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.

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