The Ultimate Travel Guide: Harbin
The chronicles of my 2-days in Harbin
Nicknamed the “Ice City”, the capital of the Northern-most province of Heilongjiang is the central-hub of the North-East of China. Nestled in the region formally known as Manchuria, the city has been the result of deep influence from the surrounding cultures which have seeped in for centuries, both welcome and unwelcome alike. Evidence of which can be seen from the noticeably Russian architecture and the darker remnants of former Japanese conquerors in the war museums.
Harbin is rare in how it comes into life when the season seemingly turns for the worse and sub-zero temperatures dominate the region for months on end. The people of Harbin have become the dictionary definition of “when life gives you lemons…”, taking advantage of the situation as best they can. A city which on more on one occasion can brag of the title “the world’s largest..”. Not only the home of the largest amount of a nationally protected animal, but also the site for one the biggest festival of its kind in the world.
Harbin is the capital of the Northern-most province of Heilongjiang which shares a border with Russia and North Korea. Historically a great deal of influence has seeped into the North-East from these surrounding nations. The city itself is the central hub of the entire province and a major link to Beijing and the rest of China.
The city itself is split by the Songhua River which runs through it. Attractions are found on either side of the river as well as Sun island positioned right in the middle of it. The majority of action and infrastructure is found South-East of the river.
Jile temple was built in 1923 and is the biggest temple in the province and the surrounding region. This in part makes it a place of real significance, being the heart of Buddhism in the North-East. Noted as an important cultural heritage site, its known as one of the most important temples in all of China.
The temple is what you’d expect of the provinces biggest Buddhist complex, equipped and designed in accordance to traditional Chinese Buddhist style. A generous selection of beautifully colorful designed gates and an incredible number of halls found within. The front gates themselves were designed to resemble the Chinese character “山” representing “mountain”.
A vast courtyard including a varied collection of immaculately designed halls, pagodas and towers, each with respective figures within. Each hall is put in order of priority, including the Heavenly King Hall, the Hall of Mahavira, the Hall of Three Saints, Scriptures-storing Tower and Chanting Hall.
However the best view is found further within the courtyard of the temple. Here stands a number of halls along with high-stacked pagodas surrounding the area. The largest one being seven-stories, measuring almost 100ft with Buddhist figures adorning each panel. Undoubtedly the most striking image found here is the enormous golden Buddha stood over-watching the courtyard.
The temple holds a regular organised celebration on the 8th, 18th and 28th of April, where the temple itself and the surrounding area had various activities and attractions.
One of the few attractions that could be seen directly from the subway (Line 1) to Harbin Engineering University Station. Alternatively you could take one of the several buses that pass through the same station (number 3, 6, 14, 33, 37, 53, 55, 66, 74, 92, 104 and 105).
Tickets prices are set at 10 RMB and opening hours are between 8/8:30 am until 4/4:30 pm (shorter time for winter).
Siberian Tiger Park
The 350-acre park is the home to the nationally protected and endangered Siberian Tiger. The world’s biggest feline once dominate a range that extended across the entirety of Asia. Nowadays their range has been reduced considerably to harshest conditions of Siberia and Northern China. As a result the Siberian tiger has come dangerously near extinction.
However, since the 1980s the Siberian tiger has been a nationally protected animal. Unsurprising considering the Chinese consider tigers as of the 5 divine animals. The park was built in 1996 specifically for the preservation of this species and to increase their numbers. The breeding programs were clearly very successful. Beginning with about 12 tiger, the park is now home to over 1,300 Siberian tigers; more than double the number of those left in the wild. This makes the Siberian Tiger Park the largest of its kind worldwide.
China does have quite a notorious reputation for not being at the forefront of animal rights. As a general rule I try my best to avoid attending zoo’s whenever possible. I find myself in agreement with the alternative opinion that a creature of that magnitude shouldn’t be caged up. Chinese zoos are another level of cruelty all in themselves.
