In the early 20th century, Harbin had a large population of fleeing white Russians. In the 1950s, because of its strategic location, the Soviet Union sent advisors to help develop the city; they are in part responsible for the soulless apartment blocks and the creepy concrete dormitories that ring the campus of the Harbin Institute of Technology, the city's most prominent university.
Harbin now houses nearly 6 million people, some of whom had fled from bleaker towns farther north, in a wide, flat city bisected by the cleverly named Central Avenue. Aboveground malls compete for customers with massive underground shopping centers that used to be bomb shelters. The post offices, banks, and counterfeit DVD stores looked like run-down versions of the ones in Beijing; even the bus-stop map seemed to be designed by the same person.
Besides karaoke rooms and KFC, popular destinations for locals include the mostly frigid Sun Island Park, across the street from Stalin Park, which features imitation Russian architecture and the Railway River clubhouse, administered by a local railways bureau (and yes, it's that Stalin). For most of the year, real outdoor activities are difficult: When I arrived in February, the temperature regularly dropped below -15 degrees Celsius; buffeted by Siberian winds, it was physically painful to be outside. Locals have probably gawked at St. Sophia Cathedral, built by the Russian army in 1907, at least once or twice. And some have visited the Siberian Tiger Park, climbing into rickety vans as the guides drive among the tigers (for $8 your guide will toss a chicken at the patiently waiting animals; for $300, he'll release a cow), and the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, billed as one of the world's "four largest ice and snow festivals."
But mostly, people drink. Chinese alcoholism statistics are hard to come by, but Harbin hits the bottle hard. One Chinese website in 2008 ranked Harbiners as China's No. 1 beer drinkers, claiming that they drink more than 85 liters of beer a year, on par with Lithuania and nearly twice as much as China's second-ranked city, also in Manchuria. Many drink in restaurants or in clubs, like the popular Blues, a cavernous dance hall that featured a massive silk-screen print of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on the wall and a fake octopus hanging from the ceiling, and where a Mongolian prostitute smacking a Korean prostitute with a chair would interrupt only the person who had been sitting on the chair. A Beijing-based blogger who lived in Harbin in 2003 told me about leaving Blues after several drinks and flagging a taxi driver, whom he recognized. "The taxi driver told me, 'Hi, I just came from a wedding and I'm soused. You drive." So he drove himself home through Harbin's icy, deserted streets.
Like many Chinese cites, Harbin can be extremely challenging to the health -- and not just due to the sometimes scandalously toxic food served in dim, poorly lit restaurants. Hospital bathrooms in Harbin and elsewhere often lack soap and toilet paper, ostensibly out of fear that residents will steal the items. Six months after I arrived, a benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River briefly left the city without running water. The air in Harbin was so polluted that I felt as though the coal dust had sunk into my lungs, and a fine layer of black soot seeped in through our windows overnight. But even Harbin wasn't as filthy as Linfen, a city of 4 million people in central China's Shanxi province that Time in 2007, on a list of the world's 20 most polluted cities, said made "Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park."
The most livable parts of Chinese cities tend to be those that existed before Communist Party control. Teahouses, sometimes in elaborate, winding wooden structures, populate Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province; the areas around West Lake of Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province near Shanghai, feature an urban peacefulness and quiet. In an essay, dissident artist Ai Weiwei listed a "few nice parks" as one of the two things he liked about Beijing (the other was that "people still give birth to babies"). Chinese cities have little crime; one can stroll safely through Beijing's magnificent Temple of the Sun park at midnight and lie on the altar, roughly 20 feet high, where the emperor used to offer sacrifices to the sun, and marvel at the luxury of so much space in a crowded city. And on the rare day when the sky is clear, you can even see the stars.