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Harbin City Guide

Harbin is full of surprises. The snow-capped onion domes and facades are more Petersburg or Paris than Peking, and with winding cobblestone streets, fantastically lit winter ice castles and modern Chinese economic vitality, Harbin is an incredibly warm and welcoming place for a city situated on the edge of Siberia. Best known for the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival (more commonly referred to as the Harbin Ice Festival, plain and simple), this unique city is beginning to make a name for itself for its other qualities, from the distinct Russian architecture typified by the Church of St. Sophia, to nearby skiing hotspots like Yabuli, to the concession-era "gallery of European architecture" found along Zhongyang Dajie, a cobblestone-paved pedestrian street. Harbin's shopping is easily the best in northeastern China, the local cuisine is an intriguing blend of Russian and northern Chinese, and the surrounding Heilongjiang countryside—the province was part of historical Manchuria—is one of China's better-kept secrets, full of forests, lakes and mountains that have yet to feel the sting of overdevelopment and overcrowding.

Beijing to Harbin flights are cheap and quick, and an excellent modern airport is well served by flights to Harbin from throughout China (Harbin flight schedule), making a quick weekend getaway a snap. Its relative remoteness makes train travel and bus slower propositions, but an outstanding road and rail infrastructure in and around the city ensure a fairly smooth approach.

History Originally a small Songhua River fishing village, Harbin became a city when Russia obtained permission to construct a railway into China in 1897. The border region of extreme terrain of mountains, fields, and forests was mirrored in the town's rough and ready population of railroad workers, nomads and traders from around Asia, including a Russian community that peaked around 200,000. After the Russian Revolution, a number of White Russians made Harbin their permanent home.

The city fell under Japanese control during World War II, causing much of the the foreign population to flee. The Chinese regained control of Harbin in 1946 after a brief period of Russian rule following the end of the war. Today, a number of Russians are returning to Harbin. Along with the rest of China, Harbin is experiencing economic boom times, though not without cost—in 2005 a factory accidentally dumped huge quantities of toxic benzene into the Songhua River, temporarily shutting down the city's water supply and making Harbin a prime example of China's need to balance environmental protection with industrial growth. Climate Harbin has long, cold winters and cool, short summers. Between July and September, the city becomes a pleasant summer resort, averaging temperatures of 20 ºC (68 ºF).

Harbin winters can be very cold, with temperatures plummeting as low as -40 ºC (-40 ºF). Snow starts as early as November and the coldest month is January. However, the winter months are a great time to visit Harbin, when the city is a fantastic world of snow and ice. Dress in plenty of layers, and punctuate your visit to the festival with frequent trips inside for a hot drink or hearty stew.


China travel guide    Posted by grace on 12/29/2010

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