Ice cafe
Harbin (about 1,000 kilometers northeast of Beijing and 400 kilometers south and west of the Russian border) is a cold, windy, Russian-influenced, industrial city with onion-dome churches, blocky buildings, Czarist villas, some Japanese structures and a handful of Chinese monuments. It is famous for its cold weather and winter ice festival. It is about 200 kilometers north of Changhan in Jilin Province of China.

Harbin (pronounced Ha-erh-pin) is the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang Province, with about 5.2 million people in the city and 10.7 million people in the 53,068 square- kilometer (20,490 square mile) Harbin Prefecture. Located on the Songhua River at almost at the exact midpoint of Manchuria, it is one of the great trading and communication centers of the Far East, serving both northeast Chinese and eastern Russian interests. Food processing and tractor, ball bearing, wire and cable production have traditionally been the main industries.

Harbin’s long, cold winter is the backdrop for its famed ice sculpture exhibitions. In recent years the winters have been unusually warm and many ice sculptures have melted. Temperatures reached 61 degrees F in early February 2007. In some cases tourists have been banned from approaching the sculptures out of fear they might get clobbered by falling chunks of ice and sculptors and volunteers have been called onto to make emergency repairs on ice sculptures that were damaged or destined to fall off.

Harbin is a destination of Russian traders, who stock up on cheap Chinese-produced consumer goods and sell them in Russia. To attract these traders Chinese merchants have raised signs with Cyrillic writing. Some even barter Russian furs for goods. The Chinese in Harbin don't seem to mind the Russian presence. In the winter they pay US$4 to watch a Russian ice swimming troupe go swimming in the ice-covered river at the Sino-Russian Friendship Winter Swimming Sports Amusement Park. Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; Maps of Harbin: chinamaps.org ; Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Harbin is accessible by air and bus and well-connected by train to the rest of China and to Russia. Travel China Guide Travel China Guide

History of Harbin

Strategically located in a resource-rich area between Russia, China and Mongolia and closer to Siberia than it is to Beijing, Harbin managed to prosper in the 20th century under Czarist Russia, Nationalist China, imperial Japan, Soviet Russia and Communist China. Harbin was a sleepy Manchurian fishing village until 1896 Czarist Russia turned it into a cosmopolitan city to administer its new railway — Chinese Eastern Railway branch of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which was extended through Manchuria to the Japan Sea at Port Arthur (near present-day Dalian).

In the early 20th century, Harbin was first stop in China for trains coming from Europe and as a result Paris fashions and European dances were hot in Harbin before they even reached Shanghai. Wide avenues and European-style architecture are evidence of the strong Russian influence on the town in the years between the start of rail construction and the surrender of the Russian concession in 1924. A major influx of White Russian refugees after 1917 gave Harbin the largest European population in the Far East.

Harbin was captured in 1932 by Japanese forces invading Manchuria, and fell again, in August 1945, to the Soviets. The Russians outlasted the Japanese occupation and warlord rule, but most returned to Russia of the Soviet Union after the Chinese Communists rose to power. The last one left in the 1960s when relations between Maoist China and the Soviet Union turned sour.

During Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) Heilongjiang became the first province to be completely controlled by the Chinese communists and Harbin the first major city to be controlled by them. The Soviet Army took the city in August 1945. Harbin never came under the control of the Kuomintang, whose troops stopped 60 kilometers short of the city. The city's administration was transferred by the Soviet Army to the Chinese People's Liberation Army in April 1946. During the short Soviet occupation of Harbin, thousands of Russian emigres were labeled as members of the Russian Fascist Party and were forcibly deported to the Soviet Union, where no doubt many of them had a hard time.

The Chinese Communists developed Harbin into a major industrial city. Relations between China and Russia improved after the collapse of the Soviet Union and now Harbin is a focal point for trade between China and Russia. Restaurants have Cyrillic menus to accommodate the Russian tourist who flock to the city in the summer to enjoy long summer days in the riverside parks.

Jews in Harbin

Harbin fruit seller
There was fairly large Jewish community in Harbin that emerged as the Trans Siberian Railway was opening up Siberia. The first arrived in 1899. Some were Russian Jews fleeing pogroms. A second wave came during the 1917 Russian Revolution. At its peak in 1920 the Jewish population of Harbin reached 20,000. A third wave came in 1929, fleeing a Russian-Chinese border conflict. Most were Russians. Jews from elsewhere in Europe mostly ended up in Shanghai

The Jews that lived in Harbin generally led a privileged life. They had Chinese and Russian maids and crossed the river in the winter on telhai, sleds pushed by attendants. There are no Jews left in Harbin. They were pushed out by a Communist government suspicious of “imperialist capitalists." Most left in the early 1950s. Most of their property and businesses were seized. A few lingered longer. The last was a woman who died in the mid 1960s.

