A Travellerspoint blog

January 2014

Harbin - Shanghai - London - Bristol

Home, sweet home.

rain 6 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

My lovely comfortable sleep turned out to be anything but. Although reasonably OK when I was sitting up, as soon as I put my head down, I started to cough. David was the same, so if one of us had managed to get off to the land of slumber, the other would would wake us both up by coughing. This went on all night. I think I had less than an hour sleep in total.

At 01:30 we heard someone try to get in the room using the electronic room card. We'd double locked the door, so they gave up after a few attempts and we could hear them trying a few other doors along the corridor too. We put it down to being on the wrong floor and thought nothing more of it. Some five minutes later, they returned, and went through the whole process again, but like last time, they gave up when they couldn't get in. After a further ten minutes or so, there was a loud knock on the door, and when we opened it, a by now very embarrassed receptionist and a couple of Chinese tourists were standing expectantly outside. We found out later from Sally that due to a staff error when we checked in earlier that day, our room was still showing as being vacant, so it had in effect been double booked and given to some late arrivals. I expect the Chinese were shown to room 507 with the giant orange ball afterwards. Which is probably where we were meant to be.

One of the benefits of not being well, is that both David and I managed to sleep for around 10 hours on the 13 hour flight, which made the journey home seem a lot quicker. We were also very lucky it seems as my dad rang us when we were half way home as he'd seen on the news that the M4 motorway was closed in the westbound direction due to a serious accident. We must have just missed it. As it was, the journey from start to finish took 24.5 hours, adding several more hours travel time being stuck in a traffic jam would not have been welcome, especially as we both felt so unwell.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:56 Archived in England Comments (1)

Jilin - Harbin

Walmart, a snowy park, bullet train, Russian chocolate and a burger

overcast -12 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Walmart
Today's first excursion was to Walmart – partly to see what this large department store looks like in China, and partly to satisfy Alan's desire for shopping. I stayed in bed as I was feeling still pretty rough this morning and shopping is not one of my favourite past times.

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Lunch
Next on the agenda was lunch, which again I didn't partake in as this morning I seemed to have gathered yet another ailment – an upset tummy. Best to give food a miss for a while.

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Spicy pork - it looked delicious (and I was told it was) but not a good idea with an upset tummy.

North Mountain Park
Also known as Beishan Park (and bizarrely situated in the west of Jilin), the park cover an area of 10,000m² and plays an important role in the history of Jilin. Several ancient temples can be found here and some can be dated back to the Manchurian Warlord Chang Ji-Lin Ren. There is also a bridge which is directly associated with Emperor Kangxi and a tablet which has an inscribed poetry about the Songhua River. The park is a fusion of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. “Kiosks, bridges, corridors and water garden are sprinkled among the verdant forests and serene mountains “ (quoting the tourism website), but of course being winter time, everything is covered in snow.

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Three small linked lakes run along the foot of the main mountain (Taoyuan Mountain in the west of the park), and in the north west corner of the park is a Mausoleum for Martyrs who died during the early Communist years, and the memorial hall in here has epigraphs by Chairman Mao and other high profile cadres. The Wobo Bridge divides the lake into the east and west part.

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Again I stayed in the car, while David and Alan went off to explore with Vera. David was in two minds whether he wanted to go too as he is also feeling rather rough today. We both had a very sleepless night last night with a cough. So when Vera started to head up the mountain, David came back and joined me in the sick bay, watching a municipal worker painstakingly clearing the snow from the car park. The weather has been very much warmer here than in Harbin and the roads are mostly filthy slush now.

Bullet train to Harbin
Today was really mostly a 'filler' day, and once Alan had conquered another Chinese mountain and returned safely without being attacked by any dragons, we set off for the railway station. We had quite a long wait for our train but Alan found some shops and coffee, so he was happy.

The train journey went quickly for me as I slept most of the way. This time I did the sensible thing and dressed for the +22 °C inside by having layers to remove, and it made for a much more comfortable journey.

Sally and Mr Safe greeted us in Harbin and whisked us (as far as the ever-present traffic jams would allow) back to the same hotel. I was anticipating a reunion with a giant orange ball, and was pleasantly surprised when we got to the room. Is this really the same hotel?

The room was of a totally different class: very much larger, nicer furnished and decorated, many more amenities, hanging space and a hair drier amongst other things. The bathroom was separated from the main bedroom area by a double glass wall with fake bamboo between. Very pretty but it did concern me a little in terms of privacy until I discovered there was a curtain you could pull across. As the beds here are very much softer than those in Jilin, I was looking forward to a good night's sleep in my new-found luxury.

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David and Alan popped out quickly to get some more of the delicious Russian chocolate we'd bought before and by the time they got back it was really a bit too late to go out for a meal – almost everything closes at 21:00 here. So I hate to admit that we just popped across the road to Burger King for a Whopper. Last time I ate at a BK was in Miami Airport in February 2011 (are you reading this Homer?). It was very tasty, albeit extremely messy, but neither David or I could finish ours – probably not helped by the girl on the next table being sick all over the floor.

We retreated to the hotel to finish the packing and our last night in China.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:53 Archived in China Comments (0)

Jilin

Rimed Trees, Longtan Mountain, Hotpot and Meteorite Museum

sunny -3 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I had a really bad night last night, I was awake 51 times having to turn because of a bad back and/or cough. And yes, I did count! With a fever this morning too, the last thing I wanted to do was sightseeing, but I'd come all this way and I wasn't going to miss out on the highlight of Jilin.

It was a two-hour journey along extremely bumpy and slippery roads to Wusong Island, but I still managed to sleep the majority of the time.

Rimed Trees
Known as Tree Hangings and described as “dressed in snow as white as silver”, the rimed trees in Jilin have been named as one of the Four Natural Splendours of China (there is some disagreement as to what the other three are but the general consensus is the mountains and lakes of Guilin, Stone Forest of Yunnan, and Three Gorges of Yangtze River). The trees in question are poplar and willow trees along the banks of the Songhua River, and the key to their rarity and grandeur is “fog at night, ice spike in the morning and falling flowers near the noon.”

