Located in the cold north of China, Harbin is a city often left aside from the tourist trails. The city, the capital of the province of Heilongjang, is known among Chinese people for its terrifying, cold winters, which allow for the city to hold the annual Ice Festival, famous all over the country. As it was once an important Russian enclave, the Cultural Revolution left little for current-day travelers to see, apart from the majestic Central Street, now crammed with stores from Western brands; and Saint Sophia Church, which proudly stands in the middle of Daoli District as the last remnant of the Russian heritage.
These two are the most widely known sites in Harbin, but they're not the only ones. A long and tricky bus trip waits for the curious tourists willing to visit Unit 731, a concentration camp built by the Japanese during World War II to carry out biological research on Chinese prisoners; though shocking, the visit is worth for those who want to know what atrocities were committed outside Europe during the Great War and to understand the reason for the tense relationship between China and Japan. However, getting there can be a bit complicated for those with little or no knowledge of Chinese.
Outside of the city center, the gardens of the Sun Island are a good destination for the months of spring. It's a vast extension for a pleasant walk among trees, flowers, and a calm environment far from the turmoil of the streets downtown; these are also the characteristics of the Botanical Garden, in Dongli District. However, these visits are only recommended from the months of April, when the weather improves, until October, before temperatures start to drop again and ice and snow make it less inviting for visitors to wander around the city. Only the central streets of Daoli District, decorated with sculptures carved on ice, are worth the risk, and the comfortable cafes will welcome visitors longing for a warm drink to escape from the cold. If you want to brave the cold season here, your Harbin hostel is a great place from which to base yourself so you can see everything the town has to offer.
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