27 01 2011

I arrived in Dalian at around 6:45a.m., having been woken up on the train about 6a.m. to get my ticket back, after which I tried my best to get back to sleep until the train actually arrived.  Finding the bus to the hostel wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped either, and with the help of a local I found one of the buses I could take.  I asked the driver to be sure, and he assured me I could take this bus, though it was very far away.  It turned out to be about 15 minutes on the bus, not what I would call ‘very far’.  Because it was so early I had to wait to check into the hostel along with another girl who co-incidentally arrived the same time I did.  When I got into the room I immediately went back to bed.

I got up for the second time about 10:30a.m., took a shower then had a little chat with some people in the hostel, and then ventured outside to see what Dalian had to offer.  It turns out it doesn’t really have a lot to offer.  Well not during the winter months at any rate.  I’m told it’s much livelier in the summer.  To give you an idea of how few people were here, there were only about 4 travellers, myself included, in the hostel.  Anyway, I tried to make the most of it; I visited a few of the public squares Dalian is supposedly famous for, and had a wander around the city centre and nearby, and also went to the Labour Park, which had a few interesting sights.  One of these sights I happened upon when I first entered the park.  It was a group of older people flocking around a few trees, all of which had sheets of paper attached.  I had a vague memory of hearing about this kind of thing before but had never seen it for myself.  It’s a kind of dating service where people go to ‘advertise’ their son/daughter/grandson/granddaughter to find potential partners for them. 


Getting dates in the park

The park also houses a giant football, a ferris wheel, various other fairground rides (most of which were closed), some ponds and Chinese pavilions, and in winter a small ski slope for the kids.


On my second day I took a walk along Binhai Road, which stretches along the ocean, although you can’t see the ocean the entirety of the walk.  It was a nice walk though, and very peaceful, thankfully there weren’t many cars on the road.  After about 7 or 8KM I found myself at Lion Beach, which isn’t actually a beach but more of a seaside resort, with a few fairground rides which all appeared to be closed, and some kind of aquarium called Sea-World.  There was nothing more to do around here, so I took a bus back to the city centre, and then onto People’s Square which wasn’t really anything special.  I think this is pretty much everything I did in Dalian, and as you can see it wasn’t that exciting.  Anyway, on to Suzhou….


Some statues and the view along Binhai Road


Harbin Part 2

26 01 2011

So I’ve covered the accommodation and the town in part 1, so now it’s onto the ice and snow sculptures.

Ice and Snow World

This is the biggest of the attractions in Harbin’s Ice Festival.  Getting there was a bit of an effort though.  I was told I could take the bus from outside the hostel and it would take me straight to the Ice and Snow World.  It sounds simple enough, but there was only one bus I could take.  I waited for 30 minutes in the blistering cold, and the bus I needed hadn’t come yet.  To add insult to injury, there are two buses with the same number, 13, so every time I saw a regular 13 bus my hopes were raised only to be dashed again when I saw it wasn’t the inter-district bus I needed.  After the first 30 minutes I went back inside the hostel to enquire about any other buses I could take, but they didn’t know of any nearby.  They did offer me a transportation option for the following evening, which I considered for a while.  I finally decided to brave it in the cold for another 10 minutes before calling it quits for the day.  A 13 inter-district bus arrived after a few minutes, though it was already jam packed, and there were many people waiting to get on it, so it was not an option.  Fortunately another bus came only a few minutes later, which was still pretty full, but not enough that I couldn’t squeeze on.  I don’t know what the transport authority in Harbin are doing, but making people wait for what turned out to be 50 minutes in temperatures that cold (it was about –20 degrees) is very cruel.  It’s clear there aren’t enough of the 13 inter-district buses, so just dispatch more! 

