Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Harbin Post....Finally!!!

Ice Magic!
Ice Magic (Take 2)!

One of my favorite snow sculptures

Hello everyone and Happy New Year (both western and Chinese/Vietnamese)!  I know I haven't wrote in awhile but this time I have a kinda excuse. For pretty much all of January, the Chinese government started cracking down on VPN services which meant no access for me (since Blogger is considered a blocked website). I had already wrote this article, but I was unable to publish it.

Secondly, I ended up going away for three weeks to travel (which I wrote about in my previous blog post). I will definitely be doing a few blog posts about my time in SE Asia.

So, I won't waste anymore time, here is my update about my trip to Harbin!

Day 1

I arrived in Harbin on Friday evening after a pretty smooth and punctual flight with Juneyao Airlines. I immediately made my way to the taxi counter and I managed to get a taxi quickly since there was virtually no one else waiting (yay one for me!).

I had a young driver who cranked up the heat and asked for my destination. After I told him my area and address in Mandarin Chinese, he complimented my language ability and we engaged in a small conversation. I looked out the window at all the snow and in the distance, I could see some ice sculptures. I got excited since this was the main reason I came to Harbin and I immediately had my camera poised and ready for pictures along the way.

After 45 minutes, we made it to my hotel, which I booked through booking.com. I booked two nights at the Ibis Hotel, due to the price and favorable location in the center of town. Once we arrived at my hotel, we said our goodbyes and he wished me good luck on my trip. When I went to check in, the desk attendant was rude and very suspicious about my booking. She also charged me an exorbitant deposit (1,000rmb) which I know should have been a third of that price. For some reason, I didn’t want to argue and I didn’t want this lady to deter my good mood. I know how some local people can be, especially with black people so I just collected my bags and kept it moving. 

My basic (but warm) room

Basic Bathroom

I'm still trying to figure out what is shake gall?
My room was pretty basic, but warm. I also had the option of turning up the heat even higher. Apparently, the north of China, has real central heating (as opposed to southern China that has just air conditioning units). I put my things down and decided to venture out and see some ice sculptures. I noticed that we passed Zhaolin Park on the way to the hotel and I asked the hotel guards for the exact directions. They advised me not to go there since it wasn’t worth the cost (200rmb for entry) and I’d be better off saving my time and money and going to the larger, bigger, and more famous "Ice and Snow World." I took their advice and asked them for a place to get dinner instead. Once, I received the information, I made it to my first stop: Saint Sofia Cathedral.

The cathedral was closed, but I wanted to take some pictures of it lit up at night. It was also conveniently located near my hotel, about 7 minutes on foot. After taking some pictures and admiring it for 20 minutes, I decided that it was really cold and perhaps I needed to go warm myself up. I went to a high end shopping mall just across from the cathedral and I stopped at a supermarket in the basement level. After getting a few things, I continued on to have dinner which was a regional dish of dumplings.

After I finished my meal, I went back to the hotel to rest up for the marathon day of sightseeing the next day.

Day 2 
Tiger Love!

The next morning, I woke up early and decided to get some breakfast in the area. A hotel guard showed me a place called  "Food Street" right next to the hotel which was pretty much a mash-up of different restaurants and drink shops in a building. I got a jianbing, a savory crepe type meal that’s often consumed for breakfast in China. It was a bit more expensive than its Shanghai counterpart ( I payed 10 RMB for something that’s about 4 RMB), but it looked good and the ingredients were much more fancy than the usual sausage stick (I had he choice of chicken, bacon, or ham). I ordered a bacon jianbing and I got a toffee flavored hot chocolate from another stand for 8 RMB. I enjoyed my meal and then went back to the hotel to put on additional layers. My plan was to go to the Siberian Tiger Park, followed by Sun Island and finally, ending my day at "The Ice and Snow World."
My gourmet jianbing
After one cab driver tried to scam me, I found another (more honest) cabbie who was willing to take me to the Tiger Park with the meter on. After 20 minutes, we arrived at the gate of the Tiger Park and all around me were cute cartoon cats.

