Enjoy our faster App experience

Cracking the Ice City

The Chinese provincial capital of Harbin houses its fair share of awe-inspiring structures and offers as much for the inquisitive traveller as it does to anyone looking for some peace and quiet



By Alex Leach

Published: Fri 7 Oct 2011, 9:36 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:09 AM

My three-day trip to the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin was an attempt to unearth what the ‘Ice City’ has to offer its 10 million-plus municipal residents and those visitors from somewhat farther afield. What I found was an alternative destination that’s maybe off the beaten track when compared to the well-worn Beijing and Shanghai routes — but one where the locals take pride in the past, are reflective upon their Russian roots and progressive in the present.

The early eighties folk song On The Sun Island by Zheng Xulan brought about a tourism boom in Harbin some 30-odd years ago as listeners presumably became enchanted by the lyrics in praise of the city’s scenic spot.

Thus, the Sun Island itself would appear as good a place as any to start delving into the delights on show within the capital of the Heilongjiang province, Harbin, which was a Manchu word meaning: ‘a place for drying fishing nets’ originally.

As a first-time visitor, one of the initial things that strikes you about Harbin, and — one would imagine — China, in general, is the sheer scope and size of specific areas, regardless of whether they’re woodlands or working environments. Sun Island, for example, covers a total landmass of 38 square kilometres and, given its central location within heavily populated urban surroundings, that discovery alone makes it quite a find.

Giant topiary sculptures of two Chinese mythological creatures (a dragon and a phoenix) greet you upon entry and a sun-themed statue a little further inside is equally as impressive. It’s certainly a great place to relax and unwind during the summer months, with a refreshing breeze and the sunny temperatures providing suitable conditions for a leisurely stroll.

While walking around in such peace and tranquillity, you can encounter a man-made fountain and get even closer to nature in the animals’ section, complete with a ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Squirrel Island.’ Kids will love the opportunity to feed an array of nuts to Sun Island’s friendly and furry contingent, whereas the sighting of a fully-fledged black swan can be just as rewarding to an adult.

The nearby Russian quarter gives an interesting insight into Harbin’s heritage, with arts and crafts shops and Russian dolls of notable Soviet leaders harking back to a time in the early 20th century that still resonates here to this day.

Russia and Siberia are noted for exceedingly cold weather and Harbin, owing to its relative proximity geographically, isn’t excluded on that frosty front either, with the four seasons fluctuating wildly between 28ºC (in July) and -24ºC (in January).

It’s unsurprising then that the landscape of the Sun Island, along with Harbin overall, alters radically in the minus months on the thermometer, when the city’s ‘International Snow Sculpture Art Expo’ and winter sports rightly take centre stage.

This visit coincided with a sunnier time, so the snow had no bearing on the gorgeous greenery on display in the suitably named Sun Island or the flora and fauna that could be found at the Binjiang and Jin Hewan wetland parks respectively. Both sites provide a timely indicator of the Harbin Municipal Party Committee’s (HMPC) dedication to sustainability schemes for ‘Earth’s kidneys.’ In a global era where development and modernisation puts considerable pressure on open land, it’s encouraging to see somewhere try and buck that trend by attempting to marry ecology and economics as an industry in its own right. Binjiang and Jin Hewan are prime examples of where significant restoration work has led to thriving biodiversity and ecosystems, with the offshoot and upshot being a boost to the economy with jobs for local residents. These two venues, like Sun Island, are stunning backdrops if you are in the mood for a bit of quiet contemplation, but there’s plenty in the very heart of Harbin for those more inquisitive than introspective.

Known in various circles as the ‘Moscow’ or ‘Paris of the Orient’, Harbin is a rich mix of architectural history and modern-day consumerism, with shop frontages lying beneath exquisite European-style masonry above. The Russian Orthodox church, Saint Sophia Cathedral, which took nine years to build before being completed in 1932, is testimony to such a stylistic meeting of influences between the East and West. Further evidence of this can be found inside the church itself, which has been transformed into a museum to showcase the various different architecture and façades.

