Published: February 5th 2010January 24th 2010
Our assault on China began in the far North Eastern city of Harbin. The city itself is quite industrial with evidence of a Russian cultural influence, hence the onion domed cathedral in our pictures. However, we had come specifically for the Ice and Snow Festival which is held here every January. You won't be surprised to hear that it was very cold (around -25).
Our first mistake was buying tickets for the wrong part of the festival, namely the one for children. Daniel didn't seem disappointed though as he was sliding on the sculptures with the kids. Once we'd located what we'd actually come to see it definitely didn't disappoint. The sculptures, made completely from ice, are enormous and many can be walked on or through. Most of them are re-creations of famous landmarks from around the world. The ice is sourced from the local river which, as you can see, is pretty frozen this time of year and during the festival is used as an area for winter activities. We had only been there 5 minutes and we were already being asked for photographs, this turned out to be the first of many photoshoots we would have to pose
for in China. Harbin was also our introduction to dumplings, a favourite of the Northern Chinese and at 30pence for 6 they quickly became a favourite of ours and have since become a staple part of our diet.
From Harbin, we took the sleeper train to Beijing. There are 4 classes and we have now experienced all of them. Most of the time you don't have a choice as it seems that China is constantly on the move, making them pretty crowded. It's estimated that up to 10 million people can be on China's trains at one time. Which reminds me about the shoving, shoving is not rude in China and when I say shoving I mean literally barging you out of the way. One afternoon, I bashed some woman with my rucksack, quickly turning to apologise I realised she hadn't even flinched so I guess there are some benefits to it. Anyway, this journey we were lucky enough to be in a "soft sleeper" (equivalent to 1st class), it is a bit like a dormitory with 4 beds and makes for pretty comfortable travelling (depending on your roomies). I don't want to make it sound too cosy though
as this can't be said for all of our journey's throughout China which we will come to!
Beijing is roughly the size of Belgium, we had 4 days here so we had to be pretty selective in what we wanted to see. We started with Tiananmen Square. It is quite evident when you see it that Chairmen Mao remains a prominent figure in Beijing, his mausoleum is on the square and we went in for a little peek at him...he has quite a healthy tan for someone who has been dead 35 years. The Forbidden City was next, so called because for 500 years only emporers were allowed to enter it. With hundreds of ancient buildings, it took us almost a full day to get around. The area around The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square can be difficult for tourists though in avoiding the numerous Chinese who prey on you with scams. Whilst making a quick trip to the cash point Daniel got accosted by "Helen", who after doing him the favour of showing him a cash point asked him to go for a drink. This scam consists of an attractive girl getting you into a teahouse only to
come out with a whopping bill. Daniel was already wise to this scam but instead decided to humour "Helen" by taking her number on the premise that he would call to arrange drinks the next day. "Helen" wasn't happy with this and demanded to know the hostel we were staying at so she could meet him there, Daniel unbelievably managed to fob her off with the feeble excuse of not knowing where or what the name of our hostel was.
That evening, we were invited by one of the hostel workers to his 21st birthday party. His name is Bruce Lee. We decided to go along to discover that only one other person from the hostel (completely odd) had decided to attend and everyone else were the staff. At first it was slightly awkward and a very civilsed affair as they did speeches. However, Bruce and his friend Shaun started to go at the beer quite hard and we had barely finished dinner by the time that they were quite noticably drunk. It was getting a little rowdy for Chinese standards when the cake came out, Bruce wasn't even using utensils to eat anymore. I suggested to Daniel that,
on Bruce's next bite, he should shove the plate in his face...I thought it might take a bit of persuading but before I knew it Bruce's Lee's cake was hanging from his face. Pandemonium ensued and no-one escaped.
Our final stop in Beijing was The Great Wall. It turned out to be better than we had imagined as it is set amongst such impressive scenery and as it is low season there were a lot less people. We climbed as high as was possible to get the best views. Part of our tour to the wall included a tea ceremony, we had spent our whole time here avoiding the scam and now we were getting it for free. It is basically an introduction to Chinese teas (and how each one helps cure allsorts of ailments), they taste nice though and it's all quite entertainingly elaborate.
"Hard Sleeper" (2nd class) was the next experience in train journeys. Six beds to a room no bigger than a closet and being on the top bunks our faces were practically touching the ceiling. We were on it to Shanghai for 12 hours, particularly uncomfortable for Daniel as he is so long, getting
dressed and undressed was no easy feat.
Shanghai = smoggy!! However, it doesn't have a great deal to see even when you can see it. The main sight are the skyscrapers and that whole area was under development due to the Shanghai Expo. Slightly annoying but we still managed to get a pretty good view of them. Meanwhile, the people staring at us got a bit out of hand in here. We'd had more than your average amount of staring in Harbin and Beijing, but here it reached new levels. We couldn't understand it as we thought Shanghai would be the most culturally diverse and Beijing held the Olympics! Yet we continue to be a fascination. If we walk down the train platform for example, people's faces are crammed at the window, climbing over one another just to get a look. Or, if we are in the waiting room, the whole room just rotates in unison to sit and stare in our direction until the train arrives. It feels like being at a safari but instead being the attraction. At first you try to just accept it but as time goes on it starts to get quite irritating.
stop was the ancient city of Xi'an (the beginning of the silk road), for more staring and the amazing Terracotta Warriors.
There are more photos below