Harbin recently earmarked $3.2 million to renovate the main synagogue and take steps to preserve the largest Jewish cemetery in Asia and other buildings associated with the city's Jewish community. The move is widely seen as a bid to bring tourism and investment from Jews to Harbin.

Transportation in Harbin

Harbin Metro began operation in September 2013 and had Total 31.5 kilometers of track and 27 stations as of 2019. The system is undergoing expansion and was slated to have a total of three lines and 89.58 kilometers (56 miles) of track. In the winter time, the metro begins operation at 6:00 am and the last train departs at 9:00 pm. Fares range from two to four yuan depending on trip distance. Single-ride and rechargeable fare cards may be purchased at ticket windows or automatic fare card machines in each station. Line 1 runes from Harbin East Railway Station (Daowai) to Xinjiang Street (Pingfang). Opened in 2013 and was expanded in 2019, it has 26.05 kilometers of track and 23 stations. Line 3 runs from Harbinxizhan (Nangang)to Yidaeryuan (Nangang). Opened in 2017, it has 5.45 kilometers of track and 4 stations. Harbin Subway Map: Urban Rail urbanrail.net

Trains in Harbin: Located at the junction of "T-style" mainline system, Harbin is an important railway hub in northeast China. The Harbin Railway Bureau was the first Railway Bureau established by the Communist Chinese Government. Direct passenger train service is available from Harbin Railway Station to large cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Jinan, Nanjing and many other major cities in China. Direct high-speed railway service began operation between Harbin West and Shanghai Hongqiao stations in 2013, shortening the journey time from a couple days to 12 hours. High speed trains also connect Harbin with Beijing and cities like Shenyang and Changhan along the Harbin-Beijing corridor. Five conventional rail lines radiate from Harbin to: Beijing (Jingha Line), Suifenhe (Binsui Line), Manzhouli (Binzhou Line), Beian (Binbei Line) and Lalin (Labin Line). In addition, Harbin has a high-speed rail line linking to Dalian.

Train Stations in Harbin: The city's main railway stations are 1) Harbin Railway Station, the main station, first built in 1899 and expanded in 1989; 2) the Harbin East Railway Station, which opened in 1934; and 3) the Harbin West Railway Station, which was built into the city's high-speed railway station in 2012. Another main station, Harbin North Railway Station opened in 2015 for the new built Harbin-Qiqihar Passenger Railway.

Sights in Harbin

Ice room
Harbin is a city of contrasts, with Chinese, Russian, and eclectic worldwide influences clearly apparent. Bukui Mosque, a national heritage site, is the largest glazed tile building in Heilongjiang Province. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches dot the city. Much of the interesting architecture is Russian. St. Sofia Church, with gold crosses and green onion domes, is the main landmark. The main park is one of the last Stalinist parks in China.

In the winter many people like to stroll or skate on the frozen Songhua River. Polar bear swimmers cut holes in the ice and take a swim. Makeshift amusement parks have ice slides, skating and swimming shows. In Stalin Park children and adults whiz down large ice slides and ride on horse-drawn carriages across the frozen Songhua River. The winter festival features ice sculptures with colored lights inside the blocks of ice,

Central Avenue (in downtown Daoli District) is said to be the largest and longest pedestrian street in Asia and is the place to go in Harbin for fun, shopping and food. The most historically and culturally significant street and the main commercial area of Harbin, it stretches 1,450 meters from the Flood Control Memorial Tower by the Songhuajiang River in the north to Jingwei street in the south. It is 21.3 meters wide, with a 10,8-meter-wide stone-planked carriageway. Along the avenue are numerous European-style buildings. The street is said to have four most influential architectural gentres in the history of Western architecture during the last 300 years and thus is nicknamed “textbook of Western architecture.” In North China, Harbin Central Avenue is as famous as the Bund is in Shanghai.

