From our airplaine, Harbin seems a city viewed through a dirty camera lens. Now in mid-spring, visitors alighting in this gritty frontier town on the treeless plains of northeastern China struggle for their footing against icy, gale-force winds. The air is thick with yellow dust that rasps the skin like sandpaper.

On the road from the airport our minibus bucks and brakes abruptly, jockeying for position amid dozens of horse carts whose hooded drivers, their faces turned against the storm, form a long line of Grim Reaper figures. Our Chinese guide worries, "Are you sure you want to stay here three nights? I think that's too long. There's really not much to see, you know."

his apparent concern proves unfounded. With its onion-shaped domes, quaint cobblestone streets and maze of undergound air-raid shelters, Harbin is a tangled historical tapestry. It featured, in the days before World War II, Russian soldiers of fortune, marauding Chinese warlords and brutal Japanese conquerors. It is still full of the small, tantalizing ironies that confront the short-time traveler in today's China.

Remote and austere, Harbin is the center of the Northeast, the three provinces that form one of China's key industrial bases. Formerly known as Manchuria, a name the Chinese hold in contempt because of its associations with the days of foreign dominance here, the area contains some of the country's richest reserves of crude oil, coal and copper.

Enticed by a desire to exploit this natural wealth, the Russians built a railroad through Harbin in the early 1900s, linking Siberia to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. The czars' iron empire, with Harbin at its hub, brought droves of Russian merchants, adventures and missionaries, transforming the somnolent fishing village into what was celebrated as the "the Paris of Northeast Asia."

By the 1920s, the city, still nominally part of Chinese territory, had a population of 100,000, mostly Russians. Penniless White Russian generals, it is said, worked as manservants for well-heeled European families or as waiters in Harbin's boisterous bistros after having fled the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The glitter of European-style elegance quickly ended, however, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in the early 1930s in a bid for empire that led, ultimately, to Pearl Harbor.

Nowadays, Harbin is a city splitting at the seams with 2.2 million Chinese. Many were lured here after the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949 and embarked on an ambitious scheme to develop industry and agriculture in the region. Launched with the help of money and advisers from the Soviet Union, those plans were later carried out singlehandely by the Chinese as deep animosities shredded friendly ties between the two Communist superpowers.

As a reminder of better days in relations with Moscow, the esplanade here along the Songhua River is still called Stalin Park. A stone monument in the city center honors the Soviet troops who fought the Japanese at the end of World War II.

Harbin is only 200 miles from the Soviet border, however, and the city sits on top of a labyrinth of deep air-raid shelters built in the late 1960s against the possibility of nuclear attack. The region's distrust of Moscow has a new cause the reported Soviet deployment of 108 SS20 nuclear-tipped missiles in the Far East, and construction of sites in Siberia and elsewhere indicating the number could double.

From our hotel, a grin, Soviet-style structure build in the 1950s, the cityscape is dotted with turn-of-the-century Russian gingerbread buildings under plumes of greasy smoke from the city's coal-burning stoves. Chill winds from hundreds of miles of open prairie howl through cracks in the windows night and day, adding a magical effect to the carpet which undulates inches off the floor. An American friend who lives in Peking accurately assesses the conditions as "just like camping but without the proper equipment."

But there are amenities: a new color television set and an efficiency refrigerator, both made in Japan, are signs of Japanese commercial in-roads here in a remote corner of China's budding consumer economy. Downstairs, the dining room is swarming with Japanese businessmen, who can be seen at lavish banquets in screened-off sections, toasting their local hosts with glasses of Chinese liquor. Approached by a Japanese-speaking visitor, they say only that they are "sightseeing," despite the fact that they have come armed with large sample cases and wear company buttons on the lapels of their three-piece suits.

What about the bitter memories of harsh Japanese military rule? Reflecting the pragmatic approach that the Chinese have adopted toward their wealthy Asian neighbors, a local guide explains: "Japanese behavior and attitudes may not be acceptable to some Chinese, but most of the people here have been reeducated and can differentiate between the Japanese militarists and today's Japanese."

Another distinction accorded the Japanese at the hotel is that they are routinely charged rates a third higher than American guests.

At lunch in Harbin's only western-style restaurant, there are more telltale signs of the city's Russian past: steaming bowls of borsch, tangy dill picks and loaves of whole-wheat bread. Dimly lit, clamorous, with tough-talking waitresses, the cafe has the quality of a frontier saloon out of Alaska in the gold rush. A tall American reporter gets a frosty reception until a guide explains that he is, in fact, an American and not Soviet. "Are you sure?" asks a disbelieving customer. "I thought only Russians could be so big," he says with a smile.

Suddenly, all eyes shift to a group of a dozen Chinese children, barely in their teens, who open their school bags and plunk down numerous bottles of wine and beer on a large center table.Toasts are drunk, cigarettes passed around, and girls snuggle up their boyfriends. The other customers stare open-mouthed at this display of youthful license. In China's straight-laced Communist society, rowdy behavior in public is officially frowned upon. Only the sons and daughters of powerful local Communist Party members of military commanders, it is suggested, would dare act with such bravado.

"Oh, Harbin was a very good place in the old days," says Anatoly Zheleznikov, who has spent his entire life here. "There were plenty of shops and sidewalk cafes, you know, and the good food."

Zheleznikov, 57, a piano teacher, is one of the handful of remaining Russian residents. Showing off the photograph of his mother as a beautiful young woman, he recalls the time as a boy when she was held for questioning for several days; by the japanese secret police when she tried to report the theft of his piano. After World War II, when the Soviet Army came to town, a younger brother, whom he has not seen since, was arrested and taken to Siberia.

"It was very bad for Russian people in those days" he recalls.

Today, Zheleznikov lives in a squalid one-room apartment with his aged mother, who sits by the wood stove with a babushka wrapped tightly around a sad, wizened face.

On an ancient upright piano, a chicken roosts among stacks of classical sheet music and dog-eared Life magazines next to a bust of Beethoven.Zheleznikov, a man without a passport, says life is hard and "my mother is very sick." On the whole, be adds wistfully, "I'd rather be in San Francisco. I have a cousin there."