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Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

In Heilongjiang province, the northern-most of China’s 22 provinces, there is a city named Harbin. Harbin is notable for its Russian influenced architecture, a Chinese beer, being ludicrously Siberian-type cold and probably most famously the largest Ice and Snow Festival in the world that takes place in early January every year.

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The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival originated from local Harbiner traditional ice lantern show garden party in winter since 1963. It had been interrupted for a number of years during the Cultural Revolution but had been resumed in January of 1985.

The first ice lanterns were a winter-time tradition in northeast China. During the Qing Dynasty(1644 – 1911), the local peasants and fishermen often made and used ice lanterns during the winter months.

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This little one couldn’t not be in the photos, so I tried to work her in.

The average temperature in Harbin during the winter sits at a balmy 1.7°F (-16.8°C). Yet, annual low temperatures below -31°F (-35°C) are not uncommon.

I hope this sets the scene because, quite frankly, this is the coldest I have ever been in my life and I need you to know that because this harsh climate definitely colors the experience of traveling around Harbin during the festival. During our journey, we were privileged to enjoy a cool -18.4°F (-28°C) for the majority of the day. Luckily, the wind wasn’t blowing too much because I’m afraid to know what it would have been like with wind chill factored in. Despite this harsh arctic wasteland’s best efforts to thwart us, my fellow travelers and I didn’t arrive unprepared.  I wore no less than 2 pairs of socks, 3 layers of pants, 4 layers of shirts,  a mask, a hood, and a winter jacket with solid winter boots. Even bundled to the max like this, Katie, Lotte and I still needed to pop into one of the many little refuges about every 15-20 minutes.

In spite of all the frigidity, we had a really good time. When we arrived in the city, like many other times this summer, we normally have no idea where to go first. We generally just grab a bus and see where it takes us.  Stakes felt a little bit higher than before, because being outside for even a few minutes would freeze the little hairs inside your nose, which feels REAL weird. Yet fortune smiled upon our frozen faces because we met a lovely young lady on this bus who could speak English and helped point us in the right direction.  We arrived on the main drag of Old Harbin where its Russian-influenced architecture is easily identifiable and also luckily where everything that you would want to see in Harbin is located. We snagged some lunch and popped off to St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral after navigating through many underground shopping streets.

St. Sophia's

St. Sophia’s

After surviving the return route in the underground shopping labyrinth, we hit up a  Lonely Planet recommended coffee shop and let our bright pink mugs, mitts, and toes thaw until it was dark outside which is when we decided to make our way over to the Ice and Snow Festival.

We arrived at the entrance which was absolutely stunning.

Abandon warmth all ye who enter here.

Abandon warmth all ye who enter here.

Our excitement was crushed a little when we arrived at the ticket counter and the attendants wouldn’t let us use our Student IDs to get half price like it said on the advertisements and the sign right next to the window. He told us it was for Chinese people only.  My favorite part about this exchange was that in this very room there were flags from all over the world, yet this jerk couldn’t see this irony. So we forked over 300 RMB ($50) and grumbled all the way in.

But the grumbling was short-lived because the Ice Festival is AWESOME. There were many giant castles, snow sculptures of cartoon characters, pagodas, scenes from famous Chinese mythology like the story of Sun Wukong the monkey king.

Sun Wukong himself

Sun Wukong himself

Everything was so much larger than life. The ice blocks are created with holes in them so that they can run lots of lights inside. During the festival, there are three different venues you can attend. We attended the largest one, but couldn’t justify spending another 240 RMB ($40) on seeing sculptures of Doraemon, Mickey Mouse and Despicable Me minions.  I don’t have much to say about it other than I climbed a couple castles made of ice and rode a two story slide that was glowing bright green all the way to the bottom. I can’t recommend you go to see this crazy winter wonderland enough. Just stay warm, dude.

