My first visit to China during a tour of the North East province of Heilongjiang was fantastic and surprising. The capital, Harbin is just as beautiful as any European city with its wide avenues, romantic architecture and decorative street lamps. This backdrop is contrasted with the grit and grime of a mainland Chinese city, with the street markets frying up an appetite and people from all walks of the rat race just trying to make a buck. Venture outside of Harbin and there is a world of unexpected beauty, from watching the regal red crowned cranes take flight to reverently washing your face in the spiritual waters of the volcanic temple. Please join me as I recall some of the photographic highlights of my trip.
The Heilongjiang province of China borders Russia and Inner Mongolia. During the earlier part of the 20th century, many Russians migrated to the capital, Harbin for work opportunities and to escape the revolutionary uprisings back home. Today, not many Russian residents remain however their influence in bringing European civilisation to China still stands. The greatest symbol of that is the Saint Sophia Cathedral, which was completed in 1912 and is the largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the Far East.
Every tourist tries to get that perfect iconic Harbin photo of the pigeon’s flying around the Saint Sophia Cathedral’s green, onion-shaped domes. However just as pretty is the spectacle of the children playing around the square and feeding seeds to the squabs of pigeons by the chapel side.
On the other side of town is another Harbin icon known as the Dragon Tower. It is the tallest freestanding lattice tower in China at 336 meters and serves as a broadcast tower as well as an observation deck. For a small fee you can take the elevator to the top and see a panoramic view of Harbin city. However I preferred seeing the view of the tower from the ground. Not because I am scared of heights, but because Harbin is not particularly beautiful from up high as the buildings are similar in height and style and there are no interesting environmental features such as lakes or hills to break up the monotony. However there are some kitschy Chinese Animal statues to see at the top, but whatever you do, do not go to the Long Ta tower restaurant, which serves suspicious Western cuisine and has an unappetising smell emanating from it.
The main street of Harbin is Zhongyang Pedestrian Street. Walking here you will wonder whether you are really in China or in Europe. The street is wide and cobblestoned, with gorgeously ornate buildings from the early 20th century lining either side and painted in warm colours such as yellow, red and orange with cream trim. This was the first main street of Harbin that was built by the Russians around 110 years ago. It is populated with all sorts of restaurants and shops, from your big Western brands like H&M and Starbucks to some quirky Asia shops selling donkey balls or milk ice cream. When it begins to get dark, Russian songs can be heard playing from the balconies of the Russian-themed restaurants.
If you continue walking along Zhongyang through to the underpass, you will come to Stalin Park, which is a busy nightspot of Harbin. It is next to the Songhua River and therefore a perfect spot for a summer evening strolls to enjoy the pleasant breezes. The river is lit up with fancy floating restaurants and a few vendors have setup BBQs on the beach.
Here is also the famous night market of Harbin where you will come across so many interesting foods and smells your eyes will bulge out of your head. From stinky tofu and fried beancurd wrappers to giant clams, fresh prawns and crawling bugs! The most popular foods are the BBQ octopus and meats on bamboo skewers. But be wary, at the end of the night the bins overflowing with used skewers are collected and the small remnants remaining on the skewer are carefully collected and made into gravy.
My heart was captured and a dream fulfilled when I held a tiger cub at the Siberian Tiger Park. Visiting here is an absolute must if you go to Harbin. You will get up close to the Siberian tigers in a natural habitat as you are driven through the 1,440,000 square meter park in an iron-barred van with open windows. Live chickens and rabbits can be purchased and fed to the tigers by their handlers if you want more exciting photo opportunities. At one point we saw two tigers leaping onto one of the vans full of tourists, which was both entertaining and frightening.
There are more than 800 Siberian tigers here as well as other wild large cats including lions and pumas. The baby tiger cubs are kept in a separate pen and for a small fee you can pick one up. I was delighted to cuddle one cub that adorably tried to roar whilst in my arms. However I needed to wear special large mittens to handle the baby as it is very delicate at that tender age and susceptible to disease.
Sadly, the Siberian Tiger park has also been associated with many scandals in the last few years. The tigers are no longer actively bred as there is an oversupply in the park that is expensive to maintain. Allegations have been made that tigers are killed and their parts sold to Chinese medicine practitioners, who believe the bones and other organs have special health properties.
