Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Here's the Scoop!

My first (and perhaps last) news broadcast for this semi-minor event that I had fun with nonetheless. Gave me an excuse to play with video stuff at any rate! :)

And if you're wondering what the hey I am doing at the very end, I was mocking model shoots, because they always use wind machines. ;)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

All Creatures Small and Smaller

All right, ya'll. My last post was loooooong. So, a short one with some photos. And to be a real crowd pleaser, it's all about animals and kids.

 We've got a sleeping baby

 a pup with questionable fashion sense

 kids playing on a modern, metallic bunny

a kid AND a bunny, on a leash, no less

 a bird with a disproportionately large bank account

and this cat, who may have, in fact, eaten my soul...

Saturday, April 10, 2010


I don't get my heart set on much. As far as I can tell, the minute I really look forward to something is exactly when it all goes to pot. It's canceled, it rains, I come down with a fever - the usual suspects. My friend Drew would say this is being dreadfully pessimistic and what is the fun in life if not to look forward to things we plan on and get excited about? I get that. Sometimes it works out. But the other side of this is that sometimes when you aren't counting on anything happening or going your way, it all falls into place. And it's those times that I count among my most thrilling and deliriously happy. A perfect example is one of my favorite trips I took during my freshman year of college, a trip I signed up for not knowing a single other soul who was going. And you know what? It's one of my happiest college memories. It is a rare and cherished thing to find yourself laughing for the greater part of a weekend, a handful of new friends to call for future weekends.

In general, I guess I find more satisfaction in the happy, little surprises in life, so I leave myself open to a lot of them. So with that bit of background out of the way, I am actually here to tell you about a plan. Yes. I made a plan. I hoped on a plan. I carried out a plan. Crazy, I know. I dared to hope for a good outcome despite being the hopeless doubter that I am.

I had wanted to go to Harbin, a city in northern China, since last winter. A trip did not pan out in the two month window I had, but I didn't dwell too much on it at the time. But then I found myself still in China a year later and thought, woman, this is your second chance. So I starting thinking about it and planting seeds in others' minds months ahead. I decided it wouldn't be hard. Now that I had some traveling in China under my belt, it should be a simple matter of just planning a short trip. A long weekend. I researched the city, it's history, the reviews of the ice and snow festival that was the main reason for wanting to go. After a while, I felt that old feeling creeping in. I wanted to do something specific and I was falling in love with the idea.

Well, it was a great plan. A great plan, that is, until I couldn't find anyone to go with me. These things happen. People have jobs and stuff. Plus, going to a sub-zero climate to look at some blocks of ice could be considered a hard sell... So I let myself get upset, feeling stupid for falling for that old trick of getting my hopes up just so they could disintegrate. Haven't you learned your lesson, you big dolt?

But then, I changed my tune. I thought, no. I am not going to let it stop me. I toured Guilin by myself, why can't I just go alone? It's simple enough and I feel safe in China, so why not? I had my doubts, of course. Are you crazy? I asked myself. You're going to go, get lost and die in the snow, alone. (Sheesh, my mind can be so drearily morbid!) But I just shook it off, telling myself I'd be kicking my own tail for years after this if I didn't seize this opportunity. It was now or never.

So after some dithering and waiting and checking the weather forecasts and getting discouraged (-20F?!), I finally rallied and worked out a plan and booked my tickets for the last week in February, the last week of the ice festival. Whoa, did I just commit to a solo trip? Oh sure, I had toured Guilin by myself, but David was there, meeting me for dinner and sharing the flights to and from. Sure, I lived in Shanghai for a year and was by myself 80% of the time, but touring a city you live in is decidedly different than playing tourist elsewhere. I've never taken a solo trip, not even in my own country. So this was quite a moment for me. I experienced a special kind of post-ticket purchase glee once I booked the flight and room and I took it to mean I had made the right choice.

So, I prepared, stuffed my suitcase full of sweaters and socks and set out on my journey. The flight was easy, as usual. I worried more about getting into town from the airport outside of Harbin. I had two options: take a cab (100 yuan) or take the airport bus (20 yuan). I decided to go all out and take the bus.

Boy, was that ever an adventure all in itself.

I somehow found the bus ticket counter, deducing this from the price on the window (I knew the price beforehand), attempted a question with the non-responsive, practically comatose ticket lady, aborted that plan and went ahead and bought a ticket. Instead of attempting another question, I followed the lady who bought a ticket after me to find out where to find the bus. You have to get creative when you have no clue what is going on. 

