Every day, a least up to mid-October, there is a street market at the corner on Baojian (???) and Haping Lu... it's right across from our old apartments. They sell fruits, vegetables, meats and steamed buns, household goods, pots and pans, chopsticks, shoes, clothes. It's just a nice place to walk... it's a local market with no tourists, and while it isn't very big, it's a great place to practice Chinese and to get away from the tourist places and into a place where locals shop. I'm dubbing this place the Haping Lu Sidewalk Market. Now it has a name.
Unit 731 was a section of the Japanese army in World War Two which did experimental research on germ warfare. The facility was outstanding in their use of LIVE, HEALTHY HUMAN BODIES for experiments which were referred to as "maruta" -- literally meaning "logs". In a manner common to Japanese military throughout Asia then, what happened here could only be described as inhumane, atrocious, barbaric, selfish, merciless... the list goes on.
For example, to investigate whether horse blood could be used as a substitute for human blood, they would transfuse horse blood directly into the subject's body -- thereby coming to the conclusion that a transfusion of 400 ml of horse blood would be sufficient to kill the subject very painfully. To find out more about the results of frostbite, subjects were stripped naked and tied securely outdoors in the freezing cold (Harbin experiences winter conditions of around -30 degrees Celsius!), doused with water and basically left to freeze to death. These are only 2 of the unthinkably cruel experiments awaiting the helpless victims.
This facility had their own private railway to deliver fresh maruta specimens to them. I would describe it as the "Taklamakan Railway": go in and never come out.
As the Japanese realised they were losing the war, they tried to destroy all the evidence of their heinous crimes at this base, but failed to do a thorough job. Many of the officers who had worked at this facility returned to Japan after the war and took up well-respected and high-paying jobs due to their invaluable and unique knowledge in this field -- gained only through the deaths of countless innocent civilians! What a hypocrisy!
I have been here twice, and both times I have been horrified to tears.
There are too few who know of these horrors. We should never forget, nor should we forgive. Please visit, if only to pay some respects to those who died screaming for someone to help them out of their suffering and agony. YOU WILL BE MOVED.
Admission 20 RMB, or 10 RMB if you have a student card.
At some time between the departure of the last Jews after WWII and the modern cosy-toesy relations between China and Israel, the old Jewish cemetery was relocated to a beautiful, peaceful spot.
A great effort is made to honor those dead, and to help the descendants find their Harbin ancestors.
Many of the tombstones appear to have been vandalized at some point, however, with little enameled portraits destroyed or scratched. The impression is infinitely sad.
The modern cemetery is a good hour drive away. Make sure your driver understands where you want to go before you depart.
Though the Japanese Kanto military controlled the Northeast from 1931, most would not have been aware of covert Special Forces Military Unit 731 (also called the Ishii Military Unit). Senior members included elite researchers of the day, and included germ warfare research, and non-consentual human experiments in the name of medical research upon around 3000 Chinese, Korean and Russian people.
New prisoners healthy enough to test were referred to as "logs", partly to deny the humanity of intended victims, also as a code name for classified communications. Explicitly, experiments included forcible frostbite in -30 degree winter, raising rodents and fleas for disease spreading and incubation, in-vivo dissections, etc.
At war's end, Ishii ordered to blast the facilities, execute remaining "logs" and low-rank staff, and forced confidentiality agreements upon subordinates. Some 731 staff later held as POW confessed to Soviets who requested this episode to stand trial at Tokyo Far East Military Tribunals (footage now on DVD with Jpn. and Eng., soon in Chinese). This never did stand trial, and the Americans handled it secretly by having Ishii report the research in exchange for pardon. Other participants resumed post-military careers in civilian life.
One of the exhibition rooms contains confessional video and writings by some former Japanese participants. The Jpn. general public never heard of Unit 731 until circa 1980; the relative lack of common knowledge is one of the sticky points still affecting Sino-Japan relations today. For now, what *is* Jpn. common knowledge concerning wartime atrocities committed by Imperialist Army are those against their own people, remembered today at Himeyuri Memorial in Okinawa, where over 200 Japanese High School girls died after being illegally used on the battlefield.
Located about 20km south of central Harbin in Pingfang, there is guided tour in your language where possible. No photography inside. Built-in glassed georamas of grey clay illustrate crimes against humanity.
