In the summer of 2018, Caitlin and I stayed in the city of Harbin in northeastern China (the capital city of Heilongjiang Province). Harbin is a city in the process of modernizing, with some areas state of the art and heavily funded and other areas reminiscent of what the city might have looked like half a century ago. This coming together of the old China and new China makes Harbin a particularly interesting and culturally rich place to visit. The city is home to over 10 million people, a number which makes any European capital city seem insignificant and Harbin sprawls for miles in every direction.
Preparing for Harbin
In spite of Harbin being very far north, temperatures during our visit (May - June 2018) often reached 40 degrees, which meant the two pairs of jeans I packed were seldom worn whatsoever. If you decide to visit Harbin in the Summer, be sure to pack with this in mind! For a more complete guide on preparing to visit China, check out our guide. Also, bus travel is very popular in Harbin (and extremely cheap!). There is currently one subway line with more planned to open. We recommend saving all 1 yuan notes for bus travel in the city.
Something that will always stick with me about the downtown of Harbin, and to a degree the rest of the city, were the vast and sprawling underground markets. The most impressive of these subterranean malls could be found near the end of Zhongyang (near the river!) where hundreds of vendors selling just about anything can be found, and always at a much lower price than the above ground sellers. Most of the things I bought in China was underground! If you decide to purchase there, haggle! Although we struggled to pronounce numbers correctly, most of the haggling was done by punching numbers into a calculator followed by either a nod of approval or a counter offer.
Despite the word park in the name, Stalin park isn't a park in the traditional sense of grass, trees and so on. Stalin park is an area at the end of Zhongyang which hugs the Songhua river. It is home to a giant monument named 'Flood Control Success Monument' which no doubt sounds a little more impressive in its native mandarin. The monument is best enjoyed at night (see below) where powerful light beams are shone from it into the black sky. People congregate in this area at all times of the day, and it's a hot bed of relaxation and games. It's not uncommon to see people enjoying ping pong, dancing with loved ones in the street and devouring tasty late night snacks. The atmosphere in Stalin Park is so positive, day and night, and well worth the 1 yuan (12p?) bus ticket to get us there.
On multiple occasions we a spent long while watching locals searching for tasty muscles on the shore of the Songhua river.
Songhua River Bridge
As you can see in the picture above, the impressive Songhua River bridge straddles the river in impressive fashion. Built by the Russians in 1900 and only falling into disuse in the last 5 years, the bridge offers fantastic panoramic views of the city. You can use the bridge to access Sun Island, another major tourist hot spot in the city, however its certainly not our preferred method, as mentioned below.
Rather than the more tiresome option of walking across the Songhua River bridge or mundane bus journey, we decided to take a ride on the ferry across to Sun Island. The ferry set us back 10 yuan each for a return (£1.20) and was an enjoyable and relaxing way to cross the river. As we visited the city during something of a hot spell, the river was much lower than usual and we had to trudge across the sandy beach to reach the ferry itself.
Again the Russian influence rears its head in the city of Harbin, and much of Sun Island is in fact something of a theme park, with the theme being all things Russian. After a quick Google search, whoops I mean Baidu search, we decided the theme park didn't merit the entrance fee and instead we explored the rest of Sun Island which is mostly old colonial style buildings and parkland with a thick tree canopy which provides reprieve from the glaring sun. On a few occasions, we were mistaken for Russian 'attractions' and people asked for pictures with us, however most requests were polite and as such were fine. At times however people can be rude about picture taking, in these instances we reacted as anyone would and said no. Caitlin talks about this in her post on culture shock here.
Sun Island was a chance to get away from the urban metropolis that is the city of Harbin proper, and which not offering a great deal to do, was worth it for the ferry ride there and back. For those of you a little braver, there is a cable car which climbs high above the river as it crosses, however we didn't trust it and went for the seemingly safer waterborne option.
Snack Street (aka night-markets)
Nothing stands out more from our time in China than the street food. While there are many, many 'snack streets' scattered around the city, our favorite two can be found just off of Zhongyang and also near North-East Forestry University. Street food is an experience as fun as it is tasty, and often not knowing what something is can be beneficial. Eating at a snack street offers you a chance to enjoy food you will almost certainly never be able to again with each vendor selling something totally unique and handmade. Particular favorites were garlic oysters and lamb in a bun, don't be put off by the picture below, most of the food found on snack streets looks great and is always affordable.
