Harbin, the venerable Ice City, is known for its picturesque Russian-influenced architecture, its magnificent ice sculptures and the bitterly cold winters giving rise to them. Owing to its historic trade link with Russia, this former village has swelled over recent centuries to become the capital and largest city in China’s north-western Heilongjiang Province.
The city’s surprising blend of Chinese and European architecture, particularly along the Zhongyang Dajie (a pedestrianised street), is one of Harbin’s main draws alongside its Ice and Snow festival in early January, which attracts visitors from around the world.
Harbin is incredibly cold in winter - temperatures often to plunge beyond minus 30 degrees Celsius. During the winter months, locals head for nearby ski resorts, or take to the city’s frozen lakes and rivers for ice skating, sledding, and leisurely walks.
The long, hot days of summer send residents flocking to the city’s many beer gardens. These often stay open late into the evening and offer ‘al fresco’ dining and live music. Summer Island is popular among locals as a shady retreat for picnics and rowing. The city also boasts many parks, temples and shrines belonging to a wide range of different religions.
Harbin’s famous DongBei (north east) food is a real treat. Regional dishes contain potatoes and Chinese cabbages, with suancai (sour cabbage) particularly favoured in winter. A wide range of other flavours can also be found, from Russian, Korean and Japanese, to Indian curries and Cantonese dumplings.
The incorrigible westerner can find a handful of fast food chains such as Pizza Hut. While Starbucks has yet to stake a claim here, Hamamas Café across from the Ha Gong Da (HIT, Harbin Institute of Technology), serves up decent coffee, burgers, cheesecakes and milkshakes.
The city boasts a passable nightlife, with three of its streets dominated by bars and restaurants catering to both locals and foreigners. While not as cosmopolitan as Shanghai or Beijing, Harbin is a beguiling city with a unique culture.
What is special or unique about your city?
The city is known as the "Ice City" and every winter it holds the "ice and snow festival", as well as the "lantern festival" and the "snow sculptures festival."
What are a newcomer's first impressions of your city?
Unlike many other cities in China, even during the long winter months the sky is bright blue and the days are very clear and sunny. The other impression is of a huge city with everything far away, and of course dismal traffic.
In the summer months, Harbin is viewed as a nice pleasant city, but during winter, the impression is of a very hard and freezing cold city.
Are these impressions likely to change?
Not really, summer is nice and winter is absolutely freezing!
What is the local language?
How easily could I live in this city without knowing this language?
Very difficult as very few people speak English and they have not been exposed to westerners much.
The expat community here is less than 2,000 people.
What are good things to remember in order to avoid offending the other residents of this city?
One thing to keep in mind is that when eating, you should avoid leaving your chopsticks standing up in your food. This is done in Chinese culture as an offering to the dead.
You should also show respect to older people by speaking to them in a very polite manner.
How might the local weather affect my daily life?
It makes life difficult in winter, and since the city is covered in ice it is very common to slip and fall.
Is there anything else I should know about the overall character of your city or its people?
Generally speaking, Chinese people are hospitable towards foreigners.
The Chinese people you meet in Harbin are friendly, but many are still fascinated by the sight of a foreigner. They stare and often call out 'hello.' It can feel a bit intimidating, but there are no hard feelings behind it. It comes from curiosity. Harbin people aren't very good at queuing, so you have to make sure you stand your ground or you won't get served at the fast food counter and post office.