Leaving Seoul we could have done a 90 minute flight direct to Harbin but instead we chose to do a 10 hour transit through Shanghai…for the same price. This may seem insane but on our first visit to Shanghai we were unaware of the Maglev…and have been kicking ourselves that we missed it. For the uninitiated…the Maglev is the super-fast train that runs between the airport and close to the city. During our time in China we have been on the 200 and 300 kilometre an hour trains but the Maglev goes at over 400…well over.
So we flew from Seoul to Shanghai…hopped the Maglev, had some lunch, then hopped the Maglev back to the airport for the flight to Harbin. The train maxed out at 431 kilometres an hour…when we hopped the train to head back we saw the front where the slower animals did not or could not get out of the way of this racing beast. Needless to say that there were more than squished bugs on the windshield.
Harbin originally started in 1897 as a camp for Russian engineers surveying the Trans-Siberian Railway. This has grown into China’s northernmost major city, with 4 million in the city and up to 10 million if you include the suburbs. Harbin is the home of the harbin brewery the oldest and 4th largest brewery in China. But in reality Harbin is two cities…the summer and the winter.
We obviously are here for the summer so we get to experience the magic that is mid to high 20’s temperatures, pleasant breezes, sunshine and a town that is as green as any that China has to offer. Zhongyang Dajie is the 1.4 km Pedestrian only street running down to the river and Stalin Park (and is only one street parallel to where we are staying). This is a really pretty shopping and ambling district that is heavily influenced by the Russian history with Babushka dolls and firs everywhere you look.
Having reached the end of the pedestrian street we wandered along the riverside to the gondola for a ride across the river to the huge park on the opposite bank. There is a Russian town inside the park with shows and shops celebrating and selling all things Russian. The village contains a bunch of concrete babushka dolls with the Russian leaders painted upon them…The most beautiful sight in all of Harbin is St Sophia’s cathedral which is a Russian built church in the middle of town which is entirely stunning. To be fair…the architecture all around Harbin is heavily influenced by its Russian history and is built in baroque or byzantine style with spires and cupolas all over the place.
Harbin is also the site of the Unit 731 museum which is a museum outlining the actions of unit 731 which was (wiki quote) “a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II”. We did not make it here as it was a fair bit out of the way but it does sound like one hell of a museum.Harbin is without a doubt the king of hedge art…there are hedge topiaries dotted throughout the city that are quite frankly amazing.
It also has the Siberian tiger preserve that is not for the faint hearted or obsessive animal lover. Within the preserve there are hundreds of Siberian tigers in a safari style setting. Wiki tells me that “the park has an area of 1,440,000 square meters (355.8 acres) and is the largest natural park for wild Siberian tigers in the world at present. There are over 500 purebred Siberian tigers here, with 100 visible to visitors. In addition, visitors can also see white tigers, lions, lynx, leopards, and black pumas as well as Bengali tigers”.
And for a relatively small fee you can purchase live animals that will be fed to the tigers while you watch…a chicken can be bought for about $8, a duck or a pheasant for double this and raw meat too. Visitors can buy poultry or animals to feed them. Park employees will set the living animal free among the tigers, and visitors can see the unique live action of tigers preying upon it. Previous visitors talk of watching tigers leap through the air as the pheasant tries to fly away…in vain. This purchasing goes to the point where you can purchase a live sheep or cow which will be dumped in the midst of hungry tigers…all while you watch on. Alas the bride got crook on the day we were to see the tiger park so we missed this.
In January Harbin’s temperatures plummet with overnight temps of up to minus 36 with daytime highs of minus 12. The Songhua River that we floated above in the gondola freezes solid and you can walk across it. During winter Harbin becomes the home of the ice and snow festival which lasts over a month. As we are not here for winter I will shamelessly poach some information and pictures and info from the net to give you a sense of what goes on here.
During the festival 2–3 feet thick crystal clear blocks of ice are cut from the frozen river and artists create large buildings and sculptures made entirely of ice. This is generally done on sun island (the leafy green park we strolled through which is turned into a sea of white. Of an evening it becomes “Ice and Snow World” that operates each night with lights switched on, illuminating the sculptures from both inside and outside.
In summary Harbin in summer is a delight and is absolutely well worth doing…sadly we had limited time and Jill got a case of the lurgies and was laid up and we did not get to some of the major sights…if you could abide the extremely cold temperatures…the winter festival looks absolutely stunning and both Jill and I have determined this would be a definite bucket list item.