The Harbin taxis often doctor their meters. They also want short trips where people get in, pay the minimum charge, get out, and another person gets in. If you are trying to go a longer distance, such as from the shopping area to the bus station, they will refuse to carry you. If you can't read Chinese, you won't be able to read the bus sign. You will find yourself with no way to get out of town.
when I was preparing for my mid wiinter trip to Harbin - which means temperatures of below 30-40 degrees celsius! (yes its a trip into the deep freeze up there in the far north of China) - the dangers and warnings I was made aware of were particularly regarding unscrupulous taxi drivers who were known to have threatened travellers enroute to the airport which is something like 30 km from Harbin with throwing them out of the taxi into the middle of nowhere if refusing to agree to major price rises enroute.
When travelling midwinter that happening is obviously dangerous - so it was a negotiation I made sure I discussed pre getting in the taxi and preferably prebook your taxi - available also through your hotel. Even then after I got into my taxi and we departed the taxi stopped and picked up a local to share my taxi. I was rather annoyed at this at the apparent assumption that as a tourist/foreigner that I wouldnt understand any Chinese language and would not be in any position to complain about it nor expect a reduction in my cab fare!
After I arrived in Harbin I headed off to the Harbin ice festival - night by then and very very cold but I assumed going by taxi no problems with that - and jumped in a taxi from the street. I got the scare of my life when I realised he was crazy (and speaking really crazy stuff in Chinese! - I had rather terrifying thoughts of being at the mercy of a nutter behind a wheel who couldve driven out of town into the dark deep snow covered countryside not far from Russia! and all that Id heard of the smuggling and so on that goes on....when to my relief he did pull up on the side of the road and let me out!
So even more so - in that situation reduce the risk and ensure the taxi and driver are authentic by catching them from your hotel - ie in the watchful eyes of hotel staff.
Don't be led astray by what you hear about China being "green". It's a line of BS. The reality is that China is a dirty, polluted mess in the cities. Beijing's being cleaned up for the Olympics. But China makes too much money off the polluting foreign companies to enforce real regulations that they may even have on the books.
What isn't polluted by industry is polluted by traffic- increasing numbers of people drive- and smoking (you can't always escape pollution by going indoors). They'll blow smoke at you without a second thought and with no intent behind it other than they don't think.
But China suffers from other forms of pollution. Noise is a way of life, brakes squeal, horns blare and people yell from office to office through concrete walls instead of walking next door. And they'll cough and sneeze open-mouthed without putting a hand up to cover it. They have no idea where germs come from- they think it's from the cold. Just be aware when traveling in China, and for this tip, Harbin, that it isn't a clean place and if you have asthma or a weak immune system, bring an inhaler and your prescription for it if you're taking no checked luggage, and maybe some vitamin C...
Hand sanitizer is a good idea, too.
The images below are of Harbin's nice pollution... Cloudy for the first two, but even on nice, blue-sky days, the sky is visible only if you look up.
Note that the pollution is worse in the winter when the coal fires are burning.
Two images for now.
If I could offer one piece of advice to China, it would be something besides this, but this is a useful piece of advice anyway... China... change your brake pads. Hohhot may be the capitol of squeaky brakes, but buses in Harbin (and no doubt elsewhere in China) need desperate attention paid to the brakes. It stems from the zoom-screech driving, the failure of the bus drivers to understand that at two, maybe three points on the road, they will need to slow down or stop. These events include: stoplights, when they are red; bus stops (where people get on and off buses) and traffic, when everyone thinks they have the right of way because there's no stoplight or stopsigns or cops telling them otherwise. There is a paucity of stopsigns here... At those times, it becomes necessary for bus drivers to slow their conveyances, and at those times, cover your ears. That squeal is hard on your ears. So, protect your hearing!
And hopefully, they will learn that the brake drums and rotors ar more expensive to replace than the pads. :)
I wouldn't say Harbin is a dangerous city. Theft and crime may be a problem as in any other large city, but one of the real dangers here is simply walking around. Paying attention is key, of course. People don't seem to watch where they walk, and if you think cell phone use while driving is bad in America, at least we tend to keep our cars straight! Here in Harbin, traffic moves much slower than on the expressways in America and China, but you still have to be very careful.
Crossing the road is fairly straight-forward- just don't get hit. With buses, cars, semis, bicycles and pedestrians moving in every direction, road crossings can be daunting. Sometimes the dotted or solid lines don't mean anything... cars will use the third lane (between the slow lane and the fast lane) or they will simply cross over to the other side of the road. Despite the seemingly ignorant and occasionally stupid driving, drivers are pretty well aware of what's around them and use their horns to announce their presence or warn other drivers or pedestrians. We haven't seen too many wrecks, but the roads are, nonetheless, a dangerous place to be a pedestrian or a cyclist. Be careful and don't be in a
hurry. They'll typically drive around you.
Don't be surprised if you see cars, cyclists and motorcycles driving the wrong way down a street.
