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!

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