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The Ultimate Travel Guide: Harbin

Nicknamed the “Ice City”, the capital of the Northernmost 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 noticeable 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 than 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.

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A Brief History of Harbin

Harbin is a vibrant city located in northeastern China, known for its rich history, distinctive culture, and fascinating blend of Chinese and Russian influences.

The area where Harbin now stands has been inhabited for thousands of years. However, the city’s history began to take shape in the late 19th century when the Qing Dynasty government established a military outpost called “Harbin Wei” in 1898. This outpost was intended to protect the region from potential Russian encroachment.

Harbin’s transformation into a major city started in the early 20th century when the Chinese Eastern Railway, a Russian-controlled railway company, selected it as a key hub in their network. The railway brought a large influx of Russian engineers, merchants, and settlers to Harbin, shaping the city’s architectural and cultural landscape. Russian influences can still be seen today in the city’s architecture, Orthodox churches, and the prominent Russian Street.

With the arrival of Russian immigrants, Harbin became a vibrant cultural melting pot, attracting people from various ethnic backgrounds. Chinese, Russians, Jews, Koreans, and other groups coexisted and contributed to the city’s unique multicultural atmosphere. This diverse mix of cultures fostered the development of theatres, operas, and other artistic forms, making Harbin a cultural centre in the region.

Wartime in Harbin

In 1932, during the period of Japanese expansionism, Harbin fell under Japanese occupation as part of the puppet state of Manchukuo. The Japanese made significant investments in infrastructure, industrial development, and urban planning, further shaping the city’s modernization.

After World War II, Harbin came back under Chinese control. The city experienced rapid growth and development, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, when it became an important industrial centre. Harbin’s industries include manufacturing, engineering, pharmaceuticals, and food processing.

Harbin Today

Ice and Snow Festival: In recent decades, Harbin has gained international recognition for its famous Ice and Snow Festival, which takes place during the winter months. The festival showcases impressive ice sculptures, ice lanterns, and various winter sports activities, attracting visitors from around the world.

Today, Harbin stands as a thriving metropolis, blending its historical heritage with modernity. Travellers can explore the city’s Russian architecture, visit museums that showcase its history and cultural diversity, enjoy local cuisine, and experience the unique winter wonderland during the Ice and Snow Festival.

The Geography of Harbin

Harbin is the capital of the Northernmost province of Heilongjiang which shares a border with Russia and North Korea. Historically a great deal of influence has seeped into the Northeast 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 is positioned right in the middle of it. The majority of action and infrastructure is found South-East of the river.

How To Get 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.

How To Get To Harbin By Flight

The airport has reached international status with regular arrivals from both domestic destinations as well as overseas.

How To Get To Harbin By Train

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.

For a detailed guide on trains in China, check out The Ultimate Guide To Chinese Trains.

The best way to book train tickets in China is through Trip.com. The English language web page makes the process very easy and even gives you the ability to pre-book tickets before they’re released.

Standard Trains To Harbin

DestinationDurationPrice (CNY)
Beijing11 hrs 30 minsHard seat: ¥152.50
Hard sleeper:
¥279.50
Soft sleeper
: ¥427.50
Tianjin15 hrs 39 minsHard seat: ¥ 152.50
Hard sleeper:
¥
279.50
Soft sleeper
: ¥
427.50
Xi’an32 hrs 30 minsHard seat: ¥273.50
Hard sleeper:
¥
496.50
Soft sleeper
: ¥
767.50
Shanghai24 hrs 12 minsHard seat: ¥273.50
Hard sleeper:
¥
496.50
Soft sleeper
: ¥
767.50
Wuhan23 hrs 19 minsHard seat: ¥268.50
Hard sleeper:
¥
487.50
Soft sleeper
: ¥
751.50
Chongqing 46 hrs 50 minsHard seat: ¥341
Hard sleeper:
¥
617
Soft sleeper
: ¥
952
Guide to one-way tickets to Harbin booked 6 weeks in advance

