If there’s two things you’ve come to expect from my blog, dear reader, I hope they’re Harbin history and cat pictures, so here’s more of both.
I’ve been reading more Harbin history including this wonderful book that my friend Hannah lent me. It’s called “Strolling Old Streets” and has wonderful profiles on all the old buildings in Harbin, their histories, and even historical pictures. Having read some of it myself, I finally took Hannah up on her suggestion to do some excursioning, going out and walking by all the old buildings etc. It’s kind of funny how enthralling and interesting we bothfind Harbin history even there’s only 120 years of it, and it’s a pity more of the expats here aren’t Harbin history nerds.
Our first stop was a block of churches. We actually intended to go to a service at what we believed to be Harbin’s last operating Eastern Orthodox church. Sadly, it was closed despite a Russian sign saying it would be open, but we did find this sign saying “act carefully, God is watching”.
The church on the right above was actually formerly the German Lutheran church. We were wondering how the hell Lutherans ended up in Harbin, so Hannah did some digging and discovered a tasty new tidbit of Harbin history. Apparently back in the 1800’s there was a large ethnic German population in Russia. These Germans were given special treatment, exemption from some taxes, military service, and religious freedom as long as they brought their agricultural know-how to certain parts of Russia. In the 1840’s though, these perks went away along with the serf-system, and some Germans started being persecuted out of resentment. Things were still alright until the 1920’s and 30’s when Stalin did what Stalin did best and started imprisoning and forcibly relocating whole populations. These Germans fled to various other countries, including the United States and Brazil, but some took the long, frigid trek to Harbin as well! What makes it even cooler is about 500 of these Germans were Mennonites! My people! (Sort of). They weren’t many, and they didn’t stay long, but learning that tidbit gave me a bit more of a connection to this place I love so much.
Below are some of the buildings we saw, all are around the train station more or less. Mouse over them if you’re curious to see what they are. Takeaways are A. beautiful architecture B. Harbin had a ton of foreign consulates back in the day, and C. Most of these buildings besides the churches have been chopped up to house a bunch of different stores, none bearing any relation to the former function of the building they inhabit. A bit sad, that last one, but at least the buildings are still there.
I’ve saved these two buildings for a couple reasons. The first one was a residence of one of the Skidelski brothers, who were Ukrainian Jews that came to Harbin by way of Vladivostok. They dealt with shipping and coal (and presumably shipping of coal) and were quite the high rollers. One of their coal company’s offices also did a stint as the Portuguese consulate (not pictured). I learned from the book though that they both had a string of marriages and were more often than not living in suites at the Hotel Moderne. The second building, right next door, was the mansion of a Polish lumber baron. Apparently Mao Zedong stayed there for one night, one night, in 1950, and they’ve kind of turned it into a shrine to him with the history of his family, his socks, his old swim trunks, and other things all on display there. Kind of creepy, kind of funny overall. Beautiful interior.
Then I popped over to Jile temple, ran into some Americans, and then went to look at the culture park. It used to be the Russian cemetery, with an attached church, which I find really interesting being next to a Buddhist temple. Maybe something to explore in the book. Now though, it’s an amusement park. I hope they didn’t build over the graves, otherwise there’s gonna be some angry White Russian ghosts to deal with.
Last up, some cat pictures and a shot or two of Harbin Engineering College. Hosting trivia this week, bye!