Chilling in Harbin

Up in the north-east, close to the border with Siberia, Harbin  capital of Heilongjiang, is not the warmest of destinations. In January when the temperature gets as low as -16C, the city hosts an internationally famous Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. I was here in March when it was still quite chilly, with the odd flake of snow. Bring the thermals is what I’m trying to say.

The city was once under Russian rule and was particularly influenced by Russian ex-pats who came here to escape the revolution, though few remain now due to its grisly past. However the local cuisine still shows many examples of culinary fusion between the two cultures. The local sausages (qui-lin hong-chang) are notable for being more similar in flavour to European ones than Chinese. Harbin is also famous for its bakeries and bread is known as lie-ba, derived from the Russian word khleb. Because of its continuing role as a trade hub between the two countries, there are still a lot of Russian eating and drinking establishments around town, which can make a nice change from the usual.

I stayed at Jin Gu Hotel which is on the main shopping street, a rather bleak Stalinist-style parade of stores all selling the same things, although kite flying is a popular past time at the far end by the river. The ground-floor restaurant attached to the hotel is ok and has picture menus. The wonton soup and the pan-fried dumplings were pretty good. The staff were lovely, just like everyone else I met in the town.

On another evening I went to a place right next to the hotel, which didn’t seem to have a name, but simply said ‘Russia drinks and food’ above the window. It’s very quaint, with a few potted trees outside, and has the atmosphere of a lifestyle museum with lots of art-deco and other period pieces inside. I had the borscht and the cabbage rolls for a change, both of which were very nice. Bizarrely there was also Indian curry and Milanese pork cutlet on the menu but I can’t vouch for those.

Harbin is also very famous for its beer and was the first place to brew it in the country, from 1900 in fact. According to my in-flight magazine, Harbiners are third in the beer consumption per capita tables, after Munich and Moscow. I find this a little hard to believe although apparently beer is consumed at twice the national average, and they do like a drink here as this article shows. Harbin beer certainly is a nice brew, just as good as the better known Tsing Tao.

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