Harbin     哈尔滨

Harbin is brash, harsh, rough and unruly. It is a frontier city. The people here seem tougher than elsewhere in China. Harbin’s status as an outpost and its inhospitable climate have conspired to make it a coarse city. But one that is fascinating and addictive. Harbin is unique within China.

In winter, grey, polluted skies loom over the grey, imposing concrete buildings of the sprawling city. But in the middle of it all is an oasis: a beautiful, charming region of cobblestone streets lined with grand and colorful early 20th Century Russian architecture. While the Russian community in Harbin has largely vanished, the city retains its Russian character in more ways than simply its architecture and its excellent Russian restaurants. Harbin has a very similar feel to Moscow, both in its hardness and in its bleak beauty.

Harbin is most famous for its Ice Sculpture Festival which is held every year from mid-January. But there is far more to the city than this. The Siberian Tiger Park is a big drawcard while the Germ Warfare Base, where the Japanese carried out gruesome experiments on prisoners of war, is a sobering place. Meanwhile, the cobblestone Zhongyang Dajie has an atmosphere unlike any other pedestrian mall in China – completely relaxed and festive. In summer Harbin takes on a completely different feel with beer tents lining the river and locals making the most of the good weather. The transformation is remarkable.

Harbin might not be overloaded with attractions but it does offer a lot as a city. Braving the preposterously low temperatures is an experience in itself and Harbin gives a taste of Russia for those who can’t make it there. The nightlife is surprisingly active and a somewhat wild, while the taxi drivers are China’s most reckless and will happily drive into oncoming traffic. But these are merely examples of a greater atmosphere: the rough and dirty atmosphere of a frontier city.

Who should travel to Harbin?

Most tourists travel to Harbin for the Ice Sculpture Festival. At that time of year, visiting the city would be well worthwhile for any tourists who don’t mind the cold and have a spare few days in their itinerary. But Harbin shouldn’t be forgotten at other times of the year. The city has enough character to justify a visit with or without the festival.

How long is needed to see Harbin?

If you just want to see the ice sculptures and maybe Siberian Tiger Park then two days is enough. If you want to see all the major attractions in the sightseeing section of this guide and have time to wander the city a little, then you need three full days. And, really, if you’re going to make the effort to head up to China’s northern reaches then you might as well take the time to see it properly.