Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Harbin: Snow Sculptures, Siberian Tigers & Ice Festivals...

Harbin was serving everything that I wanted and more during that Spring Festival 2017 trip, I was just about to embark on my private tour that would take me to three of Harbin's most famous sights. Taking in Harbin's world famous snow sculptures, catching a glimpse of those Siberian tigers and being mesmirised by the Ice Festival had to be done! Right Harbin, let's go go!

So, I trusted China Highlights once again, I was so impressed with my private day tour in Guilin to the Longji Rice Terraces that when planning to visit Harbin I booked up to experience their full day Ice Festival trip! Handled with the utmost professionalism it was off to Sun Island to see the snow sculptures, not one for technical names I'm just going to focus on the day itself and the unforgettable sights that I saw. Accompanied by my guide Walton I seemed to be the only person on the tour, the same had a happened in Guilin and that had worked out just fine! Passing through the Snow Expo it was amazing to see the precision and skill the sculptors had worked so hard to create the show-stopping snow sculptures. I had imagined seeing a huge snow sculpture that would be something spectacular, I had hit the jackpot, passing through the majority of the impressive sculptures I was greeted by a masterpiece H!

I waited with my camera at the turnstiles to enter the snow park on Sun Island, the crowds had not yet descended upon this Harbin honey pot. I had to visit this winter themed attraction during my first segment of my 2017 Chinese New Year trip as it was famed along with the tigers and the Ice figures. As me and my guide made our way through the first section of snow sculptures it was lovely too see lots of Chinese Zodiac inspired snow sculptures, being the same as if it was anything to do with Christmas. I don't think I had seen anything like it before, more still it was another one in a lifetime place to see because I don't plan on repeating any of these adventures, getting it right the first time counts! There was even a snow sculpture related to Hot Pot, not a pie like dish from the north of English but a very famous Mainland Chinese food favourite! The weather was so misleading, the sun was shining beautifully bright but the temperatures were still stupidly low! It was so cold!

The second stop of the day was to Harbin's Siberian Tiger Conservation Park, I stayed optimistic about that feline part of my trip because China doesn't have the best track with animal welfare. Putting my preconceptions in a box for a moment I have to say that my experience seeing those gorgeous Siberian's was a positive if not bizarre thing. I had only wanted to see the Panda's during my trip to Chengdu but this 2017 itinerary included a visit to see some of China's most famed endangered wild animals. Walton my guide was a wealth of knowledge regarding the Siberian tigers, I learnt that only a handful of tigers were counted in China before conservation efforts ensured these fierce predators weren't going to die out due to the changing landscape of the northeast of China. Prepared for my drive through the tiger enclosures I wasn't surprised by the hysteria caused by my fellow riders! Oh no, just behave yourselves!

Ready to admire those Siberian Tigers and grab my photos at the same time I knew how to conduct my behaviour without question, need I say no more? The safety of the barred van gave us the opportunity to get up close and personal with those crazy cats, it must of been like the pandas because those tigers were chilled out to the maximum, they certainly weren't fazed by the craziness exhibited by the Chinese tourists on the same van as me, I paid those individuals no mind because the beauty of the tigers was what I wanted to see and that I did without question. Stretched out like a lazy house cat in front of a roaring fire these Siberian tigers luxuriated in their sub-zero snow covered environment, I didn't share their enthusiasm for the cold whatsoever! Let's just say I was satisfied with my time at the Siberian Tiger Park to notice anything else going on, I was hungry so it was definitely a good time for our super tasty Spring Festival lunch! So, those fried dumplings were so delicious!

No Spring Festival trip to Harbin would be complete without visiting the world famous Ice Festival! Located close to the snow sculptures I had seen earlier that same day I was looking forward to seeing the colourfully lit ice figures that had amazed me through the countless Chinese New Year documentaries I had watched before my 2017 Harbin trip. Battling the crowds to access the action it was a blessing I had my tour guide to sort the tickets swiftly as patience wasn't a known virtue according to the other visitors. Celebrating its 18th year I was fronted with a million lights, the ice sculptures shone in the evenings darkness, I was paying no mind to the cold because that moment was far too important even if I couldn't feel my fingers as I tried to get some snaps of the ice attractions. Intricate ice figures were on display in one corner from around the world, from places like Russia and Mongolia. Oh, it was ace!

