Harbin is the tenth largest city in China, and beyond question one of the most idiosyncratic. From a fusion of Russian and Chinese cultures has sprung a city full of surprises unlike any other major metropolis in the world. It lies on the southern bank of the Songhua River and is the capital of the Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, acting as the political, economic and cultural centre of the northeast.
Harbin was little more than a small fishing village until the turn of the last century, when the Russians reached agreement with the Qing dynasty government to allow the Chinese Eastern Railway to pass through Chinese territory. Harbin became a major transit point, and its future was transformed. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, thousands of Russians settled in Harbin and set up businesses there, giving the city a Russian character that it has never lost. The immigrants made their mark across the whole city, affecting the culture, the food and most noticeably the architecture: the majestic St. Sofia Church could have been lifted straight out of St Petersburg. As transport connections flourished, immigrants from numerous countries added to the mix, bringing English architecture, French fashion and Japanese food to name but three of their imports. The city assimilated the various cultures, to become a modern cosmopolitan ''Oriental Paris''.
In the winter, Harbin is captivating. In temperatures reaching as low as -38°C ''Ice City'' holds numerous ice and snow festivals to celebrate rather than curse the long cold months. These festivals are staged on a massive scale. Blocks of ice are sliced from the Songhua River which winds through Harbin to the north, and hewn into a gleaming paradise of palaces, pagodas, mythological creatures and anything else that captures the artist' s imagination. Harbin Ice & Snow World has been set up to display these phenomenal creations, lighting them up at night with a delicate display of multi-colored lights shining out through the translucent ice.
Harbin also has one of the most advanced ski resorts in China. The Yabuli Ski Resort held the 1996 Asian Winter Games and is still attracting thousands of visitors to take part in a huge variety of winter sports. One of the most charming spectacles you may see at the ski resort is an ice wedding, held on the frozen river where couples declare their love to be ''as pure as crystal ice and as deep as the snow''.
Although Harbin' s reputation is built on the winter calendar, the scenery is alluring at any time of the year. The kaleidoscopic Songhua River winds through Harbin with elegant Sun Island perched like a shining pearl on its north bank. Song Mountain and Two-Dragon Mountain are equally beautiful places to enjoy the cool, sunny summers with which the city is blessed. A surprisingly popular destination is Yuquan Hunting Ground: the largest hunting ground in China, where visitors can merrily take pot-shots at the wildlife safe in the knowledge that for a few RMB they can fire with impunity. The large Manchurian Tiger breeding base and the Siberian Tiger Garden are good places for visitors who prefer to shoot animals with the aid of a telephoto lens rather than a rifle.
Unsurprisingly, Harbin local cuisine is unlike food found anywhere else in China. It is not included in the ''Eight Chinese Cuisines'' and is consequently often overlooked by culinary explorers, but it really is worth trying. Essentially a mix of Manchu, Shandong and Russian cuisine, food in Harbin features strong flavors and warm spices. Fresh vegetables dipped in a variety of specialized sauces are popular as are dumplings and rice-based dishes. A traditional way to sample a wide cross-section of Harbin food is to indulge in one of the banquets designed here. The most well known banquet is the Fly Dragon Banquet available at the Harbin International Restaurant, but many others can be ordered, including Wild Delight Banquet, Hedgehog Fungus Banquet and Flavor of North China. If you don' t think you can stomach a feast, the smaller outlets on Nangang Food Street in Guogeli Dajie or the Laodaowai will provide a more manageable introduction to local cooking.
There are plenty of shopping options too: souvenir hunters can stock up on the ''Three Treasures of Northeast China'' : Ginseng (called Panax in China) which is used in Chinese medicine, pilose and marten fur. Imported Russian Vodka, chocolate and sets of Russian dolls are available all over the city but particularly in Guogeli Dajie where the architecture is most heavily influenced by Russian styles.
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