Northeastern China was originally built up as an industrial center using pre-existing Soviet and Japanese factories. By the 1980s these outdated and inefficient factories could not keep up. In November 2005 there was a major benzyne chemical pollution spill on the Songhua river stretching over 80 km and reached China–Russia border, leading to a shutdown of Harbin’s water supply for months, forcing donations of bottled water to be trucked into Harbin from all over China (we donated 800 large bottles of water).
Harbin is infamous for its very cold winters — it is at the same latitude as Montreal, and winter temperatures as low as -38°C (-36°F) with a few weeks reaching low 30s, while parts of winter averages a chilly -17°C (°1F) have been recorded. Bring more clothes than you will think you will need so that you can layer. The winter can become dreary if you are a long-term resident, as the entire city uses coal for heat the air quality rapidly decreases during these months.
Harbin can be a great place to visit in the summer. The weather is cool and it seems to be perpetually breezy, and most of Harbin’s streets are lined with trees. Because the city is so cold all winter, life almost explodes and people crowd the streets until late at night eating kabobs, playing poker, and drinking Hapi (Harbin Beer). This is a great escape from the heat of Beijing. A trip up to the border regions this time of year would be nice as well.
- Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair (太阳岛国际雪雕艺术博览会), Located on Sun Island, northside of the river (Just a few steps from the Sun Island gondola station or just cross the frozen river by feet). 8am-5pm. Beautifully carved snow sculptures, massive dimensions. All other activities in the Park are extra. Admission ~ RMB 240.
- Ice and Snow World (冰雪大世界), Northside of the river, west from Sun Island. 9am-9:30pm. Large buildings and sculptures made of ice. Best viewed after sunset. Admission ~ RMB 300 (or ~ RMB 150 before 12:00pm).
- Ice Festival, Zhaolin Park (冰雪游园会, 兆麟公园), Located in the city center at Zhaolin Park, southside of the river. 1:30pm-9:30pm. Rather small lanterns compared to the other two main festivals. Best viewed after dusk. Admission ~ RMB 200.
International Beer Festival (哈尔滨国际啤酒节). Held in late August of every year, a whole public square is cordoned off and there are stages that host music concerts, dance contests. Most of the beer drunk is the local Harbin brew, but there is a tent for international beers. .
Summer Music Festival (哈尔滨之夏音乐节). Held every two years in July, this festival is organized by the city and brings in Chinese bands for free concerts held in the city square.
- Russian Buildings. Harbin’s old quarter which covers a wide area of the city near the Songhua River is still today mostly made up of buildings that were constructed by the Russians at the turn of the 19th century. Most of them are built in baroque or byzantine style with spires and cupolas and interesting shades of yellow, white, green, or red. While St. Sophia is known as the main architectural attraction to the city, areas of the city such as Harbin’s old quarter are made up of buildings that have been left untouched since the Russians left. While most of these streets are fairly decrepit and in need of repair, at least the area has been free from the wrecking ball like many other historical districts in China. Only due to the fact that Harbin has yet to attract the world’s investment.
- Flood Control Monument (防洪胜利纪念塔) is at the riverside end of the Zhongyang Dajie built to commemorate the several floods of the Songhua River.
- Stalin Park (斯大林公园), runs parallel to the Songhua River is a long tree covered walkway that stretches the city-side banks of the Songhua river.
- Jewish New Synagogue (哈尔滨犹太新会堂), 162 Jing Wei Jie. Has been restored and contains an impressive collection detailing the history of Jews in Harbin. There were 20,000 at one point and the museum is well worth a visit. Further up Tong Jiang Jie is the old synagogue that is now a hotel and cafe, with the old Jewish school next door – both worth a look at from the outside. Admission ~ RMB 25.
- Unit 731 Museum (侵华日军地731部队遗址) is a grim reminder of what happened during the Japanese occupation to over 2,000 prisoners of war. The museum, located in the suburbs, tells the story of these individuals although its displays are limited. Closes at 4om (last entry is at 3pm), is closed from 11am-1pm for lunch and the museum is completely closed on Mondays.
- Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园) during the winter this park houses ice sculptures for the festivals, but during the off season, it is a pleasant stroll as well
- Dragon TV Tower (龙塔) is the tallest steel structure in northeastern Asia. There is a revolving restaurant on top and views of the city. You can walk outside at the top and even strap on a harness for a thrill.