We reached the bus and I thought, hmm, this might have been the choice that marks me as a lunatic. There were at least 30 people crowding the bus, trying to shove luggage in the bottom compartment, tripping over the luggage carriers that everyone wheeled right up to the bus, pushing past people, boarding. There was no hope I was getting on that thing, but lucky for me there was another bus waiting right behind and I figured I could inch up to be one of the first in line.

Didn't matter. Still madness. Everyone was not only shoving their luggage in, they were trying to lock it up with these goofy little chains with pad locks. It was NOT a smooth operation. Plus, the first round of folks were all in the way of everyone else. I was in the second wave, but it made no difference. A lady in a lush fur coat pushed me out of the way and my patience started to wane. Someone rammed something into the back of my ankle. I know I started saying what I was thinking out loud because at that point I didn't care and nobody was listening anyway. "This is the most inefficient, insane, bleep bleep way to bleep go about things! Bleep." Finally a guy who was supposed to be helping the process along (read: useless) just motions for me to leave my suitcase in the spot I had somehow managed to find for it, without locking it because time was ticking. I couldn't reach a chain for my luggage anyway, so I boarded.

I immediately started to smack myself in the forehead.

I fretted the whole way into town, worried that my luggage was left on the curb or stolen at any of our other stops because it was the only one not locked up. All my clothes! In reality, nothing too valuable, but after losing my small camera recently, I'd had enough of losing things. I knew it would make for a great story, but I cared more about not being cold for three days at that point.

But much to my delight it was still there when I got off at the train station. This trip might not suck, I thought.

I took the first taxi I found, agreeing to a slightly augmented fare because at that point, I just didn't care. The driver tried chatting, but I couldn't understand his question and wasn't motivated to try too hard. Within 10 minutes I was at the hotel. The driver handed me my precious luggage from the trunk and then with a sort of awkward, goofy grin, he spread his arms, his shoulders sort of in an "aren't I silly?" shrug, and hugged me.

Um. That's new. I kind of laughed it off and said "Ha, okay, bye bye!" That was it. Not a super creepy hug, or a grab even, but it was odd. I chalked it up to the solo traveler gig, a quirky tidbit to share over future beers.

I checked in. Let me tell you, it was the simplest check in process in China to date, and that's saying a lot. I settled into my warm and basic room, resting a bit before foraging for food. I asked the front desk about food options. They laughed and said, "KFC!" Ha, no way. I have KFC in Jining. Anything else? I mean, it's a big city. "McDonald's," they offered. Sigh. Apparently there was no hotel restaurant like their brochure said. It was too late for most restaurants, I figured. So, McDonald's it was, as I hadn't eaten a real meal all day. I enjoyed it and called it a day soon after.

Chinese style hotel breakfast turned out to be quite okay, especially for around 3 bucks. You simply have to tell your mind it is okay to eat fried rice and veggies at breakfast. I filled up and it lasted me a good part of the day. Best $3 I spent.

I bundled up and set out toward the river, thinking I would at least see the Snow Festival that day. The sun was shining, but it was indeed quite cold. I could feel ice crystals forming in my nose when I inhaled. Harbin is in the northern-most province of China, butting up against Russia, as in Siberia, as in, damn cold. I saw many signs in Russian and there were even some restaurants with Russian food. The city still felt like China to me, but I could definitely see the Russian influence in the architecture. The most prominent example of this is the old orthodox church of St. Sophia.

I found myself amazed that this building still stands, built at the beginning of the 1900s, surviving time and the Cultural Revolution. I enjoyed seeing something old, sturdy and authentic for a change.

My feet and cheeks were already frozen after only thirty minutes of being outside, but the rest of me was warm. I've never worn so many clothes in my life! I picked my way over the ice covered sidewalks to the river, which is frozen solid for 3 months out of the year. People clear off sections of the river for ice skating rinks, ice slides, odd little one-dog dog sleds, and even some horse drawn carriages. It had the typical quirky, hodgepodge air of many Chinese outdoor activities I have come across. Funny to watch, but not fun-looking enough to inspire participation. 

Next step was to get across the river to the Snow Festival. I realized that some people were actually walking across the frozen river, but it seemed like a really long walk. So I opted for the cable car. I'm glad I did because I got a good view of the city despite holding my breath every time the car hit a bump. I'm not scared of heights. I'm just scared of falling from them.

