I am finally, finally, finally finished with exams! That can mean only one thing – it’s time to travel! I have been waiting for this ever since I got back from Beijing in October and been planning for weeks (though admittedly not as long as I probably should have).

My first stop has been Harbin (哈尔滨). It is about 850km north of Dalian in Heilongjiang (黑龙江) province and has a strong Russian influence in its history, architecture and culture. The Russian presence first appeared towards the end of the 19th century when Russian workers arrived to build a railway line to Dalian(!). They were followed by Russian Jews and then White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Jewish community in Harbin was the largest in the Far East, numbering 20,000 in 1920. Now synagogues, temples, churches and even a mosque stand together in the city. These days Harbin is probably most famous for its Ice and Snow Festival (冰雪节 – hang around to here more about that).

I went with Wilson, one of my friends from Dalian and we met up with another friend Yerin and her friend once we were there. We got the fast train from Dalian in the morning which takes about 4.5 hours so arrived around lunchtime. We had some lunch and settled into our hostel before heading into the centre of town.

The tourism in Harbin is centred around the Daoli district (道里区), especially Zhongyang Street (中央大街), a pedestrian road with lots of shops and restaurants housed in old Russian style buildings. Our first stop was the Church of St Sofia (索菲亚教堂), a beautiful red brick Russian Orthodox Church. It is one of the main sights in Harbin and was beautifully lit up against the evening.

From there we strolled down Zhongyang Street doing our best against the cold. We knew Harbin was going to be colder than anything we’ve had in Dalian but even so it took me by surprise. For the few days we were there, the temperature hovered a couple of degrees above or below -20°, a.k.a. the coldest I’ve ever experienced! Taking in too deep a breath made me cough and walking around for too long would lead to my legs burning from the cold, despite wearing multiple layers!

We met up with Yerin and her friend to head out to the star of the show – Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. It is the largest festival of its kind in the world. It has been going since 1963 and while it mostly attracted Chinese tourists to start with it is now very much an international event that saw 18 million visitors in 2018.

It was truly spectacular and had me marvelling at the size of the structures and wondering how long it took to build them. There was lots to see but because of the cold we probably didn’t see all of it. We did our best, ducking into a cafe and a restaurant at various points seeking some warmth.

Day two brought the same bitter cold, but thankfully Harbin’s temperature doesn’t seem to come with a wind which I think would have made it unbearable. The four of us met up again for lunch and then headed to the cable car that traverses the Songhua river (松花江) which freezes over completely from November to April. The beautiful vistas and Wilson’s very nervous face were definitely worth it.

Wilson, Yerin, her friend and I on the cable car

We wandered back towards the Main Street via an old abandoned mosque and Harbin Main Synagogue (now a concert hall). Last up, once it got dark, was Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园), where there were some more ice lanterns on display.

We finished the day with a great big meal of various North-Eastern dishes (东北菜), including di san xian (地三鲜, fried potato, aubergine and green pepper), lazi ji (辣子鸡, crispy fried chicken pieces and dried chillies), and a pork, Chinese cabbage and vermicelli noodle stew that is very representative of Harbin style food, thick and hearty. Some other food that I enjoyed while here was lunch on day one which was spring pancakes (春饼) with scrambled egg, bean sprouts and a few types of meat to fill it with. The main tourist street is also filled with stalls touting sausages on a stick as well as all types of other meats, seafood and even insects! Those with a sweet tooth can enjoy the selection of fruits covered in hardened sugar or the yoghurt popsicles that are popular there, despite the temperature!

Two nights in Harbin was probably just the right amount of time for me. There were a few more things we could have done if we were around for a few more days including seeing the Siberian tiger breeding centre or the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base Museum but honestly, I think I’m good on both of those fronts. Plus the cold, while an interesting thing to experience, meant that the idea of just wandering around to see the city was less than appealing.