Harbin Travel Guide

A motorcycle taxi in Harbin
A motorcycle taxi
in Harbin

Situated in the far north of China close to the vast sub-Siberian plains, Harbin is the pleasant capital of Heilongjiang province. It was a simple fishing hamlet on the Songhua River until the Russians linked it to both Vladivostok and Dalian by rail at the close of the 19th century. The railway and the Bolshevik Revolution brought large numbers of Russians to the city, prompting a change in Harbin’s fortunes. Once called "Little Moscow" for its charming pockets of Russian architecture, Harbin still vaguely resembles an outpost of Imperial Russia. While the city’s summer is quite pleasant, its winter temperatures dip below–22°F (–30°C), perfect weather for its spectacular Ice Festival.

Harbin City Center

Visitors' checklist

  • 340 miles (550 km) N of Shenyang
  • 4,750,000
  • Harbin Bus Station, CAAC (buses to airport)
  • 14 Songhuajiang Jie, 0451 5360 1717
  • Ice Festival (Jan 5–Feb 25), Harbin Music Festival (Jul)

Harbin City Center

  • Church of St. Sofia 2
  • Flood Control Monument 4
  • Jile Temple 8
  • Provincial Museum 7
  • Qiji Futu Pagoda 9
  • Stalin Park 5
  • Sun Island Park 6
  • Zhaolin Park 3
  • Zhongyang Dajie 1
People walking and relaxing along Harbin’s riverbank
People walking and relaxing
along Harbin’s riverbank

Exploring Harbin
Harbin’s most pleasurable aspects lie within the Daoli district (Daoli Qu), the area stretching from the main railway station to the Songhua River. The district’s downtown area is lined with several upmarket boutiques, fur shops, and department stores. Visitors can walk north along the pedestrianized shopping street of Zhongyang Dajie to explore the picturesque cobbled alleys and architectural legacies of the grand Russian era. Numerous shops and buildings on Zhongyang Dajie have been restored, and their histories recorded in English on exterior plaques. The lanes leading off Zhongyang Dajie are ideal for a leisurely stroll, while along its length are several good bars and restaurants. Lined with ice sculptures in winter, the streets here are alive with the bustle of pavement cafés during summer.

The splendid Byzantine-style Church of St. Sofia
The splendid Byzantine-style
Church of St. Sofia

East of Zhongyang Dajie is the Church of St. Sofia, the city’s most spectacular Russian edifice. Dating from 1907, it is also the largest Russian Orthodox church in the Far East. This Byzantinestyle red-brick cathedral is topped with a green, onion-shaped dome. It houses the Architecture and Arts Centre, a rewarding photographic exhibition of the Russian influence on Harbin.

To the north, Zhaolin Park is the setting for many of the ice sculptures of the annual Ice Festival (Bingdeng Jie), officially held every year from January 5 to February 25. In winter, the park is transformed into a glistening wonderland of brightly-lit ice sculptures, ranging from simple statues to buildings, monuments, and temples.

Close by, Harbin’s riverfront is dotted with a number of interesting sights. The Flood Control Monument at the northern end of Zhongyang Dajie was erected in 1958 to commemorate the river’s flood-prone history. Stretching 26 miles (42 km) along the riverbank is Stalin Park, China’s last public memorial to Joseph Stalin. It is an engaging riverside promenade and meeting place for Harbin locals. In summer, boat trips can be taken along the river and across to Sun Island Park on the northern bank. The park has a variety of recreational attractions and can also be reached by cable car. In winter, the river freezes over completely, and visitors can hire go-carts or simply walk across. An annual snow sculpture exhibition is held on Sun Island, which is also home to the Siberian Tiger Park, where the endangered Manchurian tiger is currently being bred. Visitors may want to give this rather dismal place a miss, as the fenced-off area seems much too small for the big cats, who are constantly being teased with live chickens by noisy busloads of tourists.

