Thursday, 12 March 2015

A Stroll Around The East Lake Lantern Festival 浪漫的东湖灯会

I distinctly remember reading about the first Lantern Festival to be held in Wuhan early last year. I remember being all enthusiastic about it and sharing the exciting news, making plans to go there and just generally being quite excited about it all. 

Entrance

Would you believe that this stunning Chinese style building isn't a building at all but a beautiful lantern gate you can walk through?

Then my burn accident happened and everything changed. Instead of making dinner plans with friends and organising a lovely evening out I found myself tied to my own bed, barely able to walk and making trips to the hospital every second day to have my dressings changed. In the meantime all my friends shared photos of their trip to the exhibition and I fake-enthusiastically liked all the pictures although I was seething with jealously inside. I vowed that should the festival be held again this year I would definitely go.
I'm pretty proud of this shot.

These past days I've been somewhat busy so I kind of forgot all about the festival until I came across a friend's photos on her WeChat moments. I remembered my vow to myself and feverishly tried to find some time to squeeze a trip to the East Lake into my already full schedule. Last Tuesday, despite my workout at the gym and meeting two friends I finally managed to snag some time and after a lovely dinner, I jumped into a taxi and told the driver to get me to the festival.

I have a big soft spot for the East Lake and the fact that it's quiet there, away from all the city noise and trouble. It can be difficult to find a quiet place when you live in a Chinese city, or even a place void of people, but it's not impossible. There are those magical places and for me the East Lake is one of those places, even though I don't get to go there very often.

Back to the Lantern Festival. Some creative geniuses somehow came up with the idea to turn traditional Chinese lanterns, usually lid to mark the end of the Spring Festival (on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month) into huge (and tiny) lid up lanterns with light shows around and next to it. The whole thing is naturally best viewed in the evening after nightfall and its stunningly beautiful. I somehow also managed to chose the perfect day to go and visit because there weren't many people and I could leisurely stroll about the place all the while taking a ton of photos. I'm turning into a real Chinese.

I know you're dying to see the photos, so I'm just going to shut up and torture you with what you missed out on.







































Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Icy Adventures In Northern China To Ring In My Chinese New Year [Photo Reel]

Harbin, the capital of China's most northern province Heilongjiang. That's where I spent my weekend during my Spring Festival vacation.



As you can see from the map above, Heilongjiang is really quite far from Hubei, which is in central China. I travelled 4968 km (2484 km each way) and I didn't even leave the country. The normal train takes about 25 hours but living in Central China has it's perks. We have direct connections to almost anywhere in China and the high-speed train cuts the journey down to only 14.5 hours (About 12.5 hours if you don't count the time the train is stationary in the over twenty stations it passes through on its way up north.

14.5 hours is the longest time I've ever been on a train and I have to admit it was actually a lot of fun. We met some nice people, chatted, laughed, slept, ate, watched some movies, listened to music, played some silly games and I even taught my friend some English. The times actually passes quite quickly and it was more fun than travelling by airplane. It was also affordable. Over the Spring Festival break flights cost about an arm and a leg and since we both couldn't afford to fork out 3000 RMB for return flights we decided to take the high-speed train.

When we got to Harbin it wasn't cold at all and there was no snow anywhere. The next morning there was some snow but it wasn't cold enough for the snow to stick and soon enough the beautiful white stuff turned into a murky brown/black mess that soaked right through my shoes. We fled to the nearest shopping mall for some hot coffee and bought me some new shoes, then we braved the soggy mess for a second time. It wasn't especially cold and I was kind of disappointed. We only had two days and Harbin wasn't what it was supposed to be: freezing cold with Arctic temperatures.