The “fog at night” is the mist created by a hydro- electric plant some 15 km from the city, with the river carrying the warm water and creating vapour on its surface. As night time falls and the temperatures drop, the mist continues to rise from the river, becoming thicker and thicker, floating towards both banks of the river.

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"Ice spike in the morning "is the rime on the trees early in the morning. Willows branches hang heavy with crystal spikes and pine needles bloom like silver flowers where condensation from the overnight “fog” has vapourised and then frozen, coating the naked branches with ice crystals under the unique geographical environment here.

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"Falling flowers near noon” is referring to the warmer daytime air melting the rime creating falling ice spike like silver autumn leaves.

From a technical point of view (I bet you never knew there was so much specialised knowledge about ice crystals!), there are two types of graininess and crystal form of ice spikes – one is light in structure, forming a small ice block. The other – which is what you find here in Jilin – is looser in structure, assuming a large-sized flake.

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Rimed trees are big business here, with a large car park and a ferry to take you across to the island. The ferry was operated purely by the power of the water in the river pushing against the paddle, with a wire to stop it floating downstream.

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I an so glad we packed our snowchains for our boots, they have come in really handy on this trip and today in particular. Lots of people were sliupping and sliding and falling over on the island, including Alan. Fortunately bot Alan and his camera were OK.

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Hotpot Lunch
We stopped for a very early lunch in the middle of nowhere at a hotpot restaurant with private dining rooms which are so popular around these parts. A huge pot with simmering stock is placed in the middle of the table, and you are given pork, beef, mutton and vegetables to cook in the stock. I had no appetite whatsoever, so jut had a few bits merely to taste it.

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Dragon Mountain
As I still had a fever and felt like death warmed up, I slept in the car while David and Alan walked up the 260 steps to the top of Dragon Mountain for views over the city.

The Meteorite Museum
In 1976, Jilin experienced a spectacular meteorite shower (the world's largest, covering an area of 500 km²), bringing with it not only the biggest aerolite in the world, weighing 1,775 kg, but at least a further 138 large meteorites. The blare and seismic waves created by the meteorite shower blew out thousands of windows in the city, but miraculously no-one was injured in the commotion whose power equalled that of an A-bomb.

According to scientific research, its composition has placed it to come from a planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and dated it to be around 4.6 billion years old (about the same age as earth). That's pretty ancient, pretty big and pretty darn exciting! Studies also conclude that the meteorite belongs to olivine that is the copper picrite ball meteorite (“whoosh” - that's the sound as this information flew straight over my head, but some of you with larger brains may find it interesting) and is made up of 40 different kinds of minerals which contain 18 elements, Some 8 million years ago it is thought to have bumped against other planets, and blow out of the asteroid cincture to make its way to the surface of the earth.

This is the only meteorite museum in China and has the worlds largest collection of meteorites, introducing you to an overview of the universe, the solar system members, origin of meteorites, the reason behind the Jilin meteorite shower, and researches of meteorite via an abundance of real samples, pictures, diagrams and kinescopes.

The museum was very well laid out, with an audiovisual display of space from reclining chairs. I am sure it would have e fascinating if we'd understood it.

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The meteorite was not as large as I had imagined it to be.

As soon as we got back to the room, I went straight to bed and stayed there for the rest of the day/evening/night while David and Alan went for dinner at a BBQ restaurant.

Posted by Grete Howard 15:09 Archived in China Comments (1)

Harbin - Jilin

Two hours apart, yet two totally different cities

overcast -9 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Central Street is known as the Architectural Art Museum of Harbin and runs right outside our hotel, so we were very well situated for a morning stroll today, taking in the façades and ice sculptures, cafés and shops of this popular pedestrianised avenue. This is the place to see and be seen, especially in front of the ice sculptures, which are really just frozen adverts.

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We bought some of my favourite Portuguese custard tarts and some Russian chocolate - I had no idea Russian chocolate was so yummy!

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As it was positively balmy weather out today – a mere -12C – we decided to do what the locals do and eat an ice lolly while strolling. It is said that the cold ice cream actually warms you up, but I am still not sure about that concept.

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My glasses have been totally useless on this trip - the steam up as soon as I put my camera to my eye and then freeze. And I can see very little without them, so it has been a bit like a blind date this trip...

Bullet Train to Jilin
A few weeks before leaving the UK, we had notification form the local agent that our train had changed from High Speed to Bullet, whatever that means. High-speed rail in China may refer to any commercial train service with an average speed of 200 km/h (124 mph) or higher. China has the longest high speed rail network in the world with nearly 1.5 million passengers every day.

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The whole thing was amazingly well run. The station is huge and modern with underground parking so you don't need to venture out into the cold. To enter the waiting room, you go through airport style security and your train number, boarding gate and platform is displayed on electronic boards. You wait in the warm and comfortable lounge until your train is ready to board and then you are off.

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Plenty of legroom on the train and comfortable seats, but the temperature inside is way too hot at 22C when you are dressed for minus ten or more. It was unbearably hot and I fell asleep almost immediately.

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Mind you, I didn't miss much, as the scenery was uninspiring – totally flat, snow-covered ground with the odd naked trees.

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Jilin
Jilin is the second largest city in the province of the same name and is located south of Harbin (the province borders to North Korea). The city was originally a fortress, and it was an important ship building city during the Qing Dynasty. During World War II, the city was taken by Russia and has never fully recovered from the damage caused by the occupation. The city has a much more Chinese feel to it than Harbin and the hotel is surprisingly in a totally different league to the last one.

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For dinner we went to a local restaurant serving a famous fish dish from Jilin, and I have to say it was the best meal we've had on this trip. The fish was presented to us in a bucket, still alive, then served with vegetables and chillis in a chafing dish full of hot oil.

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The only complaint I had was the beer was served in such small glasses - we found that all over Harbin too.

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After dinner we went to watch dancing in the local park , a very popular pursuit especially for older people. It was a slow, deliberate movement, a cross between Tai Chi and line dancing. At -12C outside.