Many such models exist along Harbin’s pedestrianised main street, Central Avenue, which has 84 European-influenced buildings (with 71 mock and 13 in style) under government protection. Here, this stone-paved walkway buzzes vibrantly at night, when shoppers descend on the stores, street musicians fill the air with songs and brave souls experience life in a sub-zero ice room with sculptures aplenty. This 1,450-metre retail belt stretches from Jinwei Street to the Flood Control Monument — a 22.5-metre-high, cylindrical tower with an arched corridor — on Terminal Plaza in the north. This commemorative landmark, which was built in 1958, symbolises the whole city’s struggle against the record flood from merely a year earlier, as well as the ones that occurred in 1932 and 1998.

Meanwhile, a daytime stop-off at the Chinese Baroque Block in Daowai District sees one of the HMPC’s key projects currently in the second phase of a renewal programme aimed at renovating infrastructure, while maintaining the area’s mystique and old community feel. It has a unique charm about it that glimpses back at a prior period as concerted efforts are made to modernise a historical hub of the city’s core and eventually return these 10 blocks to something like their former glory.

Harbin houses more than its fair share of awe-inspiring structures, but the city is also steeped in historical significance.

The Jin Shangjing History Museum explores the Jin Dynasty and is home to more than 2,000 cultural relics. It charts how the Jurchen tribal chieftain Wanyan Aguda built the dynasty’s capital on the site way back in 1115 AD prior to establishing a 38-year reign there with four emperors in power, recounting their rise and decline en route.

Elsewhere, Volga Manor is a 600,000-square metre park with a distinctly Russian theme that nestles aside the Ashibe River in Xiangfang District. High entry gates give the impression that a medieval castle awaits in these expansive grounds, containing over 30 Russian-style structures dotted around picturesque swathes of thick forestry. The manor itself is a full-scale replica of St Nicholas Cathedral in the city’s then-Central Square, which was destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution on August 23rd, 1966. This updated version is now an art museum built seemingly without the use of a single nail in its wooden construction. Notable highlights to be found within the complex include a bread and salt welcoming ceremony, Russian dancing and singing, karaoke booths and a traditional Russian bath.

It’s not only in the tourism sector that Harbin is more than holding its own at the moment though, as business is also presently on an upward curve. Companies like Harbin Electric Machinery continue to go from strength to strength in 2011 — their 60th anniversary year — and beyond. The same can be said for three businesses in the South Harbin New Industrial Town, where the Gopha Group, Pinggo and the Harbin Hafei Airbus Composite Manufacturing Centre are leading the way in such diverse fields as cloud computing, animation and aeronautical engineering respectively.

All in all then, Harbin has a lot going for it, with real and tangible inroads being made in commerce and tourism — and that’s something to sing about in my book.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


More news from Its My Life
Sincerely believe in what you do

Its My Life

Sincerely believe in what you do

A majority of my work at CIMA involves nurturing and equipping young talent with essential business and finance skills who can contribute not just to their organisation’s success, but also to the progress and growth of the UAE’s economy.

Its My Life7 years ago

Wild Fire

Its My Life

Wild Fire

Has the Italian automaker that once wrote the manuscript for building supercars gone soft, or will the new baby Lambo be proof of their continuing tradition of manufacturing wild, fire-spitting grandmasters of speed?

Its My Life7 years ago

My Work is My O2

Its My Life

My Work is My O2

I love listening to my son talk about his day at school — he has so many amazing stories to share, I can never get tired of listening to his prattle.

Its My Life7 years ago

Hair Today, Gain Tomorrow

Its My Life

Hair Today, Gain Tomorrow

Losing our locks is a big issue for most of us out here in the UAE, but what can you do to curb the big fall — is it nutrition or external hair care? We get on either side of the debate

Its My Life7 years ago