Harbin – a Place of Snow & Trains

Harbin is the capital City of China’s Heilongjiang Province, in the North East of this vast country.

In China it is a medium size city.

It has a population of about 6 million people.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s almost three times the size of a South African city like Johannesburg.

It is famous for its annual Snow & Ice Festival and its Russian Architecture.

The city has its origin in China rubbing shoulders with Russia in the 1890’s, as Russia was building their Trans-Siberian Rail-line.

In 1907 the city had almost 600 000 residents of whom nearly 65% were foreigners.

As we walk the city’s streets, we stumble upon an old (but still active) Turkish Mosque, a beautiful Jewish Hall with red tiles on her walls and a Jewish Hospital, built in the early 1900’s.

The center-piece of the city, St Sophia’s Cathedral.

Our Tribe had the opportunity to spend seven days here, during China’s Spring Festival.

This is a busy time in China, people traveling all over the place to get home & spend time with family, much like Christmas time in South Africa, or what I imagine Thanksgiving to be in America.

We booked our tickets early, boarded the train from Jiamusi to Harbin at about nine one evening and arrived in Harbin the the early hours of the next day.

In China trains serve in 3 classes: seats, hard-sleeper or soft-sleeper.  We took hard-sleeper tickets, which is pretty comfortable and very affordable, if you don’t mind a lack of privacy for a few hours.

The trains are clean and run perfectly on time.

Arriving in a foreign city, where you can communicate with people is one thing, arriving in a city where you cannot speak the language or read any of it, is quite another.

We showed a taxi driver our hotel’s address and, at his grace for lack of linguistic ability and because of eagerness to get our Tribe to our hotel, paid the exorbitant fee he charged for the short drive.

In Harbin, as in most Chinese Cities, Taxis are numerous and Taxi Drivers are a special kind of people, optimizing their profits whenever they see a foreigner, who they know cannot possibly be too picky.

Our Hotel is comfortable.

On the 26th floor of a large new building in the heart of the city.

We’re surrounded by International Brands trying hard to catch the hearts of the Chinese Market.

St Sophia’s Cathedral is a 5 minute walk away, Zoalin Park, where a large display of Snow & Ice Sculptures awiat, is just down the street & Central Street, a beautifully preserved shopping street with cobbled road and old Russian Buildings, is just around the corner.

It is Spring in Harbin, but it is still cold and snowy.  Temperatures hovering around -16ºC.

For which we are grateful, since we are excited to see the massive two and three storey Snow and Ice Sculptures, which would’ve melted, had it been any warmer.

Quickly we familiarize ourselves with the public transport system of the city, which includes busses and subway trains, hoping to save ourselves from the entrepreneurial spirit of the taxi drivers.

We take the bus to the Golden Dragon Tower, Asia’s highest steel structure (higher than Paris’ Eifel Tower).  We walk the glass floor, see the 3D museum, view the city from up high.

The views are amazing.  The experience, something we never dreamed we would enjoy.

The feelings of vertigo cancelled by the exquisiteness of experiencing something together – something not described in Western Travel brochures or written about in travel magazines.

From the Tower we walk the precinct. We visit the most amazing City Library.  It is open 24 hours of every day.  It has elevators, bookshops, a food-court and is a hive of activity.

Then we discover an old Russian Palace with regal decoration and massive fish-tanks.  As we walk this monarchical remembrance we can hear old kings making plans and deals, as they build the world’s longest railway line across country borders.

The bus ride costs 1¥.

Public transport is cheap in China and with the help of Google-maps we know which bus to take and where to catch it.  Just make sure you get a good VPN, before you come to China, as Google is blocked and without a VPN you won’t be able to access any of the information.

Beate has an iPhone.  The maps on it isn’t blocked by the great firewall, but it lacks the public transport information offered by Google Maps.  Maybe iPhone users don’t ride the bus or subway?

We lunch at a little noodle shop, rest for a while in our comfortable rooms and reconvene in the late afternoon, hungry to experience as much of this city, as we can, in the seven days we have.

With the sun setting we walk around the corner to Central Street.

There are amazing sculptures everywhere.

Beate, our fellow-traveler who has lived in Germany, The Netherlands,  the UK and United States, comments that the street makes her feel as if she is walking in an old European City, hidden away from time.

The old fashioned Russian music playing in the background, adding to the atmosphere.

We take her word for it.

It is definitely not the China most people imagine.

The feel of the city, its atmosphere is tantelizing.

The mixture of culture and memory energizing.

We look for a hidden away local restaurant to have dinner.  We are hungry, after a day’s experiences.

We find the perfect spot, which we revisit a few times during our stay in Harbin.

It is unpretentious.   The food is amazing.  The proprietors friendly.  It is everything we hope, as we walk new roads.