Southeast of the main railway station, the Provincial Museum has a rather uninspiring collection of exhibits with no English captions. Farther east along Dong Dazhi Jie are some of Harbin’s Buddhist temples, all of which were damaged during the Cultural Revolution. The quiet Jile Si is home to an active Buddhist community. The complex follows a typical Buddhist temple layout with Drum and Bell Towers, Hall of Heavenly Kings, and a main hall, adorned with statues of Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha) and various bodhisattvas. Adjacent is the seven-tiered Qiji Futu Pagoda, standing within the largest temple complex in the province. Nearby on Wenmiao Jie, the Confucian Temple is a sizeable shrine also worth visiting. Harbin’s zoo has been moved 25 miles (41 km) away from the city center, renamed Harbin Northern Forest Zoo, and is now one of the largest zoos in China.

Sun Island Park

  • 3 Jingbei Lu
  • daily

Harbin Northern Forest Zoo

  • Gezidong
  • daily
Tiger at the Siberian Tiger Park, Harbin
Tiger at the Siberian Tiger Park, Harbin

12 miles (20 km) southwest of Harbin in the small village of Pingfang, the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base is the city’s most notorious sight. Formerly operated by the Japanese army’s 731 Division, the gruesome remains of the experimental base are now open to the public. It housed a top-secret research unit that subjected thousands of Chinese, Korean, British, Mongolian, and Russian prisoners to some truly horrendous experiments. The Japanese destroyed the base at the end of World War II, and it was only after the dogged efforts of a Japanese journalist in the 1980s that the existence of the base was exposed. The museum is largely limited to photographs and all captions are in Chinese, but the site survives as a somber monument to the atrocities of World War II.

Tiger at the Siberian Tiger Park, Harbin
The elegant, seven-tiered Qiji Futu
Pagoda in the northeast of town

Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base

  • Pingfang
  • daily

    Jingpo Hu

  • 62 miles (100 km) SW of Mudanjiang
  • from Mudanjiang to Dongjing, then minibus to Jingpo Hu in summer only; in winter via taxi
  • from Harbin & Mudanjiang
  • 34 Jingfu Lu, Mudanjiang, 0453 695 0061
  • daily

    An attractive, 31-mile (50-km) long winding strip of water, Jingpo Hu was carved from the Mudan River by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago. The surrounding forested slopes are clearly reflected in the lake’s waters, hence its name, "Mirror Lake." In summer, busloads of visitors – largely Chinese and Russian – gather at Jingpo Shanzhuang, a village on the northern shore equiped with abundant resort facilities. Although tourism has spoiled some of the lake’s natural beauty, much of its huge body of water and the luxuriant wooded hills are still tranquil and worth exploring. The 131-ft (40-m) wide waterfall Diaoshuilou Pubu lies at the northern end of the lake. Its cascade is most impressive in the wetter summer months, while in winter, it freezes into a spectacular curtain of ice.

    Diving off the edge of Diaoshuilou Pubu (Diaoshuilou Waterfall), Jingpo Hu
    Diving off the edge of Diaoshuilou
    Pubu (Diaoshuilou Waterfall), Jingpo Hu

    Visiting the lake is possible in winter, although temperatures can also dip well below freezing point through to April, with fewer transport and accommodations options. July and August are the wettest and busiest months, and booking ahead at lakeside hotels is recommended. An alternative is to stay in Mudanjiang city to the north, from where buses depart for Jingpo Hu. Activities include boating, fishing, and hiking and boat tours around the lake can also be arranged. Not far from the waterfall is a Korean minority village.

    A visitor enjoying a ride on a jet ski at Jingpo Hu
    A visitor enjoying a ride
    on a jet ski at Jingpo Hu

    Several volcanic features dot the surrounding area, including lava caves and the Dixia Senlin (Under-ground Forest), 31 miles (50 km) northwest of Jingpo Hu. Not actually subterranean, the forest has grown spectacularly in the fertile soil of ten dormant volcanic craters. The delicate ecosystem here supports a varied animal and plant population including black bears, leopards, purple pines, firs, and dragon spruces. Taxis and buses leave regularly from Jingpo Hu’s main gate to Dixia Senlin. It is also worth looking out for tour buses to the lake that include trips to Dixia Senlin.

