Chinese cities never seem to stop talking and Harbin is no exception. The day I arrived in the former Russian colony, an old outpost on the Chinese Eastern Railway, the monologue began immediately: BOYCOTT JAPANESE PRODUCTS read a banner on Zhongyang Avenue, the city’s pedestrian core. RESOLUTELY SMASH ILLEGAL ELECTRONIC GAMES urged a sign on the other side of the cobblestones. Competing bullhorns bleated out the slogans. Travel to China’s provinces usually shelters one from Beijing’s strident propaganda, but here, in the country’s northernmost capital, I was caught between two campaigns.
I spied a fairy-tale storefront—an evergreen frame around the window, lace curtains, brass lamps—and ducked inside. The cacophony of bullhorns melted away. "Once upon a time," the café’s placard explained, "here happened many beautiful and touching stories at this old Russian House. We hope that you will have a fragrant memory here and a story of your own, too." The room smelled of cabbage piroshki and espresso. Black-and-white photos of ruddy Russians adorned the walls, along with those heavy velvet curtains that always seem to catch fire in movies. The name of the place fit perfectly: Café Russia 1914. I felt as if I’d stepped back in time.
Which is why, after all, I had come to Harbin. Developed at the turn of the 19th century, when Nicholas II built the Chinese Eastern Railway to shorten the Trans-Siberian train route to Vladivostok, the city retains much of its Russian influence and architecture. Today the capital of Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) province is littered with fossils of not only Russian but also Japanese, nationalist, and Communist rule, reminders of its tumultuous past. Yet most people who travel to Harbin don’t come for the history—they’re here to see ice.
Each January and February millions of visitors descend on Harbin for its ice sculpture festival, when chunks of the frozen Songhua River are fashioned into thousands of artworks, ranging from life-size pandas to full-scale castles, some of them dramatically lit from within. It’s quite a sight and not to be missed. The subzero temperatures, 4 p.m. sunsets, and good cheer recall Minnesota’s St. Paul Winter Carnival but with a prelitigious society twist. Kids hop across ice pedestals and swoop down four-story ice slides while adults rappel sheer frozen walls and, from the driver’s seat of go-karts, try dodging the horse-drawn sleighs that jingle across the river. And yet, much like a Chinese bikes-meet-autos rush hour, everything seems choreographed from above. Including the violence: At festival’s end the public takes up pickaxes and reduces the frozen art to cubes. In Harbin, temporal transitions haven’t been as tidy.
"Things change and the stars move" reads a plaque inside St. Sophia, the words illuminated by needles of sunlight reaching through the cracks of the onion-domed cupola. "The old age is gone with the wind, but the past events are unforgettable." The Russian Orthodox cathedral now serves as a museum of Harbin’s architecture and history. Displays of photos from the early 20th century show a thriving city of émigrés—including White Russians who fled the revolution—and local coolies. Prominent in the ethnic mix were 20,000 Russian Jews, whose heritage is now being promoted by the government as a tourist draw. Harbin’s twenties synagogue, with its distinctive pistachio-and-tangerine façade, was recently restored and reopened.
The European architecture that lines the cobblestoned streets in the city center (some now occupied by shops and even KFCs) makes it easy to imagine why Harbin was once dubbed the Paris of the East. The Beaux Arts buildings and mansards look as if they rode the train from France and decided to stay.
The question of how to make Harbin look more Chinese has vexed the government for nearly a century. In his book Creating a Chinese Harbin, the historian James H. Carter describes efforts in the twenties—after the Russians had abdicated control—to "invent tradition" by constructing outwardly Chinese buildings, labeling street signs in Chinese, and overhauling the decor. "It turns out that ’nationalism in an international city’ was a circular endeavor," Carter writes. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1932 and maintained control of Harbin until the end of World War II. Soviet troops took over but relinquished the city to the People’s Liberation Army a couple of years later.
Today there’s no mistaking which country Harbin belongs to. It has jumped headlong into a market economy, though relics of communism remain. A revealing snapshot of the new brand of socialism can be found along Harbin’s riverfront promenade—plunked down next to what must be China’s last Stalin Park is a shiny new Wal-Mart.
