Posts Tagged With: harbin

China an overview

 

Well the time has finally come to leave China and move on to the next leg of our little adventure. I guess it is time to take stock of what we have done, where we have been and run through the highlights and lowlights of the time spent in China. We are actually not entirely finished as we will be back in Hong Kong in October and may pop into Macao for a day or two depending upon how the other plans go.

Overall our time in China has been fantastic and I would highly recommend this as a tourist destination for any of you. There are some myths about needing mandarin to travel in China which are quite frankly totally wrong. After a cumulative 7 months full time here we would be lucky to know 20-30 words and have been completely off the beaten path where no English is spoken. The Chinese people are really helpful and a couple of bits of technology gets you through most binds (see Jill’s travel tips section).

So in summary we spent –

205 – Days in China
50 – Cities slept in (more visited or day tripped)
25 – Provinces visited (of 32)
China Map

We have been discussing our best and worst bits and came up with very little on the negative side with the overall impression being ridiculously positive. The other thing we tried to do was to develop a must see itinerary for those seeking to travel here. China however is like Australia and the distances and travel times make seeing everything impossible unless you have unlimited time (there are still things that we missed out on and want to see).

The other thing that stumped us was that some of the must sees (Terracotta Warriors and 3 Gorges Cruise etc.) were some of the least impressive things that we have been to…but how can you really come here and not see them…so despite being so-so I guess they remain must sees. They were ok and it is nice to say that we have been but there is so much better to see in China and if time were limited (which it almost always will be) there are much better places to go.

The other thing was that Jill and I liked different things. She has turned into a mountain goat while here, relishing the stair climbs (that are everywhere)…while I have gone the other way cursing stairs at every opportunity. Obviously there are some things that were awesome for both of us. The Great Wall of China is an absolute must and the best spot is the Mutianyu section (about 60kms outside of Beijing). The other thing that must be done is getting into some of the provinces. Each minority of China is quite different and these differences should be experienced. So here it is…

Traditional Must Sees

The Great Wall of China
Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square
The summer palace
Gate of heavenly peace
Mao’s Tomb
Shanghai
Walled cities
Hanging Monastery
The terracotta Warriors
3 gorges dam
Tibet ?

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Most of these are easy to achieve from Beijing with limited travel times and this could be done in a two week stint if you push a little bit. The warriors is a quick pop across to Xian where the Muslim quarter is a must. Xian is a walled city but Jill’s suggestions are that Pingyao and Datong are better examples and from Datong you can also see the hanging monastery and Yúngāng Caves..head down and out through Shanghai and all of this within the two week journey.

Tibet is a whole other issue. There seems to be a global interest in Tibet given the Dalai Lama scenario but having been there we would never return. The Everest leg was nice and something we will no doubt brag about down the track but way too difficult to be worth the 2 hour photo shoot that we got. Especially given that a lot of the time it is clouded over and you don’t get a nice view (we were blessed with perfect weather). The food was terrible but the road between Lhasa and Shigatse was the highlight but it is a tough schlepp and should not be taken lightly.

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Lesser known gems

These are the things that do not immediately come to mind when you think of China but having been there and experienced them they are VERY high on both of our lists. We would do almost all of these before the last 3 on the earlier list…but they are less famous.

Guilin to Yangshou river rafting
Jiuzhaigou – Jiuzhai national park with blue lakes and waterfalls everywhere
Harbin – ice festival
Kunming – Stone forest
Kashgar – livestock market
Chengdu – panda breeding centre + giant Buddha at Leshan

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This list of places will probably not make an initial itinerary however were really nice spots to either kick back or enjoy a lesser paced time getting to know the real China or seeing sights in a less hectic manner. Nice if you have heaps of time but sadly will be missed by most.

