Harbin is a city located in China’s north-easternmost province, Heilongjiang. This province’s name literally means “black dragon river” and it borders Russia. It is best known for its six month winters and for an ice festival hosted there every December-January.
Bucking tradition, my roommates and I headed there in mid-May. Beyond being literally the only guests at our charming hostel, we also benefitted from Harbin’s spring weather. It was 70s and sunny for most of our long weekend there. We spent as much time as possible. Nanjing is rather uncomfortably humid and Harbin’s weather made a wonderful break.
Thanks to its proximity to Russia, Harbin is an interesting cultural melting pot. From the early to mid-twentieth century, Harbin also had a large Russian Jewish population. These influences are visible in its architecture. Many of the buildings could easily be twins of those found in Eastern European cities, especially. Russian restaurants are also scattered around the city center. Several museums are dedicated to this history. We went to two, one in a repurposed church (Saint Sophia’s) and one in a large synagogue, which provided the history of the city’s Jewish residents. Thanks to interesting museums and picture perfect weather, we had a wonderful four day excursion.
We also, of course, ate. This was a highlight for me. Harbin had INCREDIBLE food. First, there was Russian food. Which was fun to try, but after my 8 months of spicy noodles, lacked some fire for me. Harbin’s local cuisine is heavier than Nanjing’s, more oil, but so good. Their dumplings (I forgot to make note of their exact name) were perfectly fried and had different fillings than I am used to. Lamb, which is par for the course that close to Mongolia, but also fresh shrimp, cucumber and rutabaga. I have not in my memory consumed rutabaga, but in dumplings it was excellent.
Harbin’s baked goods were also excellent. First, some context: there is a divide in China between north and south. The cutoff is the Yellow River and a mountain range. (Nanjing is firmly in the south.) This divide is made manifest in cuisine, as people in the north tend to eat wheat-based noodles and people in the south tend to eat rice. So, the fact that Harbin had plentiful local baked goods (wheat-based) was a marvel. Nanjing has such bakeries, but they tend to be internationally focused and therefore expensive.
In Harbin, while on the hunt for a very difficult to find bubble tea restaurant, one of my roommates and I discovered a fantastic local market. Different stalls had fruits, sausages, tea, baked goods, a huge variety of things. We returned every day of our trip. We sampled bread, cookies, baozi (steamed buns), and a fantastic box of strawberries. Below are some photos of our selections.
Many of these dumplings and buns were ones that I had never seen before, and it was so fun to try. One stall also sold roasted, cold noodles (烤冷面). That doesn’t sound amazing, but it was. On a hot griddle, the cook spread out uncut noodle, which looked like the corn husk they wrap around tamales. On top, she cracked an egg. The egg cooked into almost a scrabble, onto which she added sausage. Then she folded the noodle over itself and added spice, sugar, and some green garnish. Then she cut the whole thing up. It was excellent.
Thanks to the excellent food, weather and company, I will remember Harbin fondly. However, the trip was not totally smooth. I have taken to sitting in the front seat of taxis because that is not weird here, the view is better and I can practice making conversation. However, this came to my disadvantage in Harbin. First, I asked if could use an electronic payment app when it was literally written in front of my face that I could use it. I was just trying to be polite. So, the driver was already chucking. Then, I almost paid 1,600RMB instead of 16 and he drove off guffawing. So, not only did I enjoy Harbin, but I also spread some joy. Job well done.