Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas week and the Harbin Ice Festival

It's hard feeling Christmasy in China. There aren't many decorations, and there certainly aren't Christmas carols. It's nice getting a break from the blatant commercialism but as Christmas came nearer it became a little sad for the expats here.

On Sunday I went to a house church. I'll write about that in detail when I'm back in the States.

On Tuesday I spent the whole day in Harbin. They have an Ice Festival every year, as well as a park that has giant snow sculptures. FK and I took the overnight train up and arrived at 6 am; we bought a map and got our bearings and first headed out for the snow park.

The park was across the Songhua River at Sun Island Park; by the time we arrived we were actually so cold we had to take a break in a McDonald's (never were we ever so happy to see the Golden Arches!). The river had frozen over completely, and there were horses and carriages as well as ice skating there.

We took the cable car over- it was 30 rmb for me, but 50 rmb for 'Foreign Visitors'...Fran wasn't terribly happy about that. The Snow Park seemed to have some Finnish bath theme, and it was only about half finished, but the giant centerpiece was completed and highly impressive.

The sculptures were still in progress while we were there- they made a giant box of wood planks, shoveled snow into it, then took down the wood which created a giant rectangle of snow to carve- but that made it cool without it being overwhelming. Plus, there were very few tourists around.

Then we went back over the river on one of the horse-drawn carriages, and slipped around on the ice for some fun. We thawed during lunch, meaning we spent about 15 minutes eating and 45 minutes chatting. We decided to head to the Japanese Germ Warfare Base of Unit 731, which is where the Japanese carried out gruesome medical experiments in WWII. We found a shady shared taxi there, since it was 20 km south of the city, and when we arrived we discovered Lonely Planet had their times wrong! The place closed at 3 and we arrived at 3:30! We were so disappointed, but had no choice but to take a bus back into the city. 

45 minutes later, we were back at the train station in the city center and it was completely dark outside. We decided to walk all the way to the Ice Park, since we'd passed it on the way to the River. On the way, we also went to the Church of St. Sophia, a gorgeous Russian church. Fran's picture doesn't really do it justice but I have yet to upload mine.

We finally arrived at the Ice Park; we could see the lights on from a couple blocks away.  This gave us hope because the Festival officially opens Jan 5, and the reason no one else wanted to come with us was because they were worried it wouldn't be open yet. Well IT WAS! It had actually opened the day before, on the 22nd. And, on top of that, it was a Disney theme this year!

I felt like such a child again; apparently I just had a look of "sheer delight and joy" for the longest time. There were even fireworks a few minutes after we walked into the park! I have pictures of that too, on my card....

We spent a couple hours there, going down the ice slides and taking funny photos and running around the park. I can honestly say there is only one experience in China that topped this, and it just barely wins- when I cruised through the Three Gorges. I had an absolutely fantastic, spectacular, amazing time; even despite the obvious parts of the park that were not ready yet (like the food shops and the random blocks of ice sitting around waiting to be carved up). In fact, we liked it better because again, there were very few visitors. Our pictures look so deadly because there weren't loads of people in them!  Aladdin's palace
 the giant ice castle (the ice slide wasn't ready yet- but yes, those are escalators and elevators!)

Finally we walked down the main cobblestone pedestrian street searching for a Russian restaurant. We found one after about an hour, and even though it wasn't that good, our legs were so tired from all the trekking of the day that it was wonderful just to sit. 

We took the overnight train back, and while the first night we played cards until lights out, that night we climbed straight into bed and fell asleep until we pulled into the Dalian station, at 7:30 am Christmas Eve.

That night Leanna came over, and we went to Tesco and bought a load of snacks and sweets and the tiniest bit of substantial food for dinner. Tropicana made this new fruit juice blend of pomegranates and peaches and whatnot and since we couldn't find cranberry juice, we settled on that instead. We splurged 16 rmb (~2 USD) on a cheese wheel and bought a baguette, then grabbed Korean takeout at the bottom of my development. We came home with our load and ate while watching the Santa Clause- the only Christmas movie I watched all season :( 

I met everyone else out at the clubs close to midnight- I decided not to drink though and let me tell you, watching everyone else be out off their face while techno is playing in a crowded club and you're bone dry sober...after a while, it actually gets tedious.

Christmas day I went for a massage with Carol- half an hour for 30 rmb (~4 USD) and it was amazing. The masseuse I had was a young guy, and he was really nice to me too, really interested yet not nosy about me being Chinese American. Then I watched a bit of The Godfather II and had Christmas dinner at 6. 

I had to choose between 160 rmb buffet at I-55, one of the first Western restaurants in Dalian, or a 200 rmb buffet at the Swissotel. I chose the former because certain people I thought would make me feel awkward were at the latter...but I regret my decision now. Though honestly, I think either one I went to would've made me feel awkward and out of place and wishing I was at the other, but at least at Swissotel the food would have compensated for it. Then everyone came over to my place afterwards (keeping in mind I only knew four of them, the rest I'd just met that night) and we watched Definitely Maybe until midnight.