I finally arrived at the Ice and Snow World, and went to buy a ticket, where I was told by the woman counting 100 yuan notes in the warm (I assume it’s warmer than outside anyway) ticket booth to go to the next window.  Nice to see some compassion for the freezing people trying to get in.  I went to the next window and she had finished counting her 100’s before I got served and went on to serve some other people.  How annoying!  Fortunately my student I.D. is valid in Harbin for the ice festival attractions, unlike in Beijing where I had to pay full price.  I don’t understand why they only give discounts there to undergraduates and not masters or PHD students.  The entrance price for the Snow and Ice World is pretty expensive; on weekdays (Mon-Thur) it’s 280 yuan, and weekends (Fri-Sun) it’s 330 yuan!  Now I know the ice sculptures are amazing and pretty, but that seems astronomically expensive.  Many people in China make 3000 or less a month, so getting in to see the ice sculptures would be about 10% of their wages.  Can you imagine spending 10% of your wages to get into Alton Towers or Disneyland?  Anyway, my student ID entitled me to a half price ticket, which I was happy with.  They were also very vigilant checking people with student tickets, checking my ID once at the ticket booth and once at the entrance gate. 

Inside the exhibition, it was bloody cold, and my camera was playing up.  After taking a few shots in a row it would freeze up (pardon the pun) and I’d have to to pull out the battery and re-insert it to get the camera back up and running.  This was not very pleasant in the Harbin climate, especially because I had to take my gloves off every time to do it, making my already cold fingers even colder.  To keep warm there are indoor cafe’s dotted around the exhibition, where you could take in a cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate.  The ice sculptures were impressive.  Some of them, the smaller ones, are carved out of one giant block of ice into a seamless sculpture, whereas the other larger (and some of them are very big) sculptures are made out of hundreds or thousands of ‘ice bricks’, and I assume held together with ice.  The two stand out sculptures, by which I mean the biggest, were a Disney-like castle, and another even bigger castle/fort.  There are a few fun activities you can partake in inside the Ice & Snow World including many small ice slides, a big ice slide which you ride down on a plastic sled, skiing and some shows.  I only went on the smaller ice slides because all the other attractions had big queues which I wasn’t prepared to wait in the cold for.


Skiing and the ‘Disney’ castle

Sun Island Snow Sculpture Exhibition

To get to this part of the festival, I was told the quickest way was to walk straight across the river and you were practically there.  I decided to take this option, little realizing how cold it would be crossing the river.  I grinned and bared the river crossing, and soon found my way to the entrance of the Snow Sculpture Exhibition, with a very large truck parked inconveniently parked in-front of it, with people shovelling snow from the truck into an enclosure to prepare for another snow sculpture.  They had left a small gap at the side so you could enter the park though.  The admission price was pretty steep for this attraction too; 150 yuan for a normal priced ticket, and 75 yuan for a student/discount ticket. 


Crossing the frozen river

I think the snow sculptures look nicer than the ice sculptures, mainly because they appear to be more detailed.  I’m sure some of the ice sculptures are quite detailed, but because of ice’s transparent nature, it can be hard to see some of that detail, whereas snow is very ‘çlean’ for making sculptures, so it’s very easy to make out the finer details.  There were many sculptures in the park, some depicting the travels of Marco Polo, some Disney/Dreamworks sculptures and various others.  The park also had cafes selling tea and coffee etc. which were pleasantly decorated as snow sculptures. 


A cleverly disguised cafe, and one big snow sculpture


So what was I wearing to keep out the cold.  It was quite a lot I can tell you.  My first layer, both top and bottom were a set of thermal underlayers which my parents gave me for Christmas.  Then on my lower body I also wore a pair of jeans, a normal pair of socks and a pair of super thick hiking socks again courtesy of my parents, and a regular pair of trainers.  On my upper body I was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt, a short sleeved t-shirt, a hoody and a regular coat.  I also wore a woolly hat, scarf and gloves.  Generally this was enough to keep me warm.  When it was really really cold (about –18 degrees and below) I covered my face a lot with my scarf, as the cold wind hitting your face is not very pleasant.  I also found my hands would get cold quite easily when taking photographs, so I had to keep taking little breaks to keep my hands warm. 


I had a nice time in Harbin, and I think I would probably do it again, but maybe in a few years; I don’t feel the need to experience temperatures that cold again any time soon.  I would certainly recommend going to see the ice and snow sculptures, but make sure you wrap up warm!  If you want to see more photos go to my flickr page.