Snack streets are also known as night-markets as they almost always only operate from 5pm-10pm, they are also usually located near universities (ours being no exception). As with anything in Harbin if you don't speak Mandarin, enjoying a snack street is easier with a local helping you! Even without however, pointing suffices! If you have food allergies, be extra cautious.
Jile Temple has to be one of the more iconic tourist destinations in the city of Harbin and with good reason. Jile Temple is actually a large group of many temples together and can be easily accessed from the cities state of the art new subway system. It really is hard to take a bad picture at the temples as you can see below as the buildings are incredibly photogenic. The lucky red can be found on much of the religious architecture and while the temples can be a little busy, the atmosphere is serene and relaxed, no doubt a result of the temples retaining their spiritual importance into the modern day. As the temples are still active, its important to note that you should refrain from taking pictures of the golden Buddha statues inside the temples (outside is fine though) and do not stand on the golden 'curbs' between areas, as this is seen as extremely disrespectful, a mistake Caitlin made only once.
As this was our first time visiting a religious building outside of Western 'Abrahamic' faiths, we were particularly awestruck at the beauty of the temples. Jile temple has to be on your to-do list when you visit Harbin.
Unit 731 Museum
Unit 731 is a museum dedicated to remembering the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army during the Second World War. The museum doesn't withhold any gruesome detail, and some exhibits can be difficult to read. Anyone with even a passing interest in history should make sure they take the long-ish bus journey to the museum. We managed to spend several hours exploring the various exhibits. Much of the war crimes committed by the Japanese Army in the region revolved around testing on local Chinese people in some of the most horrific ways imaginable. The vast majority of the museum has an English translation which was much appreciated on our part. I would urge all those who have time to visit Unit 731, especially as to this day the current Japanese government denies these atrocities even took place.
For those with a strong interest in the Japanese occupation period of Harbin, check out the appropriately named 'North East Anti-Japanese Museum' in the city, which is free to enter as long as you show your passport. Thanks to the nature of the muesum, the Anti-Japanese museum has a heavy security presence.
Harbin Opera House
A lesser known attraction to international visitors to Harbin would be the vast and gorgeous Opera House. Located not far from the much more well known attraction 'Harbin Tiger Park' which for many reasons we would urge you not to see, the Opera House can be found over an hour away by bus. We decided to get off of the bus before the Opera House itself so that we could walk through a beautiful wetland, where we saw an array of different birds and fish. While we didn't actually go into the Opera House as there wasn't a performance on, the building has an external staircase which you can climb to see amazing views of Harbin, which really showcase its size.
Dragon Tower (Long Ta) - 330m tall television tower which doubles as an observation tower. We decided not to do this because of the extortionate entrance fee, however for those less concerned with their budget and keen on seeing more of the city, this could be a good option. There is also a restaurant at the top of the tower, serving Russian cuisine.
Harbin Ice and Snow World - As Harbin is most well known for its Ice Festival, most people only visit in the dead cold of winter. However for those of you who, like us, visit at the opposite time of year, Harbin's Ice Museum will satisfy your frozen curiosities. Basically a much smaller and indoor version of the Ice Festival, you can find magnificent ice sculptures, palaces and performances.
Where to stay
Staying near Zhongyang or central street is ideal when visiting on holiday. It is close to many of the attractions and main bus terminals. If you are visiting Harbin for work or a specific purpose, we suggest finding accommodation near to where you'll be spending the most time. We keep saying it because it's true, this city is huge! Harbin currently has one subway line and the buses can take hours to get to your destination. Because Caitlin was staying in Harbin for so long (2 months) and working at a university, we opted for an Airbnb near the uni. It was cheap and easy, and we made a friend in our host.
We both loved our time in Harbin and believe it's worth visiting when you are in China. It has a very unique feel compared to the other areas we went to. It's relatively short history results in a lack of 'traditional' Chinese architecture (with the exception of Jile Temple) and instead is replaced with a mix of European and industrial. We'd love to go back for the winter to see the famous Ice and Snow World even if the -30 C weather seems a little unappealing (it's next to Siberia after all!).