Dali – walled city
Dandong – North Korean border
Shanhaiguan – wall meets ocean + first mountain pass
Mountains – Wutaishan, Mianshan, Taishan,
Xiahe – monastery (more Tibetan than Tibet)
Anshun – biggest waterfall in China
Hohhot – Inner Mongolia
Hangzhou – west lake
Shangri-la – mini Tibet

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After this there were a bunch of cities that we stayed in that we found to be totally charming and full of the local Chinese culture and lifestyle but not necessarily likely to get a tourist visit. We would go back to them as we had a really good time eating, drinking and mingling with the locals. Places like Xining where we relaxed after the Tibet ordeal, or Yinchuan where they had 20 quai massages and free street theatre, or Guangzhou where we lazed eating super cheap food in a street that turned into restaurantville after dark.

Myths

You need to speak Chinese – rubbish…almost every Chinese person you meet will try and help you as much as they can. If you have a smile and a nice attitude you will never go wrong. A translator app on your phone and a dictionary style app like Pleco will get you through every drama.
Don’t eat the street food – rubbish…this is the tastiest, cheapest and best food to eat in China. It is clean, and turned over so frequently that most of the time it will be made in front of you. There is tourist food with snakes, bugs and scorpions etc but these are mostly for show and photographs. The every day stuff is fine.
China is dangerous – rubbish…be aware of your surroundings, as you always should be in any country, and you will feel and be safer than you would on any Australian street.

The bad bits

The absolute epitome of all things that are wrong with China exist and are openly displayed by one group especially…The Dama. This is not to say that these traits are not widely available but the Chinese Aunties (or Dama) are the group that has embraced or inherited all that is wrong with China. They are by no means the cause of it…but when looking at the offensive behaviour that exists in China…7 out of 10 times you will see it displayed by one of these aunties.

By night they are happy middle aged women dancing in the parks and public spaces (pissing off the locals with the loud music but amusing the tourists). But during the day they are the phlegm spelunking, bodily fluid hacking, phone yelling, street blocking, child pissing, line ignoring, elbow throwing, crowd pushing group that is oblivious to and ignorant of all those around them.

In a newspaper rant the Chinese papers tried to explain the attitude claiming that … Growing up during the Chinese revolution these Dama worked hard and didn’t enjoy good life when they were young; they only tried their best to save money. Now their children have grown up. With retirement pensions, they have more free time and money to spend on their own life. This explains some of it but not all.

The older generation has some of the worst Chinese traits, the younger generation has reasonably few of them…but the Dama…the Chinese baby boomer equivalents are shockers. And they are mostly women…probably because the men had chain smoked themselves into an early grave. The middle group that is the Dama is atrocious and the worst China has to see and offer.

But the future is bright. The current generation is influenced by the poor examples set and is revolting against this. They are more polite, more aware that other people exist, and less likely to hock bodily fluids around the streets. There is still a long way to go…yelling still takes place and the ignorance of those around them remains high. Smoking will be the next hurdle to be fought as it is impossible to go anywhere without being swamped by cigarette smoke (despite no smoking signs everywhere). No meal can be eaten without half the restaurant firing up after their food.

A Snapshot

Once again we will finish on a selection of thumbnails of our favourite moments…needless to say after 7 months there are too many to try and put on our little post. If anybody is thinking of a trip here we would be happy to provide any advice or share any insights we may have that may help your planning.

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Last minute thoughts

China has recently introduced 72 hour Visa free cities…20 of them in total. This presents the perfect opportunity for stopover tasters as you head to other destinations. Guilin is one of these and was my favourite spot…72 hrs would be enough time to fly in, poke around, crash, take the raft to Yangshou, poke around, crash then return to Guilin for the flight out. This was debatably our best day and certainly one of our best days in China.

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And the adventure continues…

 

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Harbin

Leaving Seoul we could have done a 90 minute flight direct to Harbin but instead we chose to do a 10 hour transit through Shanghai…for the same price. This may seem insane but on our first visit to Shanghai we were unaware of the Maglev…and have been kicking ourselves that we missed it. For the uninitiated…the Maglev is the super-fast train that runs between the airport and close to the city. During our time in China we have been on the 200 and 300 kilometre an hour trains but the Maglev goes at over 400…well over. IMG_2440

So we flew from Seoul to Shanghai…hopped the Maglev, had some lunch, then hopped the Maglev back to the airport for the flight to Harbin. The train maxed out at 431 kilometres an hour…when we hopped the train to head back we saw the front where the slower animals did not or could not get out of the way of this racing beast. Needless to say that there were more than squished bugs on the windshield.