How does Harbin find so much ice to carve into these amazing sculptures and figures? It's no secret that Harbin receives some bone-chilling winters, so as soon as the Songhua River starts to freeze the ice is carved out and used to make the magnificent figures that I had the opportunity to see that January night. Finding one indoor space I paid through the nose for a cup of coffee but to even feel the warmth from the cup on my hands was amazing, it was so blinding freezing but so worth it I should really stop harping on about the cold! Right from the very beginning my China Highlights tour around Harbin's top sights went without a hitch, my guide was extremely knowledgeable about the city and all that was linked with the places that we visited! I even got the chance to eat a frozen ice cream during the break along Central Avenue before finding out about the Flood Control Monument. Would I book another tour with China Highlights? Oh yes, of course I would even though I'm against tours!

A Million Lights...

Joseph Harrison

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Harbin's Frozen Riverside: Rollin' On The River!

Harbin tested me beyond the point of crazy, the weather plummeted down to a toe-curling minus twenty-six degrees below freezing. Going down to Harbin's Riverside felt like an education and a walk back into its Russian history. The waters of the Songhua River may had not been flowing past the city but a new form of frozen was present to see! I was ready to let it go! 

One of my motivations to visit Harbin was to see the Songhua River in its frozen state, as so many times before I would see people chair skate on top of the thick layers of ice during the harsh winter, traditionally during the Chinese New Year holiday. I had no intention to take part in such wintry activities but being the nosy sod that I am it was worth my face being bitten off by the intense winter chill. Aside from the action on top of the river I took great care to admire the glassy blue skies that fronted me, the river bridge that connected the two sides of the Songhua River sat rigidly on the solid lake perfectly with a sort of a sweeping persona. Back to the winter hype of activity on the river, kids were surfing on top of the ice on rubber doughnuts with the same joys as a western child would have during the throws of the Christmas period. I did see some dogs carrying people on sledges, I really didn't appreciate that! No, no H!

Honestly, I saw a 4X4 drive across the ice, I watched that vehicle seamless drive on top of the iced river as it was a normal tarmac road! Judging from that undisturbed sight, the ice must of been as solid as a rock?! During my second day in Harbin throughout my guided trip I was informed that when the Songhua River starts to freeze over, large portions of the ice is harvested so to speak and used to construct the magnificent technicolour ice sculptures for the word renowned Harbin Ice Festival. My view from the Riverside walk along the Songhua River was close enough to the ice and all of its possible delights, viewing the merriment and energy of that ice cold platform was truly enough for me. Harbin's province 'Heilongjiang' translates into English and Black Dragon River, the Songhua River happens to be the biggest branch of that Northeastern Chinese river. I must take the nature of Wuhan's tide of the Yangtze River with me? Proud Harbin, keeping skating on a river!

Stalin Park, Harbin takes its name from the former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. One of the last remaining links between Harbin's former Russian days, this promenade style park was a scene of pure winter with a small layer of snow and a dusting of frost for good measure. During my first day I wanted to catch glimpse of this former Russian park that lined the frozen Songhua River. Contrary to belief this park's western edge was home to a famous wharf that was created by the Russian's to distribute goods from Harbin's former European counterpart, I listening closely to this information as the Russian influence of Harbin was one of the main reasons I had chosen to visit that freezing city. Back to the park in more depth, things were lively but not so much that I couldn't enjoy the stillness of the parks riverside walk that was lined with towering trees and neatly landscape lawns of snow covered grass, that did impress me!

Built in 1953, this Russian infused park has to be an equally delightful place to get away from the tourist madness in the summer? It was safe to say the wind chill during that January weekend was a trifle challenging to cope with. As my Harbin trip progressed I discovered that Stalin Park faces Sun Island an area that can be found on the opposite side of the Songhua River, a little way from Stalin Park. The beautifully crafted stone sculptures were great to see in the chill that winters day, adding to the wintry splendour of Harbin's Stalin Park. Who knows if I will ever get to Russia one day to experience the sights of Moscow or even St. Petersburg? But with visiting Stalin Park in Harbin, China I can at least say I have been to a former Russian outpost that gave me a feeling of what a Russian-like sight would be like? Yes, of course I can! Rewinding back to 2016's Chinese Spring Festival trip I would have to say Guangzhou's Yuexiu Park for the Five Rams Statue was my second favourite Spring scenic spot.