They have a Tigers only Zoo here. It is a drive thru type (Their Bus). A Tiger only zoo with on or two Lions, go figure, Hey its China. They also have a Liger or a Tion not sure which it is. Just know its half Tiger, half Lion.
If you are not so blood thirsty like you average local don't buy the live chickens/rabbits if you are not prepared to set them loose in a field full of hungry Tigers. Gruesome...
If you are down at Stalin Park or the Flood Control Monument and it is getting just too cold to stay out, then there is an interesting little place you can go to arm up get a cup of tea or coffee and see one of Harbin's least known sites.
In the lobby of the Gloria Inn hotel (a 4-star place) just diagonally opposite the Flood Control Monument, is a huge water feature suspended from the ceiling.
Basically a series of ornate bowls (perhaps 30 of them?) curve around the long lobby, eventually spiralling down to a small pool. The water pours from one to the other, all the way down.
Now this is the kind of thing you might see in Shanghai, but it is yet another sign that under the surface in Harbin, there is an artist trying to get out!
The ice sculptures are not the only works of art along Zhongyang Dajie. The city has put a lot of whimsical statues along the street of Zhingyang Dajie, usually in the entrances to side streets. These are fairly common outside China, but the concept of human-scale statues is new to China, and they are cropping up in many cities. It seems to bring in a refreshing feeling that the cities are for people, and that art does not have to be monumental in scale.
It was particularly nice to see these statues and scultures in Harbin: they made the streets seem that much warmer.
While the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum is managed badly, and is basically a disgrace,the aquarium in the basement is worth visiting and our kids enjoyed it.
The first part of the aquarium is laid out as a series of pools in a number of landscaped caverns. These first rooms show a lot of fishes native to Heilongjiang rivers. Their are descriptive panels in Chinese, but they also have Latin names as well, so if you know your fish you should be able to work out what is what.
Some of these river and lake fish grow to incredible sizes.
The tanks are large and look well maintained.
Later there is a big walk-through marine aquarium, with the obligatory sharks and rays, which are less common in Heilongjiang (given that it has no sealine).
The whole visit is only marginally spoilt by the display of performing seals in a tiny, tiny pool. People around the world have simply recognised that getting animals to perform is unnatural, cruel and a pretty pathetic reflection on those who arrange it. China just seems to be slow getting into synch as the rest of the world moves along the civilization curve, in this respect.
On a shelf at the Russian Cafe (separate review) is a little framed plaque mentioning the Museum of Russian Life. We asked where it was and were given a vague description of a street nearby. Sadly, we never found the museum, despite looking quite hard. No-one else had even heard of the place.
As Russians and Russian life from a substantial part of Harbin's history, this would seem to be a really interesting place to see.
So once again, the inability of organizations and tourism marketing authorities in China to do their job properly means less money for the city. It is a permanent source of frustration in China how difficult it is to see and find places, even those that are ON the beaten track. This madness must be costing China's economy millions of dollars a year.
Don't expect the useless attendants to break away from their critical activities of chatting and drinking tea, unless you are carrying a camera. Photography is prohibited because it is prohibited. This enables the staff-cum-rottweilers to get nasty with people on a regular basis. I kept setting off the flash on my camera as soon as I was around the corner and popped the camera back in my pocket. When the sprinting hags appeared I just shrugged my shoulders and looked perplexed. I pay tax in China: I want to see some action from these tea-sodden crones! I think they were glad when we went.
I can get interested in the dustiest of old relics (I'm talking about the contents of the museum now, not the staff) so found the displays interesting. My kids suggested that they had had more fun at the dentist.
The second series of rooms is the natural history museum, but they have just collected dead animals from all over the place, with no regard to their prior existence in Heilongjiang. Useless, basically. This section was like something out of European museum one hundred years ago.
On the bright side, the museum would help with bad cases of insomnia.
If you are interested in seeing how badly a museum can be run, then this one would be a good example, possibly giving the Shandong Museum in Jinan a run for the money.
The Heilongjiang Provincial Museum has its ups and downs. Its not as bad as most of the guidebooks say, but a few hours makeover would turn this into a very impressive place. As it is, it suffers from 'sullen old women' syndrome: large numbers of ignorant, unpleasant and unfriendly staff who won't even give you the time of day.
