Romance and wackiness in Harbin

So the first post on sketch-of-shanghai is to be, in my typically irreverent fashion, not about Shanghai at all but a city in the north of China, Harbin.

Harbin is a city I had wanted to visit for awhile. I had heard about it’s Russian influenced architecture, which I had taken to mean Soviet-styled, but I was wrong — Harbin proper was founded and built by Russians in 1898 as a base for workers extending the Trans-Siberian railway across China (making Harbin a younger city than Melbourne, something that’s pretty astonishing for me). It was an entirely Russian city, just located in China. Over the coming years Harbin was naturally a good choice for Russian immigrants fleeing the Russian Revolution and communism, then Jews fleeing WWII. I was interested to see what lingers of this period of it’s history, in the architecture, food, culture and visual style of the city. I have also heard Harbin today is a city of character. I was not to be disappointed.

* * *

Upon arrival at Harbin Airport we are greeted with the smell of cigarette smoke and long corridors of imposing size and sparseness softened only by sheer curtains masking the enormous windows that stretch near floor to ceiling. The bus into town is quite a ride — our seats have clunky, yellowed buttons overhead for the fan and to call the hostess for refreshments (!) and the driver’s announcements, which he makes intermittently whilst speeding us at break-neck speed into the city, have a charming echo effect applied to them. Meanwhile I’m mesmerised by a rather eccentric looking Chinese man sitting in front of us who has an old briefcase and an amazing ‘fro. “He must have Jewish heritage, surely!” I exclaim to M whilst obsessively analysing every action he makes.

Over the next few days we visit Harbin’s sights and wander the streets, looking at what gives the city it’s character today and what heritage is evident from it’s past. The buildings seem to fall into three categories — immense, imposing grey structures; similarly immense and imposing structures whose owners have painted them in bright, garish colours or pastels in bold defiance of the former (presumably also to brighten the cold and harsh Harbin winter) and beautiful old ornate Russian buildings.

harbin buildings

Harbin buildings

Harbin buildings

Love love this sign.

St. Sophia Cathedral

The beautiful St. Sophia

Harbin buildings

Harbin buildings

Harbin buildings

Harbin buildings

Harbin buildings

Old buildings in the city centre

A Harbin boulevard

Harbin buildings

This colour palette just keeps reappearing – pale pink, straw yellow and green

Turkish mosque in Harbin

The Turkish mosque, sadly no longer in use

I am delighted by the ornate fences, street lamps, drain grates and metal detailing I see around the city. I agree with a comment read online ‘Somewhere underneath the surface in Harbin there is an artist trying to get out!’ I scour the streets, back alleys and courtyards looking for old Russian signs and/or typography but alas the city seems to have been cleaned right out of anything non-Chinese that isn’t of a permanent nature.

harbin style

Harbin relief

One real find is the somewhat awkwardly named cafe/restaurant ‘Russia Holiday Garden’ on Xi Shi Dao Jie, tucked in behind the main tourist street Zhong Yang Da Jie. It is filled with exquisitely carved wooden panelling, which I learn the owner, Misha, took three years to carve himself with a team of craftspeople from southern China. Misha is of Russian descent and wants to preserve the Russian influence in Harbin. He also writes stories of the Russian characters he remembers from his childhood, so that their stories never be forgotten. The food is tasty and the attention to detail impressive, particularly the importance given to their tea and coffee service. Misha’s wife Liou Ing, originally from Taiwan, explains when they first moved back to Harbin after time abroad, they couldn’t find a nice cafe to have a decent cup of coffee. What they have created is not only this, but something increasingly rare and precious: a place borne of true passion and dedication.

Russia Holiday Garden

The beautiful interior of Russia Holiday Garden

Coffee at the Russia Holiday Garden

Russia Holiday Garden

Misha and I

We try other Russian restaurants: most notably The Portman. The food is average but the bizarro factor of being served by gorgeous, svelte Asian women whilst Russian musicians take turns performing their solo acts on stage kind of makes up for it. We also discover that this is the land of dumplings – and much to my delight, not just one but several types of vegetarian dumplings are common! And boy are they delicious, so light and fresh! Possibly made even tastier by my new found discovery that I can actually speak enough Mandarin to order what I want – Harbiners speak Mandarin, in contrast to Shanghai where the local dialect is Shanghainese (although apparently a lot of people speak Mandarin too). After months of frustrating attempts to communicate, suddenly, in Harbin, I can make myself understood!

