Things to do in Harbin
Harbin is by far most famous for the Ice Festival. Tourists are extremely scarce the rest of the year, some hostels shut down or convert into other businesses during the summer months and I’ve never met a foreign tourist in Harbin outside the peak Ice Festival Season. I think it’s quite sad as there are some interesting things to do in Harbin besides its ultra awesome Ice Festival.
It is similar to the Louvre in Paris. So many people go in, take picture of the Mona Lisa, and go out again. WTF? What about the rest of the amazing art in the museum? In Harbin everyone goes to the Ice Festival. Which is a good thing – its brilliant, but so many people never go to anything else, or explore more of the city in any way.
If you want to see the Ice Festival and explore more, or you want to check out China’s northeast when it’s not cold enough to freeze your eye lashes together, then consider visiting some of these places.
The Siberian Tiger Park
This is quite a neat place, you can take a ride in a bus with some metal caging on the windows for an hour, this costs 90 yuan. After this you will have a chance to walk around an enclosed area. You can buy strips of meat for 20 yuan to hand feed the tigers, which is really cool. You are given a pair of prongs to hold the meat in, and then you can put it through a gap in the bars.
What I didn’t like about the place was the live animals sold to be fed to the tigers. Slightly hypocritical as I’m hardly vegetarian myself, but I just didn’t like seeing them huddling in their little metal boxes waiting to be eaten. I also really hated the way one man kept on dangling a chicken to get the tiger to rear up on its hind legs for a better picture, because I’m sure it knew enough to know it was going to be eaten and recognize a predator.
If you are a less obsessive animal lover, then live chickens can be bought for 60 yuan and ducks for 120 yuan. It is also possible to get pheasants for 120 yuan, goats for 800 yuan and sometimes cows for 2800 yuan. In some of the cages they also have Lions, Panthers and Leopards. In Chinese its 老虎公园.
Unit 731 Museum
This is a grim but interesting Museum dedicated to Chinese, Mongolian and North Korean War victims of Unit 731. Between 1939 and 1945 around 3,000 people were experimented on and killed by the Japanese to help improve their biological weapons. People were frozen, burned, injected with hemorrhagic fever virus, exposed to plague and cholera, and sometimes dissected alive, amongst other things.
One plaque tells of how a random teen-aged boy was taken off the street in Changchun and dissected.
The anti-Japanese rhetoric is, perhaps understandably given the topic of the museum, a little heavy, but I think it is worth a visit.
The Museum is a little hard to get to and the bus trip out is about an hour-long. Take the 343 bus or the 338 bus and get off at Xinjiang Dajie 双拥路 and turn right and go around the corner.
It is closed Mondays, but other days it is open from 8:30 to 11:00 and from 1:00 to 4:00. The last entrance is at 3:00. You will need to take your passport with you, but it is free. The address is 侵华日军地731部队遗址.
Harbin Polar land
Harbin Polar land is on the other side of the river just as the Siberian Tiger Park is.
You can see many types of fish, small sharks, small sting rays, penguins, polar bears, Arctic Foxes, Seals, Walruses, Beluga Whales, Jellyfish and others. There is also a Seal and Walrus show and a Beluga Whale Show several times daily at no extra cost. The entrance fee will be about 130 yuan per adult.
Russian culture in the Historic City Centre
The Historic Centre of Harbin is full of old Russian buildings and Russian merchandise. Zhongyang Dajie 中央大街 or Central Street, often called Walking Street is a cobbled walking street in Harbin’s centre.
At the river end of the street is the Flood Monument and Stalin Park which runs along the Songhua River. If you want to take a break from Chinese food and enjoy the Russian food, then Russian Bakeries are all around this area. Some good Russian Restaurants include Cafe Russia and Katusha, which are both near the Flood Monument.
To the west of Zhongyang Dajie is the Old quarter with lots of Russian buildings that date back to the late 19th and early 20th Century. It is not so well maintained as the buildings around Zhongyang Dajie (some of which are historic, others are re-built in the Russian style).
St Sophia Cathedral
This pretty cathedral never actually became a real church. The communists took the area before the priest that had been sent could arrive to bless it. Now it acts as Harbin’s Museum of Architecture and has an interesting array of photographs showing Harbin’s development until present day. Entrance is about 20 yuan. In Chinese it’s 圣索非亚教堂.
These are all over Harbin. Many local use these as they don’t have their own shower in their apartment or simply like the sauna houses better. There are upscale, mid-range, and low-end Sauna houses. Upscale Sauna houses can cost about 120/150 yuan and an extra 200 yuan and up for a massage. Low end ones cost 30/50 yuan and approximately an extra 100 yuan for a massage. If you go to one of the lower end one it will mostly just be like having a shower at the gym, so unless you have a local recommendation, it is better to at least go for midrange. In Chinese it’s 洗浴中心.
Dragon TV Tower (Long Ta)
This is the tallest steel building in East Asia at 336 meters high. I think it was built simply to be able to claim that. It gives really good views of Harbin and there is a nice revolving buffet restaurant at the top, although it’s a bit expensive.
The Tower itself is open from 9am to 5pm. Entrance is 60 yuan, but it is about 200 yuan if want to eat in the buffet restaurant. The buffet closes at 1pm. You can also pay another 2 Yuan for liners to slip on your shoes and walk on the glass floor loop.
The base of the tower has exhibitions of Confucius’ School, Wax Work and Science. Buses 7,23,84,112, 204 and 209 can take you there (check these as they may change), or you can take a taxi. The address in Chinese is 黑龙江省哈尔滨市南岗区长江路178号.
Sun Island Park
While this is full of snow sculptures in winter and you can just walk over the river, it is quite a lovely walk in summer and you can take a ferry for between 4 and 10 yuan return. You can spend a good 2 – 3 hours there on a sunny day. Most of the island is free to walk around, but if you want to go to the Sun Island Scenic Spot; entrance will be 30 yuan. The gardens there are very pretty. There are squirrels and chipmunks to see and for 5 Yuan you can also feed the deer. In Chinese it’s 太阳岛.
Temple of Heavenly Bliss (Jile Temple)
This is a pretty Buddhist Temple. There are three separate sections – each have an entrance fee of 10 yuan. The best way to get to it is to go to the subway stop Gongchengdaxue. You will see an elaborately designed traditional Chinese gate standing alone. If you walk up to this gate, then you will see a walking path on one side (right side if your back is to the subway) with grass and trees either side. If you walk up this path you will come across the three sections on the left hand side. There is an amusement park at the end. In Chinese it’s 极乐寺.
Confucius Temple (Wen Temple)
Also close to Gongchengdaxue is the Confucius Temple. If you go down Wenmiao Jie, which is on the opposite side of the main road than the gate mentioned above, then you will find it on the left hand side. It’s very well maintained with nice gardens. In Chinese it’s 文庙. It is free, but you must bring your passport.
This is a small and slightly under funded museum. When I went there I was confused because the building that the internet said was the Museum seemed to be full of shops. It is full of shops. The Museum is in the middle. It is on two floors and has several exhibitions, none with any real English signs. You will need to bring your passport and it is free. In Chinese it’s 黑龙江省博物馆
Like Sun Island Park, the Botanical Gardens are a summer attraction. If you have an extra day they are nice to look around and disappear in. If you walk far enough in, vehicle sounds fade entirely. Entrance is about 15 yuan per person.
There are lots of things to do in Harbin, many restaurants to eat at, many types of food to try. The Ice Festival is fantastic, but don’t miss out on everything else because of tunnel vision. Explore a little.