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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Harbin Rediscovers Its Russian Roots

ReutersA Russian swimmer climbing out of an icy pool in Harbin, in northeast China.
HARBIN, China -- Russian swimmer Lyudmila Smolyakova strips down to a bathing suit and flip-flops and prances in front of Chinese tourists bundled up against below-freezing weather before diving into a pool cut into an ice-covered river.

The tourists, who have paid 30 yuan ($4) for tickets to see Smolyakova's ice swimming troupe perform, scatter as she emerges, threatening to splash them.

It may be cold in Harbin, which is nearer to Siberia than to Beijing, but warming ties between Russia and China mean the city is rediscovering its Russian roots.

That's a blessing for Zena Zhao. She works as a Chinese translator for the Russians in the troupe who visit Harbin every January to perform with Chinese swimmers at the Chinese-Russian Friendship Winter Swimming Sports Amusement Park.

Russian was the language of Zhao's mother, who moved to Harbin as the young bride of Zhao's Chinese father in 1926. Zhao stayed behind when her mother and sisters left for the Soviet Union in 1962 during the Chinese-Soviet split. "When the swimmers first came in 1986, they helped me find my mother. Although she had already passed away, they helped me find her grave and the retirement home where she had stayed," Zhao said.

Across China, Harbin is famous for its winter, when the city puts on a festival of ice and snow sculptures.

At night, parks glow with lamps encased in elaborate ice castles, pagodas and bridges. By day, visitors saunter along the frozen Songhua river, where makeshift amusement parks offer ice slides, skating and swimming shows.

Children and adults shriek with laughter as they zoom down ice slides at Stalin Park. Visitors ride horse-drawn carriages across the frozen Songhua to see snow carvings on the other side.

Harbin was a Manchurian fishing village until tsarist Russia created a cosmopolitan city to administer a new railway to the Pacific.

The Russians who moved to Harbin outlasted the Japanese occupation and warlord rule, but left in the 1960s when Chinese leader Mao Zedong's relations with Nikita Khrushchev soured.

"I didn't want my mother to leave, but she said, 'Just like China is your fatherland, Russia is my motherland,'" Zhao said. "I was already married and had a job in the telephone bureau, so I stayed."

Chinese and Russian relations improved after the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin has paid several visits to China.

In Harbin, the Cyrillic alphabet features once again in restaurant menus for the convenience of Russian tourists who flock to its parks during the summer.

Chinese tourists prefer to visit Harbin in the winter. Visitors stroll along cobbled streets and shop for fur coats in newly repainted Russian department stores, or linger over hot chocolate at coffee shops with a European ambiance.

"Russian goods" gift shops are everywhere, selling matryoshka dolls, vodka, crucifixes and icons to Chinese tourists looking for an exotic souvenir. Blond, blue-eyed dolls share shelves with the prized specialties of northeast China -- sliced deer antlers and ginseng.

Visitors take pictures in front of the onion domes of the restored Russian Orthodox St. Sophia Church. Now a museum, the church houses a photo exhibit that is an ode to Harbin's Russian past.

At the Chinese-Russian Friendship swimming park, Smolyakova and her Chinese and Russian teammates boisterously warm up for the next show in a steamy room warmed by an iron stove.

They take pictures with tourists and wave a Russian newspaper featuring a visit by the Chinese ice swimmers to Russia.

The more reserved Zhao keeps her padded coat buttoned and hat pulled tight over gray curls, but her eyes are shining. "I can't really swim. But once a year I go in with them, for friendship," Zhao said.