We like Harbin. Well, obviously we would say that, but not everyone does. It’s a completely unusual city within China, though – built by the émigré Russians who’d fled the Russian revolution in 1917, and thought they’d just be staying a year or two until things quietened down and the Tsar was back on his throne.
The result is a main pedestrian street that looks like St Petersburg should have looked if the Revolution had never happened – an enthusiastic outburst of art nouveau European architecture in the middle of a North-Chinese city. But Harbin also has its firmly Chinese sectors too, so it’s a cheerful mixture of both cultures. Even so, the extravagant architecture of the “Modern Hotel” takes you by surprise when you first see it – because of course it was really the “Hotel Moderne” when it was built. Further along the pedestrian main street there’s a café called “Russian Café”, which has a small exhibition about the Russian community who founded Harbin, and what some of these old buildings were before they became “Bookshop No 16”.
The time to come to Harbin, however, is in winter – when the Annual Harbin Ice Festival happens, and a huge park area is given over to the most spectacular sculptures made from ice that you’ve ever seen. In addition to all of this, Harbin’s shopping is quite developed… it’s all fake brands of course, but they are “highest quality fakes”, as they claim locally.