Sunday, January 14

Tigers in the snow

Garry and I discovered that there's more to Harbin than just buildings of snow and ice. The city is relatively young compared with many other places in China. It was founded in 1898 after the arrival of the Chinese Eastern Railway.  It initially prospered as a region increasingly dominated by immigrants from the Russian Empire including people fleeing the hardships of Tsarist Russia and later the Bolshevik revolution.

As a result, Russian influenced architecture can be found all over the city.  Perhaps the most prominent of these landmarks is St Sophia Cathedral.  This is a classic onion-dome topped Russian orthodox church in the centre of town.  However, it's no longer a place of worship.  Today the nave houses a photographic exhibition of early Harbin.  

Incredibly, a dramatic painting of the last supper still hangs over the altar's original location. Outside, locals sell satay sticks of frozen, toffee coated fruits from bicycle carts.  Garry and I had seen these everywhere the previous day at the Ice and Snow Festival. We decided we had to try one before we left Harbin.  The fruit is certainly refreshing and of course, it stays permanently frozen in the city's bitterly cold sub-zero temperatures.

We also visited the city's Siberian Tiger Park.  It runs a very successful breeding program.  Today several hundred tigers live in the park many of which are eventually released back into the wild.  The park offers two viewing experiences.  The first is slow bus ride through the park's many open range enclosures.  This gives visitors an opportunity to see these magnificent creatures up close.

Garry and I were astonished by the number of cats we saw strolling, sitting and sunning themselves.  The park separates males, females and different age groups otherwise chaos ensues.  The animals all appeared to be healthy and well-fed.  Just how well fed soon became apparent.  

Halfway through our safari the bus driver stopped the tour and began soliciting money from the passengers.  We eventually worked out that he'd offered to bring some live chickens into the enclosure if we all forked out enough money.  Before we knew it a jeep had pulled up and two live chickens were tossed from the window.  Sure enough, the tigers came running, chased the poor birds and eventually devoured them.  Only in China!

The second viewing opportunity involved a series of mesh enclosed gangways that took visitors on a walking tour through a series of smaller enclosures.  Once again feeding experiences were on offer.  However, this time we were offered chunks of steak that you then fed through the mesh using long BBQ tongs.  We couldn't resist and can now say we've hand fed "wild" tigers.

Our private guide then took us down to the shores of the Songhua River. We were amazed to discover the equivalent of the local "Easter Show" unfolding on the frozen river.  Thousands of people were enjoying all manner of ice and snow-oriented activities set up either side of a temporary boulevard that stretched across the river.  I can honestly say we saw ice activities we've never witnessed in our lives.  We eventually negotiated the hire of dune buggy and headed out for a wild ride along the frozen river.

Perhaps the most fascinating venue we visited was the 731 Unit Museum in the south of the city.  It contains a poignant exhibit documenting the sinister deeds of what was once the world's largest biological warfare research facility. The Japanese created this facility after invading Manchuria in 1937. At its peak, it was a 50-building complex covering 6 sq km.  It even had its own railway station and a small airfield. We were horrified to learn that thousands of imprisoned locals and POWs were experimented on resulting in the death of at least 600 people annually for almost a decade.

Harbin Ice Lantern Festival

The Harbin Ice Lantern Festival is held every January among the trees and ponds of Zhaolin Park.  The park is located in the centre of town and is the original location of Harbin's spectacular Snow & Ice Festival.  However, the main festival has long since relocated to a larger, grander venue.

Ice lanterns have a long history in the city. Local ice fishermen originally used them to light their favourite fishing spot.  A cavity was carved into a block of ice cut from the local river.  This was then used to cover and protect a candle.  The translucent ice also helped to scatter its light in all directions.

Today, the city continues the tradition of the ice lanterns with a spectacular multi-coloured display of ice and light.  Garry and I visited the venue on our last night in Harbin. It was the perfect way to end our brief excursion into northern China.  The park was relatively crowd-free in stark constant to the Snow & Ice Festival's main venue.  

