Harbin originally a Russian-built railway outpost carved out of the wilderness on the banks of the Songhua River is the northernmost major city in China and capital of Hei Long Jiang Province. It is the country's coldest province, with winter temperatures that hover, on average, around -15°F (-26°C). Like many border regions, it is an amalgamation of clashing extremes, home to one of China's roughest mountain ranges, some of its most fertile soil, its largest oil and coal fields, its most pristine wilderness, and most of its few remaining nomad groups.
The city was founded in 1897 as a camp for Russian engineers surveying construction of the eastern leg of the Trans-Siberian railroad. Demand for labor and the city's laissez-faire atmosphere quickly attracted a diverse population of outcasts from Latvia, the Ukraine, and Poland, as well as Manchuria. Many Jews migrated here and their influence can be seen in some of the old buildings in the city. At its height, one of the most bizarrely cosmopolitan cities in Asia -- cold, dirty, rife with speculation and venereal disease, architecturally vibrant, and a model for ethnic and religious tolerance. For a while it was referred to as the “Paris of the Orient”.
The town fell under Japanese control during World War II and was finally recaptured in 1946 by the Russians who gave it back to the Chinese in a few months. In fact, these three countries have been taking turns occupying the area for many years.
Most original foreign residents fled at the end of World War II. The city has begun to recover some of its former face, however, as trainloads of Russian merchants and prostitutes flood back to take advantage of China's new economic momentum.
Since 1985, Harbin has been host to the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival held during the month of January, it is China’s original and greatest ice artwork festival, and one of the largest of its kind in the world.
We fly into Beijing and check into the Raffles Beijing Hotel as we have done several times previously. Several special rates can be found on their Internet site as they aggressively try to attract guests. The hotel is centrally located between the Forbidden City/Tienanmen Square and a major shopping area on Wangfujing Street and our favorite massage place. Here is a photo of the lobby.
The next morning we taxi to the airport and fly to Harbin and check into the Sangria La Harbin Hotel into a room overlooking the Songhua River. Judith arranged to have the hotel car pick us up making the trip comfortable and stress free as the driver made our way on snow covered roads that had been treated with ashes to help traction. I realized that the temperatures at Harbin would render road salt useless.
I took this photo through the hotel window. The sun seems to be trying vainly to stay above the horizon. It is as cold outside as this photo portrays.
As you can see the festival covers several acres, with tall structures and lots of lights. Later we go for a brief and cold visit.
That evening we sign up to eat at the Ice Palace. The Ice Palace is a small restaurant constructed entirely of ice which is accessed off the back door of the hotel. The meal is a hot pot which requires that various meats and vegetables be placed into the boiling mixture of exotic broth and cooked until done. The problem was that use of chop sticks is not possible with a thick pair of gloves and our hands got quite cold. It helped when they brought a heated stone, but that too became cold before dinner was over. In fact toward the end of the meal, the still unused food was frozen to the plates.
This is fine hotel with larger rooms and we stay for 4 nights. After we are settled off we go to see the snow sculpture part of the Winter Festival.