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I am having major problems with little laptop at the moment – every few minutes the screen goes completely white. There is obviously a loose connection somewhere, and so far I have managed to get it back again, but if you suddenly don't hear from me any more, don't be alarmed.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:23 Archived in China Comments (1)

Harbin Day Three

Synagogue, Ice Swimming and Buddhist Temple

sunny -22 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Jewish Synagogue

The New Jewish Synagogue, built in 1921,has been restored and contains an impressive collection detailing the history of Jews in the city which at one point in time numbered 23,000 (including the grandparents of former prime minister Ehud Olmert) who created their own rich religious, cultural and educational life.

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Harbin's Jews were wealthy businessmen who came from Czarist Russia and created a thriving community, building empires by trading timber, furs and soy beans. Many of the mansions along Central Street are a result of their success. In the early years of the 20th century, over half of the members of the City Council were Jewish, and Jews were busy setting up hospitals, banks, cinemas, concert halls and a beer factory. However, tensions existed with the White Russians who had fled en masse to Harbin after the Bolshevik Revolution. Not long after The Russian Fascist Party set up its headquarters in the city in 1931 the Old Synagogue was burnt down. Life became even harder for the Jews under the Japanese occupation, and many fled. By the end of World War II Harbin's Jews numbered only 3,000 and each year saw the numbers dwindle to just one man today, professor Dan Ben-Canaan, who is overseeing and advising on the restoration project.

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The traffic was appalling today – Sally was over 20 minutes late this morning to collect us; and it feels like we have spent most of the day sitting in one jam or another. The driving is a bit of an experience in itself: like many places in Asia, the car with the loudest horn wins. We have been cut up in traffic here in Harbin more times in the last three days than in an entire lifetime of driving in the UK. The scary fact about the Chinese drivers, is that some 80% have had their driving licence for less than five years because of the previous rules and affordability of private car ownership. Because of the heavy traffic today, and one of our stops was time-crucial, we changed the itinerary around so that we went for an early lunch.

Lunch
Today's offering was pancakes, pancakes and more pancakes. Five plates of them in fact, with juliennes of potato, pork in sauce, fried pickles with pork and scrambled eggs to go in them. I was feeling so proud of myself, doing so well in picking up the pancake, serving myself with filling, and rolling it all up using only chopsticks – until I managed to send the whole lot flying on to the floor.

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As a kind of starter we had what Sally called a drink, which we would call a soup (made from ground corn) back home. It is the first thing I have eaten here in China that wasn't completely smothered in salt, and I have to say it was somewhat bland.

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Sidalin Park
The Harbiners are very good at making the best of their harsh winters by creating all sort of fun activities, although I suspect a great deal of them are for tourists. The vast majority of the visitors here are domestic tourists – I have seen 20 or so other westerners in all the time we have been here, and I suspect one or two of those may have been Russian resident workers. Down on the river there was tobogganing, dog sleds, ice sailing, skiddoes and all sorts of other activities on offer. All on the frozen river, whose icy surface is a bout a metre thick and solid enough for even cars to drive across it.

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We declined the offer for all these activities – we were here for one reason only: to confirm that madness is alive and well and living in Harbin.

Winter Swimming

There are reportedly 141 winter swimming organisations across China with a membership of more than 200,000 with Harbin being one of the main areas for this 'sport'. The younger swimmers are under ten years of age and the older ones in their 80s.

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At least the audience is dressed sensibly

Winter swimming can be dangerous to people who are not used to swimming in very cold water. After submersion in cold water a cold shock response will occur, causing an uncontrollable gasp for air, causing the swimmer to ingest water and drown. If you survive the gasp, this is followed by hyperventilation, a longer period of more rapid breathing. As blood in the limbs is cooled and returns to the heart, this can cause fibrillation and consequently cardiac arrest. These are the two most common causes of death related to winter swimming, although experienced swimmers can build up resistance through conditioning.

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Hypothermia also poses a risk, albeit smaller than the cold shock response. Apparently, it takes more than 30 minutes at 0 °C water until the body temperature drops low enough for hypothermia to occur with many people being able to survive for almost an hour. However, exhaustion or unconsciousness is expected to occur within 15 minutes.

Scientific studies also provide evidence for health benefits, with winter swimmers experiencing less stress and fatigue and more vigour, have a better memory function, better mood and feel more energetic, active and brisk. Swimmers who suffer from rheumatism, fibromyalgia or asthma report that winter swimming relieves pain. I declined the invitation to join in, despite the perceived benefits. I also read that winter swimmers do not contract diseases as often as the general population with the incidence of infectious diseases affecting the upper respiratory tract being 40% lower among winter swimmers when compared to others. The nearest I have got to doing anything like it, is rolling in the snow after a sauna. Winter swimming is popular in some parts of Norway too, but I have never taken part.

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These facts were all going through my mind as I was standing there at minus 20-something degrees, feeling colder and colder and doing up the top of my jacket to try and get some feeling back in my jaw. And these idiots came out of a perfectly warm building, dressed in nothing more than a swimsuit and posing for photographs before throwing themselves in the icy water. I was reliably informed that the water feels warm because of the outside temperature. Whatever. You still would get me doing it!

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The finale confirmed what I thought all along: that these people are completely crazy! A Russian woman dressed in nothing but cold front teeth, a swimsuit and a horse's head (as you do), playing to the audience with cries of “ay ay ay”. After her dive, she walked around the whole arena with her swim cap full of the icy water for us all to feel just how cold it was.

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Jile Temple aka The Temple of Bliss

At one time, many Harbin citizens believed that the then newly built Orthodox church damaged the local feng shui, so they donated money to build a Chinese monastery in 1921, the Ji Le Temple. The Temple of Bliss, as it is also known, is dominated by a seven-storey pagoda, some 30 metres tall.

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Following traditional Chinese temple architectural styles, the magnificent temple is built of blue bricks and glazed coloured tiles. It is known as one of the 4 most important Buddhist temples in North East China and has been listed as an important cultural heritage site.

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The main entrance to the temple, the Mountain Gate, is built to resemble a Chinese character, which means “Mountain” when translated into English, hence the name.

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Sally, however called it by another name, which I just could not catch what she was saying. It sounded like “Temple of the Superhighway”. She explained that he was the “God of Buddha”. I am still none the wiser.