The cloakroom doesn't accept coats. You have to swelter it out as you go around. Fortunately they have made as much of the museum as boring as possible so that you don't have to swelter for too long. It is indicative of many of China's tourist problems that most cultural heritage facilities have no idea how much money they could make or how much more interesting they could be if they could just get off their backsides, stop drinking out of jamjars for a while and start to consider the possibilities. Museums in China are as close as you get now to experiencing old-style Communism.
The Heilongjiang Museum is in a beautiful art-deco building that was originally a department store. However, they have put huge advertising hoardings over the upper floors, to cut off any possible aesthetic pleasure that one might derive from looking at the place from the outside. Indeed, it is actually easy to miss the museum entrance because of all the shops that use the ground floor (it is up the steps at the stone lions).
The aquarium is worth visiting on its own (separately reviewed) although it does end with a rather pathetic seal display. Ah, the ability of China to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!
The upper floor has two huge display areas, with virtually nothing in any foreign language, other than a few of the obligatory 'hyperbole display panels' found in every museum, telling us how fantastic the place is. The series of the rooms on the left is the historical section. The labelling in Chinese is pretty useless.
Hongbo Square is the hub of modern Harbin, with Xi/Dong Dazhi Jie stretching away, and Harbin's original raison d'etre - the railway station - down the slope to the north. Today, a modernistic water sculture sits in the middle of the roundabout isolated from Harbin by the roaring and rushing traffic. Until 1966, one of the region's most charming churches sat here, the wooden St Nicholas Church. It was burnt to the ground during the Cultural Revolution.
Along the north-western quadrant, curving around two street frontages is the spectacularly beautiful Heilongjiang Provincial Museum. However, advertising hoardings have completely covered the upper half of the building and much of the lower levels, so its charms can only be seen from photographs in St Sofia's Church.
The big square modern building to the west is the Northern Theatre, constructed in 1983 and a surprisingly graceful glass building considering the rubbish that China was constructing in the early 1980s.
The south-eastern quadrant of Hongbo Square holds some interesting buildings, but we didn't have the time to get to see them. The most notable building on that side is the small building knowns as the Soviet Experts House, which was built in 1908 for use as railway offices then taken over by the Japanese invaders in 1932. It was used by Soviet technical experts during the 1950s and 1960s.
A classic Eastern Orthodoxchurch was built by the Ukrainian architect Tidanov for the small Ukrainian community living in Harbin. Originally a wooden structure dating from 1922, the present brick church was completed in 1930, just two years before the Japanese occupation.
It is the sole remaining Eastern Orthodox church in Harbin, and is the focal point for the Russian ethnic minority. Back in the late 1940s there were 23 Orthodox churches in Harbin and 128,000 worshippers, but that has dwindled through the ravages of Communist influence to a mere hundred or so today.
The red brick and green domed church is, in many ways, that much more elegant than St Sofia's downtown, and its continued use brings a warmth utterly missing from the latter church.
Opposite is the Nielai Church.
Possiby one of the most intriguing churches in Harbin is the Nielai Church, built by the Russian architect Feorob in 1916 as a lone Protestant Church among the many Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches of the city.
Although there were a great many Protestat missionaries in China and Harbin at that time, they were not particularly successful. The Danish Lutheran Missionary Society is reputed to have had more than 20 missionaries working in Harbin alone. Quite why so many, and why Danish, is a mystery. Could these Danes speak Chinese or Russian?
This elegant little church is now 'managed' by the Harbin Christian Association.
Opposite is the Ukrainian Church of St Mary.
Just before reaching Zhingyang Jie is a cluster of older buildings. To the left of the first low yellow building is a small alleyway. Go down this alleyway, which twists right then left. You are in a courtyard of old Harbin: the bit the pictures and tour guides never show. The brick is unpainted, the windows original, and at the end the wrought-iron canopy sits where it has done since the building was put up in the 1920s. The courtyard, full of lumber, piles of bricks, bicycles and bits of equipment has probably been like this just as long. This is old Harbin at its best.
Hongzhuan Lu appears on Zhongyang Lu by the magnificent Baroque-style Xinhua Educational Bookstore with its huge red dome. It was originally constructed in 1909 for the Songpu Company.
At this point turn right towards the bright pink Moderne Hotel, actually Harbin's oldest hotel or left for the riverbank and the parks.