Icy Harbin: Two Weeks in a North Korean-Chinese Home

Last winter I spent two weeks in Harbin, a northeastern Chinese city near the Russian border.  I lived in my friend’s home for those weeks and celebrated Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) with her family.  My friend recently graduated from the Master’s program at my school in Nanjing.  When she lived here, she had become one of my best friends in Nanjing, so she invited me to travel north to celebrate the holiday with her family.  She is ethnically Korean, from a family who came to China from what is now North Korea a few generations ago, before the Korean War.  Several of her family members still live in North Korea.

In Harbin I enjoyed the thrill of the freezing weather and the beauty of the Ice Festival, but the highlight was living with this family for two weeks, cooking together, playing majiang, and celebrating Spring Festival.  It truly felt like going home for the holidays.  I’ve traveled extensively in China, and this was probably my favorite experience thus far.

Harbin Ice Festival

Harbin has an annual ice festival, in which they build an entire village out of ice.

Harbin Ice Festival

The ice buildings are lit up at night.  This ice arched bridge was extremely slippery to walk on.

ice slide

There were several ice slides at the ice festival.

Ice Festival

An ice Parthenon lit up at night.

ice carousal

The ice festival isn’t the only place for ice sculptures.  Some of the downtown streets were lined with ice art like this ice carousel.  I can’t imagine sitting on this for very long.

Russian Orthodox Church

Located near the Russian border, Harbin has a strong Russian influence.  The downtown has several Russian Orthodox churches, and many of the streets reminded me of the architecture in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I had numerous flashbacks to my two trips to Russia in 1995 and 2002, when I visited my sister who lived there for several years.  Elsewhere in China people ask me where I come from.  In Harbin, people just assumed I was Russian.

Harbin synagogue

Part of Harbin’s Russian influence comes from the city’s history of welcoming Jews who were fleeing Russia and Europe around the turn of the century.  This synagogue is now a museum dedicated to the history of Harbin’s Jewish community, many of whom were business leaders and prominent professors and musicians in the city.  They built much of the downtown which gives the city its distinct non-Chinese character.

jade menorah

My favorite object in the synagogue museum was this jade menorah.

Songhua River

My friend’s mother and I became fast friends.  She and I took regular walks along the frozen Songhua River.  You can see a family here walking across the ice.

ice rink on the Songhua River

Here is an ice rink built right into the frozen Songhua River.

Harbin farmers

Some farmers just outside of Harbin hauling a load of wood.

Harbin farmhouse

A farmhouse outside of Harbin.

Harbin cat

Most of the animals I saw in Harbin had grown enormous coats of fluffy fur to protect them from the cold.  This cat’s fur is amazing.

frozen bus stop

A solitary bus stop outside the city.

Michelle at Harbin's seminary

My friend now teaches at Harbin’s seminary.  The architecture of their library resembles a stack of books.


I also visited this pastor on the right, who was my student during my first year in Nanjing.  She is a vivacious head pastor of a small church.

Dawai neighborhood

My friend took me to a neighborhood called Dawai, an area of old buildings built around the turn of the century that are condemned but still inhabited.  The facades of the buildings are Russian in style, but the interiors are built in the Chinese courtyard style.  The buildings are falling apart, but people are still living there.  We saw clothes hung out in the courtyards.

frozen staircase

A frozen dilapidated staircase.

old movie theatre

An old movie theatre.

Harbin Mosque

We visited Harbin’s mosque and chatted with one of the imams at the Halal bakery.

Michelle in Dawai

My friend posing with a candied-haw vendor cart.

North Korean ice skating

We happened upon an ice skating performance by a North Korean troupe.  They displayed a giant patriotic video behind the ice skaters.  A surreal experience.


While in Harbin, I visited “731,” the site where Japanese soldiers tested chemical weapons and performed live vivisections on Chinese citizens during WWII.  Horrific.

Spring Festival fires

During the weeks leading up to Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), every night I saw people burning fake money in the streets as part of the ritual.

Spring Festival fireworks

Firecrackers in China are all about the noise.  People set them off on the sidewalk even during the day.


The highlight of my Harbin trip was spending time with my friend and her mom.  We became really close.  She said I was like another daughter to her, and she cried when I left.  My friend had to work several days during my visit, so her mom and I would spend the days together cooking, taking walks along the frozen Songhua River, and playing majiang with her friends.  Her friends usually come over to play majiang a few times a week, for 4-5 hours straight with no break.  These majiang afternoons were so great for my conversational skills.  None of them speak English, so all of the game play – and all of their strategic advice to me – was in Chinese.  After a while I realized I was understanding everything that was said and it felt easy and natural, so I was proud of myself.  My majiang playing also really improved, but apparently we were playing “Harbin rules” so I would have to relearn some things if I were to play elsewhere.  I wish I had a group of older Chinese friends in Nanjing that I could play majiang with.


When we took our long walks, she kept stopping to pose for photos.  This little wooded area is next to the river.


I especially like this dancer’s pose.

Russian popsicles

Since this is a food blog, I’ll transition to writing about food in Harbin, starting with a few Russian influences in cuisine.  Here my friend and I are eating Russian-style yogurt popsicles on the street.  I remember that it was popular in Russia to eat ice cream on the street in the winter.  It’s a rush.

Russian borscht

Russian tomato-based borscht, with a hint of white vinegar.