St. Sofia Church is Harbin’s famous onion-domed, Russian-style church. First built in March 1907, it is said to be the biggest Orthodox Church building in the Far East. Originally it served as a military church for Russia’s Fourth Eastern Siberian Infantry Division. A reconstruction of the church started in 1923, and lasted for nine years. Influenced by Byzantine architectural style, it has 53.25-meter-high tower and covers an area of 721 square meters. Currently it serves as the Harbin Museum of Architecture.

Museums in Harbin: China Hezhen Museum (Sanjiangkou, Tongjiang, Tel: +86-0454-2922475); 2) Harbin Museum of Architecture (88 Toulong St., Tel: +86-0451-84686904); 3) Heilongjiang Ethnic Museum (25 Wenmiao St., Nangang Dist., Tel: +86-0451-82538438); and 4) Heilongjiang Museum (64 Hongjun St., Tel: +86-0451-53642447);

Shopping Areas in Harbin: 1) Central Shopping Mall (100 Central St., Tel: +86-0451-84654684); 2) Churin Group Joint Stock Co., Ltd. (319 East Dazhi St., Tel: +86-0451-53600588); 3) First Department Store (315 East Dazhi St., Tel: +86-0451-84615588); 4) Grand Shopping Center (378 Gogol St., Tel: +86-451-88014599); 5) Plutocrat Gift Trading Company (254 Youyi Rd., Daoli Dist., Tel: +86-451-84691488); and 6) Songlei Commercial Building (329 East Dazhi St., Tel: +86-451-53641710).

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is a month-long festival generally held from early or mid Japan through the Lunar New Year. One of China's most visually stimulating festival, it features ice sculptures with colored fluorescent lights frozen inside the blocks of ice. The Russians introduced the idea of ice sculptures, but it was a Chinese who came up with the idea of putting lights inside them. While the first festival dates to 1962 and the Harbin Ice Festival was only officially proclaimed in 1985, the idea of ice lanterns is said to date back to the Tang Dynasty.

More than 2000 ice sculptures are on display. The sculptures are made by carvers who take ice blocks from the frozen Songhua River, stick colored lights between the blocks, and shape ice-block masses into rocket ships, famous generals, lions, elephants, airplanes, acrobats, bridges, two-story pagodas, imaginary palaces, huge cars, platoons of soldiers, or famous structures like the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, or the Eiffel tower. Sophisticated engineering and architectural techniques are used to build large 30- to 40-foot-high sculptures. The tallest one ever made was the 65-foot-high Lama Terrace; the largest was a model of Beijing's Hall of Prayer and Good Harvest, which was 40 feet high and 75 feet in diameter. Some of the works are quite abstract.

The largest and most impressive sculptures are in the People's Park. Some have ice bridges and ice staircases that people can walk on. These days ice sculpting teams from all over the world show up to show off their skills. Local students groups compete at Zhaoling Park. Sun Island, an island in the Songhua River on the outskirts of town, has its own exhibition. In 1999, Ice and Snow World opened up across the road.

Thousands of smaller ice sculptures, with names like Colorful Waves in Green Lake, Rainbow in the Sky, Dragon Boat Against the Wave and Enormous Wealth and High Rank, can be seen at 14 different viewing areas scattered around Harbin. The sculptures are impressive during the day but, obviously, they are best viewed at night when the colored lanterns are lit up. People come from all over China to see the sculptures, which usually remain standing until the snow melt in March or April. Five million visitors showed up in 2006 and injected millions of dollars into the local economy.

Food and Restaurants in Harbin

Winter swimming
Special snacks from Harbin and Heilongjiang include: Baixiangyuan meat cakes, meat pancakes produced by Xianghe Meat Pancake Restaurant, Luxin fried dumplings, big bread, Liu’s cakes, Bingpeng flavored pork hoofs, Fangyuan stuffed pancakes, Qiulin red sausages, Maomao steamed dumplings, Xuelong cakes, Wuchangpiaozi pancakes, and stewed pork heads produced by Hecheng Hotel in Qiqihar. Long cuisine is a unique food genre in North China that has been by people of Heilongjiang. After generations of passing down ideas and exploration, the cuisine has developed various dishes featuring distinctive flavors and green ingredients. The dishes involve many traditional cooking techniques such as “rational collocation” and features “rich nutrition, orthodox flavor, delicious taste and pleasant appearance.”

