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'Moscow of the Orient'

0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, October 8, 2011

'Moscow of the Orient'

The Russian-style theme park Volga Manor is a major attraction on the outskirts of Harbin. [Source: China Daily/Zhang Zixuan]

There's more to Harbin than ice sculptures, especially when you visit in autumn.

My first impressions of Harbin come from the driver who picks us up at the airport. Asked to show his license at a toll booth, he becomes impatient and raises his voice.

But the booth attendant is unfazed. She too raises her voice. The driver finally relents, although he keeps muttering under his breath. The attendant remains unperturbed, but an unmistakable smile slowly forms at the corners of her mouth.

"We were joking," the driver says, suddenly aware that his bus load of passengers, especially visitors from abroad, have gone quiet, over the seemingly sharp exchange of words.

There are many signs of this informality typical of people from Northeast China in the provincial capital of Heilongjiang province, making for a lively and vibrant city.

Central Avenue never seems to sleep. At night, Russian-style buildings come to life under neon lights, underscoring Harbin's reputation as the "Moscow of the Orient".

My first quest is to find the store selling the ice lollipop "Modern", or "Madieer" in Chinese, which takes its name from the well-known hotel on Central Avenue built in 1906, and to which the store is attached.

Many friends had told me it was a must-try.

It is only when I stand on Central Avenue that I realize how easy it is to find the store - it is the one with the largest crowd on the street. Many are holding handfuls of the creamy yellow lollies, that come for a mere 2 yuan ($31 cents).

As soon as I bite into one, I understand why every customer buys dozens rather than just one of these delectable melt-in-the-mouth lollies.

A friend, who lives in Harbin, tells me that in winter, people wrapped in heavy down coats, stand in line, stamping their feet to keep warm in the -35 C temperatures, just to buy these ice lollipops.

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