Well, my third and final segment of this blog features a monument that was a case of déjà vu because Wuhan, Hubei has the same sort of commemoration for a flood. Given to the people of this Heilongjiang city the Harbin Flood Control Monument has stood overlooking the Songhua river since 1958. I learnt that Harbin has been subjected to two majors floods with the first swallowing the city in 1932, following by another treacherous flood that occurred in 1957, one year before this Soviet co-designed monument was constructed. It was believed that the city didn't help out much during Harbin's earlier flood but the effects of the second flood in 1957 was too much for the city of Harbin to ignore this natural disaster any longer. The lower level commemorates the first flood that didn't cause the most damage but the upper level showed how high the flood hit Harbin and its people during the 1957 flooding! I was learning!

It was safe to say that judging by the height of Harbin's Flood Control Monument the people of Harbin deserved to be commemorated, peacefully marking those whose didn't survive the second violent flood! Throughout my time alongside the frozen Harbin riverside I learnt so much about the Songhua River and all of its winter sports antics, I still cannot believe I saw a 4X4 drive acorss the ice without a seconds thought! The colder it got the more picturesque that frozen river looked to me. Those former Russian days never escaped me during my Spring Festival trip in Harbin, Stalin Park brought some European style park life to me within China's far Northeast. Lastly, I brushed shoulders with a victorious figure that represented the struggles this sub-zero city has faced over the years. The second of my three Harbin blog installments completed, I'm feeling the tour of the year featuring soon! Yes, I will leave it here so, big wheel keep on turning, proud Harbin keeping on freezing! Yass, Tina!

Songhua River Realness!

Joseph Harrison

Friday, 10 February 2017

China: Harbin’s Russian Secrets...

Chinese New Year came around again, I decided after the warmth of HK, Macau and Guangzhou that I wanted to experience somewhere in the far north of China for 2017's festivities. Harbin, Heilongjiang called me to see its former Russian charms and to embrace its sub-zero temperatures. I wanted to see what the craze was regarding Harbin's unique Russian history! Идтиe! 

Peering out of my airplane window it was amazing to see a sea of colourful explosions, no China hadn't turned into a war zone because the whole country was celebrating Chinese New Year! As my China Southern flight neared the frozen far northeast I marveled at those special New Year fireworks, truly with the best seat in the house! Turning up the heat in a city that was hitting -20 Degrees had to be done, I wasn't paying 700 RMB for a taxi ride from the airport to my hostel, no! Exploding like a firework I wasn't having any of that shady business! Anyway, brushing off that crazy I emerged from my hostel bundled in all the layers I had packed, the mind-numbing cold bit at my face but I was living as Zhongyang Dajie came into view, what's a trip without a bit of drama? Central Street was at my feet, sensing a serving of an 'Eastern Moscow' I was ready to embrace Harbin even if it was too cold for words! Freezing!

Absorbing the Russian grandeur and European design of Central Street's fine buildings I was getting my life for certain! First constructed from the late 1800's this tourist honey pot was paved with cobbles that were shipped all the way from the former Russian Federation, forgetting my Oriental location it was a nice feeling to be surrounded by architecture that originated from my own continent, Europe. Seeing those Russian signs and shop fronts I was pleasantly surprised to see such a respectable Russian presence along Harbin's Central Street! Missing breakfast I took a chance on a Russian bakery to find something to ease that hunger within, calling up my foreign language skills I managed to say 'thank you' in Russian to the lady who appeared to be from that former Soviet nation. Even through those early stages of my time in that freezing city, Harbin was schooling me about its rich history. Who eats ice cream that doesn't melt?! With temperatures as low as -25 degrees my ice cream was safe!

I remembered when I was a boy I had a Russian doll, but when in Harbin I threw caution to the wind and bought another one for myself! I was truly spoiled for choice, I had to make sure those wooden dolls were authentically Russian! Getting that confirmation I snatched a smallish Russian doll that was of a reasonable price. Flashing back to my Qingdao time I appreciated the Germanic qualities of that Shandong seaside city but I never saw themed shops like Harbin had to showcase its Russian get-up, get it together Qingdao! My manager worked in Russia for a while and mentioned to me how much she missed Russian chocolate, being a good teacher I bought her some Russian chocolate that I know she will really appreciate! Making sure that European confection tasted good enough I enjoyed a bar or two of Russian chocolate, my treat was like a dark Aero bar that can't be bought Chinese supermarket! Chocolate bliss!

