Harbin: Frozen Adventures in China’s Far North

One of the most intriguing places Richard Halliburton visited during his first round-the-world trip in 1921-1923 was Harbin, a small city in far northern China. The Manchurian region was infamous for its remoteness, its intolerable cold, and its population of refugees fleeing Bolshevik Russia.

I was enchanted by Halliburton’s descriptions of Harbin. He wrote of frigid temperatures and long fur coats, of men with bristling beards and thick accents, and of surprisingly joyous Russian choir music. Harbin sounded cold, it sounded strange, and, despite being in China, is didn’t sound Chinese. I had to go.

And so, one night in November, I made my way to the old Beijing Station to catch an overnight sleeper train to Harbin. I stood before the station with fat flakes of snow falling all around me, and watched the hustle and bustle of hundreds of travelers running to their trains, warmed by the thought that Halliburton did the same thing almost a hundred years earlier.

This railway station only had three floors, but there were indoor *and* outdoor stages to check-in.

Snow falling at the original Beijing Railway Station.

I was in a second class sleeper berth, due to arrive in Harbin 11 hours later at seven o’clock in the morning. I was the only foreigner on board, and open stares followed me as I negotiated the narrow aisle and found my six-bed compartment. I settled in with a hot bowl bucket of instant soup, and watched the darkened city gather speed outside the window.

Through the swirling blizzard I caught a glimpse of Dongbianmen gate and remnants of the city wall before they disappeared behind us. Everything in that moment seemed so timeless—the driving snow, the proud city gate, the rocking and squeaking of the train—it was easier to imagine I was traveling in 1922 than it was to remember the real date.

Despite the cramped quarters and constant stares from my fellow passengers, I slept well that night. In the morning I squinted out the window at an orange sun climbing over a flat, barren horizon. There was no snow on the ground, but a thick layer of ice rimed the inside of the window. At 45° N latitude, Harbin was practically Siberia, and it looked exactly as forsaken as I’d imagined it would.

The train pulled into the old Harbin Station right on time, and despite wearing every stitch of clothing I owned the force of the cold knocked me back when I stepped out onto the platform. Everyone’s breath fogged the air, and the train billowed steam while its brakes made “shhhhh” noises.

Dumpling steamers fog the frigid morning air.

Dumpling steamers fog the frigid morning air.

With a quick glance at the map on my phone, I oriented myself and walked toward the city center. The skies were cloudless and blue, and at first the cold was invigorating. Like Halliburton, I enjoyed the tang and the purity of the sun-flooded air.”  I hurried past a row of restaurants with silver towers of dumpling steamers clouding the sidewalk. The sun glinted off the tops of buildings, but down on the street everything was in shadow. A man walking in front of me spat on the sidewalk, and when I passed the spot a moment later his spit had already frozen solid.

My phone’s battery died after a mere hour in the cold and I became lost in the maze of Harbin’s diagonal streets. Finally I stumbled onto the main tourist street, Zhongyang Dajie, a pedestrian-only road lined with three-story buildings in a rainbow of pastel colors. By that time the cold had officially crossed the line from interesting to intolerable. It bored into me relentlessly, creeping between the gaps in my scarf and throbbing in my toes. Down the street I spied a sign with a familiar green logo: Starbucks. I threw myself through their doors like a drowning woman going after a life preserver.

Reveling in the warmth, I sipped a mocha, charged my phone, and made a game plan. Clearly I couldn’t just walk around all day; I’d have to intersperse my explorations with time spent indoors at restaurants and whatnot. My Couchsurfing host wasn’t available until after 5:00 pm, so that left me with eight hours to survive enjoy the city.

Santa Sophia Cathedral in Harbin, China.

Santa Sophia Cathedral in Harbin, China.

Armed with a second layer of socks and bellyful of hot coffee, I scurried several blocks over to the Saint Sophia Cathedral. In photos the Byzantine-style church looks tall and monumental, but in reality it’s tiny, with a footprint of just 700 square meters. It squats in a large plaza, dwarfish yet utterly regal. I took pictures in thirty-second intervals, the amount of time it took for my fingertips to start aching with cold, before exploring the photography exhibit housed within.