We spent more than an hour wandering through the park admiring dozens of creative ice sculptures, iridescently lit buildings of ice and winding paths lined with row upon row of simple, colourful man-sized ice lanterns. It was also here that we paused for a moment to remember the fifth anniversary of my Dad's passing (oh yes - that's me sitting on the boat of solid ice).

Saturday, January 13

Harbin Snow & Ice Festival

For more than a decade I’ve dreamed of visiting the Harbin Snow & Ice Festival in northern China.  This frontier city of more than 5 million people has been hosting this extraordinary event every Winter since 1985. Over the year its grown to become the world’s largest event of its kind.  Until now I’ve never found myself in the right place at the right time to make it north and see this jaw-dropping spectacle for myself.

Garry and I were in China last week for business.  By chance we discovered that our visit coincided with the opening weekend of this year’s festival.  Having travelled for business on New Year’s Day and then again the following weekend we thought it reasonable to take a little time off along the way. We eventually spent two days in Harbin while en route to Hong Kong. 

I’d booked us a private guide and driver to show us around the city.  This ensured we were able to make the most of our time rather than battle our way through the inevitable language barrier. However, getting there was half the fun.  We flew from Ningbo to Harbin arriving shortly after dark.  As we exited the plane we greeted by rather chilling -14C temperatures.  These never rose above -6C the entire time we were there.  If you look at a map you’ll see that Harbin is located at the same latitude as northern Mongolia; and is actually more than 100 kilometres north of Vladivostok.

We’re glad we made the effort. During Winter three separate venues spread across the city become temporary theme parks filled with enormous structures built from compressed snow or blocks of translucent river ice.  Literally, thousands of workers spend several months creating ice versions of globally recognised structures.  In the past this has included the pyramids, the Sphinx and the Taj Mahal. Multicoloured LED lights are also used light the ice at night creating a truly awe-inspiring technicolour spectacle.

The awe and wonder begin from the moment you enter the city. As you exit the airport expressway you’re greeted by an enormous Chinese style ice building. By night it’s a spectacular multi-coloured structure.  By day it's an imposing ice blue monument that towers over the roadway.

Its ice blocks are cut from the frozen surface of the Songhua River every winter.  This river flows through the heart of the city. In places the river is almost a kilometre wide so there’s plenty of ice to go around. Ice sculptors then use chisels, ice picks and saws to carve and construct these incredible ice buildings and sculptures. Deionised water is also be used for some ice resulting in blocks as transparent as glass.

Every year, the festive has a central theme that’s then depicted in ice and snow across the city. In 2007, the festival featured a Canadian themed sculpture, in memoriam of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune. It was awarded a Guinness Record for the world's largest snow sculpture: 250 metres long, 28 feet (8.5 m) high, using over 13,000 cubic metres of snow.

This year’s festive was themed around the Silk Road. Throughout the city dozens of frozen structures depicted buildings and monuments found along this transcontinental route. Highlights this year included the Buddhist stupas of Burma, St Basil Cathedral in Red Square, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and the Christian cathedrals of Rome.

The largest venue literally covered acres of an enormous island located in the middle of the Songhua River.  Garry and I simply couldn't believe how huge the complex was.  We thought we'd spent an hour or so there. We ended up spending more than three hours and even then I'm sure we missed a few buildings and sculptures along the way.  In the image above the actual venue can be seen as a bright white glow in the middle of the Songhau river.

We were also lucky enough to see the festival's grand opening fireworks display.  We both agreed we saw many fireworks we've never seen before.  In fact, at one point, the spectacle unfolding in the night sky easily outshone the New Year's Eve display we witnessed the previous weekend in Sydney. All I can say is that the images I've posted here simply don't do justice to our weekend excursion.

Wednesday, January 3

Among the peaceful clouds

Garry and I have just returned from a business trip to Mainland China.  We flew out on 1 January so our first night of the new year was spent in Beijing.  We were in China to inspect and review the factories that make the toys we distribute; before heading to Hong Kong for its annual Toy Fair.

Our first factory visit was to the town of Yunhe.  It located in Zhejiang Province about 150kms inland from the coastal city of Wenzhou.  The town promotes itself as the wooden toy capital of China.  Visitors are left in no doubt as to its claim to fame.  As you enter the town you pass through an enormous gateway crowned by a row of giant wooden toys.