There are more than a dozen kinds of air-dried sausages in northeast China, of which the air-dried sausage produced by the Harbin Zhengyanglou Meat Products Factory is the most famous. According to the Chinese government tourism website: “With a history of nearly 100 years, Zhengyanglou air-dried sausage boasts careful material selection and state-of-art manufacturing process. Dried in natural air, it emits russet clusters like semitransparent agates. With a lasting flavor, it is suitable to be eaten with drinking or be served on important banquets”.

Restaurants in Harbin: 1) Harbin Grand Restaurant (168 Shangzhi St., Tel: +86-451-84640958); 2) Huamei Western Restaurant (112 Cenral St., Tel: +86-451-84675758); 3) Lufu Tower (228 Zhongshan Rd., Tel: +86-451-82260878); 4) Old Duichu (62 West Shisandao St., Tel: +86-451-84615895); 6) Sun & Moon Lake Food Center (127 East Dazhi St., Tel: +86-451-82533193);

Near Harbin

Harbin Siberian Tiger Park is said to be the world's largest Siberian tiger reserve. More than 800 of the endangered cats prowl the park's 10 districts, in addition to a handful of cheetahs, lions and ligers (lion-tiger hybrid offspring). Visitors ride in rumbling bus that “slaloms among the tigers as if they were big, orange, stripy traffic cones with claws and fangs.” Known in Chinese as Dongbei Laohu Gongyuan, the park’s main claim to fame is that park visitors can buy to have a rabbit (US$20) or a pig (US$150) thrown to Siberian tigers and watch them get devoured as spectators applaud. Visitors can also buy chickens, sheep and even oxen to cast to ravenous big cats.

On how it works, the China Daily reports: “A SUV encased in black caging appears and also starts zooming to and fro among the tigers. The powerful predators know this is their dinner train and immediately give chase. The SUV driver stops and whips open the door to volley a chicken above the vehicle. The roaring tigers pounce, intercepting the condemned cockerel mid-air. There's a flash of feathers, a blur of fur, and it's all over.” [Source: China Daily March 19, 2009]

Sun Island Scenic Area (on the north bank of the Songhuajiang River) is a well-known tourist area originally built as a summer holiday village by the White Russia in the early 1920s. Besides villas of various styles, the scenic area also features lush foliage, soft and white sands, blue sky and clear water. The island is not only a summer resort, but also a center for winter tourism. The well-known Harbin Snow Sculpture Expo is held in the Sun Island Park.

Unit 731

Unit 731 (in the village of Pingfan, 26 kilometers south of Harbin) was a germ warfare facility, where the Japanese conducted human experiments during World War II. Between 3,000 and 12,000 prisoners are believed to have died from these experiments. No survivors have been located. Another 250,000 were killed with biological weapons throughout China, most from the plague. Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base in Harbin is now regarded as a Red Tourism Sight.

Unit 731, also known as Division 731 was established in 1939 by a decree signed by Emperor Hirohito and run by General Shiro Ishii. A Japanese version of Belsen or Auschwitz, it was a massive facility a staff of 3,000 people and its own airport and railway station. Many of the doctors were from Japan's top medical schools.

By one estimate the Japanese killed 10,000 people at Unit 731. Most of the victims were Chinese, Mongolians and Koreans. They included children who wandered to close to the facility and a teenage girl found carrying a gun. Experiments were also performed on captured Soviets and British.

Human guinea pigs at Unit 731 were referred to as "logs." They were brought to the laboratory in black vans known as voronki, or ravens. Residents of Harbin remember the vans racing through streets as the prisoners inside pounded and shouted for help. Once in the prison they were often fattened up to ensure "good results."

One elderly resident of Harbin told the Japan Times, "They would catch people surreptitiously and bring them to their laboratory. Local residents were afraid every day that they might be kidnaped by the Japanese. Before going outside, I had to stop and think: Are there Japanese around?

Prisoners at Unit 731 were frozen to death, burned alive, dissected alive without anesthetic, shot, electrocuted, injected with animal blood, boiled and hung upside down until the died. Some were sealed inside pressure chambers that caused their eyes to pop out of their heads. Operations were performed on perfectly heathy prisoners accused of being spies to teach young doctors surgical techniques.

Describing his work, one scientist in the plague unit at Unit 731 later said, "I inserted the scalpel directly into the log's neck and opened the chest. At first there was a terrible scream, but the voice soon fell silent." One employee at Unit 731 not directly involved in. the experiments told Newsweek, "From the start, we were taught not to see, not to inquire, not to speak." Explaining why he cut out the eyes of victims one Japanese worker said, "I received an order."

