Harbin, initial thoughts and observations

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Travel Log (Asia) at 3:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’ve been in Harbin about 24 hours now, and here are some quick first impressions and thoughts.

-Everything here is extremely cheap, even for China.  Last night I stayed in a small hotel for 20 RMB (about $3 USD).  I had a tidy single room, with TV and fan, plus a clean bathroom with 24 hour hot water, shower, and a western toilet.  I was totally stoked by this find…until I got an 18 RMB half-hour massage and realized I could have just slept at the massage place and saved my 20 RMB I paid for the hotel room.     

-People here are big–taller, stronger, and wider than your average Chinese.  No doubt an influence of all the Mongol and Manchu blood mixed in with the Han here. No wonder Dongbei guys have the impression of being 很男人 (manly men).

-Most of the foreigners here are Russian.

-This is the first city I have ever been to which has a public park named after Joseph Stalin.  (Disclaimer:  I have never been to the former Soviet Union.)

-I saw a group of people in Stalin Park gathered around a tree watching a man trying to catch a squirrel.  As the man lumbered through the tree branches, people below were throwing sticks and rocks up in the squirrel’s direction.  My first instinct was to intervene on behalf of the squirrel, but then I remembered from my Midwest upbringing that it is virtually impossible for a human (or most other animals for that matter) to catch a squirrel with their bare hands…especially in a tree.  My deceased family dog Abbey, who was faster and more agile than any human save for maybe Liu Xiang, tried valiantly for 15 years and never even came close.  I watched for about 20 minutes, until the squirrel eventually made it back to the ground, and whisked off, leaving the frustrated mob behind.   

-Near Stalin Park I encountered a Uighur man selling round, sugar-topped, bread snacks for 1 RMB.  It was hands down the tastiest pastry I have ever eaten in China.

-Harbin is famous for its European turn of the century architecture.  I can’t speak for what’s already been demolished, but what still stands is remarkably well-preserved.  Zhong Yang Da Jie, the main pedestrian street in old Harbin, is still paved with cobblestone and has maintained a distinct European feel, even though most of the Russian residents are long gone.

-I spent half of my day today exploring Harbin’s Jewish history.  There are two synagugues still standing, the “Old Synagogue,” built around the turn of the century, and the “New Synagogue,” built about fifteen years later.  The New Synagogue has been restored and converted into a museum of Harbin’s Jewish history.  The exhibits include hundreds of photos and paintings with detailed inscriptions about their historical significance.  They also have a mock Torah scroll which records the demographic history of Harbin’s Jewish community in Chinese.  Interestingly, other than the Torah scroll, the only other item which does not contain English translations is an extensive exhibit on “Jewish Einstein.”  As for the Old Synagogue, it’s now a mini-shopping center of sorts, with a coffee house, pizza shop, and a boutique selling Nepalese and Indian jewelry.  The exterior still very much looks like a synagogue   

by the way, if anybody knows an Internet bar in Harbin with Photoshop, I am willing to pay top dollar!


  1. Vera China said,

    July 14, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    I wish I was still in Harbin, but I just got graduated from university in Harbin half month ago. Now I’m working in Ningbo. So how’s the trip going there? In fact, the best time to visit Harbin is winter, there are many traditional festivals and celebrations going on there and you can also take part many winter activities, such as skiing and skating. I believe you can find for yourself a pretty nice internet cafe around university campus. Or you can dowload it by yourself, or ask for help from net cafe manager. you can ask him( 99.9% of them are male) in Chinese: 你好,我需要用Photoshop,( aka PS)请帮我安装一下(ni3 hao3, wo3 xu1 yao4 yong4 photoshop, qing3 bang1 wo3 an1 zhuang1 yi2 xia4) Wish you good luck :)

  2. maxiewawa China said,

    July 14, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Sounds like fun!

  3. tony United States said,

    July 14, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Need some pics!

  4. Benjamin Ross China said,

    July 14, 2008 at 9:56 pm


    Thanks for the tips. I’m actually sitting in a net bar now which has a no smoking section! This is the first time I have ever seen one of those in a Chinese net bar, and I love it! Although without all the smoke, it kind loses a little bit of the Chinese net bar feel, which I do have a soft spot for.

    Anyway, here are a few more random observations about Harbin I forgot to put in the original post.

    -Harbin (as far as I have discovered) is home of the best sausage in China. It’s called 哈肉联 and if I am reading the little blurb on my tourist map correctly, it was the first European sausage product to be made in China. I will certainly be taking some with me on the road. In fact, I’m eating some right now as I type this comment.

    -I continue to be amazed at how cheap everything is here. Although this also could just be a natural reaction to living in Beijing for a month, which seems a lot more expensive than I remember it being before. I still have yet to spend more than the equivalent of 1 US dollar on a meal here.

    -Tomorrow I am going to check out the Jewish cemetery as well as a former Japanese military base where they did medical experiments on the Chinese. It is not converted into a museum. From what I’ve read, it sounds like an Eastern version of Dachau. I have a 7 o’clock train ticket to Yanji, a Korean autonomous prefecture, just a hop, skip, and a jump away from North Korea. However, I’m still debating exchanging the ticket, and heading furthur North into Heilongjiang. I’m open to suggestions if anybody has been before.

  5. faustina China said,

    July 14, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    have a fun there:)

  6. Nik United States said,

    July 15, 2008 at 3:56 am

    Ben, I always wondered, why do you think that so many expats in China (at least those expats blogging) are Jewish? As a Jewish man, do you have any insight on this phenomenon?

  7. Benjamin Ross China said,

    July 15, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Without being totally ethnocentric, I’d say that compared to the overall American population (I can’t speak for other countries), Jews are highly-educated, liberal, grow up in the suburbs, and have a higher tendancy to relocate, be it within the country, or abroad. These characteristics tend to generally line up with many expats abroad, although there’s no way to empericaly confirm or deny this. Interestingly enough, when I used to go see a lot of Phish concerts in the 90’s, I noticed the same Jewish phenomenon.

  8. Vera China said,

    July 15, 2008 at 9:58 am

    the best sausage sells in 秋林商场 qiu1 lin2, the brand is called 秋林红肠,you shouldn’t miss it, hehe. I think people in Harbin eat relatively size bigger meal than the people in the south, probably that’s why they looks more physically stronger. I’m from the south, studied in Harbin, and I even grew a little taller when I was in there. Me and my friends often eat out on the xuefu 4th street, the so called “corruption” street, because there are many universities on that street. That street is filled with many kinds of restaurants, hair salons and bars…if you get any chances, you may want to have some fun there. :)

  9. martin Argentina said,

    July 15, 2008 at 10:01 am

    search in google for: photoshop portable.. must be around 70 mb

    here u got a link for photoshop cs3

  10. Swiss James China said,

    July 15, 2008 at 10:28 am

    Ah yes, I believe there is a long and rich Jewish history in many parts of China, particularly in the Xinjiang region.

  11. Nik United States said,

    July 15, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    Thanks for the insight Ben. I really appreciate it.

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