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Harbin Travel Guide

The city of Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang Province, China's most northerly province. Heilongjiang wraps around the northeastern extremity of Inner Mongolia (Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) to the west, while to the east, the province stretches to the border with North Korea and Russia. Indeed, the Northwestern-Pacific, Russian seaport city of Vladivostok lies just beyond the "rear left foot" of Heilongjiang Province (Heilongjiangers like to compare the shape of their snowy province to a swan, while, to me – and perhaps to you as well – it looks more like the left-side silhouette of a cross between a Scott Terrier and a T-Rex, the latter with a bad case of mumps, hence the reference to the "rear left foot").

China Winter Travel

Harbin is situated near the northern extremity of the Northeast China Plain, the large plain that lies above the Bay of Bohai, stretching, in a northeasterly direction, roughly from the Inner Mongolian city of Ulanhad to roughly the city of Suihua in Heilongjiang Province, or to about 100 kilometers northeast of Harbin, where the Xiaoxing'an Mountains begin.

The Northeast China Plain belongs to the vast geographical entity formerly referred to as Manchuria (Dongbei sansheng, in Mandarin Chinese*, or dong bei san sheng = "east north three provinces", which suggests that in ancient Chinese culture, east-west was the primary orientation rather than the usual north-south orientation of Western culture – and indeed, to this day, in international circles, we speak of the east-west cultural divide, whereas the north-south "divide" is a recent economic-developmental semantic construction that signifies the developed world (the north) versus the developing world (the south)).

Northeast China plain of Harbin travel guide

Noreast China Plain-the largest plain of China

The name Manchuria stems of course from the fact that the area was occupied from roughly the 12th century CE onwards by the Jürchens cum Manchus. It was the Jürchens who made the first major dent in post-Han Dynasty China in the form of the Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty, and though the Jürchens would be routed by the Mongols hardly a century later in the form of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty (the Mongols were a Turkic tribe that lived in the desert lands named after them in ancient China's "Western Regions"), the Jürchens would later re-invent themselves as the Manchus, establishing the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, China's last Imperial dynasty.

Although neither the region's shipping center – which role is played by the city of Dalian in neighboring Liaoning Province – nor its financial center – which role is played by the city of Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province – Harbin is the political, economic, cultural and technological center of Heilongjiang Province, as well as the province's transportation and communication hub. Indeed, Harbin hopes to one day be the nexus for all spheres of human endeavor in northwestern China – from culture to politics and from technology to commerce – and the province is in fact China's fastest growing region, attracting talent from all across China as well as from abroad.

The city of Harbin has not always been the capital of Heilongjiang Province, not even in the more recent, modern historical era, as the next section shows.

A Brief History

The city of Harbin, situated on the Songhua River, is the site of the prehistoric (BCE 2200, roughly, or the late Stone Age), pre-Xia (BCE 2000-1500) Dynasty settlement referred to as Pokai. The first Chinese village here would be known as Pinkiang, before the village was eventually occupied by nomadic Turkic tribes that migrated into the area later known as Manchuria from the area that would be known as Siberia. After the arrival of the Jürchens around the beginning of the 11th century CE, the collection of small villages clustered on the southern bank of the Songhua River near the ancient settlement of Pokai would collectively be referred to as Alejin (meaning "a place for drying fishing nets") in the language of the Jürchens, which language belongs to the Altaic, or Turkic family, and which is very closely related to the Altaic language of the Mongolians (indeed, in Mongolian, the name "Jürchen" is rendered as "Jushen", or "Juchen", depending on the English language letters chosen to represent the Mongolian sound, š).

Alejin would be renamed Harbin (or Haerbin) in Chinese ("Xarbin" in Russian) – which is the Mandarin equivalent of the Jürchen name, Alejin – in 1898 when Tsarist Russia, in agreement with the Qing government, would commence the construction of a railway link that would shorten the Trans-Siberian Railway journey between Moscow and Vladivostok, Russia's easternmost seaport (and the natal city of the famous Hollywood actor, Yul Brynner (born Yuli Bryner in 1920 to Swiss-Russian and Russian parents)... Yuli also attended a YMCA school in Harbin before his mother took the family to Paris when Yuli was 14).

The Trans-Siberian Railway extended beyond Vladivostok, of course, ending at the Russian Naval Base, Port Arthur, in the Chinese port city of Dalian ("Dalny", as the Russians called it) in Liaoning Province, which city was part of the trade and territorial concessions forced upon the Qing government, better known by the Chinese as the Unequal Treaties, the same series of treaties that carved out several colonial concessions that were leased to foreign powers, the most famous of these being Shanghai (international), Macau (Portuguese) and Hong Kong (British).