There were reports of three-year-old children being jabbed with needles and submerged in icy water and screaming women cut open so their reproductive organs could be examined. Some victims had their stomachs removed and their esophagus connected to intestines. Others who had their arms amputated and reattached on opposite sides.

In one experiment a victim was taken outside when the temperatures were-40̊C and tied to a post. Water was poured on the lower arm until it froze solid. The doctors then tested their frostbite treatment and the lower arm was amputated. The same process was repeated on the upper arms and then the legs. When victim was reduced to a head and torso he was then turned over to disease divisions for experiments there.

Remnants of Unit 731 now sit in an industrial park in the suburbs of Harbin. There are no monuments to the people who died at the site but there is one that the commander of the facility made for the rats that died. Most of the Unit 731 building are gone and have been replaced by factories. A wall remains from the boiler house. The incinerator that disposed of 3,000 men, women and children is still operating as part of of local factory. A small museum at the site contains mannequins tied to poles and doused in water. A mannequin dressed like a like a doctor is shown cutting into another mannequin.

New Unit 731 Museum

The Museum of War Crime Evidence by Japanese Army Unit 731 opened in August 2015 in Pingfang near Harbin in northeast China. Designed by a team led by Dr. He Jingtang of South China University of Technology, who also designed the China pavilion of the Shanghai Expo and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, the Unit 731 museum is a black marble building that looks like a split box and supposed to bring to mind the black box of a crashed plane.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in The Asia-Pacific Journal: the museum “is bolder in intent than the older, adjacent museum that it incorporates and replaces." The new museum enlarges an earlier one on the site where Japanese doctors of Unit 731 carried out medical atrocities on prisoners that rivaled in brutality, or perhaps even surpassed, those committed by Dr. Josef Mengele in Nazi Germany." However, the exhibits are often have a highly ideological “patriotic education” orientation. “A visitor book at the museum, for instance, records mostly stock patriotic phrases like, “Never forget the national humiliation!”[Source: “Didi Kirsten Tatlow The Asia-Pacific Journal vol. 13, Issue. 44, No. 3, November 16, 2015 /]

“On a meters-long, white stone stele that lies horizontally amid others, as if it has been tossed in the air and has landed haphazardly, are engraved the names of 60 doctors and other members of Unit 731, with a short description of what they did after the war. It reads a little like a Who's Who of the post-war Japanese medical establishment...Outside, a shop offers cups and t-shirts with patriotic Chinese emblems and messages of victory over Japan, amid other museum merchandise. But the room is deserted and the offerings have the air of something a person might buy as penance. /

“According to Gao Yubao, the museum's head of research, the curators were motivated by a desire to present an accurate picture of history. The museum's message is clear: Biological warfare was Japanese national policy, and the United States covered it up in exchange for information, without bringing a single perpetrator to justice. “Unit 731 committed large-scale, systematic crimes against humanity and ethnicity." Gao said. “Those crimes must be revealed and recorded, so that humanity can remember the price of peace and cherish it. Some countries in Europe are still suffering from war, which is proof that humanity needs constant reminders of how important peace is. /

“The vision for the museum comes from the metaphor of a black box of a plane crash. The point is to say that the site of Unit 731 is the black box that recorded one of the darkest periods of human history. In showing the contents of the black box, we find out what happened and remember the lessons learned from the disaster. The area round the museum was made to look as if the ground split open to reveal the black box. /

“The original building had a small area for displaying artifacts, but the space was too small." Construction started in November 2014 and finished in August 2015. In the first month after the museum an average of 7,000 to 10,000 people visited the museum daily. Before, about 400,000 people came each year to visit the site.

On the museum, Mark Selden, a senior research associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University and co-editor of “Japan's Wartime Medical Atrocities," said: “The Chinese state uses history to its own purposes, as do other countries, and it has a level of control that is way up in the stratosphere. We have to respect the historical data in particular situations." Tsuneishi Keiichi, a contributor to “Japan's Wartime Medical Atrocities” and author of “Unit 731: The Truth about Biological Weapons and Crimes” said: “I have not met a Chinese researcher who has studied the history of 731 Unit seriously. So I do not expect anything of the new museum. I think there is no really reliable and authentic research material on Shiro Ishii's biological warfare activities in China. Those are in Japanese libraries and Japanese National Archives, and in the U.S. National Archives and the Library of Congress."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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