Faster than a speeding bullet

19 01 2011

I’m finally back in Xiamen after my 2 and a bit week trip in China.  I took the bullet train from Shanghai to Xiamen, which took about 7 hours and 15 minutes to complete the 1154km/717 mile journey.  If only there weren’t so many stops I think you could cut an hour from that time, maybe more – the train travels at maximum speeds of about 250km/h or 150mph.  This is a great improvement on the first time I travelled from Shanghai to Xiamen, which took 26 hours.  I was dreading the journey at first because I thought it would be pretty boring, but I managed to watch 3 films during the journey which took up a good few hours, then I had to turn to my MP3 player when my laptop ran out of juice, and there were no sockets anywhere except in the toilet, which was not very convenient. 

Back on campus there isn’t a lot going on.  Since it’s the holidays a lot of the canteens have shut down, and most of the students have gone home, so I foresee myself doing much more home cooking than normal since my favourite canteen has already closed. 

More holiday posts and pictures to come very soon…

Harbin Part 1

9 01 2011

Since I’ve left Harbin and am now in Dalian (it’s still really cold here) it’s time to do a write up of my time in Harbin.

The Hostel

I stayed in the Kazy Youth Hostel, which is conveniently located really close to the main street and other attractions in Harbin.  Once I found the right bus stop it was really easy to get to.  The hostel is situated inside a former synagogue and the lobby still retains some of the architecture.  The hostel itself was quite nice and warm, and there was a common area where it was easy to meet people.  The showers were hot although not that powerful, and I think there were only 2 showers to share between the people staying in dormitories, though I never had to wait.  The bed I stayed in was very hard, and the first night the pillow was a nightmare, so I swapped it the second night when there was a change of guests.  Some of the pillows were stuffed with lots of little beads, like a bean bag would be, but these were harder than that, and very uncomfortable.  When I swapped for a regular pillow all was well (except the extremely hard bed of course; the hard sleeper on the trains are softer and more comfortable).

harbin hostel

The only other problem I had with the hostel was with the guests in my room.  I don’t know if they had never stayed in hostels before, or were completely lacking in hostel etiquette, but every night I slept terribly because of the other people in the room.  The first night was a group of British students here in China, and Í don’t think it was all of them that caused me problems.  Firstly a girl came into the room whilst I was trying to sleep, turned the light on, and then sat on her bed using a laptop/phone (I’m not sure exactly what she was doing but it was something along those lines).  A while later a few more people came in a decided to have a chat in the room.  Eventually they all left and I was able to get to sleep.  The second night I was sharing with some Brazilian guys, who came in whilst I was sleeping, and this was around 2a.m. I would guess, turned the light on, had a chat for a while then eventually went to bed.  The final night I had one of the world’s worst snorers in the bunk above me.  The woman was asleep about 10p.m. and slept through until about 11:30a.m.  She was the kind of snorer who varies in the sound of their snore, and stops for a little while whilst changing the sound.  It was about 5a.m. when I got woken up by her, and about 6:30a.m. before I managed to get back to sleep.  I was wearing earplugs as well but could still hear her, to give you an idea of how loud she was. 

The City Centre

Harbin isn’t a huge place.  There’s a main street called Zhong Yang Da Jie, which is the main shopping street, and it’s lined with ice sculptures during the Snow & Ice Festival.  Many of the sculptures there were Disney themed, with sculptures of Winnie the Pooh, Snow White, Toy Story, The Little Mermaid and more. 


Toy Story Ice Sculpture (not sure why Woody is riding a strange horse/duck hybrid)

The main street leads to the Songhua River, which is completely frozen over in winter.  On the opposite side of the river is Sun Island, where the Snow Sculpture Park is, and also a Russian Village, and on the main town side there are various activities you can do on the river, including a horse drawn carriage ride across the river, a ride on a snowmobile and a kind of ice-skate sled hybrid(see picture below).  There were also lots of children playing with a traditional spinning toy. 


The city is also partially Russian influenced, so there are many shops selling Russian products, and Russian architecture can be seen throughout the city, even if some of it isn’t original.  The St Sofia Cathedral is one example of traditional Russian architecture still remaining in the city, which has now been turned into a gallery, though I didn’t go inside.  There is also a small park in the city which has lots of Disney Ice Sculptures but again I didn’t go inside since I’d already been to the main Ice Sculpture Park and the Snow Sculpture Park, and most people say the one in the city isn’t really worth it. 