High-Speed Trains To Harbin

DestinationDurationPrice (CNY)
Beijing5 hrs 28 mins2nd Class: ¥539.50
1st Class:
¥861.50
Business class:
¥1,691.50
Tianjin6 hrs 46 mins2nd Class: ¥354
1st Class:
¥
565.50
Shanghai12 hrs 3 mins2nd Class: ¥997.50
1st Class:
¥
1,684.50
Business class:
¥
3,364.50
Wuhan12 hrs 35 mins2nd Class: ¥1,018.50
1st Class:
¥
1,639.50
Business class:
¥
3,189
Guide to one-way tickets to Harbin booked 6 weeks in advance

The extensive traveller’s guide to Chinese trains, from high-speed bullet trains to 24-hour endurances, here’s all you need to know!

Click here!

How To Get To Harbin By Buses

There are also long-distance buses which come into Harbin, of which there are three cities; Shenyang, Changchun and Vladivostok Russia.

DestinationDurationPrice (CNY)
Shenyang7 hrs 30 mins¥152
Beijing25 hrs 0 mins¥302
Tianjin14 hrs 0 mins¥260
Guide to one-way tickets to Harbin booked 6 weeks in advance

How To Get Around Harbin

Getting Around Harbin By Subway

The city even has its own subway system, despite it being pretty small, only consisting of two active lines (Lines 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.

Getting Around Harbin By Buses

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 5 am to 9:30 pm. 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 7 am-7 pm daily which drop off and pick 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.

Getting Around Harbin By Taxi / 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 it’s 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.

Getting Around Harbin By Ferry

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 8 am and 5 pm. In recent years there’s also been an addition of a night cruise which operates between 5 pm to 9 pm.

What There Is To See In Harbin

Jile Temple

The Buddha over-watching the courtyard

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, it’s known as one of the most important temples in all of China.

The temple is what you’d expect of the province’s biggest Buddhist complex, equipped and designed in accordance with the traditional Chinese Buddhist style. A generous selection of beautifully colourful designed gates and an incredible number of halls are 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, the 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 is seven stories, measuring almost 100ft with Buddhist figures adorning each panel. Undoubtedly the most striking image found here is the enormous golden Buddha standing over-watching the courtyard.

The temple holds a regularly organised celebration on the 8th, 18th and 28th of April, where the temple itself and the surrounding area had various activities and attractions.

Siberian Tiger Park

The majestic Siberian Tiger

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 the 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 tigers, 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 zoos 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 to 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 tiger’s pens.

Feeding time on the tiger bus

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 nearby chicken shoot. So is this cruel? Animal rights activists would argue that the tigers should live a life as naturally as possible to live 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!

Ice and Snow Festival

Entire palaces constructed of ice

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 is 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 are crafted to include slides. This along with the numerous areas for various types of ice-skating, sledging, mazes and various shows and attractions for the whole family.

Sun Island

Snow Palace behind the frozen lake

An island much famed in China after a hit 80s song which brought it to 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, when 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 a 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 Russian art galleries.

Stalin Square

Stalin Square

If there ever was a man that deserved a square (and street) in his honour, surely 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 devastating 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 it’s dedicated to a mass-murdering dictator. The square and adjoining street are however placed along the Songhua river bank, providing the best opportunity to see it and Sun Island in all its glory. It’s 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.

Zhaolin Park

Photo by Xiquinho Silva on Flickr

Found on the bank of the Songhua River, the very first park built in Harbin was dedicated to General Li Zhaolin. It’s 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.

Saint Sophia Cathedral

Saint Sophia’s Cathedral at night

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 see 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.

Honourable Mentions:

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. It’s known by many names coming from varying translations, 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.

Where To Stay In Harbin

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.

What To Eat In Harbin

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 region’s theme centres around the difficulty to grow things during the harsh 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 region’s main dishes include Shaokao (Chinese BBQ) or Hot Pot.

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