A Russian woman sings in the hotel balcony. Crowds gather underneath and sing along, while a group of people peer from the window of a bar opposite the hotel. A woman points downwards on the street we are standing on and explains to me that the bricks underneath me are over 100 years old. The buildings around me are “Moscow-inspired” and “Paris-styled”. If it wasn’t for the Russian woman singing in Mandarin on the balcony above, I could’ve easily forgotten where I was: China.Central Avenue, Harbin – photo by writer
To say Harbin does not seem like a typical Chinese city may be inaccurate here considering I have never been to any other part of China. However, if I was ever to visualize a city like Beijing or Shanghai – I would never imagine it to be anything like Harbin.
Located in the Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China, Harbin seems enormous! Going from one district in the city to another takes hours – the architecture around me remains predominantly European and luckily, China plans on keeping it that way.
Initially just a fishing village, Harbin was established into a modern city following the construction of the Chinese-Eastern Railway financed by the Russian Empire. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–5, Harbin was a base for Russian military operations in Northeastern China.NanGang Exhibition Hall, Harbin – photo by writer
After the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia's influence declined, and thousands of people from various countries including the United States, Germany, and France moved to Harbin. Sixteen countries established consulates and set up numerous industrial, commercial and banking companies in Harbin – remnants of which I could visibly see even today.Synagogue in Harbin – photo by writer
The locals take great pride over their heritage which includes the one left behind by a group of 20,000 Jews who sought refuge in Harbin to escape prosecution. From hospitals, hotels to restaurants, the Jews made dozens of contributions to Harbin’s development – one of them being the Modern Hotel – where the Russian lady sings.The St.Sophia Cathedral in Harbin – photo by writer
At some distance from the synagogue is the St.Sophia cathedral. A mounting figure built in 1907, the cathedral is beautiful inside and outside. In 1997 it was turned into a museum and although the paint inside the building is peeling, the photographs inside show proof of much better times.
Whether this diverse history can be a good bait to attract tourism is perhaps something Harbin may need to ponder upon. Where a history buff may be drawn to the city immediately, someone looking for a summer holiday may not. Outside China, many remain oblivious to the treasures the city possesses, with the exception being the winter Snow and Ice Festival.
Held every year in Harbin, the festival boasts colossal monuments built in ice and cheerful holiday sculptures molded in snow. Although the festival remains the city’s pride and joy, there is hope other attractions in the various districts will be able to draw crowds over for tourism and business purposes.Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival – Reuters (File Photo) A shopping district in Harbin – photo by writer
Visiting various industrial zones and factories highlighted the immense opportunities for development that Harbin possesses – a feature most of the local government officials take no delay in highlighting. The tall empty buildings lined throughout these areas further bring to focus Harbin’s anticipation of growth and investment.
But instead of boasting figures here about Harbin’s economy and vast developmental sites, let’s get back to my journey and talk food here.
Going by my first few meals in Harbin, I assumed jelly-fish, shark-fin soup and lots of green vegetables were what would remain in focus – but like its architecture, history and culture, Harbin’s food was just as diverse. Where one meal would comprise Chinese delicacies, the next would be a typical Russian meal, rich with steak and poached fruits, served beautifully as if it were an entry for a final round of Master Chef.
The group of local journalists and other hosts who traveled alongside with us were so excited and almost as insistent as us Pakistanis when it came to food – which is perhaps why I couldn’t say no when it came to the multiple helpings each restaurant seemed to offer.Breakfast in Harbin – photo by writer
Being someone who focuses mostly on chicken as opposed to sea food or beef, Harbin introduced me to lobsters, crabs and a species known as sea cucumbers. What I thought was a variation of the typical cucumbers I have munched on all my life – I was shocked (among other reactions which mostly took form in the back of my throat) that the sea cucumber is not a cucumber at all – it wasn’t even a vegetable! Sea cucumbers are marine animals – a delicacy if you may. The discovery (and reaction to) this fact a few days after I had consumed the poor squishy animal was a moment of great amusement to my fellow travelers who assumed all along that I knew what I was going for when I sliced through it.
Moving past sea cucumbers, we arrive at Volga Manor – a hauntingly beautiful resort with little cabins and lakes dotting a vast property, constructed far from the hustle bustle of the city.
We arrived to a group of Russians dancing and welcoming us with a round loaf of bread and a frenzy of hotel guests milling around the pathways. With recently built miniature versions of Russian buildings which had been destroyed during the war, Volga Manor didn’t just possess beauty – it had reconstructed history. Taking a stroll around the property, one could easily get lost, which is why taking a spin around the place in a tram was a much better option to opt for.Volga Manor, Harbin – photo by writer
Owned by a billionaire who took great pleasure in mingling with each of his guests (and often demanding them to sing for him in their native language), Volga Manor was definitely the best spot to conclude our journey with.Volga Manor, Harbin – photo by writer
In a trip that lasted less than a week – I got a glimpse of Chinese culture, Russian heritage along with some Jewish history. From scorching heat to a typhoon that eventually led to cool winds – I witnessed quite a variation of weather too. And the cuisine, well that’s already been spoken of enough – would I consider going back… some day, why not?
The writer is the Deputy Editor at Dawn.com
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Shyema Sajjad is a former Dawn staffer.
She tweets @ShyemaSajjad
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