Santa Sophia Cathedral, though small, is absolutely beautiful and eye-catching.

Santa Sophia Cathedral, though small, is absolutely beautiful and eye-catching.

The interior of the church was dingy and grey, with flaking paint and moldy ceilings. The 1996 renovations weren’t enough to completely cover the decades of ruin the cathedral suffered during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It was also renovated back in 1923, the year after Halliburton visited. Was this the typical bulgy-domed Russian church” where he attended Christmas mass “with an Arctic blizzard outside sweeping and whistling about its spires” and the floor shaking from the “rich, deep bass voices” singing hymns within?

I spent far longer than necessary pouring over the historical photos in the museum.  I hunted down each and every photo of Harbin circa 1922 and imagined Halliburton walking down the grainy, black-and-white streets on his way to the consulate, draped in his fur-lined overcoat, hands thrust deep into pockets.

Back outside, I myself walked the streets of Harbin, passing through a snow-dusted, desolate park where idle locals strolled, seemingly impervious to the blistering cold.  Eventually I ended up on the shores of the Songhua River, which, to my surprise, was frozen solid.  I expected to see ice, of course, but the Songhua is a huge river, navigable by medium-sized ships, and here it was frozen solid at the end of November.  How long had it been since Harbin had seen above-freezing temperatures?

Cute owl street art peeks at passersby along the Songhua River promenade.

Cute owl street art peeks at passersby along the Songhua River promenade.

Small groups of Chinese tourists were playing on the ice, giddy from their first experience with ice and snow.  Some skated in wobbly circles while others used ski poles to push themselves along in wooden chairs fitted with runners.  A couple of local men cracked bullwhips at shiny metal tops, accelerating them until they spun with the hum of small engines.

Apparently this is fun.

Apparently this is fun.

I was cold to my core again, and I couldn’t feel my thighs at all, so I ventured back to Zhongyang Dajie to find a hot lunch.  The sun at noon still hung low in the southern sky, lending a sunset-like glow to the pastel facades of the buildings.  The style was decidedly un-Chinese, alternating between Baroque and Byzantine with a smattering of early 20th Century American.  Bilingual signs in Russian and Chinese identified French bakeries and Japanese restaurants among the usual Chinese fare.

I ducked into a ramshackle Russian restaurant where the walls were covered in old, framed photographs, mostly featuring stern Russian family portraits.  I lingered over a hot bowl of “red stew”, thick slices of brown bread served with fresh butter, and several cups of hot tea.  It was such a delightful change from Chinese food!  I didn’t realize how much I’d missed butter until that point.

Zhongyang Dajie in the afternoon. The old Baroque and Byzantine architecture makes the street a true cultural gem in China.

Zhongyang Dajie in the afternoon. The old Baroque and Byzantine architecture makes the street a true cultural gem in China.

Alas, I had to venture outside at least once more before the day was through.  I walked the mile-long Zhongyang Dajie in failing afternoon light, passing buildings I had seen in the photographs in Saint Sophia Cathedral.  It didn’t take much effort to imagine Harbin in the 1920s.  Probably the biggest difference was the demographics.  When Halliburton visited, a third of Harbin’s 300,000 citizens were Russian refugees.  They were composed of aristocrats, musicians, scientists, writers, and other displaced intelligentsia fleeing the Soviet Union.  Fifty years later most of them then fled back to Russia to escape Chinese communism.  Now Harbin’s population exceeds ten million people, and only a handful are of Russian descent.

Armed with a shovel and flag, these kids are clearly ready to build a new world.

Armed with a shovel and flag, these kids are clearly ready to build a new world.