Our first day in Harbin was spend exploring Zhongyang Street, the European/Russian style pedestrian street, visiting St. Sophia Cathedral (which looks beautiful from the outside but inside isn't a church at all - very disappointing), eating ice-cream and roasted sausages and trying to convince people that I wasn't Russian. Somehow the fact that I have blond hair and decided to wear a headscarf to protect myself from the cold made people intend on insisting that I'm Russian. On one occasion some guy even started to speak Russian with me. I didn't understand a single word and kept replying in Chinese, asking him to what the hell he was saying. Eventually I got bored and my friend and I left the store.

On our second day, Harbin finally showed it's true colours and when we left our hotel in the morning to head into town for breakfast, the temperature had dropped down to about minus 10 degrees Celsius. It was freezing, icy and dangerously slippery outside. The bus driver, who took us into town, was completely unfazed by the horrendous road conditions. All the other drivers went about their business as normal, as did the taxi driver we booked for the day to drive us from the city centre out to the exhibition (He also drove us from one location to the other and took us back to the city in the evening. I highly recommend that you do the same, getting a taxi can be a bitch when you're out there in that horrible weather and the last you want to do is spend hours waiting for public transport when your extremities are frozen solid and your face has turned to ice).

On another note, when in Harbin it can be difficult to tell who's a tourist and who is a local but I've figured that the easiest way to tell those two groups apart is by looking out for two things: Harbin locals wear less, they brave the cold with a kind of idle arrogance that is actually pretty darn cool. They also walk quicker and are more sure-footed than visitors. It's quite funny actually. While everyone else is walking slower than snails, they cross the street in seconds, without as much as a second glance as to where they're going.

Harbin's Arctic temperatures are both annoying and mesmerising. Years ago, when I was a little kid, the river Moselle in my hometown was completely frozen solid. I wanted to walk on the ice so badly but my mother didn't let me. Well that's not quite true, she said something along the lines of "Do whatever you want, but if the ice breaks and you fall in, I'm not coming to get you." That thoroughly put me off walking out onto the ice but when in Harbin it's a crime not to walk out onto the Songhua River. It's frozen over for a solid four to five months every year and it looks fantastic. Once you step out onto the river though it will feel about 10 degrees colder than it already is. The wind out there is unrelenting and it will take your face off if you don't wrap yourself up properly. I only lasted a few minutes because I scrambled back up the stairs to seek shelter.

The ice exhibition was another mind-blowing adventure. The ticket came with a massive price tag of 240 RMB but that was well worth it. It took us almost two hours to walk around the entire exhibition and towards the end of it my iPhone decided it was too cold so it turned itself off. I wasn't exactly thrilled by that but my mobile charger came to my rescue and after about half an hour of a snuggly, cosy afternoon nap in my coat pocket my phone was back in the game.

It's really amazing what you can do with snow, the sculptures were massive, innovative, hilarious and simply beautiful. It started to snow quite heavily while we were there and the wind was icy and of epic proportions. Despite snow boots I went almost flying a good few times but regained my balance after helplessly flailing about for a few seconds.

We also visited the seaquarium, actually it was our first stop and while it was fun I didn't exactly enjoy the masses of people there. I was going to tell you all that I didn't enjoy it at all but that's not true. I did actually enjoy watching the fish and I was especially fascinated by the Arctic wolf and it's smaller cousin the Arctic fox.

Our last stop was the ice festival. I've never seen so much ice in my life but the masses of people made it at times difficult to navigate around the exhibition. The price tag of 330 RMB made me want to cry. It's totally overpriced but that price isn't going to change any time soon. If anything it will probably just continue to go up in the coming years. Nevertheless, it's amazing just what you can built when you have tons of tons of ice lying around in what one could consider Harbin's back garden. By the end of the day my feet where frozen solid, the two pairs of socks and the heating patch tried their very best to last all day but they finally gave in in the evening when the temperature dropped even further. My hands were also frozen stiff a good few times and at some point I gave up on taking pictures altogether.