The Russian influence on this part of China was nearly as pervasive as the Portuguese influence on Macau or the British influence on Hong Kong, not to speak of the international influence on the city of Shanghai (think: the Bund). The Russian influence was also felt on the city of Harbin in the form of numerous Russian Orthodox churches, the most famous of which is the Saint Sophia Cathedral with its quintessentially Russian onion-shaped turrets (the onion-shaped turret of the typical Russian Orthodox church is a Byzantinian inheritance, modified to its more sloping, onion shape in Russia in order to inhibit the accumulation of snow, of which there was no lack during a typical Russian winter, as both Napoleon and Hitler would bitterly come to realize). The imposingly stately Saint Sophia Cathedral remains Harbin's architectural landmark.

Throughout the region, Tsarist Russia established a system of public schools modelled after the Russian school system. Russian language newspapers and Russian language periodicals of various stripes were common throughout the region. Alas, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), many of these Russian Orthodox churches suffered severe damage, and some of them were entirely destroyed.

The Russian influence in Harbin, as well as in the entire region, would be curtailed after the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), though the Russian influence in the area would not be replaced by Japanese influence. Instead, the other "foreign powers" of the colonial era in China, notably Germany, France and the United States, would fill the vacuum, but foreign nationals from some 30 other countries would rush to the area as well.

In the interim between the Russo-Japanese War and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), which latter war spanned the Pacific theater of WWII (1939-45), 16 foreign countries maintained consular representations in the city of Harbin, with the usual, attendant conglomeration of foreign banks and other foreign enterprises. Harbin's most famous commercial drag, Zhongyang Dajie ("Central Street", in English, and Kitaiskaya Ulitsa ("Chinese Street") in Russian), is a highly prized remnant from the inter-war period of the turn of the 20th century when Harbin flourished. Zhongyang Dajie is a hodge podge of international businesses – everything from Russian bakeries to American and Japanese restaurants to French fashion houses – featuring European (Baroque and Byzantine especially), North American and Japanese architectural styles.

A 1913 census report showed that the Russians continued to dominate in Harbin, with 34,313 Russian inhabitants – still the largest ethnic group in Harbin – followed by the combined Chinese group of inhabitants (i.e., counting all Chinese ethnic groups, from the Han Chinese to the Manchus) at 23,537. Surprisingly, Jewish immigrants were the third-largest ethnic group in Harbin, with 5032 individuals (see the footnote below for more on Harbin's later Jewish population**). The remainder – in the same descending order – were as follows: Poles, 5032; Japanese, 696; Germans, 564; Tatars (though the Tatars, as well as the next group of inhabitants from the Baltic states, might rightfully be considered Russians during the Cold War era, they weren't Russians in 1913), 234; Latvians, 218; Georgians, 183; Estonians, 172; Lithuanians, 142; Armenians, 124; plus a smattering of other inhabitants from Europe and Central Asia – a truly international mix!

Most of coastal China, especially along the sensitive, western flank just opposite the island empire of Japan – including most of Heilongjiang Province as well as the city of Harbin itself – was controlled by Japanese forces from 1932 until Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, which period is considered an unhappy one not only for the Chinese people in general, but for Harbiners in particular.

Curiously, Heilongjiang Province served as the launch pad, as it were, for the Chinese Communist Revolution. The province had first been occupied by the Russians immediately after the defeat of WWII Japan, though it was quickly transferred to Russia's Chinese Communists brothers. At this time, the province corresponded only to the western half, roughly, of its current geographical boundaries, with the eastern half belonging at the time to the then Songjiang Province, which no longer exists. The Heilongjiang Province of 1949 had its capital at the city of Qiqihar, while Harbin served as the capital of Songjiang Province, which province was absorbed by Heilongjiang Province in 1954.

During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, Heilongjiang Province absorbed portions of present-day Inner Mongolia, notably the Hulunbuir League, or the part of Inner Mongolia that lies immediately below T-rex's/ the swan's neck (or what would be called a panhandle in the US, the most famous of which is the Texas Panhandle, though the Oklahoma Panhandle, which lies immediately above the Texas Panhandle, has a much more panhandle-like shape). As with many other impermanent changes during the Cultural Revolution (alas, many were not impermanent!), this change was later reversed.

After the opening of China in the post-Mao era, the city of Harbin again came under significant Russian influence. Indeed, Russia is today Heilongjiang Province's main trade partner, accounting for some 53 % of the province's foreign trade.