A couple fellow travelers, an older gent from Australia and his younger Chinese friend, were heading to the festival at the same time as me, so we all decided to go together. I welcomed the conversation and Jack, the Chinese guy, explained a few signs and things along the way.

The snow sculptures were a little worse for wear as the temperature had reached freezing a few days before. Add in the sunshine, and the snow had melted some at the surface. Overall they were still impressive, especially the large ones...
We spent a good 2 hours walking around to all the sculptures. There were so many. I would like to know how long it takes to carve them all.
Towards the end, I found out the Ice Festival was a thirty minute walk from there, but running low on calories from breakfast and being thoroughly frozen, I decided to head back and search for some early dinner. I bid farewell to my travel companions and slowly made my way back to town.

Food proved hard to find. I thought I was walking down a restaurant street of sorts, but it seemed to have mostly clothing stores, but I didn't have a hankering for cotton or pleather. Turns out all the restaurants were down the side streets. Maybe I would have noticed this earlier if I hadn't been closely watching every step I took on the ice rink that was the sidewalks and street. I was so sore from flinching and catching my balance all day. Eventually I found a recognizable Japanese chain, got myself some curry rice and then walked back toward the hotel. I pushed myself to go a block out of the way for some night shots of the cathedral, but then I went straight to the hotel. I was toast at 8pm.

Another big breakfast the next morning, but then I doddled around to watch the Olympics, as the women's figure skating finals were on that day. My only goal that day was to see the Ice Festival, so I had plenty of time to spare. I had decided to walk there, utilizing my cable car ticket I neglected to use for the return trip the day before. So, trying to time the long walk to arrive at the fest around sunset, I left the hotel around 2pm to get some lunch (I succumbed to more fast food) and continued towards the river.

Two pairs of socks managed to keep my feet warm longer, but eventually, they surrendered. No matter. I just kept walking. The last 30 minutes of the walk was quite beautiful as the sun set.
I arrived at the festival gates just as the sun slipped away and just before they turned on all the lights. The long walk had served as a sort of long, drawn out lead up to the main event, building suspense. I bought the ticket and went inside. I took it all in and thought, "Yeah, this is, in fact, pretty damn cool."
 This is several stories tall and made all of ice.
For the next two hours I just snapped away with my camera. I had brought a tripod along just for this night, trying to work on my skills and get some good night shots. I took one go down an ice slide and one pit stop in a warm hut for some hot tea and popcorn. 

 Ta da!
Other than that, it was photography city. I got some attention while setting up shots and then running to get into the frame, racing the camera timer. I completely didn't care. I focused on taking it all in, with both my eyes and my lens. I certainly couldn't focus on my frozen feet, which were, in the end, the deciding factor for when to take my leave.

Which brings me to the second event I was anxious about: finding a ride back. The festival is way out there, so I knew I'd be at the mercy of the supply of cabs. (Another good reason for leaving early, to avoid the last minute rush for a ride.) So leaving a good hour or so before things shut down, there were plenty of cabs. I chatted with the first driver who tried to woo me. I acted pretty distracted and uninterested, which was somewhat true, so it turned out pretty easy to get him to agree to my price. He let me sit in the car while he went back to get a couple more people to fill up his car and we were off. I was so relieved! 

We dropped off the young couple first. When they had shut the door, the driver nudged me, pointed at them and told me how much they had paid. It was 10 yuan more than I did! Whoo hoo! We both laughed at this. I don't think I've ever underbid a native before! Heck yeah, ego boost!

By the time I got back to the hotel I was stoked. I had done it. I had come, I had seen what I wanted to see, I had taken some pictures I could be proud of, I had successfully bargained and I had survived. I felt like a million. Maybe this was a good sign of things to come, my new leaf of pushing myself to hold tight to some dreams, encouraging them to bloom instead of always letting them die on the vine. Some things are worth facing fears for and the bonus is finding courage along the way. Harbin was something I could not conceive of doing on my own a mere twelve months before. Now that I've conquered it, I have to wonder what seemingly impossible tasks I can think of will be checked off the list in the future. I certainly was not born out on a limb, fearlessly dancing high above the ground, but I am getting more comfortable with stepping out there from time to time, maybe even doing a twirl or two.