Harbin dumplings


Harbin restaurant

Restaurant decor

Harbin BBQ stalls

BBQ stalls

Harbin street BBQ

Impromptu BBQ

Although it’s technically low season in Harbin (in winter they host the hugely popular ice festival) there are many tourists and locals out enjoying the temporary food halls set up along the main street, barbecuing fresh seafood, meat and insects (yes…) to accompany the large Oktoberfest style jugs of Harbin beer. The locals seem to be a jovial bunch, welcoming us most places we go after getting over their initial suspicion. It’s common to see a bunch of locals sitting out barbecuing on the street, laughing and chatting away. As much as they like summer here they seem to be reluctant to totally forget winter, as Christmas decorations and ornaments are a common sight around the city (upon returning to Shanghai I was amused to notice what I presume to be our local Harbiner watering hole with Harbin beer signs and Christmas decorations adorning their windows).

Harbin curiosities

Well… why not?

He’s watering the garden.

Another stand out feature of Harbin in summer is Stalin Park, stretching alongside the river. The river was a place of great recreation in summer for Harbin’s locals and is still so today — quaint little wooden pavilions dotted along the promenade (in varying states of repair) offer everything from beer, nuts, popcorn and a delicious type of locally made ice cream to traditional Chinese fare. For an extra bizarre treat one can catch an elaborately decorated ferry over to Sun Island, where there are more old Russian holiday homes and buildings, the authenticity of all I’m not sure of. The prevailing vibe on the island is that of a kitsch theme park. Some buildings operate as restaurants, some as theatres, some as museums and galleries. At least one we visit in search of a bathroom was operating as a hospital, the facilities of which I was glad to limit at said bathroom use. Whilst there we came across employees from the nearby KFC also using the bathroom and a troupe of dancers in bright pink wigs changing into their outfits in the cigarette-butt laden hallway. Back out on the island Chinese families are picknicking, drinking and playing badminton in and around the buildings and sprawling bush. At this time of year the trees have dispensed a huge amount of white fluff into the air, which is impossible to escape and blankets the ground in a fine white haze that almost looks like snow.

Stalin Park Harbin

Coming back to our hotel we land the baddest taxi driver ever — she’s female, with a crew cut and an attitude to driving like Michael Schumacher meets Walter White, diving in between merging semi’s with great deftness and an air of wilful abandon. For the duration of the trip I’m equal parts terrified and awestruck. Before we know it we are jumping out of the car at our hotel and she utters her only two words of the trip — “Buh bye” — spoken quickly in a soft voice and with the screeching of tyres she’s off.

* * *

No, Harbin definitely hasn’t disappointed on the character front. I am left feeling a little melancholy however, particularly after learning the reasons Harbin hasn’t had any Russian citizens for quite some time – the first round of immigrants left when the Japanese arrived during WWII, fleeing awful living conditions for non-Japanese. Those who survived the Japanese ended up fleeing after Japan’s defeat and the eventual establishment of communism in China, from which they fled to Harbin in the first place. Our hotel is a beautiful old art deco building, a real gem, immaculately kept with mostly original fittings still intact. Even the carpet is like what I remember from my grandma’s house, short and slightly bristly to the touch. However as it’s low season, the hotel is near deserted, which only compounds the mood. The elaborately printed carpet wall covering in the hotel restaurant displays a young Russian’s face whose eyes haunt me. How would that be, to make a successful escape from persecution and build a city, a community, a life, for yourself and your family, only to have to leave again only a few years later?

Harbin International Hotel

Harbin International Hotel

From our window we have an amazing view out onto Hongbo Square, a large roundabout in the middle of a broad boulevard. Underneath the roundabout is a giant subterranean shopping mall but above stands a tall spire with a neon cross, which I learn is a monument to the St. Nicholas church that once stood here and was razed in 1966. A painting in the hotel restaurant gives an impression of what the roundabout looked like with the church still standing on it. It’s difficult to imagine, looking out our window at the roundabout, that such a church once stood there. | NW

Hongbo Square

Hongbo Square


  1. I understand why you wanted to visit Harbin so much! – its looks like it has so much character, and beauty. That taxi trip was a classic! looking forward to your next blog:)

  2. Jen

    Wow Ngaire, what an interesting place. A shame not to find more Russian influence. The ‘other’ Misha looked like a nice man and the dumplings looked devine. Where will your next adventure be to?

    • admin

      Yes we did all laugh about the name coincidence! The dumplings were de-li-cious… so fresh you could still see fingerprints in the dough where they’d been pressed together. Hope you guys are well!

  3. sue

    Very interesting

  4. Linda

    Great to read of your adventures Ngaire. Love all your pictures and I also love the old painting of the church. I look forward to reading more of your adventures. Love A Linda

  5. sue

    I have been thinking about the great sacrifices that the people of China, like so many people around the world, have made for freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

  6. Sky Gander

    Your mum put me onto your blog. I would love to go to Harbin. Anthony Bordain filmed an episode there. Beautiful photos and engaging articles. Looking forward to the next post.

  7. Robyn

    Loved your blog, Ngaire, & wonderful photos. Look forward to enjoying more of your adventures in China.

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