Manchuria in Winter


Harbin in northeast China, AKA Manchuria. Map taken from

“This train is heading to Manchuria. If you are not going to Manchuria, you need to immediately disembark,” a no nonsense voice drones repeatedly in Mandarin.  Obviously somebody has accidentally gone to Chinese Siberia, and I really wish I knew the story behind the announcement. There’s a daily high speed train departing from Shanghai to Harbin, capital of China’s northernmost province, leaving around around 10am for the 12 hour journey.

Chinese trains are comfortable, and I arrange on the phone for a meal to be delivered to my seat from a restaurant at one of the stops. The journey is uneventful, and we arrive at Harbin West Station a few minutes early. There’s always a steady stream of taxis at Chinese railway stations, and the 20 minute ride to my downtown hostel is only $3.75. A free Mandarin lesson is included, but takes me a few minutes before I somewhat get the hang of the driver’s accent. The better my Chinese gets, the better I am at understanding people from the provinces…but it can be almost impossible with the elderly whose schooling was interrupted by wars or the Cultural Revolution.


It got down to -14C/7F in Harbin. I bundled up and never really got cold.


Harbin is close to the Russian border in Siberia, and the Russian influence is pretty obvious after a few minutes of walking around downtown.


The real star of Harbin is the annual ice sculpture festival. There are dozens of buildings made of ice and lit up in bright colors.


Buying a ticket the week after Chinese New Year is pretty easy, with no lines. Tickets are $50, but I don’t have kids and can afford it.


I went in the afternoon to see the sculptures in both daylight and lit up at night. Here’s some Chinese kid holding a fox.


Walking around the ice buildings in the end of afternoon with the sun low in the sky, around 3:30pm.


It’s pretty damn cold once the Manchurian sun goes down at around 4:30pm, but there are plenty of toasty warming huts. I’d generally go outside for 40 minutes at a time, then return inside to warm back up.


I’ve never done psychedelics but I imagine it’s something like this.


Knowing Chinese construction habits it wouldn’t surprise me if the ice sculptures collapsed without warning, so I didn’t go under them.


The grounds of the ice festival were massive, and I spent 5 hours just wandering around.


By Chinese standards there really weren’t a ton of people.


Lots of bright, flashing colors.


I’m printing out this photo and taking to school to tell the kindergarteners this is where I live.


The area with the sculptures was massive. After five hours I was ready to be done, but there was so much to see.


Definitely better at night.


A bored woman sells lamb kebabs. There’s so much more to do in Harbin than just see the ice festival, even if the latter is spectacular. I expected the city to be soulless, as so many Chinese cities are, but there was a cool pedestrian area with lots of Manchurian barbecue. One of my Shanghai friends grew up near here, and told me I had to try the local sausages with peppers. The lamb kebabs everywhere were delicious, too.


Sausages and lamb kebabs grilled at a street stall in Harbin’s main pedestrian area.


Local signs were in Chinese and Russian.


There used to be about 20,000 Jews living here in Harbin in the beginning of the 20th century, and one of the old synagogues has been turned into a museum. You can still see Jewish symbols and the Star of David on various buildings around town.


Walking around downtown Harbin. There were many coffee shops and bookstores to escape the cold, as well as a large underground area similar to that in Montreal.


Above: The imperial tombs of an emperor from 450 years ago. Two and a half days in Harbin were plenty. Afterwards I took a high speed train down to Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province. Shenyang is 110km from the North Korean border, and there’s a large Korean population there. It’s a pleasant city about 4.5 hours by bullet train from Beijing, with the nicest hostel I’ve found in all my travels in China.


A woman takes a photo of some tombs. Those blue skies are rare further south in the more industrialized parts of China! It was weird to look out the window on the trains in Manchuria and see vast emptiness. From Beijing south to Hong Kong and west to Xi’an is almost solid humanity, packed with 1.4 billion people. 400 million people live along the Yangtze River.


My hostel is located around the corner from here, near a busy bus stop. I took the bus everywhere in Shenyang, as the network was both cheap and extensive. Public transit in China is usually wonderful in the cities, and traffic here wasn’t bad. The hostel had its own cafe, expansive bathrooms, and phenomenal heating. The heat systems I encountered in Manchuria were great.


Shenyang is only 110km from North Korea, and there are regular trains to Pyongyang. I took advantage of its proximity to the border to get some terrific Korean food, such as at this restaurant. Shortly after I took this photo it became standing room only.


I asked for a beer and they brought out this imported North Korean brand.


I’m a little obsessed with Korean food, and the bibimbap in Koreatown was amazing. Bibimbap is rice, vegetables, pork, egg, and a spicy sauce cooked in a stone bowl. Often served with a side of seaweed.


While looking for a different restaurant, I stumbled across this “grill your own food” buffet in a Shenyang suburb. There was a lot of buzz about a foreigner entering the joint, and the waitresses were all super patient in explaining to me how it worked. I just picked up various meats and vegetables, grilled them at my table, and got some pineapple soda pop to go with it. 


I spent one night in Beijing on the way back to Shanghai, rather than do the 10 hour train ride from Shenyang all at once. My hostel was by Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, pictured above. Tiananmen Square was closed with a heavy police presence when I took this photo. I got into Beijing in the evening and left the next morning at 10am. 

Unsurprisingly, it was very easy to get accommodation booked in Manchuria in the middle of winter. Train tickets were also simple to arrange, as there isn’t much demand to go north in winter. Beds at the nicest hostels in town were about $10 a night, though if you don’t speak or read Chinese it could be difficult.