I just returned from a short trip to Harbin in Northern China. If you know anything about this little city of 6 or 7 million it’s that they host a big snow and ice festival every year.
I went because A) it had some intriguing Russian influence, and B) airfares were cheap (1039 rmb if you get the Chinese rate). I stayed at the Ibis hotel which had a prime location midway between the St. Sophia Russian Orthodox Church and Zhaolin Park. Two blocks south was Zhongyang St. famous for its European architecture from a variety of eras.
Still within walking distance were a couple former synagogues and a mosque. The “Old” Synagogue now houses a small museum with one floor dedicated to Harbin’s architecture and two other floors explaining the influence the Jewish community, which numbered up to 30,000 at its peak, had on the city. Prior to the Russians coming to Harbin as the built a train line from Russia to Harbin, the city was a small fishing community of little significance.
UNESCO dubbed Harbin a “City of Music” and this summer there are musicians playing every evening up and down Zhaolin Street and in front of St. Sophia. Just delightful.
I have a lot of homework for my class and some research to do for my big summer writing project so I spent each morning at a nearby Starbucks with good wifi. This was one of the best Starbucks I’ve seen as it had several couches and nooks for groups of friends to chat for hours.
I did find Harbin-ites on the gruff side. Not much smiling from the service sector or at least not at my hotel or Starbucks, which is so known for pleasant service. I think it’s just not in their DNA. They do their job, but you can tell they aren’t all that thrilled about helping. At Ibis four people were behind the desk, but only one was helping people check in or willing to sort out a problem with a room. They others just watched the queue. As my room was fine and my orders at Starbucks were completed as they should be, it didn’t bother me. I came to see a bit of Russia and was satisfied that I did.
Kudos to Lonely Planet for its review of the Harbin Provincial Museum. LP called it musty. I’ve never been to a museum with less on display. They had one ink painting and some posters about it only in Chinese. They had a fake dinosaur skeleton in a room that also had an exercise bike in the corner. Another room had a fake horse skeleton and a model of a horse. One room did have a few jade and stone artifacts, but by Chinese museum standards this was meagre. Like most museum’s it was free, but I am still puzzled why the collection was so paltry. If they just asked people to donate their grandparents’ effects they could put together something interesting about daily life of the Chinese 60 or so years back.
I was also surprised that there were police manning the security station at the entrance and that their helmets and riot gear were at the ready along the wall of the foyer. There wasn’t one thing worth stealing in the museum. What’s up?