Dinner
David and Alan went for a beer while I wrote up the blog tonight - much as I enjoy writing the blog and love the feedback I have been receiving, it is a very time consuming business, averaging at least two hours every night.

The waiter tonight spoke good enough English to explain that the company did not allow me to photograph their menu. We had some interesting stuff tonight, including a dish which was described as 'shrimp leek, fried dumpling', which consisted of no shrimps or leeks that I could see, but plenty
of squid and liver. There were dumplings, but they certainly weren't fried.

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As we were finishing our meal/drinks, the staff were busy 'cleaning' - taking a damp cloth and wringing it out over the floor. That's it. No wiping.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:11 Archived in China Comments (4)

Harbin Day Two

Tigers, polar bear, penguins, beluga whales, snow sculptures and ice lantern festival

sunny -28 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Siberian Tiger Park

Built in 1996 to protect the endangered Siberian tiger, the 356-acre park is the largest of its kind. The park is reputed to have around 200 tigers, and everywhere you looked there were tigers. There were also other kitties such as lions, leopards, black panthers, ligers (cross between a tiger and a lion), and white tigers in the park too.

We were herded straight on a bus when we arrived, and taken around the many enclosures which contained maybe 20 or more tigers each. We drove through about five fenced in areas, each with a little holding pocket in between, to ensure each of the groups are kept apart for fear of fighting. The bus was cramped, the windows were steamed up and we didn't actually stop so that we could photograph the tigers – some of which came right up to walk alongside the vehicle.

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We then had some free time to walk along a network of elevated walkways overlooking some of the enclosures. A few places along the path live chickens were for sale which you could chuck through a chute to feed the tigers. There was a very loud American family there who bought one, kissed its little head and said “Good luck, I am sure you had a great life” and sent it sliding down the tunnel to its fate. Before it had hit the ground one of the tigers pounced on it and it was over before you had the chance to say “lunch”. The tiger will kill it, then remove the feathers before eating the flesh.

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A little disappointed that there was no chase, our megawatt American 'friend' bought another chicken, and was encouraged to 'tease' the animals by walking along to the next chute showing the tigers the chicken along the way. It worked. By the time he reached the next feeding area, he had quite a following. In to meet its maker the chicken went, was grabbed by a kitty, but managed to get away. Not for long though, as a handful of tigers set off in hot pursuit and the chicken was no more.

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I am not sure how I feel about live food being introduced into the enclosure for the tigers to chase, catch and tear to pieces before devouring – all for the amusement of human onlookers. I suppose it helps pay for the food and upkeep of the animals, and in the wild they would be hunting live prey of course so it is good for them to retain their hunting instincts. Seeing a 'kill' is supposed to be the ultimate experience on a safari wish list, although I have never been that 'lucky' before. Seeing it close up in captivity is another matter altogether.

I found the whole place rather sad. In addition to the large free-roaming enclosures, there were numerous small cages holding further animals and their pitiful cries will haunt me forever. The strange thing was, despite having a huge natural habitat to roam in, many of the tigers were pacing up and down outside the small cages, as if to support their incarcerated mates.

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The park is said to be doing a great breeding program for some of the more endangered of the five tiger species in the world, but they also keep the trade of traditional Chinese medicine going by grinding up tiger parts after the big cats have died and selling in their shop - a natural death, but even so.

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Polar Aquarium
Very much a kids' thing, this place annoyed me more than entertained me. The Chinese have no ethics at all when it comes to giving way to other people, and push their way through, into and around you, especially when you are trying to go through a doorway or down stairs. I was feeling grumpy by now - probably after the depressing visit to the tiger park, it was way too hot in there and we were dressed for the outside, and undoubtedly not helped by me being de-hydrated. I am drinking a fraction of what I drink at home to avoid having to find the elusive squat holes; and the food here is overwhelmingly salty, so I find myself constantly thirsty. I am sure it is not doing my kidney any good.

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The tanks were reasonably large and well laid out, and in addition to fish, there were penguins, polar bears (in a way too small cage), Arctic foxes and white beluga whales. This place is famous for its beluga whale show, but we decided performing animals weren't really our thing, so went for lunch instead. Fast food Chinese style consisted of some sort of chicken kebab, chicken burgers, reformed 'chicken' nuggets and greasy, tasteless noodles. I think Sally could sense my disgust because she said “I'm sorry the food is not what you are used to, tomorrow we go to KFC or MacDonalds”. Not if I have a say in the matter!

Sun Island Ice Sculpture 'Museum'
This place was pretty cool, and a nice chilled (in more ways than one) experience after the aquarium. We took a land train to the centre of the park to walk around the exquisite carvings by masters and students from all over the world. It is said that 7000 craftsmen have been carving away with ice picks, chisels and lasers using 150,000m³ of man made snow (natural snow is too soft) for these sculptures and they were certainly impressive. We spent a lot of time waiting to photograph the sculptures free from the ever present Chinese who wants their photo taken in front of each and every sculpture with each and every family member and in various combinations of people together.

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On the large square a number of people dressed as popular animation characters were dancing Gangnam style. Different.

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This area is where the original fishing village of Harbin was, and this has been recreated in snow, as well as a wattle and daub chief's hut where you could sit on their under-heated straw beds (the forerunner of the heated water-bed?) and enjoy a cup of coffee and warm up a little.

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Russian Village
As we'd not stayed for the beluga show, we were now running about 45 minutes ahead of schedule, and Mr Safe decided to take us down to see the Russian Village, a motley collection of wooden huts not resembling anything I have ever seen in Russia. None of us made a move to even get out of the car, and Sally got a little upset, complaining that “the driver has paid for parking already, the least you can do is go and take some photographs”. So Alan and I obliged for a few minutes while David got away with staying in the warm vehicle. I think Mr Safe realised we just wanted some down time, so he pulled in to a quiet area further along and we all had half an hour siesta in the car.

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The Ice and Snow World
When researching Harbin before coming here, I was very confused between the three main festival areas of the city; The Sun Island Park, the Ice and Snow World and the Lantern Festival at Zhaolin Park. I still am.

