The Russian influence in Harbin, including a continuing strong Russian population here, is no better felt than a wander around the streets that make up the Daoli district, in the northwest of the city.
Among the many Orthodox churches and Russian style facades in this region, the
St. Sophia Orthodox Church (Shengsuo feiya dajiaotang) is the most impressive, and imposing, structure.
In 1903, with the completion of the Sino-Russia railway, connecting Vladivostok to northeast China, the Russian No.4 Army Division arrived in this region. After Russia's shameful failure against the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), a plan to reconsolidate the confidence of the army by building a imposing spiritual symbol was proposed. Thus the magnificent
St. Sofia Church was born, completed in 1907. Large scale expansion and renovation then started in 1923, and after a nine years' intensive job, the biggest Orthodox church in the far east was finally completed and stood much as it does today.
The 53m tall church is a perfect example of Byzantine architecture: the main structure of the church is laid out as a Latin Cross with the main hall topped with a huge green tipped roof. Under the bright sun, the church, together with the square around it, reminds the Chinese, bizarrely, of the Red Square in Moscow. Although there are still several hundred Orthodox believers in Harbin, the religious activities are usually conducted in other smaller churches.
St. Sofia Church is nowadays used as the Municipal Architecture and Art Museum with exhibitions of the architectural history of the city, a photographic survey with captions all in Chinese.
Address: On the corner of Toulin Street (Toulin jie) and Zhaolin Street (Zhaolin jie).
How to get there: Take bus No.101 from the Railway Station to the church or bus No.2 from Stalin Park. A taxi ride from the city center costs less than RMB15.
Opening hours: 9am-5pm.
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The Flood Control Monument (Fanghong jinian tang) is located on the bank of Songhua River at the northern end of Zhongyang Street (Zhongyang dajie). The Monument is the centerpiece of the popular Stalin Park, built in 1958 to commemorate the tremendous feat of the Harbin people in controlling the massive flood of 1957. The flood was the biggest flood ever recorded in Harbin until the summer 1998 disaster.
The 13m tall monument consists of one Roman style cylinder column topped with statues of the heroic people of Harbin and a 7-meter-long curving corridor surrounding the column. The water level of 11 small semi-circular pools near to the column marks the level reached by the devastating flood in 1957. However, the water level record was again broken by the summer 1998 flood in which the monument witnessed the devastating destruction of nature and the great courage of the Harbin people...many paid with their lives. A new monument has been added on to the old to commemorate these new victims.
Stalin Park (Sidalin gongyuan) was built in 1953 and, as its name suggests, the park is evidence of the friendship, sometimes strained, between the two biggest communist countries at that time. The park is characterized by Russian style flower beds and a series of theme statues and is lavishly vegetated with flowers and trees. The river beach in the park serves as an ideal place for viewing the Songhua River and a natural swimming place for the Chinese, although the water is a good example of the state of China's rivers: less than clean. This place is very popular on the weekends.
How to get there: Take No.11 bus from the train station to the park, although Buses No.16, No.2 and No.26 also all go to the park.
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Further evidence of the dubious nature of the Japanese role during their occupation of parts of China in the 1930s and 40s is highlighted here in Harbin.
The Japanese army took the city in 1932, part of the colonization policy that had already claimed Korea and other parts of the newly set up Manchukuo state (Manchuria) with its puppet emperor.
Many Japanese historians even today refute much of the evidence that has been mounting up since the war years, although it is now fairly commonly accepted that the strictly drilled Japanese forces and seemingly polite civilians were less than civil.
The Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base (Riben xijun shiyan jidi) was set up in 1939 to "research", presumably, the capabilities of the soul and the endurance of the human body. Run by the Japanese army's Unit 731 (Qi san yao budui), the research center experimented upon many of the captives of the viscous war in Northeast Asia, including Soviet, Korean, British, Mongolian and mostly Chinese prisoners of war (POWs). As with other examples of the demonic brutality that such oppressive authoritarian societies can be stretched to doing, from Auschwitz to Nanjing, the Germ Warfare Experimental Base nowadays shows little of the grisly senselessness that its recent past should emphasize. The sight is said to have witnessed the execution of over 3000 POWs in the most horrific way: frozen, bombed, roasted, infected, injected, dissected...alive until dead.
Almost as chilling and sad as the events themselves is the umbrella of denial that now has spread over much of this period of history, with allegations and misinformation coming from many sides. Just before the 1945 retake of the city by the Soviets the Japanese apparently did their utmost to cover up the evidence of this area, blowing up the site. Allegedly, the Americans also gave the Japanese scientists who worked in the base, prominent in their respective fields, immunity from prosecution in return for research findings. It was not until the 1980s that a Japanese journalist published his findings of the role of the army in the Northeast that, seemingly, the whole truth came out. Nowadays many Chinese are adamant, and with good but possibly overzealous reasons, in their hatred of the Japanese. "Is said to", "apparently", "allegedly", "seemingly", "possibly" are words that appear with frequent maddening regularity here.
The museum that now commemorates this site is situated near to the spot that the original base stood, some 30km south-west of Harbin, near to the little town of Pingfang. The site is interesting for those into history, although the museum is small (two rooms) and has, see above, little evidence of the true past. There are, however, a few photographs, with Chinese captions, and the unearthed site of the original base that could be worth a look.
How to get there: take bus number 338 from the railway station to the terminal in Pingfang District.
Opening hours: daily 8:30-11:30am, 1pm-4pm.
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Jile Temple (Jile si) is one of the four most important Buddhist temples in northeast China. The temple is characterized by its age, its architecture and its lay out and all are designed strictly after the Chinese Buddhist style.
The temple is therefore looked upon as the model for visitors to understand and appreciate the art of Chinese temple building.
The temple was built in 1920 by Master Yanxu, a famous disciple of the Tiantai Buddhist clan. The complex of the temple consists of the Heavenly King's Hall, the Grand Hall, the Three Bodhisattva Hall, and the Buddhist Book Storage Hall. The main halls are fronted by a Drum Tower and a Bell Tower and other subordinate structures. The most imposing building of the temple is probably the Futu Pagoda on the eastern tip of the grounds, a 37m tall stone structure building dotted with caves engraved with Buddhist embossed sculptures. At the bottom of the pagoda is a large hall with Buddhist statues.
Every 8th, 18th and 28th of April according to the lunar calendar, major Buddhist festivals are held in the temple. Massive rites and celebrations are organized, while the temple area is surrounded with bazaars and various folk activities.
Address: 9 Dongdazhi Street (Dongda zhijie).
How to get there: Bus No.105 from Stalin Park is probably the easiest way to the temple, although buses No.104 and No.14 also go there.
Opening hours: In winter, daily from 8:30am-4:30pm. In summer from 8:00am-4:00pm.
Cost: A true egalitarian double pricing system: RMB5 for Chinese, RMB10 for foreigners.
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