Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang, the most north-eastern province in China. Most of the year is basically winter, so we do not have too many months where we can lounge in the sun. In the depths of winter, it can often be minus 18 to minus 20 degrees Celsius during the day. However, life goes on and your days off roll around just the same. Since the daytime can be bitterly cold, you often have to think about how long you want to stay outside, but luckily there is a good choice of inside and outside activities.
Harbin has a really beautiful pedestrian street in the centre of the city called Zhong Yang Da Jie (中央大街). The architecture along the street is Russian in style, due to the fact that the Russians occupied this part of China for at least a couple of hundred years. The whole street is cobbled and leads down to the Songhua River, which is frozen solid in the winter! You can walk across it, enjoy being there with other people, and take pictures. In the spring (or rather the summer), as Harbin's spring is almost non-existent, you can sit on the river steps and watch the water lapping near your feet.
On Zhong Yang Da Jie, there is a place nearby where you can book to do some painting. You choose the size of your canvas, the picture you want to draw and paint. The friendly staff will help you choose the colours and mix the hues if you need help. It's a great place to go with a couple of friends on a day off and then take a walk down to the river and have something to eat. I have painted about two or three pictures there, and I even went to a dream catcher making workshop! It cost about 80RMB to buy a blank canvas and paint for the day, and it costs about the same for the dream catcher workshop.
Sometimes, I just want to walk in the park and watch the elderly Chinese grandparents do their morning exercise. In the height of winter, you can walk along the man-made canal because it's frozen over and have a look at snow sculptures.
Harbin has had an explosion of cat cafes. I love cats, so I enjoy going there with friends to have a cup of tea and some lunch. If you are into more solitary activities, the great thing about China is that you can afford to do things that you may not have been able to do back home, because of a concern about the cost. For example, I often go to the gym on my day off just to unwind. I also have a regular guitar lesson which is a good way to forget about the working week.
If you want more noise, there is the street known as Bar Street, (桥南街) which most Chinese cities with expats probably have now. There is also a weekly trivia night that expats can join in with every Thursday night. The weekly “prize” is the trivia trophy and your team's pride! Going to the cinema is another thing that we like to do. If you have Chinese friends who can book for you, you can get a discount on your ticket! Of course, Harbin has a plethora of KTV places, I do love KTV, and it is great to go with friends occasionally to belt out some tunes. KTV is cheaper in the afternoon; you can book a room from about 150-190RMB for three hours. Divided among three or four friends, that is quite cheap!
The botanical garden in Harbin is very nice, it is great for having a picnic during the week when it is quieter. It is a really nice place to hang out and get away from the noise of the city. The entrance fee is affordable, about 15RMB. The beer gardens also open up in the summer, so you can have a beer and have some barbecued meat on a stick, or Shao Kao (烧烤)for its official name.
I'm sure there is more to discover in this city, they have just opened an indoor skiing centre and a couple of new flower parks, as well as a new water park. There are also quite a few museums I have not been to yet, so, I will have to just keep exploring. Do not allow Harbin's winter keep you away from exploring it, the people are also much warmer than the weather!