The neighbouring Yunhe County is also famous for its hills layered in rice terraces.  They're called the most beautiful terraces in all of China.  Many of them have been farmed since the early Tang Dynasty which means the oldest ones are almost 1000 years old.  They're also among the highest terraces in China.  The lower layers start around 200 metres above sea level then climb to an extraordinary to 1200 metres.  Yunhe actually translates as peaceful clouds.  The name pays tribute to these incredible structures which are often shrouded by early morning mist and low cloud.

Our factory hosts took Garry and I see the terraces before our first meetings of the day.  The drive itself was an incredible experience.  We had no idea we'd end up winding higher and higher along narrow country roads. We certainly got to see rural China up close. It was extraordinary to see entire hillsides covered in cascading terrace layers literally descending from the clouds.

It also a rather confusing and often nerve-wracking drive. I don't think we'd have ever had made it not been for our hosts.  Apparently, during the peak tourist season, you can catch a dedicated bus into the mountains from Yunhe.  However, it's fair to say that driving this route felt a heck of lot safer in a car than tackling it in a local bus.  As we climbed the road progressively narrowed to a single lane, only widening again briefly on blind, hair-raising hairpin turns.

Entrepreneurial locals have established a view platform along the edge of one of the area's more scenic spots.  A modest $15 entry fee (80RMB) gave us access to a series of well-maintained facilities.  A well-paved walking track traced a hill ridge for several hundred metres before finishing at a series of stepping stone pavers that led you down to the terraces themselves.  Along the way we watched ducks foraging in the mud and saw the stream that feeds water into the area.  It was fun to trace the water's journey from this entry point along numerous channels and pipes that direct its flow down the hillside into individual terraces.

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with the least scenic time of year.  At this time of year everything is looking rather drab, brown and muddy. However, the spectacle itself was still rather breath-taking.  It also meant that we had the entire viewing area to ourselves.  Apparently, in Summer the area is often overwhelmed by traffic and people; effectively ruining its refreshing rural vibe and serenity.

Thursday, November 30

Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk

The Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk extends for approximately 4 kms along Sydney eastern coast.  The walk officially extends from Ben Buckler Point on the northern tip of Bondi Beach to the southern boundary of Waverley Cemetery.  The route weaves its way around rocky sandstone cliffs and along the rim of several sheltered beach coves.  It takes about 90 minutes to walk the entire route.

The walk began as a state government relief program in the 1930s.  The original track was hewn in part from the local sandstone by labourers grateful for any form of employment during the Great Depression. Today’s more advanced track consists largely of broad and smoothly paved tracks and stairways that make it a popular outdoor excursion for people of all ages. 

The route also hosts the annual Sculpture by the Sea event from late October to early November.  For three weeks every year more than half a million visitors trek past an exhibition of large, intriguing artistic outdoor sculptures.  In past years its art has included a giant half buried frypan and a collection of enormous shiny metal spheres.  However, this isn’t the only art that can be seen.  Aboriginal rock carvings estimated to be at least 2000 years old can also be found in several locations. 

When Mum was in town in April I discovered that, despite numerous visits to Sydney, she’d never experienced the Bondi to Bronte walk.  On the last day of her vacation we took a few hours off to walk from Bronte to Bondi, stopping for a light lunch by the outdoor pool at Bondi Lifesaving Club.  The weather played its part allowing to enjoy partially sunny conditions even as dramatic storm clouds passed over the coast to the north.

Saturday, October 7

The best and worst of Bali

Garry has added another country to his list.  We’ve just returned from a week in Bali, Indonesia.  Sadly I’ve visited Indonesia for business before so no new stamp for me. However this was the first visit to Bali for both us.  We were curious to see if it really does live up to its sordid lager lout reputation.

The vacation was a last minute decision.  Much to our surprise (and delight) we were offered a week’s free accommodation in a luxurious private villa by an industry colleague.  Fiona’s original travel companion had cancelled at the 11th hour and she was keen to share the experience with others.  In the end we simply paid for our flights and within weeks found ourselves flying out of Sydney one Friday evening.