Yes, food seemed to be a central part of my Russian crusade in Harbin that bitterly cold Chinese New Year's Day, shunning the usual Chinese choices I jumped at the chance to sample some near Russian quality food. Dining at Tatoc Russian Restaurant had to be the one, it had the best reviews on Trip Advisor and with that reassurance I was willing to give it a chance. Hit by the superb warm air conditioning it felt I had walked into a time capsule back to Harbin's Russian heyday! Ordering some Russian Borscht soup was a winner, followed by a fancy version of Russian 'bangers and mash' winning at life I had to have a side serving of mashed potato because its a rare commodity in China! I'm a lover of world beers, turning it up a few notches I took my chances with a Baltika 6, a super strength Russian beer that even my manager, Katy said it wasn't a wise choice for an afternoon tipple! Filled with my starter and main courses and I wasn't read to pay up, Harbin there's always time for Tiramisu!

I was utterly stunned to see a sign for the Harbin Architectural Museum because what stood in front of me resembled something more like a magnificent former Eastern Othrodox place of worship! Banishing that sign out of my head I was fronted with Harbin's St. Sophia Cathedral, standing proud amongst more of a modern surrounding, I was loving that moment because I had waited for sometime to see that Russian piece of history in Harbin, China. I don't usually appreciate people in my photographs but I was far too cold to care, the family photos could carry on because I was getting my snaps no matter what! Paying my admission I walked inside the former house of God to find a barrage of vintage photos depicting the cosmopolitan days of Harbin's Russian high points, dressed in all their European chic designs those western settlers made Harbin look like a sophisticated Moscow of the East! Serve it St. Sophia!

Following on from making my Russian purchases and taking my frozen photos I retreated back to my hostel to regain the feeling of my hands, legs and face, yes it was really that blooming well freezing! To picture how bone-chillingly cold it was, I saw several ice carvings of popular Chinese brands elaborately displayed. One ice carving was of a bottle of 'Hongfu Spring Water', that super-sized ice shaped bottle did not drip a single drop during those near arctic feeling temperatures. This next development leaves me with no doubt in my mind that Harbin was another Spring Festival contender along with Hong Kong because I'm going to be serving three blog posts at least for this frozen Chinese city! Nevertheless, Harbin's first throws of Russian heritage impressed me much, from that pedestrian street to my Russian winter warming food! From that first bit of drama to calling it a night to watch the Spring Festival Gala, I knew that Harbin was next level! Конечно Харбин город! Да!

Until Next Time Harbin!

Joseph Harrison 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Chinese Spring Festival 2016

China doesn't do Christmas so it brings the big guns out during the annual Chinese New Year celebrations, experiencing my first Chinese Spring Festival took me over the borderline and back again! From Hong Kong to Guangzhou via Macau I was on my travelling game as people traveled back home. Taking one more look into my 2016 Spring Festival trip, it was unbelievable!

Zooming down from Wuhan Railway Station on my third China high speed train to Shenzhen North, I was beyond excited to be visiting Hong Kong, kicking off my 2016 Chinese Spring Festival holiday. Shenzhen didn't give me the best of vibes but Hong Kong welcomed me without stress, being a former British Overseas Territory I sensed British passports were favoured at that HK border crossing. Reuniting with my best one Kelly at her Lai Chi Kok family flat it was great to have made our promise to each other a reality! No hotel reservations were made for that portion of my Spring Festival trip as her parents had been so gracious to open their home to me. Settling into my Kowloon environment I enjoyed some home-cooked Shepherd's Pie, it tasted so good after living in China for nine months at that point! No VPN was needed, after changing my sim card I was back on the grid but Facebook could be freely accessed! Oh, I was living a dream!

Dim Sum was on the menu for breakfast, meeting Kelly's maternal grandparents for a delicious breakfast was lovely, I truly felt part of that Hong Kong breakfast club! Hitting the road with our Octopus travel cards it was onto the next one for me and Kelly, choosing Lantau Island showed us the unpredictability of Hong Kong's weather as the Buddha didn't want to play ball! Skimming over the HK water we found ourselves in the heart of Central, Hong Kong Island's financial district fronted us with all of its concrete and glass! HSBC impressed me with the collapsible HQ and the echoes of the Colonial courthouse served HK's British era. I was loving the colourful HK city trams! Taking to the peak to conclude our random HK day I was blessed with an electrifying view of the world famous 'Victoria Harbour' away from the tourists that next level experience will never leave me! Temple Street Market told us our fortunes and served us some amazing tasting Thai food! Yes, HK was on another level!

