The capital of Heilongjiang province, HARBIN is the last major city before you hit the sub-Siberian wilderness and its scattering of oil and mining towns. It's worth a visit for its winter Ice Festival alone, but it's also one of the few northern cities with a distinctive character, the result of colonialism and cooperation with nearby Russia. More a recreational centre than a cultural Mecca, it's a place to shop and explore the streets.
There's been a sizeable Russian population here since 1896, when the Russians obtained a contract to build a rail line from Vladivostok through Harbin to Dalian, and more arrived in 1917, in flight from the Bolsheviks. In 1945 Harbin fell to the Russian army, who held it for a year before Stalin and Chiang Kaishek finally came to an agreement. Not surprisingly, the city used to be nicknamed "Little Moscow", and corners of Harbin still look like the last threadbare outpost of imperial Russia. Leafy boulevards are lined with European-style buildings painted in pastel shades, and bulbous onion domes dot the skyline.
The city's past is celebrated with a restored shopping street, Zhongyang Dajie, as well as in a Russian cathedral that now houses a photographic history of Harbin. There are several Russian restaurants, and the locals have picked up on some of their neighbour's customs: as well as a taste for ice cream and pastries, the residents have a reputation as the hardest drinkers in China. On the outskirts of the city is a stark reminder of one of the country's blackest periods – during World War II, the former village, now suburb, of Pingfang was home to Unit 731, a Japanese military research base where prisoners of war were used as human guinea pigs.
During the summer, the climate is quite pleasant, but in winter the temperature can plummet to well below 30°C, and the sun sets at 4pm. Local people are accustomed to the dark and cold, however, and it is during winter that the city is most alive, with skiing and ice festivals in December and January.