However, if the noble attempt of saving a species isn’t enough of a reason for you, perhaps knowing that this place is essentially a safari park will. The tigers (for the most part) aren’t caged in solitary, they roam free within the 250 acre grounds of the park. The typical zoo roles are also reversed. You’re made to sit in heavily protected buses as they drive through the tigers roaming free in the fields, where they’re free to come investigate you.
There will also be an advantage to China’s lack of health-and-safety, where you’ll get the opportunity to feed the tigers. Not simply throwing a piece of meat into their paddock, but rather feeding them by hand (or more specifically with a much needed pair of tongs). You have the unique opportunity to hand pieces of meat to the eager tigers as they leap up to feed. This opportunity is available both on the tiger bus and the viewing paddock at the end of the bus tour which walks above the tigers pens.
However, it wouldn’t be China if there wasn’t a hint of cruelty in the mix, however this is up for debate. Not only do tourists have the incredibly unique opportunity to feed the apex predators with enormous steak-sized pieces of meat, but you’re also able to feed them LIVE animals. They even provide a price-list of the different sacrifices on offer.
Footage of this place has shown live cows being dumped out of trucks for the eagerly awaiting tigers to savage. Along the viewing paddocks you’ll even find a woman with a cage full of apprehensive looking chickens and a near-by chicken-shoot. So is this cruel? Animal rights activists would argue that the tigers should live a life as natural as possible to a life in the wild… so wouldn’t that include hunting live animals? I’m not here to take either side, personally I passed.
The site also includes a museum, breeding areas, a baby tiger display (though seemingly cruel) and other big cats for display, such as lions, pumas and even a liger!
Due to its position on the North-West of the Songhua River, the only available transport will be buses. Either taking the public bus (numbers 35, 122, 123 or 145) to Hulinyuan Station or the Sightseeing Bus (Line 2 to Dongbei Huyuan, Line 4 to Dongbei Hulinyuan).
The price of entrance includes the tiger bus at 130 RMB, 85 RMB for children between 1.2 – 1.4m. Children under 1.2m enter for free. The park is open from 8am to 11pm, the daytime without doubt being your best option.
Ice and Snow Festival
This particular attraction would have to be considered unmissable, one of the must-see festivals not only in the North-East of China, but the entire world. An annual festival being held during the winter months (Dec-Mar), in-line with Spring Festival. The Ice and Snow World, established in 1999 is yet another attraction which is the biggest of its kind throughout the world, attracting over 18 million visitors. Not only the biggest, but also regarded as the best collection of ice and snow art worldwide.
The festival holds extraordinary detailed examples of ice sculptures crafted for competition from nations all across the globe. However, these appear obscure and insignificant compared to the other examples of art the festival is most famous for.
Forget your typical swan on buffet tables, these are entire buildings of epic proportions constructed entirely from ice. Famous landmarks, castles, churches, palaces and even a post office. It’s truly mind-boggling how they were crafted. Each piece was crafted from ice collected from the Songhua river which runs through the city.
Without a doubt this attraction is best saved for when the sun goes down. This is when the LED lights crafted within the structures are illuminated, beaming the structures in fabulous neon colours that glisten through the crystal clear ice seeming like one big neon light.
The area is also littered with winter activities for all ages. Some of the structures the public are free to explore within, some of which crafted to include slides. This along with the numerous area’s for various types of ice-skating, sledging, mazes and various shows and attractions for the whole family.
Found on the island in the middle of the Songhua River, yet again the bus is the only option other than a taxi. Take the public bus number 29, 47, 80, 119, 125, 126 or 127 which passes through the island to Bingxue Dashijie (Ice and Snow World) or take the Sightseeing Bus Line 4 to the same stop.
The price of entry is set at 330 RMB and 200 RMB for children between 1.2 and 1.4m. Yet again shorter children get in free. Tickets can be bought on-line, but for those wishing to buy a ticket at the gate, search for the unassuming booth below.
The event will only be held from late December to early March, opening from 11am to 9:30pm.
