Saturday, January 29, 2011

Castles in the Snow

HARBIN -- Snow and Ice World -- Part 3 of 3

Most impressive of my two-day trip were the castles, temples and towers of the Ice and Snow World. Each structure was made from blocks of ice carved out of the solidly frozen Songhua River that runs north of city center. In my youth, my dad and I had struggled to make small, two-room buildings out of packed snow. Seeing entire castles that resembled those in Europe, in size and grandeur, made these childhood efforts seem trivial.

As night descended, the lights within each ice block that formed the foundation, walls and spires of the buildings were illuminated in an aurora borealis of colors. Against the snow-white ground with the colorful lights dancing about, it felt like I’d slipped into a life-sized snow globe – a machine in the distance dispersing freshly made snow completed the scene.

By the end of the trip, my feet were frozen, my hands sore and my nose red like Rudolph the Reindeer’s, but I had a slew of great photos and a new found respect for the word “cold.” And like my other foreign friends who have visited the ice festival, I can check Harbin off my list of travel destinations and fondly remember the fun I’d had in the snow and ice of the northern city while enjoying warmer climates in the winters to come.









Friday, January 21, 2011

Tiger, Tiger

HARBIN-- Tiger Park -- Part 2 of 3

Harbin is home to one of the largest tiger preserves in the world. The preserve is home to hundreds of Siberian tigers and a few other wild cats – panthers, lions, and ligers included. The tigers were split up into different holding areas a few acres in size and allowed to roam around. Buses rigged with bars over the windows took us through the various areas as the driver tried not to run over any of the precious beasts. Most of the tigers were indifferent to our presence, but a few pawed the bus or grunted if it slowed down.

In the largest area, our bus pulled into a large open area and stopped. Tigers started moving our way in all directions. A second car entered the area and the tigers perked up. The car pulled up beside our bus and the driver opened his door quickly and threw something onto the top of the vehicle. It was a live chicken. Feeding time.

Two tigers jumped for the bird, which tried to flap away, but soon found itself in the jaws of a third tiger. A few more chickens and pheasants were thrown atop the car, meeting similar fates as the first. But this was just part of the tour – for a fee, tourists could pay for slabs of meat ($7) or live chickens ($14), pheasants ($14), goats ($90) and even cattle ($200). Call it cruel, but it made the experience a bit more realistic in terms of watching the tigers pounce their prey.

CAT NAP: One of the tigers sits atop a rock, indifferent to the bus fully of tasty tourists, which I happened to be in, not 10 feet away

SPOTS AMONG THE SNOW: Each holding area had a certain number of tigers. The largest had about 30

BIG SCRATCHING POST: A tiger scratches into a tree in one of the holding pens. It's funny how these big cats imitate smaller domesticated cats

LOUNGING AROUND: A tiger shows off his/her better side for a bus full of tourists

PRICE FOR FOOD: Call it what you want, tigers need to eat too

SNOW WHITE: The tiger preserve had Siberian white tigers in special pens

HERE KITTY, KITTY: Some of the tigers were a bit camera shy, or annoyed with all the tourists trying to get their photos

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL: One tiger found our bus interesting enough to get a close up look

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ice, Ice Baby

HARBIN-- Zhaolin Park -- Part 1 of 3

Winter in Beijing this year has been a complete let down. Last year, we in Beijing were treated to two major snow storms by Christmas. This year, we had a 30-second flurry just before New Year's and that was about it. I almost feel like I'm getting ripped off -- Beijing has the cold weather associated with winter, often times dropping into negative territory, but snow is rare. As a native of northeast Pennsylvania and the many Nor Easters we get, when it gets cold there needs to be snow. No exceptions.

So to fulfill that part of me that craves the frigid fluffy white stuff I took matters into my own hands and headed north -- to Harbin.

Harbin is China's largest northern city, in Heilongjiang Province. The city is heavily influenced by Russia and has all the Western features associated with a city in Europe.

But aside from being cold and having some decent architecture Harbin is known for its annual Ice Festival.

Last year, I opted out of taking a journey north to see the snow and ice -- I was just getting started with my job and was short on cash and the urge to spend any unnecessary time in the cold. But this year, with no snow, a little extra cash on hand and the desire to do some traveling, I decided to man up.

With new Timberland boots (fur included), a nice new [fake] down winter jacket and three pairs of thermals, I was fairly certain I'd survive the two day trip I had planned.

The high speed train I'd booked -- 8 hours from Beijing to Harbin -- arrived around 4 p.m. It was relatively dark by then and perfect for visiting Zhaolin Park for the night-time ice sculptures on display.

