Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Vacation in Harbin..Brrr

Hi everyone!   Click here to see more Harbin pictures!

Zoie and I just got back from our amazing trip to Harbin! We spent Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday day in Harbin, China which is a city way north of Beijing. It is very close to Russia (Siberia), which as you will see from the pictures, has a big influence on the architecture and most importantly, the weather. If you have heard of Harbin, you probably know it for one thing: the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. The Harbin festival is one of the world's four largest ice and snow festivals, and it truly is a spectacular sight. As you will see in our pictures, the Ice and Snow Sculpture festival can be seen at Zhaolin Park (Disney themed), Sun Island (sculptures made out of snow), and the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival which features an entire city made out of ice. Keep in mind that the weather in Harbin was below zero without the windchill, so it was EXTREMELY cold (the entire time). Zoie and I, probably most prepared because of our recent experience in cold climates, have never experienced this type of cold.

We arrived in Harbin around 8pm with 7 of our friends from the program. The drive from the airport to the city center was about an hour, and all nine of us packed into a small van. Although the driver was maxing out at speeds around 15mph and could only see out of a 8inx8in defrosted area on his windshield, we finally arrived at our hotel. After a little difficulty with our reservations and the hotel staff, we finally were able to check into our rooms. We bundled up and wandered the main street in search of a restaurant for dinner. Since it was after 10pm, most of the restaurants were closed, but we found a Korean restaurant that was still open. We enjoyed our meal and headed back to the hotel so that we could wake up early and begin our day.

The next morning we started our day at a Russian restaurant for breakfast, called Russia Cafe. It was a restaurant that was recommended in Lonely Planet, but we are pretty sure that the only reason it was recommended was because the author was too cold to walk any farther and stumbled upon this place. We had some pretty tasty bread with butter (and jam).

After breakfast, we decided to take a bus to our first park, Sun Island. After waiting on a freezing cold bus for 30 minutes, the driver finally started the bus. We arrived 15 minutes later, and although we waited quite some time, it was definitely worth it. As you will see from the pictures, this entire park is made up of snow sculptures of all different sizes and types. The park included a dedication to the 2008 Olympics, a sculpture depicting the history of Chinese calligraphy, a sculpture of Mao's face, and sculptures of various Chinese stories. To our surprise, the park even had Disney-like characters walking around taking photos with the tourists. It was incredibly neat to see sculptures of such great magnitude. Zoie and I both have seen snow sculptures before, but to see so many of them and the shear size of them blew us away. You can even see in some of the pictures that people are still carving the statues (the Buddha for example).

After the park at Sun Island, we returned to our hotel to warm up a little bit and then headed to a famous Russian restaurant for dinner. Supposedly it has been open for the past 100 years. The food was pretty good. Zoie and I ordered a ceramic pot of a beef stew-like thing, some lamb shishkabob, and a plate of fries (can't go wrong with french fries).

After dinner, we bundled back up and got onto a hotel shuttle bus which would take us to the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival. This was what we were all most excited to see. I won't say too much about it because I think that the pictures speak for themselves. The entire city was made out of ice and included a replica of part of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Coliseum in Rome, giant pagodas, an ice slide down the Great Wall, a giant beer bottle, a missionary-like church, and MUCH more. Even though temperatures were way below zero, it was an incredible sight. In addition to some of the slides, there were mini ice-skating rinks where you could ride ice-bikes (sounds cool, but didn't look too fun). The big slide down the great wall had a HUGE line, so we decided NOT to stand in line and freeze to death. Zoie and I walked around the park with our friends Greg and Maury for about two full hours. We never went inside (while the other group took a beer break).

To explain how cold it is, consider how many layers we wore: I wore 3 shirts, a sweatshirt and a jacket on top, 2 pairs of long underwear and jeans on bottom, 3 pairs of socks, boots, glove liners, gloves, and hat and face mask. Zoie wore 3 shirts, 2 fleeces, a coat, 2 scarves, 3 pairs of leggings, khakis, 3 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of gloves, earmuffs, a hat, and boots! The only thing that wasn't covered, our eyelashes, froze!

We left the park around 9pm and headed back to the hotel to thaw for a little bit! We spent the rest of the evening at a local bar. We played numerous games of pool (I was challenged by a local woman, and yes she beat me, BUT she beat me by an inch....that was all). Besides playing pool and listening to music, the best part of the bar was a giant rubber-like human shaped punching bag. I can't explain why it was so much fun, but everyone who was there understands. Who doesn't want to take their aggression out on a rubber dummy at a bar.... definitely would decrease bar fights in the US.

