I first went to China in 2000 in order to see the Yangtze River before the dam was completed. China was still emerging, and the tour included all the major cities and sights. Everything about the tour was highly organized and tightly controlled . I came home with a keen sense of the vastness and beauty of China but little insight into the every day people. The trip was a study of the romantic China and looking back it seems like a Disneyland experience. It was one of my last trips to take film pictures and I filled a shoe box with some really great photos.
I was content to have seen the China I saw and had little interest in returning as there are so many other places in the world I still need to see. That changed when my only granddaughter, Sydney went to China to teach English. I thought it would be fun to visit her but did no real planning until she mentioned that she lived close to Harbin where the Ice Festival is held. I have seen pictures of the Festival but due to its remoteness I figured it was just a place to enjoy in photos. Now it seemed like a possibility.
Sydney has winter break at the time of the Festival so my planning began sometime in August. First I checked the weather - minus 30 degrees in January. Oh my, now I have to figure out how to stay warm. I have plenty of long johns and wool sweaters and socks but need to secure better outer wear. Some internet research had me ordering ski pants, Sorrel boots and a really heavy down parka from ebay. I now felt I could move on to the next step and book airlines and two days of hotel before meeting up with Sydney. That done I was now ready to learn a few key phrases so I could at least take a taxi to my hotel. I found audio clips on the internet and managed to learn only three words, hello, thank you and please.
I got my first glimpse of China before I left the airport in Los Angeles. I flew Air China so many of the passengers were Chinese. Signage indicated that only one carry on allowed with no mention of a personal bag. The weight limit posted was also ridiculously low for a carry on. Soon I noticed an official looking man randomly taking peoples bags as he said Thank You. Wow, I understood Chinese. Because I had a carry on and a personal bag half the size of my carry on I just knew he was going to find me eventually. Close to boarding people started getting up making what looked like a line to board. It was more like a loose mob. No matter how many times the desk attendants said, "Sit down", no one moved. I was never really sure when first class and others finished boarding and economy started. It was just one big flow of people moving forward. This was my introduction to how Chinese quietly defy authority in a small way and yet maintain an orderly flow of movement. China, here I come.
My plan was to take a taxi to my hotel and rest for a few days. Sydney had other plans for me. She would take the train to Changchun to meet me at the airport and get me to my hotel. I tried to tell her I could manage for a few days but she insisted. Well, I was glad she insisted because trip to hotel involved train and then a taxi in a very confusing atmosphere. Without Sydney's help I would probably still be trying to find my way around the train station.
|Me at South Lake Hotel|
Five star South Lake Hotel was way south of town and in a beautiful wooded location. The rest of Changchun is considered the Detroit of China. Check in required I put up a 1000 yuan deposit. This is how it is done. Lunch and breakfast hours are limited so Sydney and I scrambled to get some lunch. My breakfast the next morning was another experience. Without asking I was brought an assortment of small dishes, about twelve in all. There was fish, sausage, egg, vegetables, pickled cabbage noodles, all cold. A waiter asked if I wanted noodles so I said yes just in case the small dished turned out to be not to my liking. The second morning I only got the twelve dishes. No one asked if I wanted noodles.
|Rodin's Balzac in Sculpture Park|
|View of Changchun from Sculpture Park|
Our first outing was to the world's largest Sculpture Park in the middle of town. I am sure it is better looking in the spring and summer than covered in snow. It was impressive anyway. Next we went to Puiy's Palace and a very large museum dedicated to the Japanese invasion in 1931. The museum was beautiful and the many attendants held signs saying "Quiet". The Chinese suffered greatly during this time period. It can be compared to the Holocaust in Germany.
|Me standing by Puiy's car|
|View from train heading to Harbin|
We rest at Sydney's apartment in Siping before proceeding to Harbin. By now I understand Sydney's craving for western food. In general the food is too salty and too much oil. No matter how varied the dishes look there is a sameness in flavor that one tires of. I did like some of the dishes but Chinese food is not one of my favorite cuisines.
|Scratch my belly|
Nicki, one of Sydney's students joined us in Harbin. Another colleague, Steven meet us at our hotel and made all our arrangements during our stay in Harbin. I am now into the idea of having a taxi or driver whenever we go anywhere. Harbin is the northern most city in China and I am now feeling like I am seeing the "real" China. We do repeated ten minute walks to go places that are closer than a taxi ride. We are schlepping to small hole in the wall eateries. I overlook the dinginess and trust that I will not pick up something and become sick. Sydney's friends know enough Mandarin to order knowledgeable from a menu and can answer questions about the dishes. One evening we trudged over to Steven's apartment and climbed six flights of stairs to enjoy a dinner prepared by Steven. We have a cab and driver to take us to all the sights and wait for us so we don't have to find a cab back to the hotel. One of our drivers, Joe wears aviator sun glasses and a light jacket in spite of below zero temperatures. Joe's English is really good. He learned by watching TV. Joe's father has one of the cleanest taxis around. It is immaculate and had a red light in front that sparkled like an elaborate Christmas ornament. We go to the Tiger Park and I buy a live chicken to feed to the tigers. You can buy a chicken, goat or whole cow that the workers toss out to the tigers.
While in Harbin we saw the Ice Festival, Snow Park, Tiger Park, Saint Sophia Russian Orthodox Church (now a museum) and ate the famous Harbin ice cream. We walked the streets and watched a troop of older Chinese ladies doing what looked like Chinese line dancing. They were quite good for performing in such cold weather.
Me, Steven and Micah Eating Harbin Ice Cream
Small problem - I got busy during this past year and never finished writing this post so it is unfinished and a bit late in making it onto my blog nearly a year late. I think it conveys the spirit of my trip.