Harbin 哈尔滨 Part 1: A Merry Christmas in the “Moscow of the Orient”

My husband’s visits are always a special time of year. Having done the whole long-distance thing on and off for almost a decade since we’ve known each other (that’s about a third of our lives!), this is when both of us really get to spend quality time together. We also love to travel, and this year was unique in that we chose to go somewhere neither of us had been: Harbin!

Why Harbin?

Snow and Ice and Russians.

Harbin’s the capital of Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province bordering Russia. When most people think of Harbin, the beautiful and surreal carvings and creations of the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival come to mind. While this festival is Harbin’s biggest tourist pull, attracting around 18 million visitors last year, there’s so much more to the city than many people realize or expect!

History of Harbin

Harbin (哈尔滨 Hā’ěrbīn) has an interesting and at times, painful, history. Reflective of is name, a Manchu word meaning “a place to dry fishing nets,” Harbin was once a simple Chinese fishing village that has since expanded into one of the northeast China’s major industrial hubs. Harbin grew substantially in size after the Russians came in 1897, during the Qing Dynasty, to construct the Chinese Eastern Railway in northern Manchuria, an extension of the Trans-Siberian Rail Road connecting Vladivostok to Dalian and the Russian Naval Base of Port Arthur. Workers brought in from Russia to build the railroads settled and expanded the town, laying down cobblestone roads and building European-style architecture.

Since then, Russia’s had a big influence on the area. Harbin was at one point, the largest Russian enclave outside the Soviet Union! During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Russia used Harbin as a military base. More than 100,000 White Russian refugees came to the area after Russia’s Great October Revolution in November of 1917.

Additionally, in the 1920s, many Russian Jews fled to Harbin to escape the pogroms, earning it the nickname the “Jerusalem of the Far East.”  Border disputes with Russia, following a brief border war in 1969, continued up until the late 2000s, where the issues were finally resolved after 40+ years of negotiation.

The photos above are of the oldest Jewish Synagogue in Harbin. In the 1920s, Harbin was home to some 20,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in the Far East at that time.

Harbin also housed some gruesome secrets during the Japanese Occupation (1931-1945), when the area was known as the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army covertly developed and tested lethal biological and chemical warfare here under the guise of epidemic prevention and water purification works.

Nowadays, however, Harbin caters to the seasonal “snow tourism,” the largest draw being the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.   The frigid weather also makes it a perfect place to do other winter sports such as skiing, sledding, ice skating, ice fishing, etc, along the banks of the frozen Songhua River.

First Impressions

Getting into Harbin was a bit rough. We decided to save a little money by taking the express airport shuttle from the airport to the Harbin train station. Right off the bat, we noticed a lack of English speakers even though the prices for the shuttle tickets were in English. Finding the correct bus was a bit stressful, but we did it. About an hour and a half later as the sun was setting, about 4pm, we were dropped off a ways outside the train station. Pretty cold, tired and impatient, I tried calling a Didi, China’s Uber, and had no luck. Mark really didn’t want to walk to take the public bus.

It was cold outside.

One taxi driver started harassing us, saying that no other cars were going to drive down our side street and that he’d drive us for 40 kuai. I kept telling him, no, not wanting to pay 40 kuai. I wanted a metered taxi if I couldn’t get a Didi!

We ended up going to another parked taxi driver who said he’d take us to our hotel for thirty. The other driver who kept bothering us came up right away asking how much we were offered – turned out they were buddies, but luckily ours stuck to his word. I think we ended up pretty lucky. I had agreed to 30 kuai, which considering with the heavy traffic, our meter would have been around 27 kuai anyways.

Walking around the city, the cobbles and icy, uneven pavement of the roads made it feel dangerous to walk around. There were long stretches of frozen ice on the walkways, which we had to take care to walk around. Pedestrian crossings were oddly spaced, some cutting diagonally across busy roadways. Frustratingly, one had to be careful to watch the crossing sign, as the little green guy wouldn’t flash or turn yellow as a warning to hurry. It would just turn red, and woe to those still in the midst of crossing!

