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A visit to China’s most popular tourist destination this winter-Xinhua

by Staff
A girl has fun at Harbin Ice-Snow World in Harbin, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, Feb. 15, 2024. (Xinhua/Wang Jianwei)

by Xinhua writer Bai Xu

BEIJING, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) — Before entering Harbin Ice-Snow World, a landmark theme park in the capital of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, my friend said to me that it maybe impossible for me to try the iconic giant slide, with an obvious infusion of regret audible in her voice.

Her suspicion proved correct.

Despite a freezing wind and a temperature below minus 20 degrees Celsius, some people opted to wait for hours in a very long queue at the slide — a queue so long that it prevented me from having a go at riding the famous slide.

As of last Thursday when the Ice-Snow World closed, it has received about 2.71 million visitors during the 61 days of its operation.

This is only one example of how popular the city of Harbin is as a tourist destination this winter.

“Harbin has always been beautiful, but now more people are beginning to see her beauty,” said Jiang Kedong, who has become famous this winter for hosting performances at the Ice-Snow World. According to research by Tongcheng, a major online travel agency, Harbin tops the rankings of the most popular destinations for the 2024 Spring Festival holiday.

I remember seeing photos of Harbin when I was a child. Back then, I marveled at its exotic beauty — women dressed in leathers and furs and the Byzantine style St. Sophia Cathedral combined to suggest that it was a fashionable city.

In the following years, however, when people talked about northeast China, they mostly mentioned that the old industrial base, once dubbed China’s “eldest son,” had become a “rust belt” because of the difficulties it encountered in terms of both transformation and development. Such challenges resulted in Jiang’s mother losing her job at a local factory. Jiang himself also spent time as a factory worker, with the factory he once worked at now no longer in existence.

This winter the luster is returning to Harbin, with millions of visitors flocking to the city.

I found the central street of Harbin, flanked with restaurants, gift shops and stores selling local specialties, to be packed with visitors, even late at night. As I walked, I could detect accents from places right across China.

At the Yabuli ski resort nearly 200 km away from the downtown of Harbin, people ranging from three years old to 70 were geared up to ski — the enthusiasm of many of them sparked by the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

An aerial drone photo taken on Jan. 25, 2024 shows people waiting in line to visit the Exhibition Hall of Evidence of Crimes Committed by Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army in Harbin, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. (Xinhua/Xie Jianfei)

Even the Exhibition Hall of Evidence of Crimes Committed by Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army was packed with visitors ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, with some waiting outside the black building for two hours before getting the chance to enter. Jin Chengmin, head of the exhibition hall, was clearly pleased with this level of interest, believing that it demonstrated the “strength and responsibility of the younger generation.”

To make visitors to Harbin feel especially welcome, local residents even offered them free rides and free hot drinks. I asked my friend if their initiatives were prompted by their joy at witnessing the rejuvenation of the city. She shook her head and said, “No. They don’t think that much. This is simply how local people behave when they have guests in their homes. They are keen to show you the best that they have.”

Jiang Kedong, meanwhile, told me that visitors not only took with them souvenirs and happy memories, but also left something in Harbin.

Sugar-coated hawthorn on a stick is a traditional snack in north China. However, other variations of this snack have now appeared in Harbin, with hawthorn sometimes replaced by pepper, onion and even crabs — typical food choices in faraway provinces like Sichuan, Shandong and Jiangsu.

On the streets, few people now wear leathers or furs, a change that will delight animal rights groups. Instead, locals are choosing coats from Bosideng, a leading Chinese down-jacket brand, or Canada Goose, just like elsewhere in China.

A dragon-shaped lantern installation is seen at the Central Street in Harbin, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province on Feb. 10, 2024. (Xinhua/Wang Jianwei)

All of these changes suggest to me that the city is becoming more open and inclusive.

My stay in Harbin was short and there are things I didn’t have time to see or experience.

Harbin has been named the “city of music” by UNESCO, and I was told that in summer there are usually musicians playing in its streets.

The Harbin Institute of Technology, founded in 1920, is a key Chinese university known for its strengths in fields such as space science, robotics and engineering, which contribute greatly to the country’s space exploration efforts.

Of course, there is also the city’s historical significance. It was the origin of some nomadic tribes of the Jurchen people, who later formed the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Reality is that Harbin offers a lot more than St. Sophia Cathedral and ice and snow.

So I have decided to visit the city again — maybe in summer. Would you like to go and see for yourself? 

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