Harbin offers Russian flavor to a China visit

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Tucked away in the far northeast of China, Harbin has long been popular with Russians and travelers on trans-Siberian itineraries.

It was a sleepy fishing village a little more than 100 years ago, but Harbin is now an immense metropolis that boasts an international ice festival and high-quality ski facilities that have marked its frosty footprint on the tourist map.

However, it's not only snow that makes Harbin a good place to chill out.

Harbin first came to prominence at the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which brought trade and commerce as well as thousands of Russians.

A second wave of Russian immigration took place in the 1930s, when thousands of "White Russians," or anti-Bolsheviks, on the run from the government of the Soviet Union swelled Harbin's population.

When Soviet forces occupied Harbin at the end of World War II, all but 30 of the city's Russians were slaughtered or sent to gulags. However, their food, customs and architecture left an indelible mark on Harbin.

This Russian influence is most felt in the old market area of Daoliqu. At its heart is Zhongyang Street, a cobblestone street lined with the spires and domes of Russian Orthodox churches and the turreted, baroque facades of merchant townhouses.

In summer, when Harbin is bathed in sunshine, several European-style cafes and teahouses offer perches for Daoliqu people-watching.

One of the best teahouses can be found in a park dedicated to, of all people, Joseph Stalin. The park's excellent teahouse offers a great view of locals limbering up for tai chi.

The Russian quarter is the tourist heart of the city, and the cultural mix conspires to make it one of the most laid-back cities in China.

A relaxed pace is often lacking on China itineraries, but Harbin invites midmorning coffees and late afternoon walks. That makes it a perfect Chinese destination to take a foot off the accelerator pedal.

Other attractions are a museum located about 12 miles outside the city center documenting the horrors of Japanese occupation during World War II and the Siberian Tiger Reserve, the city's most-visited, and arguably best, attraction.

Home to nearly 100 Siberian tigers, as well as a variety of other large cats, the park breeds and releases these animals into the wild. There are only about 400 wild Siberian tigers left in the world.

A park visit is a must and can be filed under "once in a lifetime experiences." Just 20 minutes north of the city, the park offers a safari-style tour of the sanctuary, where visitors can get up close and personal with these 700-pound cats.

Harbin's only five-star hotel is the Harbin Shangri-La. Other hotels in the city claim five-star status, but it would seem the authorities awarding them five stars are likely their owners. It did not seem likely that they had been put through any objective screening process.

Harbin can be reached by air via a connection from Beijing. On average, travelers experience a two-hour layover in the Chinese capital.

For more on Harbin, call the China National Tourist Office in New York at (888) 760-8218 or Los Angeles at (800) 670-2228. Or visit the CNTO at www.cnto.org.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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