Thursday, January 15, 2009

Travel Update and Harbin

So I apologize for the general lack of blogging in the last few days... Sometimes it's just not in the cards. I mean lets face it, between Counter Strike and playing Risk on Facebok, who has time for things like "reading," or "traveling," or "blogging" anyway?

Okay so in my defense, yesterday I got fed up with my muscles being weak with atrophy and the impending feeling of office-ass hanging over my head and played basketball and went for a run. And today I went out to lunch! ...Don't judge me you've all been there.

Anyway in all seriousness, due to the suns rays reflecting off of Venus thus igniting some swamp gas in Florida and the deepening economic and financial crisis in the United States, my travel plans have become FUBARed (that statement is 50% right!) and I'm in the midst of re-arranging travel plans for the prolonged break I am currently on. Noah (my older brother for those who don't know) was supposed to visit from the 21st of January until February 7th(ish), but, because of the deepening economic and financial crisis in the United States (I wasn't lying), at the last minute had to cancel his trip. I have now found myself alone in Qufu attempting to re-sort and re-tool my upcoming vacation, and I think I've almost got it worked out. If (and this is a big if) buying train tickets goes according to plan, tomorrow or the next day I will head for Beijing to meet up with Rachel, Olivia, and Lucy to hang out/get out of Qufu while they sort out visas for the rest of their travels. On the 20th I will hopefully head for Guilin and Yangshuo where I will hole up for somewhere in the realm of a week to a week and a half. Following that I will head toward Hong Kong, see the sights, and quickly depart via plane for Thailand on or around the 6th of February. Depending on funds and general interest, I'll spend the better part of February visiting LT (Lowell Thomson, former high school teacher and mentor who now lives in Thailand with his family and who has very graciously offered me a place to stay for a few nights), exploring Thai mountains, and of course, going to the beach. After that I'll head back toward China via Hong Kong and, most likely, head on back to Qufu. Maybe go to Hangzhou or Suzhou along the way, they are supposed to be cool.

So that's whats on tap - now lets take a step back...

About two weeks ago, right near the start of our vacation Olivia, Eliza, and I set out on a 23 hour train ride (don't worry we had beds!) to the city of Harbin, located in the northeastern most section of China and home to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival. The trip in some ways was lackluster for me - Our hostel was gross, I spent a lot of money (mostly on cabs that ripped us off), and most importantly, I'm not a big fan of being cold (To be clear - I enjoy cold, and I enjoy snow, and cold, snowy places, but I don't like being cold. Call me picky or whiny or whatever - it is what it is). Despite some of the lame aspects of the trip, the city itself as well as what it had to offer more than made up for having snot-cicles in my mustache.

There were 4 main attractions we visited in Harbin aside from the city itself: the small (very much a relative term here) ice lantern festival, the Siberian Tiger Park, the snow sculpture park, and the grand daddy of em' all, the big ice lantern festival. Harbin itself was originally founded as a Russian city and is still shows signs of Russian influence to this day; notably so in architecture as well as food. It also serves as a very popular tourist destination for Russians from Siberia, and local signs will often advertise in Russian, and annoying street vendors trying to rip you off don't only shout "HELLO!" but also the equivalent word in Russian (unfortunately my Russian is a bit rusty so I'm not exactly sure what that is...).

We arrived late Saturday afternoon and one of the first things that struck us was the ground. Olivia slipped and hit the ground hard disembarking from the train... It was to be the first of many. This is also a good time to mention one thing I found most interesting about Harbin, where, more months than not, the temperature is well below freezing; that being, the complete lack of sidewalk or road treatment. The entire city is very much a giant skating rink. When you combine this with typical Chinese sidewalks and taxi drivers, it's devastating. I saw no plows (although it never actually snowed while we were there, they've got to have plows stashed somewhere...), no sanding trucks, no salt. In fact, the only way I saw ice being removed from roads was, in true Chinese fashion, by hand. That's right, crews of six or seven people with sledge hammers, pick axes, and giant chisels going to town on the expressways. This was all well and good for the fifty feet of curb they had managed to clear that morning, but unfortunately neglected the several miles of black ice underneath the hydroplaning wheels of our taxi. Even more astonishing (or not at all I suppose) was the lack of thoroughfare de-icing at the festivals themselves. When we went to the big ice festival (don't worry I'll get there eventually), which is very much an international event, going up and down staircases made of ice was, well, icy! I mean I can't complain too much it was a world made entirely of ice, I wouldn't want them to skimp on the stairs.