One Day in Beijing

5 01 2011

The day started (and ended) with more train madness.  The train pulled into Beijing West station about 10 minutes late at 7:10a.m., then I got on a crowded bus on the busy Beijing roads to Beijing station.  I spent a few minutes outside watching the board with the train availability, hoping to see tickets available for an earlier train to Harbin.  The changes were slow, then I saw the sign for the ticket hall and fortunately inside there they have a much bigger screen.  The earlier trains I were hoping to take were in fact all sold out, and some had limited availability for 10 days in advance.  Yes, it seems Beijing is exempt from the 5 day advance ticket limit that has been put in place in other places.  That’s not very harmonious is it?  Anyway, since I couldn’t do anything about my train to Harbin, I went back outside to join a queue to buy a ticket from Harbin to Dalian, since the queues looked shorter.  After waiting about 10 minutes in the cold, the ticket windows finally opened, and it was taking an age for the first customer to get served, and there were a few queue-cutters.  This happened a few other times as I was getting closer to the front, no-one saying a thing and the ticket seller not doing a thing either.  If only they’d install metal barriers to prevent people cutting in from the side everything would be much smoother.  Finally I got to the front, and the reason the queue was moving so slow was the system was overloaded and therefore slow to find available tickets.  It seems China really needs to invest in the train ticket system.  I finally got my ticket to Dalian though.

I was pretty tired and cold at this point so I went to a nice warm shopping centre nearby and found a Starbucks and parked myself there for 2 hours with a hot chocolate and free wi-fi.  I looked up some things to do in the afternoon, and decided to go to the Old Summer Palace and the Yonghegong Lama Temple.  Lunchtime soon came so I filled the hole in my stomach, then went on my merry way to the subway to go to the Old Summer Palace.  If you don’t know the story of the Old Summer Palace, during the second opium war, the palace was destroyed by the British and French troops in retaliation for the torture and execution of almost twenty European and Indian prisoners.  All that remain are some ruins of some of the European style buildings, and the foundation where other buildings used to be.  There are many lakes in the park too, all of which were frozen over, which was a nice sight to see.  Some locals had taken along their ice skates and were skating on one of them.  After the Palace I went to the Yonghegong Lama Temple, which is pretty much like most of the other temples I’ve been to.  It does hold the world record for the largest Buddha statue carved from a single piece of wood.  It stands at 26m tall, which I was very impressed with.  Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos inside the temples so if you want to experience it for yourself you’ll have to make a trip to the temple.


The Frozen Lake and Palace Ruins

The rest of the day was spent having dinner, taking refuge in Starbucks again, then waiting it out in McDonalds with a hot chocolate until my train left at 11p.m.  The day ended at the train station with a massive pile-in when they called the passengers for the train.  When I was on the train, I got up into my top bunk and slept the night away.

And The Award For The World’s Worst Train Ticket System Goes To…

31 12 2010

China!  Congratulations on winning this most prestigious award and everybody let’s give the people in charge of the system a great big round of applause.  Now, let’s get serious and explain why China has received this most coveted of awards.  Basic problems with the system include a reservation period of only up to 10 days, no online booking system and a lack of publicly available information to check availability on the trains.  How can these problems be tackled?  Well the reservation period problem is easy to solve, just simply allow reservations to be made further in advance.  I think a month is a reasonable amount of time to adjust the reservation period to.  An online booking system would obviously take time to develop and implement, but the ticketing system is already networked in some way to allow you to buy the tickets, so developing a web site front end for this system to allow people to purchase tickets shouldn’t be so difficult.  An online system also has the advantage that there won’t be millions of people queuing at ticket offices to get their tickets.  Even a simple system would suffice, whereby you book tickets with an I.D. (passport/national I.D. card) number and pick your tickets up at the station.  This would save people a lot of hassle.  Problem number three would be integrated into solution number two, so just develop an online train ticketing site and everyone would be happy!