On an independent hype I covered some serious miles during my second official day in Hong Kong! Standing before the staggering skyline of Hong Kong Island from the Kowloon side I watched the choppy waters of Victoria Harbour do its thing! Navigating my back over to that side of HK I found Western Market, dating from the days of Empire that 18th century market was something that I wanted to see, adding to the fusion that is Hong Kong! Ginseng & Bird's Nest Street showcased a sea of health foods and tonics that must have been for good health? A working Hong Kong street nonetheless, I was on to the next sight! Leaving Sheung Wan for the New Territories, seeking something spiritual I found Fung Ying Seen Koon Temple, located with a normal Hong Kong estate surrounding this colourful temple with many tower-blocks it was a contrast for sure. No, let me say it wasn't just the temple that looked gorgeous! Figure it out!

Concluding my second day I headed for Argyle Street, deep within the manic streets of Kowloon it was only a matter of time before the neon signs would be making an appearance, serving a bold impact I was truly mesmirised by that Oriental display! Giving Lantau Island a second chance, myself and Kelly took the coach back up to Ngong Ping Village to see if the weather was going to play ball. Getting my photos secured it felt good to see Lantau's Big Buddha in brighter circumstances, Kelly waited at the bottom of the towering staircase whilst I got the sights captured that I needed. Taking a stroll along the Wisdom Path was lovely, it was so calm and quiet it was strange to think that the daily chaos of city continued just over the mountains. Finishing up at Tai O fishing village I was more than satisfied to see more of Lantau's charm, that sight of normality was truly lovely! Reuniting with my friend Kelly was amazing, teamed with my discoveries I had in HK was a dream come true! Love life!

A white knuckle ride it wasn't but the hydrofoil crossing from HK's Tsim Sha Tsui docks had me worried, I don't like sea bound vessels at the best of times so I just wanted to be in Macau. The second of China's Special Administrative Regions I was ready to see a glimpse of its former Portuguese colonial splendour. Another seamless border crossing from Macau's Outer Ferry Terminal I made my way to my hotel, switching on the television to see what I would find shocked me, I found a Portuguese speaking channel that instantly took me back to my New Jersey Ironbound days! The Mainland Chinese tourists had descended upon Macau's Senado Square without hesitation, it looked like they were attempted to buy everything in their paths. Regardless of that I adored the Ruins of St. Paul's too much to care about that absurdity! Seeing Macau's bilingual street signs, I felt like I was almost back in old Europe!

The former days as a Portuguese Overseas Territory had definitely left an imprint on the architecture of Macau, away from its historic centre I took some time to see the A-Ma Temple, this modern day SAR got it name from that Macanese temple, something to do with their first encounters with the Portuguese sailors? Making my way back towards Senado Square I walked through some quiet side streets that oozed European Realness, I had to take some time to realise that I was less than a twenty minute drive away from the border with Mainland China! I was feeling hungry for some Portuguese fusion food, trusting a European looking fusion restaurant on Rua da Felicidade was a winner for sure! I loved my life as I devoured my delicious serving of Bacalhau com natas served with fried cheesy bites was a winner, obviously washed down with some authentic Portuguese red wine. Being Chinese New Year I loved the red lanterns that were colorfully serving a festive scene! Bye Xmas!

Back over the borderline there was a moment where I thought I wasn't going to make it back over the Chinese border at Zhuhai for some crazy reason! Without a seconds thought I was hurtling towards Guangzhou South Railway Station to experience one of Guangdong's super-sized cities for myself. Taking the first day to familiarise myself with the gargantuan metro system I waited for Chinese New Year's Day to get out and about properly. The Memorial of Dr. Sun Yat Sen was across the road from my hotel, being a special day it was free admission for visitors! Shamian Island showed me a slice of British colonialism alongside the Pearl River, it was a very picturesque sight for sure. Getting my life I stumbled across a side street that represented Old Guangzhou in its rawest form, something that I loved! The Canton also served me some uncomplicated Cantonese dishes for lunch, Cantonese food is ace! Guangzhou served it!

Well. New Year's Day for me is all about the hangover from the previous Eve but at Guangzhou's Hualin Temple it was a scene of worship and positivity. I had never seen a temple so busy, people were lighting three incense sticks at a time and offering up to the spirits to bless them for the next year, it was a sight of renewal and hope. I threw a few small Chinese notes like other people were doing, I was definitely entitled to the same luck as the rest of those people! Embracing some park life I dashed over to Yuexiu Mountain Park, it showed me more than I had bargained, weaving my way between the crowds I loved it! Guangzhou was proving the haters wrong as I had been told there was much going on in that Guangdong powerhouse! But the highlight of my Guangzhou weekend was my meeting with the Canton Tower, that sleek and sexy towering glamazon served her rainbow rays of neon light! No, I've not yet finished with GZ but I'll leave this Chinese Spring Festival re-up here!


Joseph Harrison