The Ice and Snow World (aka Bingxue Large World) is a much more recent addition to the winter festival scene in Harbin, having be created in 1999 by the municipal government to celebrate the millennium. It is billed as an icy, snowy Disneyland, full of fairy tales about, well, ice and snow. Like everything else in Harbin, this park has expanded year on year and now covers an area of 500,000m²

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This place is totally awesome and worth every minute of the long journey and every discomfort from the cold and the grotty hotel: this really should be on EVERY traveller's wish list!

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Snow & Ice World 1

As soon as we arrived and he tried to take his first picture, Alan's camera batteries died. Fortunately, after warming them back up again, they came to life enough for him to take photos until just before we were leaving. That would have been horrendous not to be able to capture this highlight!

In 1963, the first snow carvings were created by the then gardeners, with thousands of ice lanterns and dozens of snow flowers, starting the annual tradition of ice and snow carving festivals in Harbin. Interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, the show is now officially celebrating its 30th anniversary and is by far the largest ice and snow exhibition in the world. It is commonly referred to as having four of the key “mosts” - the most art attractions, the most beautiful night views, the most recreational activities and the most forms of entertainment. The theme varies from year to year (this year the theme is ""Fifty Years Ice Lantern, Wonder Spread to the Whole World, Charming Harbin"), with each new event attempting to become showier, glitzier, crazier, gaudier and more extravagant, ostentatious and kitsch than the previous. Think Disney meets Las Vegas and add a sprinkling of snow. The Chinese describe it as “three-dimensional paintings, solidified notes and colourful poems”. Who am I to disagree.

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The highlight this year is a towering replica of the Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik, Iceland. According to organisers, the structure is the tallest ice sculpture in China (46 meters), was made with 12,000 m³ of ice and features a 240m slide that visitors can glide down. The similarities to the Icelandic church are not immediately obvious – my first thought when I saw it was the abandoned Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea.

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Where else can you travel around the world in a couple of (freezing-your-butt-off) hours? Roman Colosseum – check. Brazilian World Cup Mascots – check. Great Wall of China – check. Empire State Building – check. Hallgrimskirkje, Iceland – check. Plus another 1500 or so more sculptures.

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Colosseum in ice

According to legend, in the old times, fishermen in the Songhua River would use crude ice lanterns for lighting their way, made simply by letting a bucket of water freeze, carving a hole in the ice block and inserting an oil lamp or candle. The lamps would later be used to decorate various winter-time festivals and over time have developed into the advanced multi-million commercial event it is now. This year's creations have used 180,000m³ ice from the nearby Songhua River.

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The ice thermometer apparently shows -28C

Dinner
There are several restaurants is this area, but being able to order something without speaking Chinese could prove a challenge, so when we saw pictures of food outside a restaurant around the corner from the hotel, we decided to take our chance there. When the girl greeted us with a cheery “hello” we got quite excited thinking she might speak some English. That was, however, the extent of her English vocabulary we think. Ordering a beer was the first hurdle, which we only overcame when Alan had the sense to use the Russian word for beer: “pivo”. That worked.

The restaurant looked somewhat familiar, and we soon realise why: this was the place we had breakfast! We are assuming that the hotel itself doesn't have a restaurant but has an arrangement with this place, a couple of doors away for their guests to take breakfast; which would explain the somewhat convoluted way of getting there from the hotel.

The menus not only had pictures of the food, they also had the name of the dish in English underneath. Very helpful, and the food was very good too. Our favourite was a beef and charred chillies dish.

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:13 Archived in China Comments (2)

Harbin Day One

Harbin: Provinvial Museum, Dragon Tower, St Sophia Church, Central Street, Flood Protection Monument, Stalin Park, our first Snow and Ice Sculpture exhibition and a Russian Show.

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View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

More typical Chinese logic this morning – go down to ground floor to collect vouchers for breakfast from reception, then back to to 2nd floor by lift only and walk down steps to first floor again.

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Breakfast was an enormous and varied buffet, providing you like Chinese food, and providing you are not a prissy eater as there was no way of telling what 99% of the food was. There were signs of course; in Chinese only. It was very enjoyable though.

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The orange 'juice' was served hot, but I wasn't going to drink it anyway as Sally had warned us yesterday not to drink too much as “toilets are difficult to find”

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Sign for the toilets in the breakfast restaurant.

Although her vocabulary is very good, Sally's pronunciation is a little difficult to understand at times, for instance when she talks about arsenic (ethnic), Caribbean (Harbin), steak (stick) and Russian bride (bread) for breakfast.

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David using chopsticks to spread jam on his Russian bride for breakfast

Harbin
Until I started researching for this trip, I assumed Harbin was a small provincial town in China. Not so. It is in fact the tenth most populous city in the country, with over 10 million inhabitants (that is more than London!). Founded in 1897 (up until then it was little more than a small fishing village - the name Harbin in fact means “a place for drying fishing nets”) by Russia as a major transit point on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Labour demands brought in a collection of outcasts from across Russia, Poland and even from within Manchuria. Tsarist Russia encouraged settlement in their outpost here by waiving the then 25-year long military service obligation. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, thousands of Russians settled in Harbin and set up businesses here, giving the city a Russian character that it has never lost, and the city is affectionately known as “Moscow of the East”.

In the 1920s, the city was considered China's fashion capital since new designs from Paris and Moscow reached there first before arriving in Shanghai or Beijing. The city was captured by the Japanese during World War II and in 1946 the Chinese gained control of Harbin. Over the years Harbin grew to become the most northerly of China's major cities, known for its bitterly cold winters and often called the "Ice City." And that's exactly why I am here. To be honest, there are very few other reasons to visit this somewhat grotty northern outpost with its brutally-cold winters with temperatures regularly dropping below – 30° C and the air pollution going off the top of the scale. These days, the city is one of China’s top tourist spots thanks to the annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Every year, hundreds of thousands of (mostly) domestic tourists descend on the city, drawn by a national love of extravagant, excessive, exuberant, ostentatious over-the-top gaudiness.

