Ice, Ice City: A Self-Guided Walk Through Historic Harbin / by Thomas O'Malley

This is a version of a guided walk I wrote for the Lonely Planet 2019 Trans-Siberian Railway Guide (with pictures).

Start: Church of St Sophia
End: Stalin Park
Length: 3km; 2½ hours

P6131740.jpg

The city of Harbin is a tourist hotspot in China’s far north thanks mostly to the Harbin Ice and Snow World, a neon-clad Narnia of frozen fairy-tale castles and ice slides that opens each winter. But the city is also famed for its early 20th century Russian architecture, marking the era when China permitted Russia to build a railway line through Manchuria to shorten journey times on the Trans-Siberian. Pockets of Harbin’s Russian heritage still endure, best enjoyed on foot during the city’s temperate summers, but wrap up warm and any season will do.

The sight of St Sophia, emerald domes soaring above malls and cookie-cutter sprawl, begs the question: What is a Russian church doing here? During the early 20th century, Harbin, a fishing community on the Songhua River, grew into a Russian city in all but name. Built in 1907 and expanded in 1932, St Sophia was the largest orthodox church in the far east, serving 100,000 Russian railway workers and settlers. By the 1980s, it was all but swallowed by encroaching buildings, and was used as a warehouse. Fortunately, private donations helped clear the the square and secure its protected status.

P6131741.jpg

Inside, a secular photography exhibit introduces old Harbin. At its peak, Harbin was home to around 50 synagogues and churches, but most have been lost to development (and the rampaging Red Guards in the 1960s). Nowadays, gentrification is the latest threat, as this New York Times article attests.

P6131748.jpg

Religious matter aside, old churches in China will always be popular with couples getting their wedding photos done. Here’s an idea – maybe the wedding photography industry can form an alliance with heritage conservationists?

From the front steps of the church, leave the square by its southwest corner and head west along Toulong Lu, crossing the old iron footbridge. Keep going until you hit the timeworn cobbles of Zhongyang Dajie, and turn right.

P6131750.jpg

Zhongyang Dajie (Central Avenue), formerly known as Kitayskaya Street (Kitayskaya means Chinese in Russian), is Harbin’s most famous thoroughfare, running northwards for a mile to the Songhua River. But to march up it ant-fashion, as most tourists do, can be an anticlimactic experience. Especially since the surviving baroque, eclectic and art-deco buildings today mostly shelter the likes of Zara and KFC.

P6131771.jpg

Time travel requires a bit of imagination, so picture the scene: fur-clad shoppers stepping out of department stores into waiting automobiles, clerks hurrying between banks and insurance offices, and literati lounging in establishments like 58, formerly a Jewish restaurant (it’s now a Uniqlo).

P6131755.jpg

Jewish bakeries, too, would have been a fixture along Zhongyang Dajie. This local business at no.45 comes close – it has a pre-prepared bagel sandwich, not to mention proper coffee and a second-floor terrace with delightful views over the cobbles.

P6131761.jpg

Leaving the main street for a while, turn right down Dongfeng Jie one block to Tongjiang Jie. You can’t miss the 7 Days Inn chain hotel - it’s the historic building dressed-up like a circus tent in the brand’s gaudy livery. From the front steps, you can gaze across Tongjiang Jie at the stately Jewish Main Synagogue and Middle School.

P6111637.jpg

In the 1920s Harbin was home to around 20,000 Jews, and this street was the centre of Jewish life in the city. The synagogue here housed a youth hostel until recently, but was restored at considerable expense and converted into a delightful concert hall staging classical string performances. The Jewish Middle School next door is now a private music academy. The staff are happy for visitors to poke around inside.

P6111636.jpg

If time permits, walk south 500m to another synagogue housing a fantastic exhibit on Jewish Harbin. Otherwise, continue north along Tongjiang Jie and soon you’ll pass the splendid Turkish Mosque. Sadly, it’s closed for visitors, but you can admire it from the outside.

P6111634.jpg

From here, wheel around and take Hongzhuan Jie back towards the main street. The building at no. 45 is a former Jewish hospital. If the door’s open, you can go through to ogle the old red-brick courtyard in the back. Just inside the entrance is the excellent Luyu Coffee, worth a pit-stop for its original windows, lofty ceilings, and artistically crowned cappuccinos.

P6111640.jpg

Heading back towards Zhongyang Dajie, you’ll see this novel attempt at heritage preservation at no.10. Inside is a swish Cantonese restaurant.

P6101482.jpg

Back on Zhongyang Dajie, glance at the grand old Modern Hotel at no. 89 (dusty memorabilia is on display in the ground-floor bar), then skip across to no. 120, noting the bare-breasted statues topping the Romanesque entrance columns as you enter. This former Japanese company is now the Harbin Tourist Center. Climb the staircase and hurry through the awful digital exhibit, then sneak out through a side door into an antique stairway with slam-door elevator shaft.

The interiors here are joyously original, and home to a few shops and offices, so you’re free to wander about. Heading up to the third floor reveals a silk boutique with restored interior…

P6101491.jpg

…And lovely views on to Zhongyang Dajie form a little balcony.

P6101493.jpg

Back down on the street, next door to a shop selling Harbin sausages, is no. 129, a tiny Russian store – more of a hallway – with a preserved interior. It hawks Russian bread, knick-knacks and chocolate. Continue walking north until you cross Xitou Dajie. A little way east along this intersecting street is the delightful, not-to-be-missed Russia Coffee & Food.

P6101508.jpg

A time warp of a place, this restaurant is decked out with the worldly effects of Nina, a Harbin resident from 1911 to her death in 2001. Everything from her piano to silverware, tea-sets and grandfather clock is on display, including a series of portraits and photographs. The café owner purchased her estate when she died, and elected to put them on display. And we can be thankful for it. Have a tea (or vodka) here by all means, but the Russian food, including borscht and piroshky, is underwhelming.

Leaving the restaurant and continuing north, take the underpass beneath Youyi Jie (pausing briefly to glance eastward at the old tram station topped by a clock tower). Continue on pass Harbin’s Flood Control Monument to the south bank of the Songhua River.

P6101518.jpg

From here you can sink a Harbin beer or three at one of the tents either side of the Flood Control Monument, before promenading westward through Stalin Park, named in 1953 to celebrate Sino-Soviet camaraderie. Look out for a few old wooden restaurants from the Manchukuo period. If you’re got the energy, catch a ferry (or cable car) across the water to Sun Island.

And, after all that, if you still want snow and ice, grab a cab to the 2017’s Harbin Indoor Ski Resort, the world’s biggest, kept at a balmy -2 degrees’ Celsius year round.