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Northern Exposure

The city of Harbin, with Russian influences and known for Siberian winters and ice displays, will melt the hearts of the summer visitor

By Michael Jones Updated Sept.1

Harbin Grand Theater

Goldsun Shopping Center

Harbin lies in Northeast China, an area where China and Siberia seemingly merge across a never-ending expanse of temperate forests and open plains. Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province, is renowned for its annual Ice and Snow Festival, which features magnificent ice and snow sculptures, including full sized buildings, statues, and art works. Harbin has become a “must-visit” winter destination for Chinese and foreign tourists alike, with a trip around the Ice festival, a drop in at the Siberian Tiger Park, then back to warmer climes.  

Unfortunately, once the crowds disperse at the end of the ice festival season, Harbin becomes rather overlooked as a travel destination. This is a great mistake for a number of very important reasons. One is the weather itself. Harbin’s northern climate ensures that it offers a refreshing destination from which to escape the roaring heat of summer. Another reason is that many of the most famous sights in Harbin are even more enjoyable in the warmer weather than when shrouded in snow. Finally, there are some fascinating locations in and around Harbin which are almost always excluded from the rushed itineraries of the “Ice and Snow World” tour groups. 

Russian Around 
Zhongyang Pedestrian Street offers both a picturesque backdrop, a glimpse into the historic Russian cultural connections in Harbin, and a veritable bounty of shops (including local souvenirs and Russian restaurants). However, to really enjoy the baroque beauty of Zhongyang Pedestrian Street, one needs to explore leisurely. Indeed, during the warmer months, the weather is perfect for casual strolling, window shopping, and indulging in some delicious ice-cream from Harbin’s famous traditional ice-cream specialist Modern Popsicle. Not far from Zhongyang Pedestrian Street is the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, the most spectacular Russian Orthodox Church in China, and the beautiful Harbin Flood Control Memorial Tower.  

Another popular stop on the winter tours of Harbin is the Volga Manor Russian-themed park. No one can doubt the beauty of such gorgeous architecture sprinkled with snow-dust. However, the area is just as majestic when the flowers bloom and the trees fill with leaves, plus it’s a lot easier to stroll the parklands at a gentle pace without -20 C wind chill. It should be noted that there are numerous Russian-themed restaurants, shops, and bars throughout Harbin, and they are must-sees for any Harbin trip. However, some are more authentic than others, especially when it comes to the food they offer, so depending upon your personal preferences it would be worth doing some research before you visit.  

Beyond the historical architecture and the city’s Russian connections, Harbin has fascinating modern architecture. One of the newest attractions in the city is the Harbin Grand Theater. Even if you do not have time to catch a performance, the space-age design of the building makes it well worth a visit. The theater is set in landscaped parkland, so there are plenty of opportunities to capture an iconic selfie, along with plenty of vendors selling refreshments, kites and other flying toys to keep the children entertained.  

If you are a fan of attractive views, then one of the most underrated attractions in Harbin is the Longta Observation Tower. The tower contains a number of education and entertainment areas, including some displays and museum exhibits, as well as options for simple refreshment. However, the primary attraction is the open-air walkway at the top of the tower, from which one is granted magnificent panorama of the entire city, the sweeping Songhua River that dominates the landscape, and the endless expanse of wild nature beyond. Many cities in China offer interesting observation towers, but few of them are open-air, and none of them offer the same visual contrast between wilderness and urban jungle as offered by Harbin. Indeed, the wild open grasslands of northern Asia lie so tantalizingly proximate to Harbin that the urge to ride a horse into the sunset is never far away. 

Somber History 
However, if there is one place in Harbin that everyone should visit, then it is the Unit 731 Museum. This memorial is not a place of fun or enjoyment, and it may be unsuitable for small children. However, the story of this location is one that transcends all of humanity, and it is a story that everyone should know. The memorial and museum are built on the site of a World War II research base from which the Japanese army expanded their understanding and capabilities in biological and chemical warfare, often using human experimentation. The stories of human suffering are unimaginable. The use of scientific intelligence for evil intent is shocking. The extent of the camp’s facilities and experiments, simply terrifying.  

Nevertheless, the Unit 731 Museum has been designed and crafted extremely carefully and intelligently. As a result, the ultimate message is equally one of hope as much as one of danger. As so often, the very worst of human behavior can often inspire the very best in others. Indeed, this memorial is in many ways dedicated to the strength and bravery of good and decent people, rather than the evil that tormented them. Moreover, the museum is careful to show that acts of kindness and heroism were seen in individuals from multiple countries and ethnic backgrounds. Accordingly, as one strolls around the ruins of the complex, after exiting the main museum exhibits, the dream of a better future feels not only relevant and vital, but also achievable. Surely if everyone in the world visit the Unit 731 Museum and learned its lessons, then we would all live in a world guided by that simple phrase “never again.” 

Ice Cream and Sausages 
Turning away from the sites, Harbin has a number of Russian restaurants as well as those offering regional cuisines . As well as enjoying Russian specialties and ice-cream, Harbin is famous for its deep fried and crispy sweet and sour pork (guobao rou), and smoked savory red sausage. Among the Russian specialties worth trying are round breads, which can be found in bakeries, and kvass, the famous fermented rye drink, usually non-alcoholic or low alcohol.  

Temperature is the main thing to consider when visiting Harbin at any time of year. The summer months offer comfortable daily average temperatures in the low 20s C, although the nights are cooler, so take a coat or a wrap if you intend to walk around or sit outside at night. May and September offer daily average temperatures around 15 C, which can be perfect for walking through the city and parks. At its coldest in January, the daily average temperature drops to below -17 C, with an average high of only -12 C, and an average nighttime low of almost -23 C.