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Day 13: Terracotta Warriors

After a lot of miscommunication and getting lose at the bus station, then an hour ride on such sought after buses, we arrived at the very confusing complex for the the Terra Cotta Army. Why is it confusing? To arrive at the gate to see the warriors, you must first embark on the noble quest of acquiring tickets. These tickets are posted far away from the parking lot of the park, and farther still from the actual entrance into the dig sites and museum. After getting your tickets, which you should totally bring your ancient student ID from college because it will still work and save 50% of the ticket price, you must wander through what seems like miles and miles of tourist shops all selling the same things: candy, magnets, little replica warriors and horses about the size of  your finger, and all sorts of toy guns and light-up tops.

IMGP2809But it’s worth it, because the actual full-sized soldiers are a pretty amazing piece of history. The story goes that in 1974 a farmer was digging a well and stumbled onto this site where now current estimates suggest that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits near by Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. What’s more interesting is that out of all of these statues, they may be similar, but no two are exactly the same.

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Another thing about being in China that I love is that I’m experiencing first hand all sorts of history that I never even came close to learning about in America. It’s a real bummer because I never considered taking an Eastern World history class. Qin Shi Huang was a crazy dude but did so much for China.  This guy was the first emperor of unified China, he started construction on parts of the Great Wall, created massive road networks, standardized money, weights and measurement systems and of course had these Terracotta soldiers guard his future final resting place. Yet, all of these accomplishments came at the expense of many Chinese lives including my home girl Meng Jiang Nu, and the 460-1100 scholars he BURIED ALIVE. Oh yeah, and to top it off he burned books too! Plus, his tomb hasn’t been fully excavated because this jokester probably has it booby trapped with rivers of mercury and crossbows primed to shoot anyone trying to break in.

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I’d like to impart some advice on you if you are ever going to visit the Terracotta Warriors exhibit. Do the dig sites in reverse order. Site 3 is the smallest and least impressive, 2 is a little bigger, but 1 is what you’re there for. It’s enormous and they’re still doing tons of excavation to this day. It would have been a little bit of a let down to see the other sites after 1. I’m glad Lotte suggested this when we headed in.

It was pretty remarkable to see something so old, and in pretty decent shape. Even if many of them are missing heads, or are broken, some of the soldiers even have still have paint on them. This is definitely one of the coolest spots we stopped at on our trip. I just wish these pictures could do this experience justice.

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Operation Summer Holiday: Planned

So here it is folks!

We’ve been planning out little hearts out over the last few weeks. Booking Couchsurfin’ spots, examining tourist attractions loosely buying travel tickets, that sort of thing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about living in China, it’s that you should never ever count on anything being a sure thing. Whether it’s classes, taxi cabs, restaurants or general safety guidelines, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a good idea not to plan too far in advance because any number of crazy things could happen and ruin all your hard work.

This works pretty well for me as I’ve never been much of a planner but, setting up an itinerary outline for this monster trip was an important milestone. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can blog and post my pictures while I am on the road because internet is few and far between sometimes. That’s still in the works, but it doesn’t REALLY matter. So far this is what we’ve got.

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Here’s the map, the new Google Maps engine is incredible. (It just won’t let you embed yet.) It provided my students and I with a means to collaborate on a spreadsheet for all of the best places to see in China. I uploaded this spreadsheet into the new engine and kerblammo! I had a huge part of the planning finished.

As you can see on the map, We’ll be hitting Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, Suzhou, Shanghai, Xiamen, Guilin, Shenzhen, Hong Kong where we will dine with Kings. We’ll be filling in the gaps of the major cities and stops with tons of little places in between.Some of these places looks gorgeous.

The last part of our trip is Lotte’s doing and we’ll be visiting some of her family in the Philippines. Katie and I hope to go snorkeling and scuba diving there. This trip will start July 8th for me and end around August 26th.

If you know any good places along our route (or not!) please let me know in the comments. We’re looking for any suggestions other seasoned vets might know.

We’re a little worried about not being able to speak the language, but I don’t think it’ll be too much of a problem. This trip is the reason I decided to live abroad and become a TEFL all-star(hah!). I can’t believe it’s actually happening.