Harbin is known as the "ice city" because it is so cold there in the winter and the people there take advantage of that cold to make sculptures of it. Not surprisingly, Harbin is also known for good hockey players. On the other hand, in the Summer it has little to distinguish it from other cities in China. Harbin is located on the Songhua river in Heilongjiang
. There is a beach on an island, but the water is a little dirty to be swimming in the river. There is a lot of Russian/Soviet influence on the architecture of Harbin, due it its close proximity to Russia. Also because of its closeness to Russia
, there are (surprisingly enough) a fair amount of Russians there. The people there always seemed to be big and husky, even for people in the north. I always found people friendly, and they speak good mandarin
there. Harbin is a far nicer city to be in in the Summer than in the winter as the winter there is far too cold for my liking. The food is also good -and spicy- my favorite thing to eat there is the jiaozi
, also they are known for making Harbin Beer, which is pretty tasty and difficult to find in other parts of China compared to the ubiquitous Qingdao
If you go out into the countryside, don't expect to see much. The countryside is all flat farmland for literally hundreds of miles all around. I have never been to the plains in the middle of the US, but having been to Heilongjiang, I think I have gotten a pretty good idea of what it looks like already. To get there you can take a plane (a couple of hours) or train (overnight from Beijing, good if you get the sleeper and cheaper than the plane) or if you are a masochist you can take a bus (hell will freeze over before you get there).
Something less well-know about Harbin is that during the Japanese occupation before and during WWII it was the site of a lot of biological warfare testing by the Japanese. People would be taken off the street and injected with varying diseases, then monitored until they perished. Even today outside of Harbin the testing facility and the furnaces where they burned the bodies are still standing as evidence.