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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

During my big trip around Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China, I visited a lot of famous landmarks. Amongst them was Emei Shan. This is fairly close to Chengdu (about 130km South West) and is one of the four famous Buddhist mountains (for further info, click here).

 

Rather than bore you with the history and the ins and outs of getting there, which will be available elsewhere on the internet or in any decent guidebook, I have simply posted some of the photos of the trip itself (with captions). Unfortunately, the pictures don’t do justice to the reality. However, if you’re interested in visiting one of the famous Buddhist mountains of China, enjoying draw-dropping views, old monasteries and mist-covered hills, I highly recommend that you go.

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Centrepiece of the Ice Lantern and Sculpture Festival, Harbin

In January, after the end of my second semester at Dalian University of Technology (大连理工大学), I took a trip to Harbin (哈尔滨) in Heilongjiang (黑龙江) province. The city is mostly famous for its ice sculptures and the Ice Lantern Festival, which we felt would be worth checking out whilst living in the North East of China. Whilst in Dalian I had already met many people who had been (any many who were planning to go), most of whom warned me about the cold. In winter, the temperature can drop to below -30oC, so I was undoubtedly a little concerned about whether my body would be able to function in such cold temperatures.

I was told I needed to buy a feather padded jacket or yurongfu (羽绒服) before going, which is basically a big fat puffer jacket, making anyone who chooses to wear one resemble the Michelin man. Although terrified of the cold, I nonetheless felt a little uneasy about parting with an extra £50 (~500RMB) for the sake of a few days holiday, so decided against buying one and instead opted for a multipurpose top that I might actually be able to use more than once (thanks Decatlon). The plan was to use it as an extra layer inside my already fairly substantial coat which I had picked up to face the Dalian winters, which can drop to -10oC and are worsened by the strong northern winds. My outfit consisted of: one beanie style hat, a Russian Ushanka style hat, a neck warmer, two T-shirts, a shirt, my new coat, my old coat (with hood), a thick pair of long johns, jeans, 2 pairs of thick socks, 3 pairs of gloves and a ten year old pair of hiking boots. It turned out that the weak points in my outfit were (as one might have guessed), the shoes and gloves. If you are thinking about going, I would recommend you to take a pair of shoes with a decent sole (like moon boots for example) and perhaps some sort of hand warmer to put inside your gloves.

Our first foray into the cold outside Harbin Airport

We stayed in the Ibis Hotel, figuring that it would be worth going to a trusted chain rather than experimenting with some of the cheaper places on offer, particularly as we would be using it as our refuge from the cold. The place was fine in general, although the service (particularly the breakfast) was certainly below that which you would expect in the larger cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai or Xi’an. I had brought a few miniature bottles of vodka with me (from IKEA), as I had heard that its freezing temperature was somewhere around 30oC. After a several nights outside the window there was not a bit of ice on them – we figured the night temperature must be around the -20oC mark, just missing the freezing point. Whilst not being able to brag that we’d been to a place so cold that the vodka freezes, we did have great fun pouring boiling water onto the window sill, which froze solid in under 10 seconds.

Harbin is supposed to have a rich Russian heritage, as Heilongjiang province borders on Russia. Many Russian Jews and White Russians fled to Harbin during the Russian Revolution and as a result there are many distinctive Russian synagogues and churches there from that period in history. To be honest, the buildings along the main cobbled street of Zhongyang Dajie in the Daoliqu District as well as the Church of St Sophia were the only nice pieces of architecture we found there. The main cobbled street was filled with tourist shops all selling almost identical Russian souvenirs (most of which we went into in order to escape the cold). However, there were a couple of nice little coffee shops/restaurants serving Russian fare in that area and it gave us our first glimpse of some ice sculptures.  This main street leads down to the waterfront and the promenade which takes you towards Stalin Park.

Church of St Sophia

The Songhua River that runs through Harbin is completely frozen over during winter. The ice is thick enough for a car to drive across, as well as for the horses and carts hanging around, hoping to take tourists on a ride across the river. I’ve heard that winter sports such as ice skating are popular here and that you can hire some equipment. We rented some rather old and rusty looking sleds to slide around the ice on – great fun!

Cars crossing the Songua River

In addition to the Russian architecture, there was also a Chinese temple which we decided to visit. Although I have already seen a great many temples in China, this was actually one of the better ones. The snow-covered rooves on the buildings make them a touch more picturesque than you might find elsewhere in China. I also managed to get a couple of pictures demosntrating the old-new contrast that can be seen in cities throughout China: one with a big tourist wheel and another with the usual uninspired residential blocks. As picturesque as the temple rooves were, to be honest they only do so much for me and my patience was tested somewhat having to wait around in the blistering cold for my friends to finish looking.

Having unsuccesfully tried to find some decent Western style cafes to shelter from the cold we felt we might have better luck giving up on this idea (as tempting as a good cup of coffee and chocolate cake is when it’s -15oC outside) so we opted to try some local cuisine. We tried out some typical DongBei (North Eastern) food and headed to a dumpling (jiaozi) restaurant. There was a huge variety on the menu – including fried dumplings, which are harder to come by. Apart from the large choice of jiaozi available, the rest looked rather unfamiliar and so we opted for some cold aubergine (qiezi) which came with some sauces to dip it in. Edible, but hardly inspired. There were undoubtedly a number of culinary delights hiding away in the menu somewhere but as usual we were hindered by both our experience and Chinese.

The main pull of Harbin was the Ice Lantern Festival. We found getting to the venue not as straightforward as it should have been. Unfortunately we were unable to find explicit instructions in the guide books (I think most people just get a taxi) and we were under the impression that the sculptures lay just across the frozen river. So we decided to trek across to the other bank, turning down offers for a ride on a horse and carriage and for an incredibly persistent old lady (she followed us for 20 minutes!) to guide us to the far side. Upon arrival we were disappointed to find no trace of the Ice Lantern Festival (although afterwards we learnt that the park we had arrived at did have many good Ice sculptures). We had no option but to board a minibus to take us to the Festival.

[Some of us (me) were more stubborn than others and felt that we could walk there instead. Luckily, others (everyone else) were aware that night was fast approaching and that we would all die from pneumonia before long so sensibly took the decision to board the minibus. Incidentally, the driver was quite reasonable with the price as we would have paid anything to get out of the cold.]

As the cold was indeed unbearable, we took refuge in a small cafeteria located in the arena (which incidentally felt a little like a fish tank, with all-glass walls) and reluctantly coughed up some money for some overpriced coffee, just so we were allowed to stay and defrost.

The best building by far was the central castle (within which was a bank I believe), which not only was enormous but also had colourchanging lights inside the blocks of ice. Take a look at the gallery for some of the different sculptures on show.

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Summary

Where I stayed: Ibis Hotel

What I saw: Russian architecture, Ice lantern festival, Tiger park

What I wish I’d seen: The Japanese centre for disease research

Beware of: Taxi drivers not wishing to stop for you

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