Siberian Tiger Park

It was 100 RMB ($16 USD for entry) which included a ride on a bus to tour the grounds and a walking tour of the grounds. After collecting my ticket, I entered a building with a bunch of shops, mostly selling plush tiger toys and winter gear. I also saw two napping tiger cubs which I assumed were only a few months old.
too cute!
The grounds are hundreds of acres and there are hundreds of tigers and lions on the grounds. I was able to take some pictures, and fight off the hordes of other tourists trying to step on me. The annoying thing was the bus had no heat and it was already in the single digits (or negatives to the Celsius readers out there) so I tried to move around to keep warm. After the ride of about 20-30 minutes, we were dropped off to the enclosed tiger pens. We saw some bigger cubs (probably a few years old) and we saw a feeding. Apparently at the tiger park, you can pay money to watch them feast on the animal of your choosing; from a hen (20 rmb) to a small bull (2,000rmb). 

A few patrons paid money to see the tigers have a hen so I saw the process a few times. A women stuffed a hen into a cage and pulled a lever to lead the hen to the middle of the pen. She waited a few seconds and then the cage drops open from the bottom and the tigers would jump and catch the prize. One or two victorious ones would run off with the prized booty which they devoured in a matter of minutes. It was a bit fascinating and a bit uncomfortable, but that’s nature.
Step 1: You wait for the meal

Step 2: You grab the meal

Step 3: Devour the spoils!

After the feeding, I walked around the different areas and I saw some more tigers, a white tiger, a leopard and finally, a liger! A cross between a male lion and a female tiger, these animals are quite rare (only 11 in the world) and sterile (so no reproduction for them). 
Lions, tigers and ligers? Oh my!!!
 After a few moments, I decided it was time to go since there wasn't much left to do there. I spent about 90 minutes total at the Tiger Park. Since I was leaving around lunchtime, there wasn’t much foot traffic by the entrance so I was able to grab a cab in no time and it was on to the next destination…

Sun Island Park:

Year of the Ram!

Sun Island Park is home to many different snow sculptures. It wasn’t too far from the Tiger Park (about 15 minutes by cab, 22RMB in price), and once the driver dropped me off at the entrance,  I went right to the ticket booth to collect my ticket. 

I will say that it was pricey: 240 RMB ($40USD) for an adult ticket; but, it was worth it to me so I gritted my teeth and paid. I admired the sculptures which were quirky and fascinating. My favorites were the Disney “Ark of Happiness,” the Minions from “Despicable Me,” and lastly, the Charles Darwin and Issac Newton sculptures.


Albert Einstein

Charles Darwin

Since this was the first official weekend of the festival, some of the sculptures were still being made as seen here:

I walked for about an hour, but the cold was getting to me and I had to duck into a tourist center to warm up. It wasn’t really heated, but it felt warmer in there than outside. I walked around and browsed for 15 minutes before heading back into the cold. 

Ark of Happiness (aka Disney)

Sir Issac Newton

Crazy Machine

A mini version of Red Square
After looking at a few more sculptures, I noticed that both of my batteries were dying and I was getting hungry. I did a brisk walk to the exit and finally tracked down a cab who was willing to take me back to the hotel for a reasonable price (there were a lot of scammers in the area).

When I arrived back at the hotel, I charged my electronics, had a snack and had a small nap. After my rest, I put on another layer of wool socks and clothes, I decided to have another dumpling meal for dinner. After my meal it was time for the main event...

Snow and Ice World: 
The main event!
After dinner, I hailed down a cab and told him where I wanted to go. The driver was impressed with my Chinese and he asked me if I had my ticket. When I told him no, he offered to take me to a ticket stand and then to a bus which would provide free transport to the park grounds. I was reluctant, but he insisted. We arrived at this dodgy office with loads of screaming people and two attendants who were calmly trying to take the orders. The driver took my money and pushed his way to the front with me behind him. After all, I just gave this man 300RMB ($50 USD!) and I wanted to make damn sure I received my ticket!

