At one time, Harbin, China, was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, known as Little Moscow because it served as the terminus for the Trans-Siberian Railway and was where White Russians fled in droves after the Russian Revolution. The latest Paris fashions could be found there before anywhere else in China.
Today's Harbin is an industrial city—it has lost much of its cultural distinctiveness, although some vestiges of its Russian heritage remain, most notably in the onion-domed Church of St. Sophia. Harbin is 660 mi/1,100 km northeast of Beijing.
The bright spots are the gigantic swimming pool Dreamworld (near the Singapore Hotel) and the town's renowned Ice Lantern and Snow Festival. What started as an ice-sculpting competition in Zhaolin Park is now a major event, mostly centered at Ice and Snow World on Sun Island, across the frozen Songhua River. Starting in January, the festival lasts for a month and features giant snow sculptures and towering ice carvings illuminated from inside by colored neon tubes.
The Chinese-Russian market is a good place to buy freshwater pearls, fur hats, mink pelts, Russian dolls, jewelry, jade and ivory ornaments, and other "antiques." Bargain hard and be wary; fakes abound. Local restaurants serve Russian and Muslim cuisine, as well as wild game. Prices and quality are advertised by the number of Chinese lanterns hanging outside.
If you have more time, you might visit the handicraft factory (for jade and stone carvings), spend time in the Children's Park and hike the city's picturesque surroundings—hills, mountains and the Songhua River. China's best ski resort—at Yabuli—is 125 mi/200 km north of town.
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