Monday, September 3, 2007

Hanging out in Harbin

Zhongyang Dajie, downtown Harbin (click picture for more photos)

Beijing it ain’t. But if you don’t mind feeding chickens to big cats and bringing your own napkin to restaurants, this northern city has some unique charms.

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International (web), August 6, 2007

When I arrived at my hotel in Harbin at 7 in the morning, groggy from an overnight train ride from Beijing, I had to blink a few times to make sure I was seeing straight. Scores of Chinese and Russian extras in 1930s period costumes were milling in the street, which was lined with horses and buggies and vintage cars. Filming for a movie scene was underway, using the boulevard’s restored Russian and European architecture as a colorful backdrop in the early morning light.

That was as good an introduction as any to this eclectic city. In Harbin, today’s go-go Chinese consumerism jostles with an enduring Russian influence and the troubled legacy of Japanese occupation. Take the restored Orthodox Church of St. Sophia (built in 1907), one of the obligatory tourist stops—and now the home of a historical museum (on the corner of Zhaolin and Toulong Streets, admission 25 yuan, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) Inside the church, Chinese tourists spoke in hushed tones and gazed up at the fading inside of the century-old cupola. Just down the street, thundering techno music and scantily clad promotion girls were luring shoppers into a massive consumer-electronics store packed with the latest MP3s, PDAs and cell phones.

Iced tea promotion girls, Zhongyang Dajie

That hectic hawking aside, Harbin generally has a more relaxed pace (and cleaner air) than other major Chinese cities like Beijing. Tucked away in China’s far northeastern Heilongjiang province, the city is most famous for its winter ice festival. But it’s an interesting stop in warmer seasons, too. The locals are reserved but friendly—though very little English is spoken here, so bring a Mandarin phrasebook and brush up on your thank you’s (“xie xie”).

One attraction of Harbin: the big cats. This part of China, and neighboring parts of Russia, are the homeland of the famed and feared Siberian tiger. Only a few still roam in the wild in China, but a breeding farm and tiger park outside Harbin has hundreds in captivity (Dongbeihu Linyuan, admission 60 yuan, 0451-8808-0606).

The park isn’t for animal-rights activists or the faint of heart: when I called ahead, the woman on the phone cheerfully quoted me prices for feeding a live animal to one of the hulking felines: $5.25 (U.S.) for a chicken, $13.25 for a duck, $80 for a sheep and a steep $200 for a cow (the last must be prearranged, she noted). On my visit, I peered with 10 other tourists from our van to view the mercifully short “hunt” and demise of an unlucky chicken our driver had hurled out the window. “Wild Kingdom” it wasn’t.

Boy goads Siberian tiger

History buffs should head to the Unit 731 Museum, a half-hour’s drive outside Harbin (25 Xinjiang Street, Pingfang District, 0451-6801556). There stands the ominous remains of a key Japanese germ-warfare research complex, built in 1935 after Japan’s invasion of the region. Until Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945, Harbin was part of the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo. You can visit the grounds, now divided by a high-rise apartment complex (hopefully the tenants are getting a good deal on rent). Still intact are such macabre structures as the “nursing room for yellow rats,” the “frostbite laboratory” where the Japanese conducted experiments on living (Chinese) humans, and the “corpse incinerator of Beiwadi.”

The old headquarters has been converted into a creepy, dimly it museum. It details the unit’s biological-warfare experiments, which were confirmed publicly by repentant Japanese Unit 731 personnel in the 1980s. The museum claims that a total of 3,000 people were killed in the grisly trials; the Japanese called such test subjects maruta (logs of wood). Says a museum note flatly (in English): “The fascistic guilt of Japan’s No. 731 troop brooks no denial.”

Frostbite Laboratory, Unit 731 site

Despite such historical wounds, in Harbin, as elsewhere in China, Japanese youth culture is hip. Some street kids sport outfits inspired by Japanese comics; and there’s even a popular Japanese-flavored “haunted house” in the Wanda Plaza at the end of Zhongyang Dajie. For more of the locals’ idea of fun, head to nearby Stalin Park on the bank of the Songhua River. Less than two years ago a giant toxic benzene slick passed through here after a chemical plant exploded upstream—cutting off Harbin’s water supply for a few days.

But that’s ancient history. Now, children frolic on the river inside floating plastic bubbles, like waterborne hamsters. Lovers canoodle on the shaded park overlooking the river, as roller skaters zoom by. Old men draw crowds with their quickly fading water calligraphy, brushed rapidly onto the pavement. And an army of elderly women relentlessly hawk tickets for the ferries across to Sun Island park, which boasts gardens and recreational spots.

A couple tries out a water ball on Songhua River

A warm-weather stroll down Zhongyang Dajie is also a treat. The Russian and European architecture dates back to the dawn of the 20th century, and to post-Russian Revolution days when Harbin took in many White Russian émigrés who had fled the communists. These days, by late afternoon, locals begin to crowd into the festive beer gardens that serve up local “Harbin” and “Snow” lagers. Food vendors pack the gardens, offering salty snacks to go with your brew, or more substantial seafood and other skewered fare.

A high-end food option is the Modern Hotel (No. 89 Zhongyang Street, whose main entrance faces away from the street, 86-451-8461-5846 from abroad). Its third-floor restaurant is a favorite for locals’ weekend wedding banquets. For more down-home cooking, try the local specialty sha zhu cai (a soup of pig parts and congealed pig blood with cabbage) at the Da Feng Shou restaurant (just northeast of the train station, 8795-8866 or 8795-8899). Or savor the wontons at Dongfang Jiaozi Wang (Kingdom of Eastern Dumplings, 39 Zhongyang Dajie, 8465-3920).

Note: this and some other low-end Chinese restaurants have a bring-your-own-napkins policy, as a local kindly explained to me after several fruitless attempts—involving mangled Mandarin and frantic hand gestures—to get some from the waiters. Those in search of late-night fun can head to the Blues Bar, a music pub popular with locals and expats alike (No. 100 Diduan Street, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., 8464-2704 or 8674-9777).

Like other Chinese cities, Harbin has its share of locals intent on aggressively parting tourists from their cash. Some cabbies will charge tourists double (or worse) if you don’t insist they use the meter. And at the nicer hotels, male tourists can expect a late-night call inquiring whether you’d like an in-room “massage.” But overall, Harbin is much less in-your-face than Beijing or southern boomtowns like Shenzhen—and well worth a visit for its heritage as a cosmopolitan city caught between empires.

Getting there: By air, there are direct flights to Harbin from Los Angeles and Seoul; it’s a two-hour flight from Beijing. A comfortable overnight express train from Beijing takes about nine hours and puts you in Harbin first thing in the morning.

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