    Dixia Senlin

  • 50 km NW of Jingpo Hu.
  • daily

    Zhalong Nature Reserve

    • 17 miles (27 km) SE of Qiqiha’er
    • to Qiqiha’er, then bus
    • daily
    The marshlands at Zhalong Nature Reserve, important to migrating birds
    The marshlands at Zhalong Nature
    Reserve, important to migrating birds

    China’s largest wetland reserve, the 518,700-acre (210,000-ha) Zhalong Nature Reserve lies in the Songhua-Nen River plain, along a major bird migratory route from the Arctic to Southeast Asia. Zhalong’s reedbeds, ponds, and marshland provide an ideal home to almost 300 species of birds, including swans, storks, ducks, geese, egret, white ibis, and other waterfowl. Established in 1979, the reserve is one of the few breeding grounds in the Far East for the marsh grassbird (Megalurus pryeri). Six of the world’s 15 varieties of crane are also found here. The most famous are the endangered red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis), a tall bird with black and white plumage and a red crest that is the symbol of longevity in China, and the white-naped crane (Grus vipio), both of which are bred at a research center here. Other rare bird species that visit Zhalong include the swan goose (Anser cygnoides), and the siberian crane, (Grus leucogeranus). Birds arrive in spring, and begin breeding in summer. The best time to visit the reserve is from April to June. It is advisable to take binoculars, as Zhalong’s population of waterfowl can be elusive.

    Wu Da Lian Chi & the River Border

    • 232 miles (375 km) N of Harbin
    • from Harbin or Qiqiha’er to Beian, then bus to Wu Da Lian Chi
    • from Harbin

    A large and popular nature reserve situated in a volcanic field, Wu Da Lian Chi lies in a region in western Heilongjiang inhabited by the ancient Daur minority. Its name, meaning "Five Big Connected Lakes," is derived from the five bodies of water created by a succession of volcanic eruptions, the most recent occurring in the 18th century. The resulting lava, which blocked the Bei River and created the lakes, has turned Wu Da Lian Chi into a volcanic spa, with geothermal springs and sulphurous waters that have a reputation throughout China for their curative powers.

    The 14 volcanoes at Wu Da Lian Chi add a measure of drama and character to the region’s flat terrain. To the west of Number 3 Lake are the two principal volcanic vents, Lao Hei Shan (Old Black Hill) and Huoshao Shan (Fire Burn Hill). The sites of the most recent eruptions, which took place between 1719–21, both volcanoes are popular with visitors and can be climbed for panoramic views of the area. Surrounded by fields of lava, Laohei Shan generated most of the magma that spilled out into the surrounding area. However, like all the volcanoes at Wu Da Lian Chi, it is now dormant. Visitors can also bathe in the area’s pungent hot water springs and taste the local mineral water. Apparently bursting with dissolved minerals and curative powers, the waters are sought by a devoted band of the ill and infirm, as well as elderly Chinese, who flock to Wu Da Lian Chi to avail of treatment in the numerous sanatoriums that have opened here. The waters are also the star attraction of the annual Water Drinking Festival of the local Daur people, held every May.

    Underground caverns dot the area, including the freezing Crystal Palace and Bai Long Dong (White Dragon Cave), subterranean ice caves decorated with ice sculptures and crowded with visitors in summer. The nearest settlement is the village of Wu Da Lian Chi, which has several hotels. Since the guided tours available often make costly and needless diversions, visitors may find it more efficient to travel independently by regular taxi or motorcycle cab.

    Bai Long Dong

    • daily
    The frozen Heilong Jiang, used for traveling through the heavily forested terrain
    The frozen Heilong Jiang, used for traveling
    through the heavily forested terrain

    The Heilong Jiang (Black Dragon River, known as the Amur in Russia), that lends its name to this province, demarcates a long section of the border between China and Siberia. Several of Northeast China’s ethnic tribes traditionally settled in this region, making their living from the river, although many have now been assimilated into the larger Han Chinese population. It is possible to see Siberian forests and small settlements along the border. Since most parts of this region require a permit, it is advisable to check with Harbin’s Public Security Bureau.

    Connected to Harbin by train, the large border town of Heihe sees a healthy cross-border trade with the Russian port town of Blagoveshchensk, which can be visited with a tourist visa for Russia, arranged in Beijing. Hour-long cruises along the Heilong Jiang are also available. At the northern tip of Heilongjiang is Mohe, whose main attraction is the spectacular aurora borealis (northern lights) in winter. The town records almost 22 hours of daylight in June.

    For more details, please visit China Tours and China Travel Information.