The small ice lantern festival was in the city itself near a very popular and very chic walking street with all sorts of fun shops and touristy things. We had dinner on this street at a Russian cafe recommended by the ever trusty Lonely Planet, which was an adventure. We were famished and hadn't eaten since the train, so we decided to have an early dinner at around 5:30... After sitting down, we slowly began to notice that, while there were many people actually in the restaurant, very few people were eating, and fewer still had apparently given their orders. Not wanting to miss out on our one chance at piroshkis, we patiently waited for them to take our orders. Long story short, we waited until right around six o'clock, at which time they finally came over to take our order - except that every time we tried to order, the waiter would shake his head and say "we don't have." Apparently all they had was cold sausage and bread. We thought that was a very fitting Russian meal, in the end.

After dinner we headed straight away to the festival. This one was Disney themed and had an ice castle (with working three story elevator - one of the only things not made of ice), a pirate ship, and all sorts of other smaller structures and buildings.

Approaching the Castle
The castle - notice the functional escalator and elevator.

Part of the slide which came off the castle. Yes, its amazing, and yes, made entirely of ice.

There was much more happening at this festival than these three pictures show, including some very elaborate and finely crafted sculptures, but that will have to do for now. Remember, this was the small festival...

The next day we started off with a sure winner - the Siberian Tiger Park. The park itself states that it raises tigers to be released back into the wild. As the guidebook explains however, how exactly it does this is not clear, as you can buy strips of meat (10 yuan), live chickens, (40 yuan), goats (200 yuan), or whole cows (somewhere in the range of 200 USD) to watch them eat while you drive through the park. The park was in some ways a bit sad - lots of cages and the tigers looked completely immune to the OBNOXIOUS heckling of Chinese businessmen (I wanted to punch one guy in the face), but you cannot deny the awesomeness of the animals.

"I could kick your ass if I wasn't a big lazy cat."

We all wanted one afterward. They just look so adorable!

After we went to the tiger park, which was located a good distance outside the city, we made our way back to Harbin proper via one of my favorites of the trip, the snow sculpture park. While it wasn't entirely completed when we were there, the scale of it, as well as the intricate and cool designs, carved entirely out of snow, blew us away.

I Thought this arch was really cool.

There was a whole section of different Santas.

This was only a small part of this particular sculpture... it goes to the left another three pictures. Just to give you an idea of the scale.

We could have gone across the street to the big ice festival that evening, but at this point we had been outside in the Harbin winter for almost five hours, we had another full day in the city, and there were back to back episodes of "Corporate Law All-Stars" on TV, so after the snow park we grabbed dinner and headed home.

The next day we packed in a bunch of very cool sights, including the Church of St. Sophia, a Russian Orthodox church in the heart of the city which is now a museum, a Buddhist monastery, and finally the big ice festival. Unfortunately My camera battery was on its way out, so I only have a few pictures of the grand finale ice festival, but let me tell you - it was awesome. Remember, EVERYTHING in these pictures is made of ice.

The Church of St. Sophia (not made of ice)

The entrance gate to the ice festival.

The center castle. This thing was massive.

Another view of the center castle.

A checkers board made of ice... Also gives a good perspective in the background to the scale of the whole complex.

Snow Buddha visible through some ice pagodas.

The Snow Buddha up close and personal. Use the flowers for scale.

Okay I think that's all for now - I took almost 300 pictures all told while I was in Harbin, these are just the highlights. I'll do my best to blog about my travels to Guilin, Hong Kong, and Thailand as they unfold. We'll see how it goes.

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