To travelers in the early 20th century, remote Harbin represented a challenge. Getting here past czarist Russian red tape and Cossack soldiers was a victory, though one that left writers wondering what they’d won. "Do not trifle lightly with the Harbin mattress," B. L. Putnam Weale warned in Manchu and Muscovite, published in 1904. "It is capable not only of assuming a defensive attitude but one of absolute offence. It will be a potent factor in the coming Japanese war." John Foster Fraser, who chronicled his visit to Harbin in the 1902 book The Real Siberia, described the idea of a good time in the frontier town: One rail engineer lit his cigarettes with burning rubles while another poured Champagne on a stack of 100 ruble notes before sticking them on the foreheads of a row of eight showgirls.
The beds are better and the nightlife has quieted considerably. Or so I thought. My first evening in town I took some well-intentioned advice and went to what I was promised was Harbin’s most upscale restaurant, a place called Oriental Moscow. But an hour of unrecognizable food and a floor show featuring surly Russian women slinking through an audience of appreciative Chinese tourists made it something to be missed. I told a cabbie I was looking for some renao—heat and noise, the Chinese term for "a good time"—and he took me to a bar called Blues. Here a mixed East-West crowd of students and professionals "in real estate" (their words) danced with abandon until 5 a.m., the way people in boomtowns do. Harbin, like so many of China’s cities, is witnessing massive redevelopment, with the old being razed to make way for the new.
The next day, at Café Russia 1914 I picked up a book of pho- tographs from 2001 titled The Oriental Paris. The volume captures many of Harbin’s numerous colonial structures, and it turned out to be the best guidebook for strolling around town. I wondered what prompted someone to chronicle colonialism before it became accepted tourist bait. Today Harbin celebrates its past, having just "restored" a former Russian lane, Guogeli Street, by adding a touch of the actual (an old streetcar) and the bizarre (a pedestrian mall called India Street—an effort to create mutual understanding between the two cultures). Yet the city continues to demolish parts of its Russian history. I gave Song Hongyan, the photographer of The Oriental Paris, a call.
"I came and watched them tear it down," said Song, recalling the destruction of her childhood home. "What a waste." We stood in an area of the Daowai district, a short walk from the scrubbed restorations of Zhongyang Avenue and Zhaolin Park, the original site of the ice sculpture festival (it’s now in multiple locations). This was my fifth trip to Harbin and I’d never visited this neighborhood. Make a point to do so, if you come. Over dinner Song and Hu Hong—the architect who owns Café Russia 1914—described how the century-old Russian-built neighborhood’s days are numbered. The block where Song grew up had already been replaced by a shopping mall.
Much of the Daowai district looks like a slice of 19th-century Moscow. Dense lanes of run-down row houses are now mostly inhabited by migrants from the Manchurian countryside who have come to Harbin looking for work. "Isn’t it ironic how the poorest people often live in the formerly richest houses?" Song observed. But within the lanes, life flickers on. We visited the movie theater Song patronized as a child, walked through a riotous vegetable market, entered carriage doors to admire the carved woodwork of courtyard banisters, and paced through an impromptu antiques market, ringed by old men playing chess.
It was a lovely, delicate scene. Like the festival’s ice lanterns—and most everything else sitting on the overheated real estate in China’s cities—soon it will all disappear.
Notes on Harbin
To reach this northern Chinese capital, you have to go through Beijing (Air China and United fly direct from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; Continental goes from Newark) and make the 1 3/4-hour connection to Harbin via Air China, China Southern Airlines, or Hainan Airlines.
The city’s most luxurious hotel is the Shangri-La, in a prime spot for visiting the winter festival ($165–$1,095; 555 You Yi Rd.; 86-451/8485-8888; shangri-la.com). Built in 1901 by the Russians, the intimate Lungmen Hotel was once the jewel of the Chinese Eastern Railway ($40–$120; 85 Hongjun St.; 86-451/8679-1888).
Café Russia 1914, a quaint colonial-style café, offers teas, cakes, and ample piroshki and vodka (dinner, $50; 57 Xi Toudao Rd.; 86-451/8456-3207). The dumpling house Dongcai Jiaozi Wang is a great place to sample local beer and steaming plates of northeastern China’s most famous dish (dinner, $25; 39 Zhongyang Ave.; 86-451/8465-3920).
The China International Travel Service arranges English-speaking guides ($80–$150 per day, includes driver with car, admission fees, and lunch; 626-568-8993; citsusa.com).