China Trip 3: Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival and Beijing (reposted with pics)

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#1 China Trip 3: Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival and Beijing (reposted with pics)

Postby fountainhall » Sun Jul 02, 2017 8:13 pm

Japan has probably more town and city Festivals (matsuri) than any country I know. Most are unique, but one has an even more impressive competitor in China. The famous Sapporo Snow Festival started in 1950 and now runs for about two weeks at the beginning of February. It is no longer the biggest, though. That accolade belongs to Harbin whose international Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival is now far larger and includes some of the biggest ice sculptures you will see anywhere in the world.

It is also much younger, starting on a small scale as a lantern Festival in 1985. It has existed in its present huge format only since 2001. The many sculptures within the Ice Park are all specially designed and hand carved from solid blocks of ice. Each block has a hole drilled through it so that the entire sculpture can be lit from within at night. The huge Snow Park is some distance away with a variety of sculptures ranging from small human-size carvings to panoramic scenes which almost fill the horizon. Both take your breath away!

Harbin has a fascinating history. Tens of thousands of Russians were based in this area at the end of the 19th century building the China Eastern Railway whose single-track line eventually linked up with the trans-Siberian Railway. When the Russian Revolution started, as many as 200,000 White Russians fled the Soviet Union and settled in Harbin. Even though many eventually continued their journeys to other Chinese cities and even Hong Kong, it is not surprising that in this city of almost six million there remains a strong Russian influence. The Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia sits in a square in the city centre, Russian restaurants abound and even many street names are in three languages – Chinese, Russian and English. And when I attended the Festival, the main theme in both parks was Russia.

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I had to be in Beijing for meetings with business colleagues eight days before Chinese New Year. I therefore decided to fly there early and then take the 2-hour flight up to Harbin on the Wednesday before my meetings to spend 3 days at the Festival. Getting accommodation at even ten weeks notice seemed like it might be impossible. Although there are masses of good hotels, tour agents book vast numbers of rooms during the six weeks of the Festival. This is especially true at weekends, but I got lucky. The ideally located Holiday Inn had a room available for the first two nights and told me there was a good chance they could eventually accommodate me also on the Friday. They did!

The mid-afternoon temperature as I got off the Air China 767 in Harbin was –17 degrees Celsius. Thankfully I was well prepared. With temperatures falling to –25, you need very warm clothing at any time, but especially when you visit the Ice Park at night. I had brought thermal mountaineering underwear, several sweaters, a thick knee-length fur coat and warm boots. This may make stopovers a problem for those heading to the tropics, but less for those making a special trip.

Location-wise, the Holiday Inn is ideal. It is situated at the end of a walking street which leads you past an assortment of ice sculptures down to the frozen river which is transformed into a winter playground. This, along with a side trip to see the Cathedral, nicely fills a morning. Since I was not on a package tour, I had to find my own way to the Ice Park. Getting there is easy. Plenty of taxis. Getting back is not! So you have little option but to hire a taxi for the round trip with the driver prepared to wait for an hour. This cost was a not unreasonable US$40.

The two parks are on the opposite side of the Qiangtang River where there are few hotels – the Ice Park to the west and the Snow Park to the east. Describing the Ice Park is far from easy, for it is truly awesome. A vast area with so many huge sculptures, many with walkways up to different levels. The centrepiece was a Russian Cathedral.

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Being a weekday afternoon, there were not many visitors. Lots of schoolkids, though, who could rent cartoon costumes and have their photos taken.

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That night I returned for a second visit. Total transformation with the lights and many thousands more visitors. It all seemed more dramatic than during the daytime, but it was so bloody cold! When I took off my gloves to adjust the tripod I felt that my fingers would freeze to the tripod legs. I suppose inevitably there is a slight hyghsense of kitsch with all the colourful lights, but I still found it totally fascinating.

Thai Temple Sculpture
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Part of the Cathedral
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A Forbidden City Pavilion
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The following morning I did some more local sightseeing before venturing across the river to the Snow Park. As you walk in, you are met by a phalanx of small snowmen with messages around their necks. What they meant, I never found out.

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You then walk quite a bit with long snow sculptures lining the path. Turning left you come to one of several areas where individuals had created their own smallish sculptures.