 The lack of English speakers in Harbin was a bit mind boggling, considering how heavily advertised tourism to here is. On Central (Zhongyang Dajie 中央大街), the main kitschy pedestrian street, we stopped into Bomele’s Coffee Shop to order two lattes. They had English signage which Mark used his height to point at when we ordered, but the cashier became very surly, pulling out an ipad for us to point at a picture of the menu. After that frustrating experience, I gave up trying to order anything in English for the duration of our stay.

We learned later from a tour guide that northern Chinese are known to be hot tempered. It honestly felt like there were more English speakers in my little town of Lishui than in all of Harbin!

We also noticed that the touristy shops varied from others in China that we were used to. Understandably, there weren’t many vendor stalls considering how cold it was outside. However, rather than having large open bargain stores with attendants trying to sell you the normal fare of stuff ranging from scarves to hand painted woodcarvings, there seemed to be one “Churin” brand store every few feet or so. “Churin Foods” sold various Russian, Chinese and Mongolian sweets, bread, sausages, and alcohol. Regular “Churin” sold Russian matryoshka dolls, ornamental sets of combs and mirrors, vases, keychains, etc. I felt disappointed that most of the goods they sold had “Moscow” on them in either English or Cyrillic. This is HARBIN! Why were there so many Moscow souvenirs?! Mark thought they all probably came from the same Chinese factory. Either way, they’re probably meant for clueless Chinese tourists who’d buy the things thinking they were looking at Harbin rather than St. Petersburg.

The Dumpling Special

We ate at two locations of Oriental Dumpling King (Jiaozi Wang 饺子王) along with another restaurant called Mr. Wang’s Special Dumplings. Some had much friendlier service than others. We really liked the Oriental Dumpling King further down Central away from the McDonalds. We had a very helpful waiter who told us which items would take long, which we don’t mind waiting for food if it’s good. One could also watch old ladies folding dumplings through a glass window while waiting for one’s food. The dumplings there were phenomenal, as were the various condiments offered of mashed garlic, vinegar, and crushed hot peppers in oil.

Another restaurant we liked, but was a bit pricey was Maomao Smoked Meat near Central. Our dinner was good, but per usual we accidentally ordered intestines (the fried thing in the back of the photo below). I’m not a big fan of intestines, but luckily the way they cooked it made them super light, crispy and not intestine-y tasting.

The eggplant stuffed with shrimp was to die for!

Ruski? No, American.

Would a Russian wear a scarf like that?

Part of Harbin’s highly publicized appeal is its Russian minority residents. Honestly, Mark and I didn’t see many Russians except for the Russian performers making their way to the indoor stage at the Ice sculpture place.

It was pretty funny how many Chinese men would come up to ask, “Ruski?!” They looked so disappointed when he would say “Meiguo” (American) back at them. I think by the end, Mark got asked about five or six times if he was Russian.

Christmas Dinner in a Russian Café

For dinner on Christmas , Mark and I met up with some of our AYC Lishui friends who were also visiting Harbin. In trying to decide where to go for dinner, we chose a random Russian restaurant next to a KFC on Central. Unbeknownst to us, we had apparently wandered into THE place to get Russian food in Harbin, Café Russian.

The décor was dated to reflect the nostalgia of early 20th century Harbin. Lots of black and white photographs of smiling Russians intermingled with their Chinese neighbors lined the walls. Olden-style furniture, porcelain figurines, paintings of Queen Victoria, and other collectable knick-knacks adorned doily-covered shelves.  A big fireplace in the back added to the fun atmosphere. A tv in the corner played a loop of Chinese dramas filmed in the café and a segment of two, we’re guessing Australian, guys shooting a documentary in the café.


               The menu was a bit pricy, but we figured it’d be good to try since this place was touted for its Russian food and history; plus, it was Christmas! The hilarious Chinglish translations of the menu were an added bonus. We ordered a plate of the “fried bags,” “swallow food volume” aka Piroshkies or stuffed cabbage, mashed potatoes, and a couple vodka shots. The food and drinks were good, except for the mashed potatoes that were pureed to hell, or to “the molecular level” according to Mark.

Next post I’ll delve into Harbin’s tourist attractions, including the snow and ice sculpture festivities, the sad Siberian Tiger Park, and the heartbreaking Unit 731 Museum: The WWII Japanese Germ and Warfare Base.

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