Russian bread

My friend wanted me to see these loaves of Russian bread, and she encouraged me to hit them to feel how hard and solid they were.  When I started to buy one, she was shocked.  She said she just likes looking at this funny hard bread, but wouldn’t think of eating it.  I insisted on buying a loaf despite her protests.  Chinese bread is so pillowy-soft and sweet.  It’s hard to find substantial European style bread and I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity.

Russian bread

I loved this Russian bread, but it was way too hard for my friend and her mom.  They each ate a small chunk slowly and painfully to be polite.  I didn’t want it to go to waste, so I baked a few batches of bread pudding.  They loved it and insisted it was much better than plain hard bread.  Actually, before my visit, my friend bought an oven so that I could teach her how to bake.  We made a few bread puddings as well as a carrot cake and apple cake.

Michelle's grandma

This is my friend’s grandmother.  She moved to Harbin from what is now North Korea when she was a teenager.  She never learned to speak Chinese because she stayed at home as a housewife.  Now she mostly stays in her apartment watching Korean channels on TV.  We visited her a few times to cook lunch for her.  This is some fried tofu, dipping sauce, and some shrimp.

Korean mochi

The dessert for lunch at her grandma’s home was the  Korean version of mochi dusted with powdered nuts.

daenjang jige

My friend’s mom cooked a combination of Korean and northeastern Chinese dishes.  For most breakfasts she made a Korean soup called daenjang jige.  The soup base is fermented soy bean paste so it’s similar to Japanese miso, but heartier with chunks of potatoes, tofu, and zucchini.  This soup was accompanied by rice and fried tofu.

breakfast soup

Some mornings we had Chinese style egg and tomato soup, accompanied by rice and fried tofu and vegetables.

vegetables for Korean pancakes

We made two kinds of Korean pancakes.  On the left is the base for zucchini pancakes, and on the right is shredded potatoes for potato pancakes.

Korean pancakes

Frying the pancakes in a skillet.

Korean pancakes

She likes to place a thin slice of carrot in the middle of each pancake to make it prettier.

fried potatoes and garlic shoots

My friend’s mom cooked a range of Chinese stir-fried dishes that were simple but utterly delicious.  This is potato slivers stir-fried with celery and garlic.  Northeastern Chinese  cuisine is known for meat, but there are also numerous tasty vegetarian dishes.  The dishes have stronger flavors and more garlic than the light cuisine here in Nanjing (which is usually too plain for my taste).

fried rice

She made several simple fried rice meals.

making jiaozi

It’s a tradition to make jiaozi (dumplings) for Spring Festival.  Here we are making jiaozi together.

making jiaozi

My friend and her mom with the jiaozi.


Homemade jiaozi and Harbin beer.

leftover fried jiaozi

The next day we fried the leftover jiaozi, along with fried tofu.

jiucai hezi

The same egg and leek filling is also used to make “jiucai hezi,” a northeastern large dumpling that is pan-fried.

jiucai hezi

Rolling out the dough for jiucai hezi.

jiucai hezi

A freshly fried stack of jiucai hezi.

chun bing

We also made chun bing, which are the northeastern thin pancakes or flat breads that you stuff and roll with various things.  We went out for these in restaurants and also made our own at home.  Two pancakes are rolled out and cooked together, so the layers are softer on the inside.  You start with two small balls of dough on top each each other, and them roll them out together.

chun bing

A stack of rolled-out dough.

The fresh chun bing.  We stuffed ours with potatoes stir-fried with garlic shoots and a classic savory preserved bean sauce.


You need to pull the layers apart and use them separately.


My chun bing filling.  Looking at this photo brings back memories and makes me really hungry.


My chun bing.

wild vegetable balls

One my favorite northeastern vegetarian dishes, wild-vegetable balls.  Chopped wild-vegetables and aromatics like garlic and onions are formed into balls with a light batter and then deep fried.  They are incredibly delicious.

di san xian

When I lived in Dalian in northeastern China in 1998, this dish became my favorite.  It’s a classic northeastern dish of potatoes, eggplant, and green peppers in a garlicky sauce, called “di san xian,” literally “the three fresh things.”  I can find this dish in Nanjing, but it’s never as good as it is in the northeast.

di san xian

Di san xian at another restaurant.  I pretty much ordered it every time we went out to eat.

braised cabbage with noodles and garlic

Braised baby napa cabbage with glass noodles.  The topping looks like ground meat but is actually richly brown garlic, so the dish was vegetarian.  Delicious.

fresh tofu

We went to a restaurant that specialized in homemade soft tofu, which is seen here on the right.  It was fresh and soft like a souffle, still wrapped in fabric when brought to the table.

gan doufu

Gan doufu is like a tofu skin or leather, and here it was stir-fried simply with green onions.

Japanese tofu

This kind of custardy yellow tofu is called Japanese tofu “riben doufu” in China.  Here it was deep-fried and served in a savory onion based sauce.

bean sprouts

“Douya fensi,” bean sprouts stir-fried with glassy noodles made from sweet potato starch.

dong bei rice

“Dong bei mifan,” or northeastern rice, is famous throughout China.  The climate and soil creates high quality rice.  Some restaurants mix in a little red rice for color.  And here in the background you can see yet another order of di san xian, that potato and eggplant dish.


We ate jiaozi several times in Harbin, and actually my favorite jiaozi cafes in Nanjing are ones run by families from Harbin.  They are soft but also chewy, and you can easily find a variety of vegetarian fillings.

vegetable market

I’ll close with a few photos of vegetable stalls in street markets, which are generally enclosed in glass to keep from vegetables from freezing.

vegetable market

What an trip.  I hope I have a chance to go back.

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