The next morning the 9 of us decided to split up and do our own things. Zoie, Maury, Greg, and I decided to tour the city a little more, while the other 5 decided to go to a Siberian tiger farm. I know, it sounds awesome, and is pretty cool, but looking deeper into it, we decided not to go. The "farm" is actually a place where tigers
are raised in order to be killed eventually for Chinese medicine and other various uses. You can actually buy beef, full live chickens, pigeons, and even live goats and cows to feed to the tigers. Although it would have been neat to see over 100 tigers, we went with the moral side instead.... So, instead of going there, we first went to Saint Sophia's Church. It was a gorgeous church that clearly resembles Russian architecture. The inside of the church was a museum dedicated to the history of Harbin.

After the church, we headed toward the New Synagogue of Harbin. There, we were able to learn about the history of the Jews in Harbin. Because of it's close proximity to Russia, Harbin was influenced greatly by the Jews. At one point in time, over 20,000 Jews were residents of Harbin. One of those residents was actually Ehud Olmert's (former Israeli Prime Minister) father. After visiting this synagogue we headed toward the Old Jewish Synagogue. Although the inside of the Old Synagogue has been transformed into cafes, the facade of the synagogue was very interesting to see.

The New Synagogue                                    The Old Synagogue

After visiting the Church and the Synagogues, we found a nearby Hot-Pot restaurant that was actually recommended on WikiTravel. It was EXTREMELY tasty, and especially good because of how cold it was
outside. After lunch we found a small cafe to hang out in before Zhaolin Park opened. We tried to order Jasmine tea, but the lady misunderstood us and brought us "Dream Lovers Tea." It was extremely sweet, and not the best tea we have ever had (it looked like red Cool-Aid!).

We arrived at Zhaolin Park just as it had opened at 3:30pm. Because the sun sets around 4pm everyday, we were able to see the ice sculptures before and after the lights were turned on. The park was full of Disney themed sculptures. Snow sculptures of Disney characters lined the pathways, and their were various castles devoted to other Disney characters. Because very few people were there, we were able to ride the slides and take pictures of all the Disney sculptures. It was a very fun way to end out trip to Harbin!

After Zhaolin park, we headed to the airport. After about an hour delay, a 4.5 hour flight, and an hour cab ride, we were finally back home. I wish I could say we were finally warm, but our concrete apartment right now is colder than it is outside. Zoie and I have to finish this week of exams, and then we are on vacation until February 21st!

We are extremely excited for our break to be here, and I can't wait for my parents to be here in less than 2 weeks!! For now, thats all. Sorry again for the extremely long post, but hopefully you can get the feel for Harbin and everything we saw. It is definitely one of those places where pictures really do NOT do it justice. I hope everyone is doing well and I miss you all very much. Talk to you soon!

Love, Daniel              Click here to see more Harbin pictures!

Daniel's 23rd Birthday!

After classes on Wednesday, Daniel and I headed downtown for Chinese class. Since it was our last class of the semester, our teacher brought our class some "xiao chi" or snacks to try. She brought beef jerky, a pomelo (which looks like a huge grapefruit but tastes a lot sweeter and not tart at all), and little round dough cakes filled with green beans. One of our classmates also brought some small egg custard tarts with flaky dough things. We spent the class eating and going over our final, which we took the week before.

We left class a little early to head to HuaQiangBei, which is an area in Futian that is filled with every kind of electronic equipment you could ever want. I needed a new computer cord, and luckily Daniel spotted an HP store right away, which made finding the right cord a whole lot easier!

We made our way to Luohu, where we went to one of the nicest shopping malls in all of Shenzhen called the Mix-C. Inside of the Mix-C is a really nice grocery store called Ole, which is where we get all of our imported groceries. We bought everything we would need for a Mexican fiesta, which we were going to have the next day in honor of Daniel's birthday!