I've been wanting to go to Harbin for the last three years and I'm glad that my patience finally paid off and I got the chance to enjoy all that snow and ice but I'm not heading up there again any time soon, I need to recover from the cold shock. Still, if you're in China during the winter, a stopover in Harbin is a must, you're missing out on some amazing fun. On that note, since actions are worth a thousand words, I'm going to try and convince you to visit Harbin by showing you a bunch of photos of my trip. Let me know when you decide to visit.


8.30 am, Wuhan Train Station, time to board the train.

A single trip from Wuhan to Harbin will set you back about 880 RMB but during the spring festival it's cheaper than flying and at any other time it's more convenient than braving Wuhan traffic to get out to the airport.

Well, let's go! Bye Wuhan, hello Harbin!

The entrance gate to Zhongyang Street, the famous Russian style pedestrian street, filled with shops, food, more shops, souvenir stores and other interesting goodies. 

Food, Good food is essential in order to make any trip memorable and let me tell you, we had a ton of amazing food.

When it's freezing outside you should definitely eat ice-cream. Somehow that ice-cream made me feel warmer than any coffee I had that day.

I have a thing of Chinese-style red lanterns and I almost always take photos of them, so this time it was no different when I spotted them in Harbin.

St. Sophia Cathedral and the Plaza around it. The church is really small and it's not a church inside so you can save yourself the 20 RMB and skip going inside.

It really is a pity that this beautiful church is no longer an actual church.

That disgusting icy, wet muck you can see there almost send me flying a good few times.

Not quite sure what the people at the seaquarium are trying to tell me but just to be on the safe side I didn't pet the fish.

Tropic fish in Arctic conditions, yes well China has a great sense of humour.

This lazy seal just kept lying there waiting for people to feed it some fish. First time for me to see one up close, they are kind of adorable.

More tropical fish.

To be honest I don't remember what this fellow is called. I'm leaning towards Chinese dolphin but I could be completely wrong, which I probably am.

My new favourite animal, the Arctic wolf. He looks just like a white Husky if you ask me. They look so much like dogs but aren't house friendly at all. Such a pity. I'll just have to get a teddy Arctic wolf then.

Stretching after a good sleep is an absolute must.

He (or she) was about to go back to snoozing but I managed to snap this great picture just before he (or she) dozed off. I'm sure those wolves are bored to death in their small enclosures. It would be much better if they had an open enclosure to run wild in, something that might resemble their natural habitat.

Snow foxes (or Arctic foxes) are seriously cute...and very cheeky. Somehow they also look a bit like a dogs.

Ice sculptures in the centre of the city to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Sheep

Trust me, taking this picture was painful, I do not recommend leaning on a sculpture made entirely of ice. It's freaking freezing!

The Songhua River. Or should I say the frozen Songhua River?

More frozen ice that turns into a river sometimes.

Flying on ice.

Somehow I managed to look a little graceful on the slippery frozen river.

Yet another frozen river, Harbin is just full of them!

The bridge leading to the snow sculpture exhibition. It started to snow pretty heavily just after we purchased our tickets and that made the whole thing even more fun.

This was the first sculpture we saw, obviously made to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Ice Minions are a must!

It's truly mind-blowing what you can do with snow. Your everyday snowman pales in comparison.

Darwin himself was present, supervising the snowy sculptures.

I swear, the photos I took do not do the real thing any justice. When you stand there, you're just blown away.

The details are so utterly beautiful!

I captured a minion...on virtual film!

Makes you feel truly small, doesn't it?

Truly a winter wonderland.

The "island" on which the exhibition is held every year is called "Sun Island" but 1) there was no sun at all and 2) it's also not a real island.

It doesn't happen every day that you get to stand on a ton of ice underneath a Christmas tree entirely made of ice.

More ice. As you can see I'm well wrapped up and I recommend you do the same, it's really deathly cold up north.

I chose to sit on an icy throne for a few seconds and regretted it almost instantly. My behind was frozen solid for a couple of seconds there.

As much as I'd love to spend a night in a castle, I'd never chose this one.