They told me that I should come back to Harbin in the winter when it’s 40 degrees below zero. I’m not so sure about that, this city was good enough for me in warm summer sun.
Harbin is perhaps the only place in the world beyond 40 degrees latitude that people say you should visit in the winter. “Harbin is wonderful in the winter,” I was told repeatedly, as though it were a mantra the people here repeat to themselves over and over again to get them through the cold season. I almost felt as if I was missing out on something by visiting when the sun was shining bright overhead, when it was t-shirt weather night, and day and everybody was in the streets drinking beer, strolling, playing games, enjoying the good weather. Regardless of this, many seemed to have little else to tell me than, “You should really come back in January.”
In January, Harbin is frigid. We’re talking about a 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero kind of frigid. Perhaps not even a warm summer is enough to thaw out the cerebral permafrost here, as the people who live in this place call it the Ice City as a point of pride — as though it is an attraction akin to their suspension bridge, flood control monument, and new workers’ gymnasium. Though I cannot fathom how any human being — the hairless ape whose ancient ancestors first sprouted into being on the scorching savannas of Africa — could prefer, let alone recommend, a place when it is freezing cold than when it is warm, breezy, and sun-shiny. Then again, I’d never been in Harbin in the winter.
At 45 and a half degrees north latitude, Harbin is farther north than Vladivostok and is only a couple of ticks of latitude shy of Ulaanbaatar. Harbiners may as well make something of all the ice that naturally congeals over everything here, so rather than cowering inside well heated hovels, hibernating through the winter months, they go outside and have a festival — an ice festival, of course. They build and admire ice sculptures, ice castles, and, yes, even ice bars that are complete with ice block seating and iced over walls.
They got the idea for these ice sculptures from the Russians, who founded the city in at the end of the 19th century, but then added a very Chinese twist to it: strings of colorful lights built into the ice blocks, giving the sculptures a proper dose of indigenous tackiness.
The people of Harbin clearly don’t flee the ice and cold here, they celebrate it — some even go swimming in the Songhua river at the height of the winter freeze — and the result is enough to entice people from all over the world to go into this ice box of a city when it’s at its coldest by choice. In some twist of logic and a waning of our basic creature instincts, Harbin is a beacon for tourists in the winter.
But I was in Harbin in the summer, and I can’t say that I regret it. As I walked down the bank of the Songhua river wearing a t-shirt and shorts I watched families having picnics, kids rollerblading, old folks strolling, couples embracing, and I have to say that I’m glad I didn’t take the bait and head up there a few months earlier. Perhaps I’m overly pragmatic, but nobody could convince me that Harbin wasn’t best had in the summer: I’d give up a festival of ice and cold for the festive feel of a city where everybody seems to be outside loving the warm weather, hanging out with each other, recreating, hanging out by the river. There is just something approaching travel perfection about this place when the sun is glistening off the river and reflecting off of the ornate façades of the old European style buildings.
Harbin is covered with architectural styles which span various cultures and time periods. There are buildings with Baroque and Byzantine façades, Russian churches with big, bulbous steeples, synagogues, a mosque, French fashion outlets, Japanese buildings, as well as old and modern style Chinese constructions. These architectural styles alone tell the history of a city that has been part of Russia, Japan, and China over the 115 years of its history.
Harbin was originally conceived by a Polish engineer in 1898 under the auspices of Russia. This part of China was pretty much handed over to the northern giant as a concession so they could build a more direct rail route to Vladivostok. It was clear immediately that Europeans designed the old districts of this place: the roads seemed to wind themselves in nonsensical curves and knots, like someone took an otherwise good city grid and scrambled it — just like a real European city. Like so, Harbin has also been dubbed the Oriental Moscow or even the Oriental Paris.
What is interesting though is that many of Harbin’s architectural styles were handpicked from those of history, and were not necessarily the typical contemporary building fashions of the cultures that constructed them. Architectural copycatting has been an element of the Chinese cityscape long before Hallstatt was replicated, Manhattan knocked-off, and various Western style housing developments erected.
I stopped my walk for a moment and watched a family that was setting up for a picnic on a street that shot off from the river. They just claimed a sidewalk bench, set a folding table up in front of it, ignited a grill, broke out some food, and cracked open a half dozen or so bottles of beers. They toasted each other, they were smiling, they looked over at me and made a gesture for me to join them.
I had to chuckle, if I tried this in my home country I’d be ticketed for a virtually endless list of penal code infractions in the time it would take me to open my first beer. The Chinese are generally aware of what freedoms they lack, and they are rarely tongue tied when it comes to telling you about them, but there are freedoms here that they seem to take for granted. I’m from a place where I can stand out in the street holding a sign that makes my political opinions known, but it’s also a place where I can’t sit on a city bench and have a picnic with my family. China is a country that hasn’t yet been lawed-to-death.
These impromptu picnics were rampant throughout Harbin. Sometimes they consisted of extended families who set up tables and chairs and grills on the sidewalk, sometimes they were just a handful of dudes sitting together on a blanket on a street corner getting drunk, eating tidbits, and playing cards. Harbin is a city that is in the streets, but I’m sure the fact that I was there during the Duanwu Jie national holiday assisted my impression of Harbin being an overtly festive place in the summertime.
Videos from Harbin
This is Harbin’s Center Street during the Duanwu Jie festival.
Harbin is known for it’s dumplings, and I found out why in the above video.
A walk through old Harbin.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
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