Harbin: Journey to the North. Day 1

Hello from China! I’ve finally arrived back here after a nice break in the UK, and after little more than 24 hours back in Beijing to recover from jetlag, I found myself on a train racing off to Harbin. My three travel companions and I were all slightly intimidated by the foreboding temperatures seeming to hover not far above -20ºC, but were well-prepared as we set off on the night train, wrapped up in countless layers of thermals, coats, scarves, balaclavas and hats.

Harbin is a city deep in the north-eastern corner of China, capital of Heilongjiang province (黑龙江 Hēilóngjiāng – literally “River of the Black Dragon”), and relatively not far from the border of far eastern Russia. Originally founded in 1898 by railway engineers from Russia, many supporters of the czarist state fled across the border to Harbin during the Russian Revolution of 1917; as such, the city has been fairly heavily influenced by Russian culture, evident in the city’s architecture and food. Much of this influence is sure to have been overridden by the influx of Han Chinese people in modern times, but a Russian presence is still very much evident in the city. Today, the city is most renowned for its International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节 Hā’ĕrbīn Guójì Bīngxuĕjié), an event which attracts throngs of tourists each year. Including us.

We took an overnight train from Beijing and arrived at Harbin at around 8:30am. Naturally, the first thing that hits you the moment you get off the train is the cold, especially early in the morning. I was wearing two balaclavas which covered my mouth, and soon discovered how quick the moisture from my breath would freeze, and how my eyelashes would often freeze together at these low temperatures. We exited the station, stood for a few minutes waiting for a taxi and then found our way to our hostel, fingers crossed that it had good heating.

On the Songhua River

The Kazy International Youth Hostel is an interesting place, as the building itself is a renovated synagogue. The water in the showers was bracingly cold at times, but in general it was a fairly comfortable place to thaw off from the subzero temperatures outside. We headed out of the hostel and had a walk around the city, first heading down to the Songhua River which, incidentally, did not seem like a river at all, as it was covered in a layer of ice which seemed, to my eye, to be at least 4 feet deep. On the southern bank there were a number of ice-themed attractions set up on the river, such as slides, bumper cars, an ice buggy arena and a curious activity which seemed to allow paying customers to sit on a stool and simply push themselves around the ice using a stick, altogether making the area seem like a huge ice-themed amusement park. Horses and even cars regularly made crossings to the other side of the river, but we did so on foot. It’s not a particularly narrow river either – it must have been at least half a mile in width. Such a huge expanse of pure ice was quite an awe-inspiring sight, and equally unnerving one to see the slight cracks in the ice and imagine the temperature of the water beneath.

We crossed the river, had lunch on the north bank, and investigated the possibility of making the return journey on a cable car. However, as some tourist attractions in China seem to think is reasonable, the price specifically for foreigners is bumped up considerably, and despite the fact that every inch of our faces and heads was swathed in clothing, unfortunately our Chinese accents are not yet sufficiently convincing.

So after another trek across the ice river, we found our way back to the centre of town, and took refuge from the cold with a few shots of vodka in a Russian café. I’ve never been to Russia, but Harbin felt like a living and breathing advertisement for it, and with its Russian-style buildings, cafés, restaurants, bitter cold and the odd sign in Russian, it was a little taste of what I imagined life in Siberia to be. Of course, being inside Chinese borders, the vast majority of the population is comprised of ethnic Han Chinese, but the general feeling of the place made it not too hard to imagine that we had crossed the border. The occurrence of this feeling is strangely common in China, such as in the former German treaty port of Qingdao and the Italian Concession in Tianjin, to name just those which I have visited.

The St Sophia church

The red-brick St Sophia church is arguably the city’s landmark Russian-style building. Its green onion dome is especially impressive when illuminated after dark, and reminded me of pictures I have seen of Russian cities like Irkutsk or Novosibirsk. The romantic impression is somewhat shattered, though, when you enter inside (for a fee). No longer a functional church, it has been transformed into the Harbin Architecture Arts Centre, essentially a museum with black-and-white photographs which document the city’s past lining the walls. It is an interesting look back into history and the foreign influence that has shaped the city’s modern face.