I take a quick respite from our stay in Harbin to fetch our son from Beijing.  He’d been visiting family back home, enjoying Africa’s Summer.  I take the fast-train from Harbin West Station to Beijing.  The train travels at 200 km/h, reducing the trip to 8 hours travel time.

The train station has the feel of an International Airport.  Large.  Clean.  Well organized, with lots of international brands offered in all the different shops.

Late that evening we fly back from Beijing to Harbin.  A two and a half hour flight.

If you decide to travel to Harbin, you’ll probably fly into Beijing.  Taking a flight is easy.  Domestic Departures are close to International Arrivals and the Airport offers a free shuttle to the apropriate terminal.

If you want to take the fast train, that is easy enough too, and it costs about a third of what a plane ticket would put you back, with the bonus of seeing something of the Chinese Countryside along the way.  To catch the train, you need to get to Beijing Station.  You could take a shuttle for about 200¥, or you could take the subway, which is very easy to navigate and will cost only 28¥, including the first leg of your trip on the special Airport Express.

In Harbin you should set at least an afternoon aside to spend at St Sophia’s Cathedral.

The Cathedral survived the cultural revolution and is now a museum with loads of pictures depicting this city’s rich history.

We are fascinated.

Not only by the pictures, but also by how much of this old Orthodox Cathedral remains and how the Chinese government embraces every inch of the country’s history, giving honor to the people who built the city with effort and innovation.

In 1900 Harbin was a modern city with electric streetcars, electricity and the amenities you would find in London and New York.

The Cathedral always at the heart of activity.

Sun Island is where the major action is, if you want to see the magnificent snow & ice sculptures.

You can take a bus there.  Or a taxi.  Or you could take a cable-car from Swan Castle, across the river to the Island.

That’s what we do.

For Maddi it is her first time in a cable car.

The rest of the Tribe had been to Table Mountain, for all of us it is our first cable-car ride in China.

We share a car with a family from Shanghai.

People from all over China come to Harbin to enjoy the experience it has to offer.

Once on Sun Island, it is difficult to eecide where to start exploring.

The Island isn’t just host to the Snow & Ice Festival.

We start our day at the Russian Village, recreated from original Timber Buildings which used to be in the city.

It is a bit like a museum-village, with Russians in most structures.  One a bakery, the other a home, another a bar or a doctor’s office, a school house and in every building old furniture from the period.

Then there is Polarland.

An amazing Aquarium with fantastical shows of Sea Lion & Beluga Whales.

We see Polar Bears, Penguin, Otters, beautifully created and maintained polar fish displays.

We spend an entire afternoon watching shows and fish and whales, feeding animals and experiencing something stunning.

I love the Beluga Whale show with two Beluga Whales and divers.

It is different from the stuff you see at other aquariums.

Here spectators stand next to a massive wall of glass & the whales perform, alongside their trainers in diving gear, under water.

It leaves you breathless.

Maddi loved the Sea Lion Show.

All shows are bilingual.

Russian and Chinese.

The crowds are massive.

The experience well worth the cost of the tickets, which includes everything, except refreshments.

In Zoalin Park we had our first taste of Ice Sculptures.

Everything from cars to surfers and mermaids.

On Sun Island the scale is massive.

Most sculptures being two or three storeys high.

You should do Zoalin Park one evening, but if you didn’t see the Snow & Ice Sculptures on Sun Island, you did not see what this festival is about.

Seven days is a good time to spend in Harbin.

You need time to walk the streets.

At least, that’s how we enjoy a city.

All over the place there are amazing monuments and statues.

Exquisite, tree-lined  pedestrian streets.

Restaurants with tasty food.

We ride the city’s new and modern subway.

Not just to get around, but also as we make our way back to the train station, on our last day, as we head back to Jiamusi.

For a city with 6 million people, we are surprised to find it uncongested, spacious and clean.

Running on time, costing only 2¥.

We tried to visit Harbin’s Amusement Park, but that will have to be a Summer trip.

In the North of China, it seems, Amusement Parks close down for the winter.

It’ll be worth coming back, even if only to ride the Big Wheel Carousel,  which is bigger than London Eye.

And to get some more ground coffee, butter and cheese, which is readily available here, but not so easily obtainable in Jiamusi.

Maybe you’ll never make it to this part of the world?

For us it was good to see and taste a world which flourished with international cooperation,  while our own world was at war with Britain,  struggling to hang on to something which, perhaps, should never have been, or at least should not have been the place of death and injustice it became as it was fed by colonial hunger.

I imagine the Russians had a similar colonial incentive, building their railway?

How different, however, it came to be, as people greeted each other & worked together, to create something.

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