The Provincial Museum of Heilongjiang
Built in 1906 as the Moscow Department Store, the Russian style brick-and-wood museum is like Fort Knox to get in to. Just to buy tickets you have to show your passport in a totally separate ticket booth outside, and to get in to the building you go through airport style security with you and all your belongings X-rayed separately, and lighters not allowed.

The place seemed to be part museum part shop, with half the exhibits coming complete with price tags. Fortunately Sally did not take us around all the 107,400 exhibits, just a few of the more important one, including the calligraphy, stuffed animals, dinosaurs and Eiffel Tower.

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Exhibits with price tags

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Sruffed tiger

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Eiffel Tower on show/for sale in the museum

Half way around the museum I twisted awkwardly, and seemed to have trapped a nerve in my back, sending shooting pains down one leg. . By the time I was leaving the museum, I could no longer feel my leg; it seemed to have gone numb. Very scary! It got some better after sitting in the van for a while, although actually getting in was somewhat difficult as I wasn't able to really lift my leg to get it up over the ledge.

Dragon Tower

Also known as Long Ta, the TV and communications tower is the tallest steel tower structure in north-east Asia and the second tallest free-standing lattice tower in the world at 336m tall. Although some sources said it was merely built in order for the Chinese to have something 'biggest and best', the tower has a couple of museums on the lower two floors including one full of dinosaur fossils as the word "dragon" also doubles as "dinosaur" in Chinese.

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Could this be the ultimate selfie?

The other museum was one called 3D Art, and it was quite a clever interactive adaptation of the street art concept.

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The "Exciting Ring" as the flying saucer part at the top is affectionately known, is the longest glass walkway in the world with a perimeter of 60 meters with amazing views over Harbin. You have to pay 2 Yuan (around 20p) for a pair of cloth socks to wear over your shoes in order to be allowed to walk along it. Apparently each of the glass panels are built to be able to hold a five ton elephant. Not sure how you'd get it up in the lift though.

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The lift was one of the more exciting things about the tower – I loved the way you could see it travelling up past the tall buildings surrounding it through the glass sided lift. Very cool. From the observation deck you get a great view of... Soviet style blocks surrounded by smog (measured at 198 AQI against London averaging at 29 AQI and New York at 21,)

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From the viewing platform we climbed a further five flights of stairs to the tea shop, which was unbearably hot (and so were we from climbing the stairs with all those layers on) resulting in me stripping off to my thermal underwear. At this stage we were all discussing how much we were looking forward to going outside again to cool off! Right at the top was a prayer room where people come to ask the God of Money for some of his dosh – by sticking bank notes into crevices in the wall. Really?

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Dangfang Jiaoziwang Restaurant (Lunch dumplings)
This appears to be Harbin's localised answer to McDonalds, with at least one restaurant in each district of the town. The speciality here is dumplings (jiazo) which are traditionally served on many Chinese holidays especially at the time of Lunar New Year as they think "jiaozi" in sound means "bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new". Also, the shape of the dumpling is like gold ingot from ancient China. So people eat them and wish for money and treasure. But with the increase of people' living standard, jiaozi has become a common and popular food in daily life. People don't have to wait till Chinese new year for a bite.

Sally and Mt Safe joined us and we suggested Sally ordered for the whole table, and the dumplings just kept coming and coming, ending up with six large platefuls for the five of us, plus a bowl of potato noodles with pork and tofu noodles with beef. I have to say that to the uninitiated (that being David, Alan and I) they all tasted the same. It was somewhat of a dumpling overload!

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St Sophia Orthodox Church

Initially built of timber in 1907 as a place for the Russian soldiers and workers to worship to re-consolidate the confidence of the army by building an imposing spiritual symbol; the church was later reconstructed in brick and after almost a decade, it was finally consecrated in December 1932 and hailed as the new Hagia Sofia. The layout of the church is in the shape of a cross (not that this is particularly obviously when you're inside) and the main hall is topped with a huge dome. With several other steeples topped with gold crosses, I think the church somewhat resembles St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow rather than Hagia Sofia. The church was said to be so beautiful that it could only have been made by God's hands, with the name St Sophia meaning “God's Wisdom”.

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By 1958 it was closed when the People's Republic of China was formed with the Communists ending all Christian Missionary work and a treaty was signed between the Soviet and Chinese governments turning all Russian churches over to Chinese control. The church was listed as one of the Key Cultural Relics in 1996, and almost immediately repaired and turned into a museum (Harbin Architectural Art Gallery). The original Russian murals which had been totally destroyed over the years, were replaced by modern murals depicting the architectural history of Harbin. Crosses were replaced, and the dome and bell tower restored to their original splendour. At 53.3 m tall, it is the largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the Far East.

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There were more than 15 Russian Orthodox churches and two cemeteries in Harbin until 1949. Mao's Communist Revolution, and the subsequent Cultural Revolution, saw many of them destroyed. Now, only about 10 churches remain, while services are held only in the Church of the Intercession in Harbin.

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Fanghongbei - Harbin Flood Prevention Success Monument

The 12-metre tall monument commemorates the thousands of people who died, and the volunteers who helped, in 1957 when the river overflowed its banks reaching 120.3 m above sea level, some 4 m higher than the level of the city. The people of Harbin worked along the river bank day and night for over a month, and eventually the flow retreated and the city was saved.

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In contrast, in 1932, when the Japanese invaded the city, the water level was almost as high at 119.72 m, but this time the authorities did little to build the bank. Tens of thousands of people were drowned and many more died in its aftermath. Yet another massive flood in 1998 meant an addition to the statue, and last year, in August 2013, the water level again reached nearly 120m.

According to the flood control authorities, the 500-km-long river banks around Harbin are mostly made of mud and sand, making them more susceptible to flood breaches.

At the base of the monument, the ponds represent the different water levels. The main monument consists of a Roman style cylinder column with statues of the flood prevention heroes on top of it. At the back, 20 columns forming a semi-circle represent Harbin people in the 20th century creating miracles.