A pleasant thing to do on a sunny day in Harbin is to make a boat trip to Sun Island from Stalin Park. Whilst the last thing I expected to see in China was immaculate landscapes, strolling amongst the manicured flower beds is a favourite thing to do here. Folds of bright colour stretch out as far as the eye can see. Lemony yellow woodsorrel, warm red vincas, happy orange daisies, lush green grass and brilliant blue skies! It is no wonder this is also the location of a rehabilitation and mental health clinic. I am sure that the patients who are wheeled out by nurses in their pyjamas with acupuncture needles sticking out of their scalp, feel instantly better to take in such beautiful surroundings.
However the biggest drawcard to Sun Island is the Russian Village. This place is a truly bizarre collection of decaying and generic Russian icons that does not feel like Russia at all. First you pass the larger than life matryoshka figures before collecting a gimmicky Russo Chinese passport to enter the village. The village is full of quaint wooden houses that appear poorly maintained with its peeling paint and wobbly wood panels. Some houses are flogging dusty Russian products such as chocolate, vodka and bread, at exorbitant prices, whilst others display Russian dolls and literature.
We came across two old Russian women in the village who were attracting crowds of Chinese around them, all angling to take their picture (there are not many European faces in these parts). However the women were rudely shouting their charge rate of $10 per click and anyone who dared to try and take a sneaky photo of them was caught and asked to hand over the requisite fee.
The other appeals of Sun Island are the lovely little beach, close to the ferry pier and from where you can also get a cable car back to central Harbin as well as the Russian theatre.
A great place to hang out in Harbin is at Lao Daowai. This is the old baroque style area of Harbin, which boasts many beautiful old buildings and feels more authentically Chinese than the main Zhongyang street. The area is currently undergoing a lot of gentrification and there are a few trendy restaurants, cafes and bars popping up around here amid the more traditional ones. Nonetheless, it is a very pleasant place enjoy a dumpling or tea outside whilst taking in the architecture and the atmosphere of the old town.
The Jile Si, Temple of Bliss is the most well known Buddhist temple in the region. Outside of the temple there are several beggars and tricksters trying to make money from the temple goers. I fell into one such trick when I purchased some small birds to release into the air, but the salesperson kept thrusting more birds into my hand and then asking me for more money!
Once you pass through the temple gates the magnificence and size of the temple quickly dawns on you. Even the snobbiest Chinese people will acknowledge that this temple is comparable to those that exist in the ancient capitals of Beijing and Xi An. It consists of three large courtyards, within which there are several halls, shrines and pagodas, and an immense giant gold statue of Buddha. All the buildings are created in the traditional Chinese style with blue bricks and glazed coloured tiles. It is an active temple and I observed many visitors paying and bowing to statues, and lighting big, fat sticks of incense in the many urns, which made my eyes water.
Just across the road from the temple outside is a street market, where you can get a good glimpse into what the locals like to eat. You need to give credit to Chinese technological sophistication as here, shoppers can purchase their fruits and vegetables from the street vendors using a phone app. Even the street beggars can receive alms via this same ap. I saw many interesting and fresh foods in the market like giant cucumbers, thick slabs of cake, chicken embryos, hanging chicken carcasses and boxes of blueberries. It was here I experienced the largest and juiciest peaches I have ever tasted and I am still dreaming of the day I can return to Harbin simply to taste once again the nectar of their peaches.
The food in Heilongjiang is amazing but for an extra special dinner we went to a Mongolian Park for a traditional Mongolian lamb feast one evening. Due to its close proximity to Inner Mongolia, there are many Mongolian people and influences in the Heilongjiang region. The particular park we went to is approximately 45 minutes outside of the city centre and upon arrival, we felt transported to a whole new world. Imagine a big, flat and grassy plane in the middle of nowhere full of decorated yurts (round tents) spread out amid scores of fairy lights and plastic flowers. To add to the surreal atmosphere, we were surrounded by hundreds of identical and seemingly empty high rise buildings. This spectacle was smack bag in the middle of one of those ghost towns you hear about in China.
Our party were escorted inside one of the yurts, which was lavishly decorated inside. We sat at a round wooden table where I was made the guest of honour. The Mongolian hosts began singing and playing their traditional music before inviting me to cut the whole cooked lamb and take the first sip of wine from an ornate carafe.
The Mongolian costumes and music were incredible and so was the feast we enjoyed afterwards. A range of rich dishes were laid out for us including the Mongolian lamb, date soup, beef flank, whole steamed fish, beancurd wrappers, and vegetables.
Harbin is an unforgettable city that possesses all the mysterious charm of China along with the beauty of Europe. Please read about my stories and photos from the Wudalianchi Geopark and Zhalong Nature Reserve in Heilongjiang.