Eventually I found myself back at the Songhua River.  A group of Chinese men and women on the promenade performed choreographed calisthenics to peppy music despite the added chill of evening.  Halliburton, too, had gone for a dusk walk in Harbin, “a glorious walk, twenty below, but crisp and dry, so that one would never dream it was so cold—until a nose or an ear froze.” Clearly his walk didn’t involve an Arctic wind blasting off the frozen river.  My legs ached from a day of constant shivering, and every time the wind picked up I got an instant ice cream headache.

As the sun dipped below the horizon I called my Couchsurfing host and got bus directions to his apartment.  While technically my time in Harbin wouldn’t be over until I boarded the train to Beijing the following morning, it would be over in my mind as soon as I left the historical downtown.  So with a final glance over the river, and another down the quaint main street, I said goodbye to my 1920s experience and caught a bus back to the 21st Century.

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How to visit Harbin as a daytrip from Beijing

If you arrive in the summer, or in the heart of winter when the world-famous Harbin Ice Festival is on, you’ll probably want to spend more than a day in Harbin.  But if you’re crunched for time, or if the season isn’t conducive to travel (ahem, November), you can make the most of your time with an overnight train from Beijing to Harbin, a full (7 am to 10 pm) day in Harbin, and an overnight train back to Beijing.

Arrival and departure:  The overnight sleeper train between Beijing and Harbin is surprisingly comfortable.  Check the schedules to catch ones that fit your schedule.  For me, the perfect train outward bound train was the Z203, leaving Beijing at 8:31 pm and arriving in Harbin at 7:19 am. Make sure you double check which stations your train arrives at/departs from. Harbin Station is within walking distance of the town center whereas Harbin West (Xi) Station is a taxi ride away.  Cost: RMB 265 one way in a hard (second class) sleeper.

Getting around:  I chose to walk, but the streets are not always easy to follow (lack of signage, lots of diagonals), so make sure you have a good map.  Taxis are plentiful but they rip off tourists pretty badly.  Central Harbin makes for a charming and interesting walk—except for the cold!

Activities:  Check out the Harbin page on Wikitravel, and maybe China Highlights for ideas.  On longer visits, a trip to the Unit 731 Museum sounds fascinating, but on a day trip you’ll probably want to stay close to the city center.  There’s plenty to see and experience if you’re good at self-entertaining.  My highlights were the Santa Sophia Cathedral and museum (RMB 25), walking along the Songhua River promenade, and eating/drinking hot things along the main street, Zhongyang Dajie.

If you stay overnight:  There are several hostels and hotels in Harbin, as well as a friendly Couchsurfing scene.  The Couchsurfing hosts are almost all foreign students who have lived there a long time.  If staying overnight, catch a fast train back to Beijing the next day (RMB 300) from the Harbin Xi Station.

Special considerations:  Without a hotel to take refuge in, you’ll be spending a lot of time walking outdoors.  If you’re visiting in winter, bring more clothing than you think you’ll need.  A scarf, hat, pair of gloves, warm shoes and a thick coat should be considered a bare minimum.  Budget some money to frequently enjoy the delicious warmth of Harbin’s restaurants and cafes.

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2 Comments

  1. Felt like I was there, reading your description! Need hot coffee now!

  2. Sarah,
    Beautifully done! I thoroughly enjoyed your imaginative wanderings through old Harbin and fought off the urge to put on more clothes to ward off the creeping cold induced by your powerful descriptives. Years ago I had found Halliburton’s words about Harbin eerily fascinating also. Just by coincidence I recalled in print recently his colorful renditions of Harbin’s displaced aristocrats huddling sadly in the frigid temperatures, beards dripping with icicles, and their gathering at the old Harbin cathedral on Christmas Eve. Halliburton was there shivering with them but wrote of reveling in the sound of the Russian chorus as you described.
    In the latest of my monthly Halliburton blogs I contrasted this frosty spectacle with Halliburton’s previous year’s visit to the old Granada cathedral on Christmas Eve where he basked in the warm temperatures “with swarthy sun-loving Andalusians.” The participants and meteorological events could not have been more different.

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