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Stalin Park

Created in 1953, the name of the 105,000m² park is an indication of the friendship between Russia and China – the two biggest communist states at that time. Being mid-winter, the park's famous Russian style beds and lavish flowers are covered in a layer of the white stuff. Nevertheless, the park is still popular with locals and tourists admiring its art sculptures and trying their hand (or should that be foot?) at ice skating, ice hockey or ice sailing as well as the very popular game of spinning the top by using a rope to whip underneath the top to keep it going.

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Sally kept asking if we wanted to go and join in, but I was quite happy to keep my feet firmly on the ground. It's too early in the trip to break a leg. With the cold wind coming off the water, this is the first time I have felt the cold today. I ended up digging out my snood and covering the bottom of my face with it.

Central Street ( Zhōngyāngdàjiē)

I find it quite ironic that in a country such as China which is filled with architectural masterpieces that people travel half way across the world to see, Harbin's pride and joy is this long corridor of European style buildings. As with most of Harbin, construction of Central Street began in 1898; back then it was paradoxically called Chinese Street. There are 71 buildings of varying European style architecture from Renaissance through to the Baroque Period, as well as the Art Nouveau and Eclecticism to the Modern School. At 1,450 metres, this cobblestone road is one of the longest pedestrianised streets in Asia and serves as a perfect remnant of the bustling international business activities at the turn of the 20th century with Byzantine façades, little Russian bakeries, German pharmacies, English wool shops and French fashion houses, as well as non European architectural styles with American eateries and Japanese restaurants. As well as numerous ice sculptures of course.

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By the time we'd had a little sit down because Sally had a bad back, the sun had set and the buildings/carvings were just being lit up. Which, of course, was what we were waiting for.

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Stalin Park Ice and Snow Sculptures
This is one of the smaller parks in town which has a Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival exhibition – it seems they are all after a piece of the action, or more likely: your money! There isn't much to say about this park that I can describe better than the photos will, apart from the fact that it was awfully col now that the sun had gone in. We all three went off in different directions to take photos and just generally wander around looking at these beautifully lit ice creations. There was an 'indoor' arena with some incredibly detailed and delicate carvings, as well as castles, buildings, walls, a maze, even a giant duck!

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At one stage I was a little concerned that I only had 20 minutes to make my way back to the exit where I was meeting the others, but fortunately my sense of direction didn't let me down and I made it to the meting point in time, By this stage the skin on the inside of one of my knees was beginning to crack and chafe with the cold, making it painful to walk.

Moscow Theatre – Russian Show
At lunchtime Sally asked us if we were interested in seeing the “Russian Show” tonight. It was a dinner and cabaret style show, and if it hadn't been for the words “Moscow Theatre” over the stage I would not have made the connection with the former Soviet state. There was some semi-traditional Russian music, dancers in various stages of undress, a calligraphist on stage (they then spent ages auctioning off his works – in Chinese only of course as we were the only Westerners in the audience) , some very good acrobats, an excellent rock musician and a couple of comedians whore bored us senseless as we obviously couldn't understand a word they were saying.

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The food consisted of a thin steak 'cremated' beyond belief and a few slices of duck which quite tasty; a small salad, a very bland tomato soup and the famous Harbin sausage which I didn't rate at all. Sally has been going on about this sausage quite a lot, explaining where we can buy the best one to take home as “once you taste it you will want some more”. No thanks.

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Last night we removed the giant orange ball from the bed and put it in the shower – it gave me quite a start, staring at me first thing this morning. As I was writing up my blog this evening when we got back to the room, the ball suddenly appeared in the doorway to the bathroom. I am beginning to feel like a character from the TV series 'The Prisoner'. “I am a name, not a number.”

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:37 Archived in China Comments (3)

Bristol - Heathrow - Shanghai - Harbin

You couldn't make this stuff up...

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View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Half way through the afternoon we were both feeling very restless and decided to drive up to Heathrow earlier than normal. We figured it was better to sit at the airport and people-watch than to be bored at home. As soon as we arrived at the airport we saw Alan waving madly from the check-in queue. Catching up with Alan again was as if we last saw him only a couple of weeks ago, not five years!

We were really surprised at how unbelievably long the queue was for check in this early – it was still over four hours before departure time - and by the time we reached the desk, all the window seats were gone and the girl struggled to find seats for us together. She finally managed to find us two seats in one row and another in the row behind; but for the second leg of the journey we had three seats scattered around the plane. We had tried to check in on line several times over the last few days, but 99% of China Eastern's website was in Chinese and despite there supposedly being a page for checking in, we had been unable to.

China Eastern has a carry on allowance limit of 5kg and I started to panic when the check-in girl asked us all to place our hand luggage on the scales. Despite my bag weighing 9.2 kg, she very kindly waived the rules when I explained that the bag was full of camera equipment only, and I really didn't want to send it as checked luggage. Phew. I suppose the fact that our combined checked in bags weighed just 46kg (rather than the 60kg we were allowed) helped a lot.

To my horror, I found there was no Captain Morgan's Spiced in the Duty Free Store, so I ended up 'slumming it' with Bacardi Braveheart. Much to David's disappointment there was also no Thatcher's in the bar. What is this place coming to?

Despite the shambles at checking in, the flight itself was actually very pleasant, with plenty of legroom, good entertainment system with a wide choice of films, music and games, tasty food, friendly crew and no queues for the toilets. There was however boot marks on the seat where one or more Chinese had obviously been unable to adapt to not using a squat toilet. We even had enforced Tai Chi lessons for confined spaces on the seat back screens – which overrode anything else you may or may not have been watching at the time. My only complaint about the flight was that it got way too hot at one time making me feel really quite ill, which wasn't helped by the fact that David still has a temperature from the infection he has been battling the last few days, and it was like leaning against a radiator. I did, however, manage to catch around five hours sleep on the 11.5 hour overnight journey before we landed at Shanghai for our three hour layover.

We easily managed to change seats to sit together on the next flight too, and in fact we ended up with three seats for the two of us. The Chinese logic seems to be different to ours when it comes to seat numbering: the rows went 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 31, 32 and so on; and with a 3-3 configuration they named the seats ABC-JKL.