An island much famed in China after a hit 80s song which brought it into the public’s attention. This is an entire island almost 10,000 acres large in the centre of the Songhua river featured with a mix of cultural attractions as well as natural landscapes. Although having more than 20 scenic spots across the island, the enormous park can be divided into 3 main sections. The northern end is dedicated to wildlife such as red-crowned cranes, deer and squirrels that roam the area. The centre is where the lakes and surrounding flowers are found, as well as various snow art (time dependent). The southern end of the island is dedicated to galleries and museums, as well as the old Russian quarter.
Depending on the time of year will depend on what you’ll see. During the winter months the island takes part in the Ice and Snow festival, back to where it all started. An entire section of the park is dedicated to the display of magnificent ice and snow sculptures along with more hands-on activities such as ice-skating and snow slides. However, during these months’ nature takes a break, where not many animals can be seen and certain areas of the park are closed off.
During the warmer months, the park will burst into life, becoming a natural river beach and popular destination to soak up the sun (like the name suggests). Swimming, paddle boats and even a small amusement park are all part of the entertainment. There are also a number of museums which can be found within the park, including the Sun Island Museum of Art, North China Fine Arts Museum, Yu Zhixue Museum of Art and Russia art galleries.
Yet again the bus is a reliable option. Take bus number 29, 47, 80, 119, 125, 126, 127, 211, 212, 213 or 215 to Taiyangdao Daokou Station.
However there are more unique options available during the summer. There’s a cable car over the Songhua river from Tongjiang Square that takes you to the islands scenic area (80 RMB round trip, 50 RMB single trip). The second is a boat that leaves from three different locations; the Flood Control Monument Square, Jiuzhan Square or Daowai Qidao Dock, costing 10 RMB for a round trip.
For most of the year, the price is set at 30 RMB. However, during the winter months when the Snow Sculpture Exposition is held, the price is set at 330 RMB, 165 RMB for kids between 1.2 – 1.4m and free for any shorter.
If there ever was a man that deserved a square (and street) in his honour, surly it would be Stalin right? Well Harbin apparently has reason to believe so as it still remains very much his. Although the name, the park was built to represent the friendship between Russia and China during a devestating flood in 1957. Atop the Roman cylinder is a monument to the heroes of that time.
To be quite honest, the “square” itself is nothing too spectacular, other than the fact its dedicated to a mass-murdering dictator. The square and adjoining street is however placed along the Songhua river-bank, providing the best opportunity to see it and Sun Island in all its glory. Its also located next to the Flood Control Memorial, another of Harbin’s attractions.
If you happen to visit during the winter months, the morbidness is taken out of the name of the street with an endless line of public built snowmen. You’ll also have the best opportunity to set foot on the frozen river itself.
Placed on the southern bank of the Songhua River it would be quite easy to find. However bus numbers 2, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 23, 64, 79, 83, 85, 101, 102, 103, 113 or 114 to Riverside Station.
Found on the bank of the Songhua River, the very first park built in Harbin was dedicated to General Li Zhaolin. Its also another main-stay of the Ice and Snow Festival, being the home of the annual Lantern Garden Party.
The park includes the likes of Meigui Mountain (Rose Mountain) in the East and Huaguo Mountain (Flower and Fruit mountain). At the centre of the park you’ll also find the specially built lake. It has everything from an open-aired theatre to a skate park and fish exhibitions.
In the warmer months the park is in full bloom with the park lighting up in colours. In the winter it becomes another sight for the Ice and Snow festival. This is the home of the Lantern festival. The festival will be held from early January all the way until the end of February. Due to the size of the park the event is smaller and not quite as spectacular as that found on Sun Island.
To get directly here your only real option is the bus. Get your barings and take one of the following buses: 8, 23, 29, 52, 53, 83, 114, 132, 136, 201 or 206 to Zhaolin Gongyuan Station.
When the Ice Lantern Garden Party is at the park, the price of entry is 150 RMB per adult and children under 1.2m (3.9 feet) gets in free. At any other time of year, the price is set at 0.
Saint Sophia Cathedral
An image synonymous with both Harbin and the strong Russian influence the area holds. Originally built in 1907, its the largest Orthodox Church found in the far East. Listed as a significant cultural relic, it was originally completely constructed of timber, later reconstructed to the image we seen today and hailed as a work of art.