Sidewalks are not free from bikes, motorcycles or cars, so be aware!
Many drivers tend to cheat visitor by not using meters, or is adjusted to bill you astonishing price. e.g., from airport to Shangri-La usually cost 120 RMB, but I was billed 265 RMB by meter!!
Only way to defend is to call the hotel to ask about the how much is the fair price, and ask the driver to put you right in front of the hotel entrance, if they cheat, the hotel guy can help you.
Case 1: We're all native Chinese speakers and look Chinese though not local. Taxi from the airport to Zhongyang Dajie should only be 110-120 RMB, plus 20 RMB highway toll paid by passengers. Either bargain beforehand (100-120 RMB excluding toll) or go by the meter. However, our meter showed an amazing 170 RMB when we arrived plus 20 RMB toll thus 190 RMB total. I told them to take all our baggage and get out, then politely asked if we could have a discount. He asked for 150 RMB total and I offered 140 RMB (fair enough). Some reluctance but he took it anyway.
Case 2: This was much uglier. Our hotel helped arrange for a taxi to the Unit 731 Base in Pingfang district, quite a distance from town. I've been there before and know it's potentially difficult getting back. The agreed price was 90 RMB for return, perhaps more than usual but acceptable to us. No mention of any limit on waiting time. When we got back after sightseeing, I saw that the meter was running but didn't ask about it, although on hindsight I definitely should've; since we'd already agreed on a price it shouldn't be running at all. We then chose to go directly to Snow Expo on Sun Island via a detour at Zhongyang Dajie instead of going back to the hotel. Upon arrival, he demanded that we pay 170 RMB in all, 80 RMB over our agreed price. We refused and offered a max of 100 RMB. I called the hotel to ask for assistance but to no avail. Finally I had enough of the whole drivel and told my friends to leave paying the driver nothing, as I'd just promised. (We were 3 girls and 1 guy.) Just before we got to the main gate, he ran up, grabbed my male friend and was going to assault him had I not stepped in and made a scene. We finally paid 160 RMB and took down his licence number, name and company name. Some might say that I was wrong to refuse to pay, but the fare was substantially higher and unacceptable. Even if we added the extra fare from Zhongyang Dajie to the Snow Expo on Sun Island (AFAIK only about 20 RMB), there's no reason for it to cost that much.
Horse carriage ride from Sun Island back to the other bank of Songhua River cost 10 RMB/carriage after bargaining. However I somehow foolishly gave the woman collecting money 2x 10 RMB notes, thought it was strange once I turned around (not 5 seconds later) and she refused to admit that she collected extra money from me at all, despite the fact that all my other 3 friends saw that I'd given her 1 extra 10 RMB note. This isn't the 1st time that I've had trouble with horse carriages -- drivers saying that they'll drive you to Sun Island and then dropping you in the middle of the river for you to walk across the path across the river! Buyer beware!
Lenses fog up and batteries die fast (especially for digital cameras) due to the cold temperatures in winter. Keep your camera close to your body when not in use in order to keep it warm, and have spare batteries handy -- keep those warm as well! If batteries seem to be dead, take them out and warm them in your hands before putting them back in, see if it helps.
The Chinese love fireworks, and before, during and after Chinese New Year, everyone sets off huge quantities of fireworks and firecrackers.
However, few people in China pay much attention to even basic safety precautions and this means that there are tens of thousands of injuries and deaths as a result of peoples' stupidity.
In Harbin we saw people just throwing big fireworks into crowds, people setting rockets off along the ground horizontally (rather than vertically into the air).
Take great care while you are out walking even on busy city-centre streets.
If you are tempted into buying fireworks, make absolutely sure you know how to light them. The instructions, if any, will be in Chinese.
If you drive in Harbin, you will have to get used to the ice paved streets and with the large troops of street ice-scratchers.
Traffic is always a mess since these ice-scratchers work during day and night in the middle of the streets, despite how many cars are there in the moment...
I could only think about including a warning tip about this: winter in Harbin uses to be bitter cold!
As we visited the city, on late January, temperatures there were about -18F (or -30C) with a sensation of about -40F (-40C) sometimes... during the evening/night.
You need plenty of pullovers, gloves, socks, a good winter boot and a good jacket to "survive".
Look at the map well before you embark on a lengthy walk. There are some railroad tracks that bisect the city and are difficult to cross.
Once you're out of the charming old "Russian" district, walking is a bit of an adventure, with many obstacles.
Finally, remember Harbin is a huge city, and that Chinese maps do not show all streets. What looks like one block could be ten blocks.
After arrival at the airport my Chinese hosts lifted my trousers to see, if I was wearing long underpants - -well everybody else was...
And a wollen cap and something warm to wrap around your neck is helpful too ;)
The place is pretty far away from seas and oceans, so don't expect to smell the fresh sea air. And be aware of the cold climate, remember to bring enough clothes if your visiting in the winter. the weather is very very cold, you don not watch to catch cold doing one exciting trip.