Ranked as the 10th largest city in China, Harbin is located in the far Northeast corner of China. During the construction of the China far East Railway in 1898, and extension of the Trans-Siberian, the Russians got a sweet deal out of the failing Chinese emperors allowing them to use Harbin as an outpost to house their workers, store materials, etc. Tsarist Russia encouraged Russian settlement in their important Trans-Siberian-Railway outpost by waiving the then 25 year long military service. For Jews who settled there, the restrictions applying in Russia were also waived. Russians being Russians they kind of didn’t give it back until 1932 when the Japanese invaded. However, the Chinese slowly regained ownership of Harbin (but why they wanted to I'm not sure) and whereas a visitor used to see a city full of fur-clad Russians with the occasional Chinese, it is now quite firmly the other way around.
In our Harbin research we came to expect that temperatures in November would be a freezing 10F (-12C) but we were pleasantly surprised to find it a balmy 37F (3C). Despite the unexpected gift of warmth we were still happy to have brought our Cuddle Duds and sweaters, winter coats, gloves, scarves, and hats. I'm still not quite sure whether or not Harbin was aware that it was unexpectedly balmy. The river there sure as heck didn't know.
If you ever go to Harbin, or even to China, again, do not buy the Frommer's guide. Supposedly updated in 2008, the book was full of misinformation and outright mistakes, particularly for Harbin. Our first night there we took a cab to a place called India Street to try an Indian restaurant lauded in Frommer's...only to get there and find that the place had been closed for some time. So there we were, freezing freaking cold, approaching dark, in a neighborhood it didn't look like we wanted to be in, completely starving, and not feeling so comfortable with our current situation. There weren't any cabs immediately available and there wasn't really another way to get around there unless we wanted to hunt down a bus and take our future in our hands getting on and heading to unknown destinations; which was a no. We remembered passing a TGIF and decided that, given the present circumstances, we would fold and eat American. Well we got there and it wasn't a TGIF it was the Saint Petersburg (as in Florida) Cafe which seemed to have robbed TGIF of its logo. Food was a little scary as were the decorations...lots of neon and mirrors and very Miami Vice. There was to have been entertainment with showgirls and as much as we wanted to see it for the horror we knew it would bring...we just couldn't make it. Incidentally, whatever this place was was recommended by the evil Frommer's.
Next day we set out seeing what was to be explored in Harbin. The answer is not much. You can do Harbin in two days...max. Despite having the look of a city that has been salted for snow far too often (ie grey with whitish smears all over everything) I found the architecture at least to be quite interesting. It is very easy to tell that the Russians had a large hand in building the city. While signage everywhere is Chinese, the buildings are very very Russian.
All the buildings that is, except for our favorite...
Yes, that's right, there's a WalMart in Harbin and it was a Godsend. For some reason, of all the cities in China we visited, it seemed particularly difficult to find food in Harbin. Maybe because we were afraid to trust Frommer's anymore (wisely) or because few menus came in English...but we stocked well up on food and snacks at WalMart. Also, the Harbin WalMart's butcher section was like a real butcher's shop with hanging dead animals. I think American WalMarts should have those.
Worth mentioning is that I bought our train tickets at one of the stations in Beijing...in Chinese. I stood forever in the line for foreigners which, as far as I could tell, was no different from any other line. Anyway, I got to the top of the line and managed to buy to tickets with return to Harbin all by me onesey in Zhong Wen. Mini wave in honor of me!