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Soon, though, opening up before you is an enormous area with an amazing panoramic sculpture covering the horizon. I wondered how many people had worked to create that. Again this had a Russian theme with a ballerina in the centre.

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Further on there was a life-sized street with all manner of structures. Like this young man, I took so many photos.

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With the sun beginning to set, I got my taxi back to the hotel. As I was to be leaving the next morning, I was sorry I had not left time for two things. One was to take the taxi earlier beyond the Snow Park to see the rare Siberian White Tiger Reserve. The other was that the two young guys I had been chatting with for several weeks and who both wanted to meet up were students. Universities close during the long New Year holiday and I was arriving just after they left for their hometowns. They kept asking when I would return, but I knew I was unlikely to venture so far north again. You win some; lose some!

But I did fleetingly meet three other guys. Arriving for breakfast on the Saturday morning, it was clear several tour groups had arrived late in the evening and there was not a seat to be had – except one. This was on a table with three young guys. In my halting Mandarin I asked if I could sit with them. In perfect American English, one replied “Of course you may. Please sit with us!” Turned out they were the tour guides. One was especially cute. He works for a company named China Culture Center Tours which mainly organises many tours within China for expats living there. But he told me they will happily organise tours with guides for anyone who can get to one of the main or secondary cities. He added they can also arrange Tibet tours since it is impossible to get permits for Tibet from outside China. The ideal start points for a Tibet tour are Chengdu (see my next Trip Report) or Kunming, but they can also be arranged at a bit more expense from Shanghai and Beijing.

http://www.chinaculturecenter.org

Once back in Beijing, I called my friends and we enjoyed a splendid dinner before heading off to Destination, for long the city’s most popular gay bar and disco. Not far from the Workers’ Stadium, this will normally be packed to overflowing with handsome, trim and usually tall Chinese guys on a Saturday evening. Even though many will be with partners and friends, there will always be some on their own of whom a few will happily chat with you – and more. This Saturday, though, numbers were way down, but still lots of eye candy.

Over the years I have seen most of the major tourist sites in Beijing. But the chance to make a third visit to the extraordinary Forbidden City at a time when there would be few Chinese tourists – usually it is packed! – was too good to miss. So on the following day, I walked the thirty minutes or so from my hotel on Wangfujing to the entrance in Tiananmen Square. Rather than the direct route (south and then right), I meandered first to the right to walk down past some of the few hutongs left in the city. These small alleys and courtyards branching off larger streets used to be common near the Forbidden City. Large families would often occupy a series of small houses behind a gateway. Sadly this part of Beijing’s history is fast disappearing. Many have been knocked down to make way for commercial developments. Others have been sold to rich Hong Kong and Chinese businessmen who gut and redecorate them as private residences.

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At zero degrees, ambling through the old home of the Imperial household without crowds was fun. I could see much more detail than before. Whenever you see any old Chinese Imperial and other official buildings, always look up. A series of roof figures will be located on the ridge line, usually with a man riding a cockerel or a phoenix at the front and an imperial dragon at the tail.

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The Palace entrance is not actually on Tiananmen Square. It is a good 100 meters further in and can be accessed either from the Square or from streets on either side.

Part of the Exterior Wall and Moat
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The Main Entrance
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The first part of the City is made up of formal Palaces and courtyards. Nearer the back and to the sides are the smaller structures where the Emperors, their concubines, eunochs and retinues lived. The best way to gain a true perspective of the immensity of the site is to take a walk up the hill across the road after you exit at the north end. From the pavilion here you get an amazing view.

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Note the 9x9 rows of bolts of these doors. The numeral 9 was especially associated with Chinese Emperors and referred to Nine Dragons. Only the Emperor could wear robes decorated with nine dragons.

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Also near the North End are several interesting sites ¬– a few more interesting hutongs, the Temple of Confucius, the impressive Lama Temple and the Mansion of Prince Gong. South and East of the main east/west artery Chang’an Avenue is the imposing Temple of Heaven where Emperors would come to pray to the Gods. Out in the northwest you should spend at least half a day in the Summer Palace. Once one of the finest and most fascinating royal parks in the world, some 1.5 million artefacts were looted and the Palace all but destroyed by British and French troops in 1860 as imperial China was slowly disintegrating. This destruction remains a huge humiliation for a proud country. The French almost immediately regretted their actions. "We call ourselves civilised and them barbarians," wrote Victor Hugo. "Here is what Civilisation has done to Barbarity."