These days the cathedral is found wedged between the ever developing landscape of department stores and high-rise buildings.
Other things to preoccupy you in your time in Harbin include the likes of the old-fashioned cobbled streets of Zhongyang Street which to this day refuses the passing of any vehicle (a rare find in China). Another would be a museum dedicated to atrocities carried out by the Japanese during their invasion of the region during the Second World War. Its known by many names coming from varying translation, sometimes simply known as Unit 731 or the Anti-Japanese coalition museum. However the self-explanatory label Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base is the best known representation.
Getting To Harbin:
Harbin is a modern up-and-coming city which acts as the hub for the entire North-East region of China, and a common crossing point for any transport through the region. The airport has reached international status with regular arrivals from both domestic destinations as well as overseas.
The city is also a major destination when it comes to train travel in the country. Harbin is the terminal stop for both the high-speed train from Beijing and Dalian, as well as daily trains that leave for major cities across China such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Xi’an.
There are also long-distance buses which come into Harbin, of which there are three cities; Shenyang, Changchun and Vladivostok Russia.
The city even has its own subway system, despite it being pretty small, only consisting of two active lines (Line 1 and 3). Essentially only Line 1 is of any use to the traveller which runs between the East and South Railway Station located South of the river. This means most attractions are still a considerable distance away from any subway stop.
The ever expanding Chinese however do anticipate a further 9 lines in the future, but they’ve not arrived yet.
As we’ve discussed, for most attractions the bus is the best public transport available, with over 100 routes across the city which begin from about 5am to 9:30pm. Payment can be made in two ways; either by a transport card (which can also be used on the subway) or paying directly between 1-3 RMB
There are also tourist buses which run between 7am-7pm daily which drops off and picks up at some major attractions. One bus runs between the Flood Control Monument and goes to Sun Island. The other passes several attractions downtown, such as the Flood Control Monument, St. Sofia Orthodox Church and the Railway Station.
Taxi’s / Didi
Like any other city in the world it’s more than easy to flag down a cab almost anywhere. That is if you want to take the challenge of haggling and the serious language barrier. However, if ran on the meter its relatively inexpensive, starting at 8RMB for the first 2 miles and an extra charge for every mile after that (1.9 RMB in the day, 2.5 RMB at night).
If you have the advantage of using wechat (China’s facebook/Instagram/messenger service) then you’ll also have the ability to call didi’s (Chinese uber) from anywhere in the city.
This is only an option available in summer. There are 6 lines in total, 4 of which sail exclusively to Sun Island, which can be taken from Jiu Zhan, Tongjiang Jie, the Flood Control Monument and Dao Wai Qi Dao Jie between 8am and 5pm. In recent years there’s also been an addition of a night cruise which operates between 5pm to 9pm.
Unfortunately travel wise there is a considerably low number of hostels in the city with only a handful available. Although low in numbers they are high mostly high in quality, low on price and aimed towards the clear and obvious foreigner. All the hostels will be found on the South bank of the river, closer to the transport and stations.
Options for hotels are much more numerous in the city and spread over a much wider area. Fortunately for this part of the world getting a hotel room is not that much of a stretch. There are plenty of options for rooms which hit close to the hostel-price mark.
For both times I stayed in Harbin I chose the Hash International Hostel. It’s a very well equipped hostel even with its own bar and restaurant service. More importantly its incredibly good value for money and very easy access, being right next to a subway stop and a short trip away from your chosen train station
Each region in China has a unique flavour and cuisine, and Harbin is no different. Due to the geography of Harbin and its province of Heilongjiang, which shares a border with 3 neighbouring countries (Russia, Korea and Mongolia), the culture of the region has been developed from the intertwining of these different nations, which goes for the cuisine.
The regions theme centres around the difficulty to grow things during the hash winter months. Some categories include food that is fumigated, stewed, pickled or highly salted. There will also be the addition of easily grown vegetables such as cucumbers, cabbage and potato. Two of the regions main dishes include Shaokao (Chinese BBQ) or Hot Pot.
Click HERE to read about my time in Harbin