Why am I so annoyed by the Chinese train ticket system yet again?  Well, the reason is I’m going on a trip very soon to Harbin, and am taking the train.  Since there is no direct train from here to Harbin, I’m going to have to transfer somewhere.  My first search on the site www.huoche.com led me to a few possibilities including:

  • Arriving in Hengshui at 4:03a.m. and waiting until 10:54a.m. to continue my journey

  • Arriving in Wuchang at 9:36a.m. and waiting until 5:32a.m. the next morning to continue the journey

  • Arriving in Nanchang at 5:26 and waiting until 2:25p.m. to continue my journey

As you can see, none of those are particularly alluring, especially the second option with a near 24 hour wait.  So I looked into some other options which included taking a bus/train to Guangzhou and then taking a direct train from there, or going to Beijing by train and then taking an onward train from there the same day.  Now I’d tried to buy a ticket before here in Xiamen from Beijing to Shanghai where I was told they only had hard seat tickets to sell me, even though tickets for the day I wanted to travel only went on sale that day.  I waited until I arrived in Beijing and got my sleeper tickets easily when I was there.  This left me a bit wary about trying to buy this kind of ticket this time, so I went to the ticket office and asked about it and they assured me if there were tickets available I would be able to buy them.  I have a friend in Guangzhou so if there was a problem buying that ticket here I could get her to buy it for me, but I don’t know anyone in Beijing so this was a bit of a problem for me.  The other problem right now is the ticketing system only lets you buy tickets 5 days in advance until the Winter holiday is over.  Now, let me first tell you the main reason for this further restricted reservation period is for Chinese New Year, which is still over 1 month away.  The 5 day ticket restriction started on the 19th December.  Talk about an inconvenience. 

Anyway, two days ago I went ahead and bought a ticket to Beijing in the hope that today I would be able to buy my onward ticket.  I have checked the train schedules for Beijing to Harbin, and there are 6 trains that run overnight.  I was hoping to buy a ticket for a train that arrives in the morning, of which there are 4 trains.  I arrived at the ticket office here at the university, surprised by the large queue since the previous times I had been there was no queue, and after 40 minutes of waiting in line I was at the front.  I asked for a sleeper ticket for Beijing to Harbin on the 4th Jan, 5 days from now as per the restriction, arriving in the morning.  Apparently there were no tickets.  I find it hard to believe that 4 trains worth of sleeper tickets have been purchased in the few hours since they supposedly started going on sale.  I have my sneaking suspicions that tickets for certain trains are not able to be purchased outside of the city of origin, which is a major problem when you’re going on a journey like mine.  Fortunately I did get myself a ticket on a train which arrives mid afternoon in Harbin, on a hard sleeper top bunk.  Apparently all the lower and middle tickets were sold out, again apparently in the few hours since they went on sale, again which I don’t believe.  I don’t know what is going on with the China train ticketing system but it really needs to be sorted out.  I’m hoping when I arrive in Beijing there will still be tickets on one of the other trains that arrive in the morning, and I’ll be able to swap my ticket, no doubt for some fee. 

Fortunately when you’re on the trains everything is generally problem free, and you can enjoy your journey whilst watching China pass by the window. 

Christmas Time

28 12 2010

So another Christmas has come and gone, though it has been one of the better Christmases spent away from home, this time being my forth.  On Christmas Eve I went to a house/dinner party where everyone made some food and took it along.  I made pigs in blankets, which worked out better than I thought it would, though the bacon in China is half meat and half fat, split right down the middle, so I ended up cutting each rasher diagonally to get a better proportion of meat to fat around each little sausage.  I also made some gingerbread biscuits since the biscuit cutters I ordered almost 1 week before had arrived.  Express delivery it was not.  There were lots of other delicious foods, including a tasty bean-soup thing my roommate made, roasted duck and rabbit, salad, guacamole, stuffed potatoes, and other things I don’t know the names of.


My Lovely Gingerbread Biscuits

On Christmas morning I woke feeling under the weather due to the party the previous night, so didn’t get up until the late morning.  I also had presents to open this year, but I promised my parents to wait until we had out video chat to open them, so it was the evening before I got to see what presents I had. 


I didn’t do badly I think.  From my family I got a Cardiff calendar (useful since Google decided to clear my online calendar for me), a book of puzzles, the Top Gear alternative highway code and an “I am the Stig” T-shirt, a Welsh flag flannel,  some thermals for my upcoming trip to Harbin and some games.  From the secret Santa at the party on Christmas Eve I got the illustrated book “Missing My Cat”, which looks nice, and a nice pair of gloves from my friend Xiao Ping.  Bring on the New Year!