Zhongyang Street, February 2010. I clearly remember my boss’ reaction when I told her I was going to Harbin for Chinese New Year. “Oh, really? You shouldn’t go there, it’s very cold!” Of course I told her all about the city’s stupendous Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival, the atmospheric Jile Temple and grisly Siberian Tiger Park. But it all fell on deaf ears; after all the place was “cold” by all accounts. And so it proved! After a disastrous night at one of Planet Earth’s most miserable lodgings (Little Fir Hostel), I relocated to a four-star hotel on the main street where daily temperatures hovered around minus fifteen.
USA Bucks Bar, February 2010. Zhongyang Street is a cool place for a whole host of reasons. First up it’s fully pedestrianized; so there’s no car fumes, getting honked at or having to fear for your life as you wander over to that cutesy chocolate boutique on the other side of the road. There are also a bunch of trendy cafes and bars to duck into whenever it feels like your toes have stopped working. My favorite drinking spot was the bizarre USA Bucks Bar, owned by this colorful character, a local millionaire. He’d decked the entire place out with framed photographs of himself jetting around the world on private planes and boats, invariably with numerous supermodels attached to each arm.
Zhaolin Street, February 2010. Located in Heilongjiang Province in China’s unloved northeast; Harbin is a bustling city of five million people. Somehow though it feels way more manageable than other metropolises of its size, maybe because a good chunk of the population hides away from the cold indoors. But fear not, there are some typically chaotic streets to be found where cardboard-stacked bicycles like this one skid between cars, buses and oblivious pedestrians.
Saint Sophia Church, February 2010. Positioned just an hour and a half from the Russian border, Harbin also treats visitors to scattered bursts of old time Russia, from its collection of traditional residential structures and shops selling Matryoshka dolls, to the gorgeous Russian Coffee & Food restaurant on Zhongyang Street. And of course there’s this magnificent old redbrick church with its distinctive green, onion-shaped dome. Inside the old joint is enchantingly run down and has a fascinating exhibition of photographs documenting the city’s metamorphosis through the years.
Songhua River, February 2010. For most of the year Harbin’s wide, murky river is a predominantly unremarkable sight. But if you time your visit for February (which you should to catch the unmissable Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival), then it’ll no doubt be completely frozen over. It took me about half an hour to cross it and the views and colors from all directions were absolutely gorgeous.
I’ve also written a short story about my time in Harbin called Sub Zero Adventures.