On the other hand, the British have never apologised and many of the treasures are now found in Museums and private collections around the world. Nevertheless, some structures within the Park have been restored and it is well worth a morning or afternoon visit. You can get there by the Beijing subway which is cheap and extensive, but don’t even try to get on at rush hour. The cars are packed sardine-like with commuters.

As in Shanghai, Beijing boasts some stunning contemporary architecture. We have all seen photos of the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium where the athletic events were held in the 2008 Olympics. This egg-shaped building right behind the Great Hall of the People off Tiananmen Square houses the relatively new Opera House and Concert Hall.

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And this structure is the home of China Central Television.

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Meeting with guys from the apps is now much easier now than meeting up in bars. I met three on that trip, two lovely encounters and one less so, the latter only because when the guy took off his sneakers, the smell was almost overpowering. I quickly covered them with the bedcover, but it seemed nothing would kill that odour. Hard to concentrate on other things when one’s olfactory nerves are so assaulted, alas!

There are no budget carriers yet flying between Bangkok and Beijing. Most of the outward non-stops (except THAI) fly overnight with flight times of less than 5 hours. I’m perfectly happy on long overnight flights but that length means I get no sleep. The cheapest daytime one-stop options I can find (depending on time of year) are Air Macau at Bt. 7,560 and Hong Kong Airlines at Bt. 9,200. The cheapest fare on THAI is Bt. 13,380.

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#2 Re: China Trip 3: Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival and Beijing (reposted with pics)

Postby Gaybutton » Sun Jul 02, 2017 8:55 pm

Your photos are incredible. If you're not a professional photographer, you easily could be. In fact, many professional photographers could learn much from your photography skills. I'm truly honored that you chose my board as the place to post your photos and travel reports, especially now after the Photobucket fiasco.

fountainhall
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#3 Re: China Trip 3: Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival and Beijing (reposted with pics)

Postby fountainhall » Mon Jul 03, 2017 12:27 pm

Many thanks. You are kind. I am pleased there is a site where I can show some of my photos and hope they and the accompanying articles will encourage some readers to consider trips to relatively unknown places.

I assure you I am no professional photographer. Indeed, I only take my camera with me on my trips. My first digital cameras were the point and press variety. Prior to my trip to Nepal in 2007, I invested in a mid-range Sony camera which has stood me well despite its being really difficult to get batteries now. It's easy to operate and has only one fixed long zoom lens. I rarely touch the various knobs and whistles, unless I am looking at waterfalls when I know the shutter speed has to be increased to around 3,000 or more to avoid it coming out as just a blur.

The only difficulty I have encountered was when I went beyond the Arctic Circle in the Far North of Finland 30 months ago in the hope of capturing the Aurora Borealis. I read up in advance lots of web information and got very confused about having to change the white balance, increase the ASA astronomically, take long time exposures and so on. The full glory of the Lights only appeared on my very last night, but what I was seeing on the LCD screen seemed vastly too bright. So for the next 2 hours I just busked it, cut down the ASA, reduced the time exposures - and eventually ended up with what I hoped then would be at least a few decent pics. Wen I got home and checked on the computer, what a relief! Many had come out far better than I expected!

I'll try over the next few days to recreate a few more posts, starting with the Taipei Gay Pride Parade. This seems timely as the Parade this year is on Saturday 28 October. With one Taiwan budget carrier having dropped Thailand from its routes, there may be some pressure on the cheaper air tickets. So reserving soon may be a good idea.

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#4 Re: China Trip 3: Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival and Beijing (reposted with pics)

Postby Gaybutton » Mon Jul 03, 2017 1:24 pm

fountainhall wrote:Many had come out far better than I expected!

In that case, how about posting a couple of them?

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#5 Re: China Trip 3: Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival and Beijing (reposted with pics)

Postby fountainhall » Mon Jul 03, 2017 2:41 pm

Posted as requested under Everything Else. I have loads more pics from that whole trip should you wish to see any.


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