- Old Quarter. A section of the city just west of Zhongyang pedestrian street is still dominated by Russian buildings built around the turn of the century. Not well maintained but an interesting walk and you can maybe find Russian antiques in some of the thrift stores.
- Grape Kingdom (葡萄王国), (Near the Tiger Park). A live operating “organic farm” that has expansive grape and corn fields. In the fall you can enter the fields and pick as many fresh grapes as you want and watch how the Chinese process corn.
- Gondola ride over Songhua River, access point is the Sun Island Park. A nice way to work your way back from Sun Island in a gondola car that takes you over the banks of the Songhua. Single ride ~ RMB 35-50.
- Temple of Heavenly Bliss (极乐寺) on Dongdazhi Street (东大直街) is in the eastern part of the city. Large and active Buddhist temple.
- Heilongjiang Provincial Museum (黑龙江省博物馆) at 50 Hong Jun Jie. Built in 1922 and claims to have over 14,000 pieces of relics, but it’s not well kept.
- Taoshan Hunting the hunting at Taoshan (Peach Mountains) is China’s first hunting ground opened to foreign tourists. Located at the western foot of the lesser Xing’an Mountains, it covers ~ 50,000 acres of vast virgin forest. Game includes bears, red deer, wild boar, lynx, otters, weasels, snow rabbits and squirrels. The hunting grounds are about 4-hour train ride north of Harbin.
Imported Russian goods of all types and qualities are available around town. Look out for vodka, Russian dolls, and chocolate. Beyond this, the shopping is much like any other city in China.
Guogeli Dajie (果戈里大街). Harbin’s second biggest shopping district after Zhongyang Dajie (bigger in size). The area around here is dotted with Russian buildings and HUGE shopping complexes. At night there are numerous night markets, a small scale Russian church where people dance, and a small and lively “bar lake.”
The Hongbo Shichang, at the intersection of Dong Dazhi Jie and Hongjun Jie, is an enormous underground shopping centers — if they don’t have it, you don’t need it.
Harbin Sex Store/Museum on Guogeli Dajie sells all sorts of sex materials and toys. Kind of unexpected.
Chinese BBQ or shaokao and Hot Pot is also popular in Harbin.
One thing you will notice is that Dongbei people love to eat, and its not just for the food, but more importantly for the social gathering of getting all their friends together at one table and drinking/eating the night away. Thus this city is dominated by restaurants with large tables that seat groups of people.
In Harbin, liveliness (renao) attracts customers and much as the food; some restaurants are so loud you may need earplugs!
English is spoken less commonly in Harbin than in China’s other cities.
In winter, streets can get slippery and it’s not uncommon to see parts of sidewalks covered in ice. So never hurry when you walk, and be very careful when using outdoors steps, such as on footbridges and when getting on and off buses.
Avoid fish caught in the Songhua River as it was contaminated by benzyne in November 2005.
Avoid going into massage or KTV alone, as you may end up being forced to pay for a bill you didn’t order. If you choose to go, be mindful of what you are getting into. People not interested in a “massage” with happy ending should NOT massage or KTV in Harbin.
You can get disposable personal heating pads in some stores. Try to get some of these if you are going to spend more than a few hours outside. Most patches will last between 4 and 6 hours. Wear them under the clothes.
Many Taxi drivers are reckless—running red lights, driving into oncoming traffic, etc. Most taxi drivers do not speak any English or read Pinyin, so unless you speak fluent Mandarin Chinese showing them the Chinese characters for your destination is often the only option that will work.
Do not be surprised if the taxi stops to pick up other passengers during rush hour, and if you are picked up by a taxi with passengers, even if the meter reads RMB 15 when you get in, the taxi driver will still expect you to pay the full amount on the meter when you depart the taxi.
Avoid the Fake Black taxis as these are not really taxi’s, but rather are rented cars. They are distinguished by a generic roof sign “泰克斯” (Tàikè sī = Taxi) and non-working telephone numbers on the doors of the ‘taxi’.
Harbin Taiping International Airport (哈尔滨太平国际机场) is located 37 km from the city centre near the town of Taiping. The airport is small, and old. A taxi to downtown costs ~ RMB 100-130. Always negotiate this price in advance.