I also slept for a couple of hours on the flight from Shanghai to Harbin, against my better judgement as I wanted to be really tired for when we arrived at our hotel after midnight so that I could get some real sleep in a bed.

As the flight approached Harbin, the crew came round with great concern for our welfare, insisting that it was awfully cold outside and that we really should be wearing some more clothes. We did have plenty of clothing in the overhead locker, but unlike most passengers who were already wearing their thick coats and hats on the plane, we dressed for the temperature inside with just a T-shirt and trousers.

As soon as we stepped off the plane the cold hit us like a wall! At -25 °C outside, the difference would have been about 45 degrees, so it is perhaps not surprising. Just outside the terminal building we encountered our first coloured ice sculpture, and on the way between the airport and town was a huge ice fort on a roundabout. The streets nearer town were all lined with colourful traditional lanterns, giving a real festival atmosphere to the city, despite being completely deserted at that time in the morning.

Mr Safe, the driver, (what a reassuring name!) dropped us off just around the corner from the hotel while our two guides Sally and Vera (I haven't yet figured out why we have two. As Vera hasn't said a word beyond “hello” yet, I am wondering if she is in training) came in to the hotel to help check us in. Just as well really, as the receptionist's command of the English language was pretty exactly on par with my Chinese. There was a 400 Yuan deposit to pay, in cash, presumably in case of damages. Although we will obviously get that back on checking out, the last thing we want is to be left with cash (it is only around £40, but even so) just as we are leaving the country. They wouldn't accept my credit card as surety, but I did manage to negotiate it down to 200 Yuan.

David and Alan went off to find a store to buy water, following Sally's instructions of “turn left out of the door and go down the street”. Roughly translated that means “turn right out of the hotel and the store is on the left down the street”

Our rooms are on the fifth floor, 504 and 507, according to the numbers written on the card wallets by the receptionist. We cannot find 507 at all. Even numbers go down to 502 on one side of the corridor and after trying the key several times in the door of his room (504), Alan is confronted by its occupant opening the door from the inside. Oops. The other side of the corridor has odd numbers starting at 501 and finishing at 505. No 507.

After walking up and down the corridor several times to no avail, we give up and go back to the receptionist, who at this stage is horizontal on a makeshift bed behind the desk, created from three chairs, a mattress and a heavy quilt. I try to explain to her by pointing at the numbers and shrugging my shoulder, but she appears not to understand as she grabs the keys, reprograms them and hands them back to us. The feeling is mutual as we don't understand the long explanation in Chinese she gives in return. We did ascertain that Alan's room was not 504 (I think we'd gathered that by now) but in fact 509.

Eventually I manage to convince her to escort us by pointing at her and making an upward motion with my hand. Reluctantly she wakes the snoring security guard to look after reception while she comes in the lift with us to the fifth floor. Her somewhat smug expression (you could hear her thinking “stupid tourists cannot even find their rooms”) turns to bewilderment as she too is faced with a dead end where our rooms should be. Heading in the other direction of the U-shaped corridor, where the rooms number 514 upwards, she knocks on a broom cupboard door where the housekeeper is asleep. Eventually our two rooms are found (507 and 509), tucked away in a far corner beyond room number 530. Another example of Chinese numbering logic, no doubt.

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To say the room is grubby is an understatement, with not even as much as a coat hook, let alone a cupboard or wardrobe; and what the heck is the giant orange exercise ball doing on our bed? No wonder we managed to reduce the surety to £20, I have doubts this place is even worth that much! By this time we are in need of a drink to unwind, so open the Bacardi Duty Free before collapsing into the very hard Chinese-style bed after a 26 hour journey. Welcome to Harbin.

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:09 Archived in China Comments (2)

Snow and ice and all things nice

Heading for colder climes

Back in 1992 my interest in the Snow and Ice Carving Festival in Harbin was piqued by a visit to a lantern festival in Shanghai where I heard about the winter equivalent in North-East China, but back then trying to find information about travelling there proved a little difficult and after a very half-hearted attempt I gave up.

Since then, Harbin as a travel destination has not only moved ever upwards on my wish list, but has become almost 'mainstream', with a number of travel companies going there as part of a group tour. Looking at some of our favourite operators, I was disappointed to find that they only spend one or maximum two nights in Harbin, dividing the rest of the time between Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Hong Kong. I wanted much more time in Harbin, from a photographer’s point of view if nothing else, and I really didn't want to spend my time and money revisiting (some for the fourth time) these other cities in China. So I set about designing my own trip, which is our preferred way of travel anyway.

Once I started looking into it, I found there was enough in the Harbin area to keep us occupied for a week or so, and with the help of a very nice young lady at China Highlights, I came up with a plan to fit in as much as I possibly could in the short space of time that we will be there.

Talking to another travel friend, Alan, a few months later about our various forthcoming trips, he too had wanted to visit the Snow and Ice Carving Festival, but he also felt discouraged about the amount of time operators such as Explore (we met Alan on an Explore trip to Bangladesh back in 2007) actually spent in Harbin. “Join us” I said. “Great” said Alan. So it came to be that the three of us will be heading to north-East China tomorrow for a week in the cold. And I mean COLD, Harbin is under the direct influence of the icy winter wind from Siberia and current temperatures are hovering around the -20 °C mark. I am packing all the thermals, fleeces, jumpers, hats, gloves, socks I have ever owned...

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The only drawback (in addition to the cold) is that it's a long way to go for just a week, with 3 hour journey to Heathrow, 3 hour check-in time, an 11.5 hour flight to Shanghai with a 3 hour layover and a further 3 hours to reach Harbin (by the time we reach the hotel, we'll have been travelling for over 24 hours). But since when has that stopped us?

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I should be able to update this blog as I go along – both hotels we are staying in have free internet access, and I don't think Travellerspoint is on the banned website list in China. Facebook, on the other hand, is a big no-no in China and access to that (as well as Youtube, Twitter and a host of others) is totally forbidden. David thinks he has managed to get around that however, by setting up a VPN (virtual private network) connection to a proxy server, tricking the Chinese authorities into thinking we have a British IP address. Whether it works or not remains to be seen....

Posted by Grete Howard 07:43 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

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