Zhongyang Dajie

A cobbled, tree-lined street located in the heart of Daoli District, Zhongyang Dajie was once the buzzing heart of social and commercial life in Harbin, home to the city's most exclusive hotels and shops. "From 3am until nightfall, it was alive with throngs of people," a Japanese visitor wrote of the avenue, originally known as Kitaiskia (Chinese) Street, in 1926. "The Russian women with their gaudy early summer hats and clothing together with their white shoes formed a spectacle to be seen nowhere else in the Far East save Shanghai." The scene today is much the same, but with Russian faces few and far between. Particularly vibrant is the pedestrian-only section at the southern end, where Chinese women in absurd fur coats window-shop a new generation of boutiques set up in the old Russian buildings, beautifully restored with explanatory plaques in English. The old-world charm, however, has not stopped the commercial invasion of fast-food restaurants, Wal-Mart, and the Warner Brothers-branded movie theater. The luxury department store Lane Crawford has opened a branch, selling pricey Dunhill, St. John, and Mont Blanc items.

At the top of the street, constructed along a large embankment erected after the Songhua River flooded and covered Harbin under several feet of water in 1932, is Sidalin Gongyuan (Stalin Park), a recently repaved stretch of trees and benches where locals gather to exercise and gossip. In the center of the park is the Fanghong Shengli Jinianta (Flood Control Monument). The monument commemorates the city's struggle against the floods of 1957, when the river rose 1.2m (4 ft.) above street level but was kept from spilling into town by an army of soldiers and volunteers. Water levels from other big floods are marked at the base of the monument.

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Zion That Wasn't

Unlikely as it sounds, Jews fled to Harbin in such numbers in the early 1900s (the population reached 25,000 at its height) that Manchuria ranked just below Morocco and Palestine on early-20th-century lists of potential sites for a Jewish homeland. Fleeing official discrimination and a revival of pogroms in czarist Russia, they were instrumental in Harbin's development but fled en masse for the real Zion shortly after World War II. The only obvious Jewish structures still remaining in the city are the Modern Hotel; Youtai Xin Huitang (Jewish Synagogue); and a music and Torah school at Tongjiang Jie 86 (a block west of Zhongyang Dajie), a ragged structure built in 1919 with Star of David window frames that now houses the No. 2 Korean Middle School (Chaoxian Er Zhong).

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