Thursday, 22 July 2010

Harbin - City Impressions

Harbin 哈尔滨

Background

Harbin traces its roots as a sleepy fishing village in the remote northeast of China, and its name means 'a place to dry fishing nets' in Manchu. This quickly became history in 1898 when the settlement was transformed by the Russians into a strategic crossroad for the new Chinese Eastern Railway (KVZhD) as a shortcut for the Trans-Siberian Railway. Since then, international trade with other countries such as the United States, Germany, France and Japan had also further cemented the city's reputation as a bustling metropolis.

The cosmopolitan outlook of the city, coupled with its array of unique European architecture, had led many to regard China's northernmost major city as one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Thus, it is also popularly known as the Paris of the East and the Oriental St Petersburg. Till date, at least 20% of the city's residents are ethnic Russians and Harbin remains a popular tourist destinations for many Russians. In addition, visitors from around the world also brave the harsh winter to partake in the spectacular Ice and Snow Festival which opens on Christmas Day each year. The map below shows the location of the places which are featured in this blog (credits to Google Maps).

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St Sophia Cathedral 圣索菲亚教堂

St Sophia Cathedral is the most recognisable and prominent landmark in Harbin. Also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God, the former Russian Orthodox church is also the largest of its kind in the far east with a height of 53.3 metres and covering and area of 0.18 acres. This highly distinctive cathedral was initially consecrated in 1907 as a spiritual symbol for the elite Russian troops who are stationed in the city following the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1907. The cathedral was expanded and renovated into its current form in 1932.

The cathedral now does not hold any more services and had been transformed into the Harbin Architectural Art Gallery (admission RMB15 (~S$3.06))
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Highly detailed brick features adorn the exterior of this Neo-Bryzantine structure.
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St Sophia Cathedral was modelled after the ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral in Borki, Ukraine. It was originally constructed from timber.
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The cathedral was painstakingly restored in 1996 at a cost of US$1.5million and was re-opened to the public in 1997.
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The space around the prominent landmark had also been redeveloped into 'Harbin Architectural Square' and features European style buildings to create a unique European feel in a Chinese city. These include art galleries (complete with a Cyrillic signboard) and a bizzare mesh megastructure.

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The low humidity and clear skies provides a very conducive environment for 'contrail spotting' in Harbin. Here 2 aircraft converge onto a single airway at different altitudes heading west.
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Central Street (Kitaiskaya Street) 中央大街

Central Street, which was also known as Kitaiskaya Street in the past, was where international business trade first began in the city at the turn of the 20th century. This pedestrian only road paved with individual cobbled stones which are mined from the Changbaishan mountain range in Jilin province. Distinctive buildings which features classic western architectural designs such as Baroque and Bryzantine line this century old avenue.
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The bulk of the preserved buildings now house top end fashion labels from around the world.
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Low rise buildings juxtapose against modern high rise commercial and residential developments.
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Central Street is also dominated by mid to high end business and boutique hotels to cater to visitors who wish to experience a stay in this historic district
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Stalin Park 斯大林公园

Stalin Park was built along the banks of the Songhua River as a tribute to Josef Stalin who helped secure the release of Harbin from the Japanese during World War II. There is interestingly, not a statue of the famous leader to be found in the park as the locals still retains an ambivalent attitude towards the Soviets.

Today, the park serves a recreational destination for the residents and overlooks the Songhua River. Ferries are also available to bring visitors over to Sun Island Scenic Area on the opposite bank of the river.

In 2005, a benzene plant in Jilin exploded and discharged dangerous levels of the chemical into the upstream portion of the Songhua River. The city authorities shut the local water supply in Harbin as a precautionary measure for a week, forcing residents to resort to bottled water for their daily needs. Tap water is now processed from ground water, and thus first time visitors would often have a shock to discover ice cold water from the tap even though outdoor temperatures could reach up to 40 degrees during summer!

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Where ice sculptures are impossible to display in the outdoors with the searing summer heat, carefully pruned bushes take their place instead in the park.
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Harbin Flood Control Monument 哈尔滨防洪纪念碑

In addition, the park also houses a monument to commemorate the great flood in 1957 when the swollen Songhua River burst its bank. It is a tribute to the volunteers who helped to overcome the natural disaster and to those who had unfortunately sacrificed their lives in the process.
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The Harbin Flood Control Monument is situated at the end of Central Street. The Roman styled column is 13 metres high and features the statues of the volunteers at the top.
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A carved mural in the monument extolled the greatness of the Chinese Communist Party.
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Guogeli Street 果戈里大街

In addition to Central Street, Guogeli Street is also home to a large concentration of Russian buildings and structures. Spared from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution as it was shielded from view by residential buildings, this century old Catholic Church still remains in use today.
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A modest clock tower in the church square incorporates the famed domed structure typically found on Russian Orthodox churches.
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Unlike many other Chinese cities, bicycles are few and far between in Harbin. This is mainly because of the long and harsh winters when iced slippery roads poses a real danger to cyclists. Thus, public buses are the preferred form of transportation. It is curious to note that most buses (even the newer ones) have front mounted engines where they are less likely to seize up in extreme low temperatures, not to mention that the engine heat would also be very much appreciated by the driver!

A83400, a Huanghai DD6109S03F was photographed picking up passengers along Guogeli St during evening peak while working on service 7.
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Harbin Kunlun Hotel 哈尔滨昆仑大酒店

Harbin Kunlun Hotel is a standard 4 star hotel which is located besides the busy Harbin Railway Station, thus most of its rooms offer a view of the sprawling railway yard opposite the hotel.

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The streets around the hotel are choked with taxis waiting for passengers even at 7am in the morning. Judicious amount of guts accompanied by incessant honking are essential to maintain a safe co-existance between pedestrians and motor vehicles in busy Chinese cities.
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Harbin Railway Station still retains its importance as it did when it was first built at the end of the 19th century with connections to Inner Mongolia, the northern part of Heilongjiang province and onwards to Russia. The Trans-Siberian railway calls at this station every Friday, and there are daily trains to Heihe and Suifenhe where one can cross into Russia.
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One of the many public bus stations which can be found around the railway station.
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To cope with the summer heat, many public buses in Northeast China have part or the entire radiator grille removed to improve air cooling around the front mounted engine!
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