I received my “ticket” which was just a receipt and the characters for ice and snow scribbled on the front of it. After that, the taxi driver put me on a bus and he shouted to the driver that even though I was a laowai (foreigner), I knew Chinese. The bus got silent when I stepped on and I took a free seat right in the front. I exchanged glances with a couple to the left of me and we silently looked at each other with the same idea: “This bus better be taking us to the Ice and Snow World!” After 20 minutes and 10 more passengers, the bus driver zoomed off to the main attraction and I comfortably let out a sigh of relief.

Even though the ticket station was very close to the Ice and Snow World, we had to wait another 10 minutes to get off the bus. I guess what happened was, the bus was treated as a tour group and we had to wait for a free attendant to accompany the bus passengers to the group entry. After they got us organized in single file (not an easy feat in China) we walked to the entrance gate and had to wait another 10 minutes to get to the line for entry. Once we were lined up again after much more shouting and screaming, we were allowed to proceed to the main gate and after another 10 minutes of being in line, we had reached the “Frozen Promised Land…”

 The couple from the bus linked eyes with me and we smiled and went our separate ways. I wildly started snapping pictures and then I just stood there to take it in.

It was really cold and the temperature read -24 Celsius. I walked around for a bit and I smiled at the impressive works of ice art. Since I removed my gloves to take pictures, my hands were freezing and I needed to find warmth fast. I stumbled upon a drink shop and I ran right in. The heat was on high and after a few minutes, I felt relief in my hands. This happened just in time since the shop workers started shouting for people to buy or get out.

I walked into a couple of ice buildings which were fun and I even contemplated taking a horse and carriage ride. 

After half an hour, my hands were getting cold again and I needed relief. I saw a building advertising the "Colors of the Ice Festival" and I decided to step inside. This was a large warehouse selling artistic merchandise which were scarves, jewelry, stationary and other knick-knacks. There was even a runway show complete with models modeling the same merchandise. The stage surrounding the runway was packed full of people wildly snapping pictures and elbowing their way to the prime location next to the stage. I  stayed inside for a few more moments to warm up and once I felt warm enough, I went back outside to view the last ice sculptures…

My favorite sculptures were the castle and the ice slide. I managed to find warmth in another shop and after a few more sculptures and photos, I made my way to the park's exit.  As I made my way to the exit, I saw some cute animals and one of the men yelled to me "arctic fox" and he thrust one in my arms. It was cute , warm and cuddly, but I must of scared it with my ice cold hands. The man took a few pictures and charged me 20 RMB ($3.30 USD). Once he saw me take out a 100RMB note, he tried to charge me more money for taking 10 pictures. I just gave him a 20RMB note and walked off.

Once I found the exit, I made to the taxi line which was really not that busy. I almost took a scam cab, but then I changed my mind and waited for a licensed cab. It only cost me 17 RMB to get back to my hotel and upon my arrival, I asked the desk attendants for a place to eat (I should have ordered those dumplings after all). Since it was almost 10:00 pm, not much was open apart from McDonalds and KFC. I opted for KFC since it was closer. I got my food to go and I raced back into my hotel room and right under the covers. After a late night snack and one of my favorite movies, I went right to sleep completely satisfied at all that I had accomplished. .

Day 3: Russian influence in China

For my final day in Harbin, I decided to do a Russian day. I walked around the Central Street that was near my hotel and I took in some Russian buildings and other Russian influences.

There were also tons of ice sculptures in the street that were really good. After a 40 minute walk, I made it to the Russian restaurant that was recommended by my travel guide. After my meal, I returned to the Saint Sofia Cathedral so I could see what was inside (since I only viewed the outside of it my first day).

To be honest, there was nothing much in the inside. Just pictures of old Harbin and the various other Russians who stayed in the city. I took some pictures, looked around and then left. It was only a 20 RMB ($3.30) entry so I wasn’t loosing much. After walking around the area one final time, it was time to go back to the hotel to get my things and return to Shanghai.

Phew! I know this was a long post, but I hope you enjoyed it and, perhaps you could find it useful if you decide to visit Harbin in the future. Thanks again for reading and look out for my future blog posts on SE Asia!