects, it won the ArchDaily 2016 Building of the Year Award, and for good reason. The architecture felt out of this world, out of this era, and at the same time blended seamlessly into the surroundings. It’s such a shame that shows here are so infrequent that it seemed almost abandoned, and as such it was so inconvenient to get to.
The building is locked when there are no shows on, but make sure you climb up to the observation deck, which can be accessed by a long flight of stairs on the outside of the building. The view of the city and Songhua River was stunning and cinematic to the max, especially since we went during golden hour. Great photo ops.
Getting there: Public transport is scarce north of the bridge, so you are better off getting a taxi or Uber. However, be warned that getting back from there was a nightmare given there were no taxis out that far. Any buses that passed by there were finished by around 5pm. So it might be a good idea to have the taxi/Uber wait for you. We had to walk an hour to the closest hotel, Shangri-la, before we could hail a taxi that would take us back to the central area.
Harbin is a little different from other Chinese cities because of its strong Russian influence, one which the locals seem to embrace. For that reason it is definitely worth visiting, regardless of whether the Ice Sculpture Festival is on or not. Many times, I momentarily forgot I was in China. But then the guangchangwu music came blasting through again and I remembered.