Temperatures were about -30 degrees C or roughly -22 F.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: The ice sculptures came in different sizes, most close to life size

FUN WITH BOB: I was surprised to see these two characters at the Ice Fest. But American cartoons are wildly popular in China, so it figures

WHO?: An ice owl, one of the any animal sculptures at Zhaolin

BRIDGE MAY BE ICE: A bridge across the small creek in Zhaolin was made completely of ice

COOL PAVILION: A typical pavilion and pathway found in most Chinese parks... made of ice

TEMPLE OF ICE: Many of the sculptures were of well-known landmarks in China and around the world, like this one of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing

COLD AS ICE: A passageway made of ice

CARE FOR SOME COLD?: A Care Bear ice sculpture

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My 2nd Five-Year Plan

For our annual New Year's party at CIPG, I was asked to give a speech on living in China and working for CIPG. A broad topic yes, but I focused in on the goals I've set for myself while living here, if only in a comical way. The Chinese staff liked the speech so much I wrote it up as an article that will be published in an upcoming issue of
Beijing Review.

Three years ago, the thought of moving to and working in China was just about as foreign as the country itself. I certainly had the means and interest to visit, but I really had no desire to move abroad – it wasn’t part of my five-year plan at the time.

But then this thing called the financial crisis swept the globe, crashing markets and putting millions out of work. With no jobs in America, particularly in the communications field for a recent college graduate like myself, and with unemployment skyrocketing, I found myself with a sudden change of heart toward working abroad.

I considered my options. With no job prospects, I could: stay at home and live with dear old mom and dad; or accept an internship in China and move to a country I’d never visited before, didn’t speak the language, knew little about the culture and where I had no friends or contacts.

Now, you may think it was a difficult decision to make – leaving my home and giving up everything familiar for a life abroad where I would essentially be pressing the reset button on my life – but, then again, you don’t know my parents. I certainly don’t want to imply that they are bad parents, they’ve actually been the most prominent guiding forces in my life and have helped me at every major crossroad I’ve faced throughout the years, but I’m just one of those people who needs a major change of scenery every now and then. And you don’t get a much bigger change of scenery than moving from the hills of Pennsylvania, my home state, where there are more cows than people, to Beijing where there’s a mountain, and a sea, of people. So China it was.

I’ve been here for almost two years now, no major complaints or qualms.

Even before coming to China, I’ve tried to map out where I wanted to go with my life, usually in five-year intervals. Graduating college, working for my nationally esteemed college newspaper, and finding a job working for a major publication were all part of my 1st Five-Year Plan. Seeing that the five-year plan seems to be working pretty well for China, now in it’s 11th Five-Year Plan, I decided to stick with this development model and formulate my 2nd Five-Year Plan.

First of all, I want to learn Chinese. Since moving to Beijing and taking my Mandarin lessons seriously I’ve made major improvements – I can say a lot more than just “ni hao” (hello), “zai jian” (goodbye) and “zai lai yi ge pijiu” (bring one more beer) – but I want to get to a level where I can have conversations with people or solve certain problems that arise in my daily life. And grunting and pointing like a caveman when I want something or when I’m trying to communicate with people is getting kind of boring, not to mention embarrassing.

I want to be famous, or at least experience what it’s like to be a celebrity. The Chinese people have been extremely helpful in allowing me to realize this goal. Whenever I go to the Great Wall or any other major tourist site at least one Chinese person will request to have their photo taken with me. Apparently I look like a mix between Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. Now all I need is for someone to ask me to autograph a T-shirt or movie poster.

I want to write a book. After living in Beijing for almost two years I feel like I have enough material for a short memoir, a “What to do” book, a “What not to do” book, some poetry or maybe a nice “Where’s Brandon?” picture book where you have to find me, the foreigner, in various photos full of Chinese people, like Tiananmen Square on National Day or the subway terminal at rush hour.

I want to get married, which means I’ll have to find a girlfriend first. This will probably be the easiest goal in my 2nd Five-Year Plan to accomplish since at least five girls tell me they love me every time I go to the Silk Market. This complements the “Hey, sexy man” remark I get as I peruse the different clothing stalls which makes me feel like a celebrity.

I want to stay in shape, something that’s somewhat difficult since I spend most of my day inside and in front a computer screen. But, despite my increased lethargy and unwillingness to take the stairs in lieu of the escalators, after using Chinese squat toilets for almost two years my legs, midsection and lower body are in the best physical condition they’ve ever been in. And we’ll just leave it at that.

And, on a more serious note, I’d like to visit Mount Everest, because it’s there. And by there, I mean here, in China’s back yard. From Beijing, it’s still a lengthy journey, but compared to the United States it’s much more convenient and accessible.

Will I accomplish all these tasks? Of course not, but it’s a framework to living an interesting and somewhat coordinated life. And what I don’t accomplish in the 2nd Five-Year Plan will just have to wait for the 3rd Five-Year Plan – and depending on how the second plan works out, I may still be in China to continue it.

PAST AND PRESENT: I talk with one of the former editors in chief of Beijing Review about life in the Middle Kingdom and working for the magazine