Any discussion of Harbin must be prefaced by the fact that I’ve had a bit of an obsession with seeing this city for myself for quite some time. I’ve even looked at jobs in the area, to which any questions on the job board have been met with responses from ex-pats like, “Why the hell do you want to move to that industrial iceblock?” It still holds some interest for me, but the mystique has definitely lessened. Even Anthony Bourdain admitted that the No Reservations filmed in Harbin was largely staged because nothing they tried to do worked. I can relate.
Harbin is described as a cold city with a warm heart. But given that we were traveling back south from a place where it was getting cold and snowy even in October, and people had REALLY warm hearts, we were a little heart leery. My kind of gut assessment of the city is that it’s low on foreigners (a positive in my travel book) and high on shopping, smoggy, congested, and for some reason, really, really hard to find food. It appears to be everywhere, but we couldn’t figure out how to order it, or what it was. There was a lot of resorting to dumplings.
The central square houses the St. Sophia Church, now a lovely architectural museum definitely worth checking out. Built over time during the 20s and 30s by Russians living in the area. Harbin’s claim to fame is the Russian influence in the architecture and a bit in the food.
We spent a lot of time walking. And that clearly wasn’t going to work. Harbin is a huge city. A city proper population of 3million, but with 10million frequently quoted for the larger city area. We walked and walked and walked looking mostly for food. When that failed, we started riding buses. When they didn’t go where we thought, we just stayed on the bus until it got back to where we started from. If you have time to kill, it’s actually a pretty great strategy. We got to see huge chunks of the city, and realized it doesn’t have a lot to offer in diversity. It’s a concrete jungle of the largest magnitude. Huge run down looking apartment buildings, each with a little balcony and a air unit, for as far as the eye can see. I was very curious to see the inside of one of these buildings, there are many things in China where the outside doesn’t at all match the inside.
We rode the 14 bus, the wrong way the first time, to a gorgeous temple.
More architecture from around the city:
We also took a long bus journey to the very, very south of the city to find the Germ and Warfare Museum. I can attest that the directions in Lonely Planet are both accurate, and fairly easy to follow. Even if we did spent the entire journey convinced we were going to end up in an industrial zone at the end of the earth. Again it gave some great views of the city, and proved the point that there probably isn’t any area worth living in outside of the central downtown.
The Germ and Warfare Museum was a little hard to stomach, but definitely worth seeing. It documents a time in photos, artifacts, and film of a time when Japan occupied the area and kidnapped thousands of Chinese citizens to perform experiments on. Most notably, dissecting them alive, or giving intentional frostbite, and then manipulating those body parts to see what happens. Apparently, it was also a time when Japan was developing biological weapons, and they would drop shells carrying contagious diseases on groups of people (protected by riot gear to ensure that they weren’t injured by shrapnel, but did indeed contract and die of the intended disease.)
I’m really glad I got to see Harbin, but I’m not sure I’ll jump at that teaching contract anytime soon. I’d be really curious to see it in winter, when temperatures are close to lethal, but the river can be walked across, and the ice festival is happening.
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