After we were done checking out at the Mix-C, we could finally head next door to the Grand Hyatt, where we were planning to have a nice dinner to celebrate Daniel's birthday! We had planned to go to the Italian restaurant inside of the Grand Hyatt, but much to our surprise, it hadn't opened yet! Instead, we went to a different restaurant inside of the hotel called "The Show Kitchen". It turned out to be another all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, with DELICIOUS food! We ate so many different types of food... sushi, tempura, yakitori, bread, cheese, pizza, steak, lamb, french fries, onion rings, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fruit, ice cream, cake, and more... but our favorite thing was definitely the made-to-order mini hamburgers!! They were soooo good!! On top of the tasty food, the service was excellent! Every waiter and waitress was so friendly and helpful. Also, the restaurant is set-up so that there are four areas where each type of food is cooked right where you can watch the chefs (hence the name)!  It ended up being a great meal, and I think Daniel really enjoyed his birthday dinner!

The next day, we had Daniel's second birthday dinner! Mexican food is hard to come by here in Shenzhen, but we can make some really good fajitas, guacamole, and salsa on our own!  Daniel has a pretty long day on Thursday, but luckily, I don't have any Thursday afternoon classes, so I could start our fiesta while he was gone. As a special birthday surprise, and since Daniel didn't have a birthday cake, I made some homemade chocolate chunk cookie dough instead!

I actually ended up having to go back to school because Daniel and I had to help judge a Junior 1 (my students) storytelling contest. Some of the stories were fables with morals, and we even knew a few of the stories, like "The Princess and the Pea" and "The Giving Tree". The 16 contestants had to memorize their whole story and perform them in front of all 320ish of their peers! They all did a really good job... I was very impressed!

After the show was over, we finally got to enjoy Daniel's birthday fiesta and chocolate chunk cookies! We spent the rest of the evening packing and getting ready to leave for Harbin the next day!

Happy New Year!!

Daniel and I headed back to the Sheraton for NYE, to a restaurant called "Feast". It is an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, and has western food, Chinese food, Japanese food (sushi!), desserts, etc... they held a special dinner buffet for NYE, complete with two Filipino singers who sang a lot of American songs (we also heard them the night of my birthday), a violinist, another singer wearing a huge ballgown, and a band of women who each played a different instrument (they played some of the 12 Girls Band's songs). We thought that there might not be that many other people there, but to our surprise, there were tons of other people (mostly families)! After stuffing ourselves to the brim, we headed home to watch a movie and watch a live countdown to the new year in Hong Kong on tv.

Even though it's a little late... Happy New Year!! We can't believe how quickly the first half our year here in China has flown by!

The "2" looks just like an upside down "5", don't you think?

My 22nd Birthday!

Since my 22nd birthday fell on a Tuesday, I wasn't really looking forward to it as much as I usually would because Tuesdays are my longest and earliest days of work. This is the first year I've ever had to do something on my birthday... Usually my birthday falls during winter vacation, but not here! Nevertheless, my birthday ended up being really great! First of all, 2 of my 5 classes got canceled, so that already made my day better!  Then, around noon, I got a phone call and a knock at the door... My sister had sent me a birthday cake!

To make my day even better, Daniel took me out to dinner! We went to Capri, which is the Italian restaurant located in the Sheraton. We had a delicious dinner, including rack of lamb and risotto!! To finish the night, Daniel had pre-ordered a surprise birthday cake! It even had my name written on it on a little chocolate plaque!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Christmas 2009

For Christmas this year, Daniel and I were two of the hosts for our school's Christmas show! A couple weeks before the show, I went with a few other teachers to pick out our outfits for the show. I tried on a few dresses before I found the one that I eventually wore. The dresses that we tried on were all floor length gowns and ran the gamut of the rainbow! I think I only saw two black dresses in the whole store! A lot of them were covered in sequins or had large flowers on them, and a lot of them were princess/ballgown style dresses. Needless to say, it was a little overwhelming trying to fit into these (mostly very small) elaborate gowns! Luckily I was able to find a dress that fit me and looked okay. Daniel didn't go to pick out his outfit, but the other male teachers rented him a white suit with some embroidery and a mandarin collar! Check the pictures out on the right of the page!

Even though our school performed the show twice, once on the 24th and once on the 25th, we only took part in the show on the 25th. Instead of the show, on the 24th, we went to a Christmas party that the education bureau threw for all of us CTLCers at the same hotel that we all stayed at when we first arrived in Shenzhen. We had a banquet (yes, we had Chinese food on Christmas eve!), hung out, and all stayed in the hotel that night before returning back to our respective schools on Friday.

