In a nutshell
The city of Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang province in northeastern China; it is the largest city in the region in addition to being the most northerly major city in the country. The most northerly city also brings with it the coldest winters, Harbin is known as the ‘Ice City’ because of its Ice and Snow Festival held every winter, the temperature regularly falls to -30C or below every winter.
Why You Should Visit Harbin
In most cities in China you will be advised to avoid the winter because of the cold weather, well in Harbin the extreme cold is one of its attractions.
The annual Ice and Snow Festival is held during January and February and draws in thousands of tourists. In addition there are several other winter attractions to entertain tourists. The food in Harbin is not as spicy as elsewhere in China and much of it is influenced by the city’s close connections to Russia.
The connection with Russia began around the start of the 20th century when the Russian Empire financed the Chinese Eastern Railway. Harbin became the base for Russian construction workers as the connection was made to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Harbin today retains that Russian connection in several buildings particularly those along Central Street.
The city of Harbin is an important transportation hub with the majority of the provinces major highways radiating out from here, including routes into Russia. The historic rail connections are retained with the Trans-Siberian Railway providing a connection from Moscow to Beijing via the city. Air travel is provided by the International airport with flights to over 30 cities in China and 5 international destinations in Asia.
The metro system in Harbin is still in its early stages of development with one line and a small branch line currently in operation, the city does have an extensive bus network that operates from 5am until 10pm. During the summer months the Songhua River is an important link to many communities relying on the waterway for transportation.
When is the Best Time to Visit Harbin?
For many people Harbin is best visited in the winter and that season does attract the most visitors that long to see the hundreds of ice carvings and sculptures on display. There is however much more to Harbin than ice and snow. The summer in Harbin is not as hot as the majority of China making it an ideal time to visit the many historic attractions of the city including the St Sophia Cathedral, Zhongyang (Central) Street and the many historic buildings of central Harbin.
Where to Stay in Harbin
There are hundreds of hotels in Harbin with plenty of choice to suit all budgets. The range of luxurious hotels is a little limited with the majority being close to Central Street or outside the city centre in the development zone, you can pay up to CNY700 per night for a five star hotel in Harbin.
There are a few western style hostels in Harbin and beds in dorm rooms are available from just CNY40 per night.
If you would like an apartment hotel or to stay in a Russian style village these are available from around CNY200 per night but a little way out of the city centre.
One advantage Harbin has over many other Chinese cities is the buildings are heated in the winter so you should not feel cold when indoors. Wi-Fi is generally good and available everywhere.
Where and What to Eat in Harbin
One of Harbin’s qualities is its food or to be precise its diversity of food. It is heavily influenced by foods originating from Russia, Europe, Mongolia, Korea and elsewhere within China. Harbin’s food can be described as being heartier than the foods of other regions with stews being popular. There are less exotic and spicy foods here with lots of vegetables such as cabbage, corn, cucumber and potatoes. Popular local dishes are Harbin Hot Pot and BBQ or shaokao.
Due to the long nights of winter in Harbin, local people will meet up to eat and drink together making their evening meal a social occasion lasting long into the night, expect to pay up to CNY10 for a snack type meal from a street vendor. You can expect to pay anything from CNY20 to 30 for each dish at a restaurant in the mid range and anything in excess of CNY100 per person at a high quality eating establishment.
How to Get Around Harbin
There are several transportation options in Harbin with the bus being both convenient and cheap. There are more than 100 bus routes serving all areas of the city, although buses can become packed particularly during the winter months.
You do need to have the exact money to travel on the bus in China as change is not given, bus journeys in Harbin cost CNY2-3.
There are two tourist buses that operate from 7am until 7pm each day, one begins at the Flood Control Monument at the northern end of Central Street and goes to Sun Island, and the other operates past several scenic spots from the Flood Control Monument including St. Sophia Cathedral, the Railway Station and the Harbin Museum.
Harbin’s subway or metro system currently has two of its proposed 9 lines in operation, line 1 begins at the East Railway Station and runs for 11 miles or 18 kilometres to the South Railway Station. Line 3 currently has just 5 stations running from the transfer with line 1 at Yidaeryuan to the West Railway Station. Line 3 will eventually become a loop line around the city and is due to be completed by 2022. The subway costs from CNY2-4 depending on the length of your journey and it opens at 6am until 9pm each day.
Taxis are often the easiest way to travel around the city, although you should not expect the drivers to speak any English, have your destination written in Chinese and it should be ok. Ensure the driver uses the meter or they will try to charge too high a price. Taxis cost from CNY8 for the first 3km, with CNY1.9 for each additional km. Harbin’s taxis are notorious for changing shift at 5pm, and they all change at that time and are reluctant to take any fares despite it being the start of the evening rush hour.
There are 6 ferry operators that run services across the Songhua River from April until October, most go to Sun Island and services run from 8am until 5pm and take around 30 minutes to make the crossing.
How to Get To and From Harbin
Harbin’s Taiping International Airport is located 37km to the southwest of the city. It is the largest and busiest airport in the north east of China. It operates more than 50 routes across China and eastern Asia with several services to eastern Russia, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Thailand.
It takes around 2 hours to fly to Beijing with the cheapest seats costing CNY700.
Flights to the south of China take almost 5 hours and the cheapest available is to Guangzhou costing CNY1000.
It takes around an hour to arrive into the city by the airport shuttle bus, taxis take around 30 minutes and will cost over CNY100. There are some unofficial taxis operating from the airport and they will try to extort additional fees on route, it is best to avoid these.
Long distance express buses operate to and from Harbin linking several cities across Heilongjiang province, services to other provinces include Shenyang in Liaoning province and Changchun in Jilin.
There is an international bus service to Harbin from Vladivostock in Russia, it takes 12 hours and costs CNY1000. Crossing the border is easy providing you have the correct visas. Non Chinese or Russian travellers on the bus are very rare.
There are 4 railway stations in Harbin; Harbin Railway Station in the city centre is used for ordinary trains to and from numerous stations including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Kunming.
Trains from Beijing to Harbin take 14 or more hours and a sleeper costs from CNY440. Trains from Harbin to Guangzhou take 34 hours and a 2nd class (hard) sleeper costs CNY617.
Harbin East Railway station operates ordinary trains to and from other cities within the province, Heihe city is one of China’s most northerly and sits close to the borders of both Mongolia and Russia and is 11 hours by train from Harbin, a hard sleeper here costs CNY197.
Harbin North Railway station operates both high speed and ordinary trains across the north east of China.
Harbin West Railway Station has train information written in both Chinese and English and operates high speed and ordinary trains across China.
The most notable routes are the high speed services to Beijing (takes 7 hours and costs from CNY306), Shanghai and Guangzhou (15 hours and costing from CNY1015.5). It is actually cheaper to fly than take the train from Harbin to Guangzhou and three times as fast.
Is it Safe in Harbin?
Harbin is an extremely safe place to visit; it is very unusual to hear of a foreigner being attacked in this city. Petty crime can occur in busy places such as bus or train stations or in shopping malls. Take care of your belongings and do not carry large sums of cash.
The standard of driving is generally ok although taxis in this city are notorious for jumping red lights. Take care when crossing the road as even on a green crossing signal there will be traffic thinking they should have the priority.
Should you require medical assistance there are some excellent hospitals in Harbin. When visiting in the winter you will have to wrap up sufficiently for the cold with several layers of clothing.