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Harbin originally started in 1897 as a camp for Russian engineers surveying the Trans-Siberian Railway. This has grown into China’s northernmost major city, with 4 million in the city and up to 10 million if you include the suburbs. Harbin is the home of the harbin brewery the oldest and 4th largest brewery in China. But in reality Harbin is two cities…the summer and the winter.

Summer

We obviously are here for the summer so we get to experience the magic that is mid to high 20’s temperatures, pleasant breezes, sunshine and a town that is as green as any that China has to offer. Zhongyang Dajie is the 1.4 km Pedestrian only street running down to the river and Stalin Park (and is only one street parallel to where we are staying). This is a really pretty shopping and ambling district that is heavily influenced by the Russian history with Babushka dolls and firs everywhere you look.
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Having reached the end of the pedestrian street we wandered along the riverside to the gondola for a ride across the river to the huge park on the opposite bank. There is a Russian town inside the park with shows and shops celebrating and selling all things Russian. The village contains a bunch of concrete babushka dolls with the Russian leaders painted upon them…The most beautiful sight in all of Harbin is St Sophia’s cathedral which is a Russian built church in the middle of town which is entirely stunning. To be fair…the architecture all around Harbin is heavily influenced by its Russian history and is built in baroque or byzantine style with spires and cupolas all over the place.

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Harbin is also the site of the Unit 731 museum which is a museum outlining the actions of unit 731 which was (wiki quote) “a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II”. We did not make it here as it was a fair bit out of the way but it does sound like one hell of a museum.Harbin is without a doubt the king of hedge art…there are hedge topiaries dotted throughout the city that are quite frankly amazing.

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It also has the Siberian tiger preserve that is not for the faint hearted or obsessive animal lover. Within the preserve there are hundreds of Siberian tigers in a safari style setting. Wiki tells me that “the park has an area of 1,440,000 square meters (355.8 acres) and is the largest natural park for wild Siberian tigers in the world at IMG_0541present. There are over 500 purebred Siberian tigers here, with 100 visible to visitors. In addition, visitors can also see white tigers, lions, lynx, leopards, and black pumas as well as Bengali tigers”.

And for a relatively small fee you can purchase live animals that will be fed to the tigers while you watch…a chicken can be bought for about $8, a duck or a pheasant for double this and raw meat too.  Visitors can buy poultry or animals to feed them. Park employees will set the living animal free among the tigers, and visitors can see the unique live action of tigers preying upon it. Previous visitors talk of watching tigers leap through the air as the pheasant tries to fly away…in vain. This purchasing goes to the point where you can purchase a live sheep or cow which will be dumped in the midst of hungry tigers…all while you watch on. Alas the bride got crook on the day we were to see the tiger park so we missed this.

Winter

In January Harbin’s temperatures plummet with overnight temps of up to minus 36 with daytime highs of minus 12. The Songhua River that we floated above in the gondola freezes solid and you can walk across it. During winter Harbin becomes the home of the ice and snow festival which lasts over a month. As we are not here for winter I will shamelessly poach some information and pictures and info from the net to give you a sense of what goes on here.

During the festival 2–3 feet thick crystal clear blocks of ice are cut from the frozen river and artists create large buildings and sculptures made entirely of ice. This is generally done on sun island (the leafy green park we strolled through which is turned into a sea of white. Of an evening it becomes “Ice and Snow World” that operates each night with lights switched on, illuminating the sculptures from both inside and outside.

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In summary Harbin in summer is a delight and is absolutely well worth doing…sadly we had limited time and Jill got a case of the lurgies and was laid up and we did not get to some of the major sights…if you could abide the extremely cold temperatures…the winter festival looks absolutely stunning and both Jill and I have determined this would be a definite bucket list item.

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