It was fun to be a part of our school's Christmas show! We only had to say about two lines each, just to help open the show and close it (a few of our lines got cut because we missed the performance on the 24th). It worked out well because we got to see the other performances, which included singing and dancing. There was even a hip hop performance (obviously the students' favorite)! The performers included other teachers and students. I was really impressed by the four student hosts... they had to memorize a lot of lines, not only for their hosting job but for other performances as well!!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Speech Competition!

I'm not sure the exact day, but Zoie and I were asked to help judge a speech contest one afternoon. There would be 16 students participating, and they were all from Junior 2 (my students). It had already been quite a long day, so the task of listening to 16 speeches and then judging them seemed quite tiring and daunting.... one speech into the competition, Zoie and I knew we were in for an exciting afternoon.

First of all, Zoie and I were seated in the center of the front row, directly in front of the stage. We were given 16 pieces of paper, and asked to record each students score after he/she was finished with his/her speech. The first student entered the stage and very boldly stated, "My title of my speech is 'My Love to My School.'" Both Zoie and I were immediately intrigued by the topic of choice. She ended her speech (it was pretty good, memorized, and well rehearsed), and a second student took the stage. Quite similarly to the first student,
he very boldly stated, "My title of my speech is 'My Love to My School.'" At this point, you know where I am going. The next 14 students all opened with a similar opening statement and the exact same speech topic. Although the topic got a little old after student five, six, seven...sixteen, the speech competition certainly did not lack amazing "statements." Every student discussed how much he/she loved the school, the teachers, the atmosphere, the school grounds, etc. They were very enthusiastic about their school life, and their love for everything. Here are a list of some of the days' best quotes (in no order).

- "I LOVE MY SCHOOL! I love my teachers. In fact, you may not know this, but I love my teachers more than I love my parents!"
- "I LOVE MY SCHOOL! I love my classrooms. I love the clean doors and the clean windows in my classroom!"
- "As I was growing up, I used to love going to the beach to find seashells. I would collect so many of them. As I started going to school, I realized that I was starting to collect the shells for my life. Going to school, I would be able to collect my life shell. I LOVE MY SCHOOL!"
- "I LOVE MY SCHOOL!" I love the grass, the trees, and the playground. I love the sidewalks."

These are definitely the best quotes of the afternoon, but joking aside, the students really did do a great job in giving their speeches. What a coincidence that they all happened to choose the same topic. Very odd.... In addition to yelling "I LOVE MY SCHOOL" and "I LOVE MY TEACHERS," the students each memorized their speeches, and had the nerves to recite them in front of all of the students (315 of them). I was very proud of them, and I now encourage other students in my classes to participate in the next competition.
This experience only reminded me to keep an open mind when asked to do certain tasks. Although at first they may seem a bit useless and boring, in the end, I really enjoyed my afternoon behind the judges
table. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't excited for next semester's topic!

Hanukkah in Hong Kong!!

As a last minute Hanukkah treat, my parents came to visit us! Daniel and I headed into Hong Kong on Friday to meet up with them and spend the weekend eating and hanging out. Daniel's parents had mailed us a menorah so we were able to light the Hanukkah candles, even though we were in China. The highlight of the weekend was the journey to Sai Kung located in the New Territories. We went to a restaurant that Anthony Bourdain visited called "Chuen Kee". Their specialty is extremely fresh seafood... so fresh that it is still alive when you pick it out! We tried big prawns, scallops, razor clams, and some really delicious dim sum.

We also had a few really tasty meals all located at "Knutsford Terrace", which is a little street that is packed with restaurants of every variety... we tried Italian, Indian/Thai, and a fusion place. It was great to be able to celebrate the holiday with my parents!

We continued to celebrate Hanukkah on our own in Shenzhen. We lit the candles and even made some very yummy latkes! 

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Thanksgiving in Shenzhen!

Hi everyone... It's been over a month since our last entry, so we have a lot to catch up on!

Thanksgiving in Shenzhen ended up being really good, despite being away from home. Luckily, I don't have classes in the afternoon on Thursdays, so I had a lot of time to start cooking dinner. Our menu included stuffing made in a rice cooker, garlic mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, steamed veggies, bruschetta, chicken and apple crisp! We still managed to stuff ourselves, just as if we were at home! Unfortunately, Courtney and Chris didn't end up visiting, but they are going to try to come during the spring... so Disney will have to wait until then!

Click to see more pictures!