Harbin is a city best known for its Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival held every winter. However Harbin has more to offer than just cold winters and snow sculptures. This northern city has a rich cultural past. Harbin was first founded by Russians in 1918 whist extending the trans-Siberian railroad. The 1913 Chinese Eastern Railway census shows 34313 Russians inhabiting the city. The city also had large numbers of Jewish and Polish immigrants as well as many Japanese, German and American occupants during the 1900s through to the 30s. Before the Second World War Harbin was home to a large number of Jews – 13,000 in 1929. I read that Harbin used to have an expansive Jewish quarter, however unfortunately not much of it remains today.
As with so many other cities in China, Harbin has not escaped the manic urban development machine and as a result seems to have lost much of this interesting architectural heritage. That being said, several key buildings and streets, especially in the old city center, have been maintained, cobbled stone streets and all. One such street is Zhongyang Street, a bustling business street with remnants of European architectural styles, mainly Byzantine and Baroque. Whilst it is impressive that parts of the center have been maintained, some of these areas seem to be lacking in real efforts of building preservation and restoration. Many of the facades remain neglected and crumbling. The Russian Orthodox Church Saint Sofia in the central district of Daoli (not far from Zhongyang Street) was fairly well restored on the outside but again neglected and altered into a museum on the inside (although the museum did have an impressive collection of old photographs of Harbin at the turn of the century).
This seems to be a typical approach when “preserving” a building of historical value in China. The outside is maintained, almost always simply for show, whilst the interiors are often left to degrade or are outfitted to suit the purpose of tourism. Saint Sofia is of a Byzantine architectural style and was one of more than 15 Russian Orthodox Churches in the city, many of which have since been destroyed. We also managed to visit a new synagogue which was unfortunately closed.
Below are a few of the sights visited from our day off wandering through the city.