So Christmas and the entire holiday season really had not gone at all like I'd planned it. The 26th is really hard too because it's the one year anniversary of when my grandmother died and I felt really alone without my family or any friends around...everyone was too busy working to come over. If there's any bright side at all to this month, it's that Harbin was absolutely magical and that I am now definitely ready to come home.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

As of late (pardon the depressing tone and cheesiness)

I haven't found much to do in Dalian anymore. I truly resent hurting my foot because I had to rebook a trip to Guilin, that ultimately was cancelled by the airline. My traveling partner has since decided to go there by himself. If I ever do see Guilin, it will be in a few years' time at the very least.

The weather has gotten extremely cold. Luckily I'm off the cast and off the crutches, for the most part. I have a limp though, and use a crutch every couple days or so to ease the pressure on my foot. China's extremely crutch-unfriendly though, so I try not to use it too often.

I had a coat, a dress, and two skirts tailor made at Erqi Square for 640 kuai (little over 90 USD). The skirts and winter jacket turned out quite well; the little black dress not so much. I didn't really give it much of a chance though; perhaps if I had let them refit it a little it wouldn't look that bad actually. It was just so different from what I had in mind for New Year's...not really fair to the dress now is it? The quality of everything in general though is fantastic, and fits perfectly to me. I'm still debating having a suit made, and a blouse to go with it.

As of the last week, I've become very intent on a project I've been working on. I have a lot of free time and if I didn't have this to focus on; I'd go mad. I'm alone now a lot. In the past week, I've gone from absolutely dreading going home to --> not wanting to come home but knowing I need to, to --> actually starting to get excited about coming home. I actually resent the events of late a little, because I don't want to be excited- it's such a drastic change in attitude in ten days- but it's better to be excited than still miserable, right?

I've actually started a list of Things I Will Miss and Things I Won't Miss about China. Some of it's quite amusing! I may post it after New Year's.

I'm a big believer in everything happens for a reason; I try to regret as little as possible.
That being said, I've finally seen who my real friends are, and gotten the chance to hang out with my good friends that I'd been neglecting quite a lot for the Aston teacher group.

The next two weeks won't fly by, but I have enough plans that they won't drag like the past week has. I'm going to Harbin on Monday night, spending a day there, and coming back Wed morning by sleeper train. I'll try to find a church service for Christmas Eve or Christmas morning...but I will be waking up alone on Christmas, with no family, no tree, and no presents. [It's not really a terrible issue though because Dalian has not been terribly Christmas-y, I mean it IS China, and my attempts at blasting Christmas music feel cheap and American.] Sigma is finally coming to visit Dalian on the 29th, to celebrate New Year's with me, and I return to Shanghai the 3rd or 4th.

The in-between days are really all I worry about, since every day for the past week I have been waking up every day at 7 am, regardless of when I go to bed. The days therefore are really long and sometimes difficult to face.

Overall, I know I will be okay. I still don't regret much of anything I've done here, including my decision to stay another semester. I know it's not just the ups, but the downs as well, that are part of the growing experience that has been this year, of being 19 and abroad...nothing could really ruin the memory of the life-changing year that has been 2008. I'm coming out of this a stronger and better person; and after all, the greatest gift of the Christmas season is the prevalence of Hope, and I am brimming full of it for my future.

Again, apologies for the cheese....sometimes you need idealism to get you by.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Thanksgiving, Chinese style, involved all the expats getting together at the Swissotel for the all-you-can-eat 180 rmb Thanksgiving Buffet (26 USD). It was expensive, yes, but absolutely tasty. Tom turkeys, lamb chops, giant hams, cheese, breads, fresh seafood, authentic sushi, dessert table, chocolate fountain...the only thing missing was pumpkin pie. On top of it all, I had nearly all my friends with me. Though mostly American this term, we of course brought the Irish, Brits, South Africans, etc. They loved it- though, who wouldn't love all that food?
It was a bit difficult to maneuver at first because I fractured a bone in my foot three weeks ago playing gaelic football and have been on crutches ever since. However, everyone helped me get food and because of the crutching about, I never got too full and kept eating plate after plate. After a while, people would leave the table when I sat down with more food because they couldn't stand the sight of more Thanksgiving dinner.

Afterwards, we decided to do the really American thing and go bowling at the 24 hour, three floors underground bowling alley. Obviously since I can't bowl on one foot, I played pool on my one foot instead. The games also became only 10 kuai ($1.50) after midnight, so we all killed time playing doubles pool until midnight. Fran came extremely close to bowling a 200, and for his fourth or fifth time bowling (apparently it's not big in Ireland) we were quite impressed. About one am we went home and slept off everything we ate, without the hassle of Black Friday the next morning. Though it was a great Thanksgiving on my own, living abroad, my only complaint would be that I do kind of miss the holiday buzz.
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