Present-Day Harbin

Most people would tend to think of Harbin as a snowy, permafrost landscape that would most likely be barren during summer; in fact, the area around Harbin surprisingly has some of the best, most nutrient-rich soil in all of China – "black earth", as it is called. The province is a major supplier of wheat, rice, soybeans, maize, flax and tobacco, as well as fresh vegetables. To give an idea of the agricultural impact of the province on China as a whole, Heilongjiang Province accounts for roughly 40% of the total Chinese production of soybeans.

Modern Harbin

Present-day Harbin

Harbin is also one of China's main producers of light industrial equipment to be employed primarily in the field of power generation, including the production of turbines, boilers, generators, etc., and even the special alloys used in electrical wire manufacturing.

Besides its light industrial equipment pillar, Harbin's industrial output rests on two additional primary pillars: aerospace equipment and a pharmaceutical industry. The city of Harbin is also a major production center for automobile components, building materials, metallurgical products, chemicals, electronic equipment and textiles. Last but not least, Harbin has a winter tourism industry par excellence in the form of two major ski resorts: Yabuli Ski Resort, roughly 200 kilometers due east of Harbin; and Erlongshan Ski Resort, aka Longzhu ("Dragon Pearl") Ski Resort, located only about 65 kilometers west of Harbin.

Harbin isn't called the "City of Ice" for nothing. Each year the city stages the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival, which runs from January to March and draws enormous crowds that come to see the handiwork of the snow and ice scultors who flock to Harbin every winter from around the globe. In addition, there is the annual Ice and Snow World exhibition that features life-sized castles of ice and snow – a veritable Disney-Park-like exhibition that attracts the most preeminent ice and snow artists from around the world. It's exact beginning date varies each year depending on the weather pattern, but generally falls at the end of the year in December or the beginning of the next year. It is a fairyland of colored ice and colored lights. Lastly (carrying on with the ice-and-snow theme), Harbin is home to a yearly Ice Lantern Festival where, as the name suggests, large lanterns are created by means of mist sprayed in layers until the desired result is achieved. The lanterns are lit with special cool, colored lamps. Also the Ice Lantern Festival is an end-of-year/ beginning-of-year event that is weather-dependent.

Other major tourist attractions in the Harbin area include: the aforementioned Russian Orthodox church, the Saint Sophia Cathedral; the aforementioned Central Street; and the Siberian Tiger Park, northern China's equivalent to southern China's Panda parks, since the Siberian Tiger is no less endangered. Lesser, but no less interesting tourist attractions in the Harbin area include: Yueliang Wan (Moon Bay) Ski Resort, located on the outskirts of the city of Harbin; Wujimi Ski Resort, located about 150 kilometers southeast of Harbin; Yuquan Ski Resort, located about 65 kilometers northwest of Harbin; Harbin Zhaolin Park, a lush green park during summer, it is the venue for some of Harbin's wintertime ice and snow festivals, such as the Ice Lantern Festival; and the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum, a very large museum complex located within the city limits of Harbin itself and consisting of various historical exhibits – including Red Army exhibits – as well as a prehistoric fossil exhibit.

The Harbin area's many ski resorts and its ice and snow festivals are the big attractions during the winter months, while Central Street, with its multifaceted, international architectural styles and its many and diverse shops and bazaars, as well as Saint Sophia Cathedral, the Siberian Tiger Park and the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum can be enjoyed year round, though a visit to these is naturally more appealing during the summer months.


* There are ten significantly large Chinese dialects, of which Mandarin is the dominant. Next, one would think, is Cantonese, but – surprise, surprise! – the Wu dialect actually outranks the Cantonese dialect, even though the Wu dialect is restricted mainly to China, while there is a significant Chinese diaspora who speak Cantonese. Other prominent Chinese dialects include the Min (Fujian Province and parts of Taiwan) and the Jin (parts of Hebei, Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces as well as part of Inner Mongolia) dialects. Other lesser Chinese dialects include the Xiang, the Hakka, the Gan, the Hui and the Ping.

** It is a widely known fact that Shanghai was formerly a center for Jewry in China. It is a correspondingly little known fact that Harbin was also a major Chinese center for Jewry. During the Russian Revolution, large numbers of White Russian forces, including countless Jews, sought refuge in Harbin. Later, during the 1930s rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, numerous German Jews also sought refuge in Harbin. At its peak during the mid-1920s, some 20,000 European Jews lived and thrived in the city of Harbin, among them, the parents of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert (in 2004, PM Ehud Olmert visited the grave of his grandfather in the city of Harbin, just as numerous Israeli trade delegations have, both before and after the visit of PM Olmert, paid visits to the city of Harbin).

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Harbin Weather

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Harbin Transport

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