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The capital of Heilongjiang province, HARBIN (哈尔滨, hāěrbīn) is probably the northernmost city of interest to visitors, the last before you hit the sub-Siberian wilderness and its scattering of oil and mining towns. It’s worth a visit for its winter Ice Festival alone, but it’s also one of the few northern cities with a distinctive character, the result of colonialism and cooperation with nearby Russia.

Harbin was a small fishing village on the Songhua River until world history intervened. In 1896, the Russians obtained a contract to build a rail line from Vladivostok through Harbin to Dalian, and the town’s population swelled to include 200,000 foreigners. More Russians arrived in 1917, this time White Russian refugees fleeing the Bolsheviks, and many stayed on. In 1932, the city was briefly captured by Japanese forces invading Manchuria, then in 1945 it fell again to the Russian army, who held it for a year before Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek finally came to an agreement. Harbin reverted to the Chinese, though when the Russians withdrew, they took with them most of the city’s industrial plant. Things haven’t been totally peaceful since – Harbin was the scene of fierce factional fighting during the Cultural Revolution, and when relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated, the inhabitants looked anxiously north as fierce border skirmishes took place.

Not surprisingly, the city used to be nicknamed “Little Moscow”, and though much of the old architecture has been replaced with sterile blocks and skyscrapers, corners of Harbin still look like the last threadbare outpost of imperial Russia. Leafy boulevards are lined with European-style buildings painted in pastel shades, and bulbous onion domes dot the skyline. The city’s past is celebrated with a restored shopping street, Zhongyang Dajie (中央大街, zhōngyāng dàjiē), as well as in a Russian cathedral that now houses a photographic history of Harbin. There are several Russian restaurants, and the locals have picked up on some of their neighbour’s customs: as well as a taste for ice cream and pastries, the residents have a reputation as the hardest drinkers in China. On the outskirts of the city is a stark reminder of one of the country’s blackest periods: during World War II, the former village, now suburb, of Pingfang was home to Unit 731, a Japanese military research base where prisoners of war were used as human guinea pigs.

Outside Harbin, attractions are limited and journeys can be arduous, though new highways and trains have shortened travel times. Ornithologists will be interested in the Zhalong Nature Reserve (particularly its rare red-crowned cranes), accessed from the mundane town of Qiqihar. If you’re keen on skiing, you’ll find Yabuli, the resort southwest of Harbin, the best place in the country to flaunt your skills – though well short of world-class standards.

During the summer, the climate is quite pleasant, but in winter the temperature can plummet to well below ‑30°C, and the sun sets at 4pm. Local people are accustomed to the dark and cold, however, and it is during winter that the city is most alive, with skiing and ice festivals in December and January.

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