The villa itself was gem.  Four individual rooms (complete with ensuites) encircled a kidney-shaped pool and private gardens.  The center of the villa features an open-air kitchen and living area that opened out on to the pool deck.  Two in house maids kept things running smoothly behind the scenes, while a local masseuse and driver pampered and guided us each day.

Garry thoroughly enjoyed lounging by pool all week while I took time out to explore a couple of local tourist venues.  In between our indolent moments we continued to run our business remotely.  This all worked superbly until a systems upgrade by the local telecoms company left us without reliable internet access for two days.

The villa’s location in Sanur ultimately proved to be both a blessing and a curse.  A blessing because it was located on Bali’s eastern coast well away from the crass and infamous back packing paradise of Kuta.  A new, modern supermarket was also available just a couple of doors away.  The local beach was rarely crowded.

However we soon discovered that Sanur was also a long way away from many of the island’s best shopping, bars and restaurants.  This meant that dining out often involved a mind-numbing commute in slow moving traffic for up to an hour in each direction.  Yes – you can dine like a king for half the price of a premier Australian venue – but only if you’re willing run a daily gantlet of noise, clutter and chaos to get there. For me this stressful book-ending experience spoiled the entire evening.  

We were also reminded that Indonesia is a developing nation when I picked up a nasty bug and enjoyed 24 hours of diarrhea. Despite these setbacks we enjoyed a superb Sunday brunch at the W Hotel in Seminyak. We then returned later in the week for a memorable dinner at nearby Meera Putih.  This restaurant’s interior in and of itself was worth the trip. Soaring white light clad pillars capture your eye the moment you enter the dining hall; each surrounded by full size (artificial but incredibly life like) palm trees.

We also discovered Mandailing Estate Coffee quite by chance while shopping in a local mall.  This is certified Wild Kopi Luwak; the world’s rarest coffee.  I recall seeing news stories when we were living in London about cups of this coffee being offered for £50.00 each.  We bought ourselves a 180gm bag, enough to make 4 cups of coffee for five days, for less than $20.00. 

This coffee is famous for its origin.  It comes from the remote highland regions of Sumatra.  Here wild Palm Civet cats (they look like a very furry mongoose) feast each night on ripe Arabica coffee cherries growing in the local coffee plantations.  The coffee beans ferment as they make their way through the animal’s intestinal tract. This process neutralizes the coffee’s natural acidity. 

The coffee bean skats are then collected by the locals and once roasted result in a smoother drinking experience.  Personally I thought that without its acidic edge this brew tasted rather like instant coffee.  However, experimenting with double shot variations resulted in a satisfyingly strong but less bitter cup.

Our culinary adventure was somewhat soured a few days later when we discovered that less scrupulous farmers cage the wild Civets and force feed them cherries to create an industrialized version of this famous coffee.  We found two such creatures in barren wire cages while visiting a local tea sampling venue.  While our coffee was the real deal it seems that many others are not.

When we did venture out the local sights were a little and miss. Fiona and I spent an afternoon exploring the verdant rice terraced valleys in Tegalalang and a thundering waterfall in Tegenungan.  The terraces were superb.  They were the real deal albeit enhanced with paths and stairways for easier tourist access.  I spent more than hour wandering the hillside soaking in the vista.  It was wonderfully refreshing to see something green after days of urban clutter and concrete.

Fiona and I also visited Uluwatu Temple.  This Buddhist temple sits precariously on the edge of a plunging rocky cliff face.  Sadly, the idyllic location didn’t live up to its Tripadvisor rating.  We found a dusty, dirty and decaying temple complex overwhelmed by busloads of selfie stick wielding Chinese tourists.  They blocked every path, crowded the stairways and constantly waved their sticks around like deadly Jedi light sabres.  The temple’s most iconic buildings were also out of bounds to all but the most fervent local worshipper.

Garry and I concluded it was worth the trip to experience Bali.  We also agreed that if we were to return we’d base ourselves on the opposite side of the island and hide away within the walls of an appropriate five-star resort.