Monday, February 12, 2007

Harbin Ice Festival 2


China has rockets, too!

One of Anna's admirers takes her for a slide.

One of the group of festival workers following us around to watch our kids.

Arctic ping pong in the park.

What kind of fur is that? Don't ask, don't tell.

On the way into our abridged night time visit.
It’s been a pretty mild winter in Beijing, which alternately is enjoyable and scary. Last week, however, we decided to leap into some real cold weather with aj ourney to Harbin for the 8th annual snow and Ice Festival. It was a good trip, sort o a trippy trip. Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang Province, and it’s about a 1.5 hour flight North of here. It is famous for its Russian influence and its extreme temperatures. The potential is there for some really serious cold.. 20 below type stuff.

Some of the folks in B’s office thought we were nuts to go. “Are you trying to make kidsicles?” one asked.

But it’s not some completely insane venture. Lots of people from here have been going this year. We had a group of friends there last weekend and when we were there, we ran into a bunch of people that we know and heard tell of many more floating around.

We went with our friends the Carberrys (Ellen and kids Luke and Chloe.. Matt unfortunately had to travel for work and couldn’t come). We stayed in the Shangri la, a really nice hotel. We figured that it would be welcome to return to a place we knew was warm and clean, and it was.

We got in at about 8:30 Friday night and had arranged for a van to drive us to the hotel. We walked across a frigid parking lot and climbed into a big ol Chinese van. It was a long drive, close to an hour, down a dark, dark highway with snowdrifts on the side of the road and snow blowing across us and us thinking ,”Hmmm.. whose idea was this again?”

But there was a full moon lighting our way and a great sense of adventure. It was one of those moments where I feel like we are on the other side of the world and then realize, “I really am on the other side of the world.”

We had an uneventful night, piled into our single room, with Anna in our bed, Jacob on a rollaway and Eli curled up on a little loveseat/couch with his “family” – his blankie and about five stuffed animals, all of whom have names and accompany him everywhere now.

In the morning, we went to the back of the hotel and played on the ice statues the kids had admired before. They have a huge igloo in the back that is actually a restaurant.. unheated but quite nice.. I went in to have a look a round.. they sell only hotpot and advertise it as “a real arctic adventure.” There was also a chinese restaurant in the lobby, along with a Western “coffee shop” where we hung out. There were signs in all of the elevators advertising the specialty dishes of the Chinese restaurant, including “fried squid balls stuffed with goose liver.” We kept threatening Jacob with that meal.

We asked the concierge where to go.. we had heard there some nice parks on the huge river which runs right through town. There is an old synagogue in town that’s supposed to b quite interesting, as well as a Russian Orthodox church and several other beautiful Russian-style buildings. We didn’t even try to see any of them, but now we have a reason to return next year.

The hotel gave us a map and circled a park where they said we should start. We got in a couple of cabs and showed them. They drove us around the corner and dropped us off in a God forsaken windblown, really cold parking lot overlooking a large and frozen river… surprisingly large and really, really forzen.

We had no idea if we should walk left or right but saw some signs of life to the left and headed that way. Below on the river there was a dock with a bunch of ferries frozen in place for the winter.They w ere old and rickety but looked to be still in use. We saw a pretty big ice slide and the kids beelined for it.

We paid some big bunch of rmb and they handed us all burlap slides. We all started sliding down, towards the river. At the bottom of the track there was a big pile of snow covered, sort of, with red burlap sacks. We flew into the wall.. the person coming next flew into your back. It felt a little nutty. The kids loved it and ran up and down. We had no clear vision if we were paying per ride, how much we would owe or anything else.

It was all good fun, but Anna was scared, didn’t do it. She stood at the bottom with Becky nd watched. There were guys running dog sled rides just next to us. Anna wanted to do one. As soon as we were about ready, Anna and 9-year-old Chloe jumped on and took off on a dog sled ride. Then two by two we all followed. We had not negotiated a price. Big mistake. Over and over we learn the same lessons and this is a big one in China. Do not do anything without having a price set beforehand. Everything is extremely negotiable on the front end and extremely non negotiable on the back end.

So we all go on our little dog sled rides, around a circles, with the poor dogs slipping and sliding on the ice on the turns. No huskies.. St. Bernard’s, German Shepherds… W get off and the kids are already off and chair skating on the little patch next to us and the guy tells me we owe him 320 RMB (about 40 bucks).. an outrageous sum.. He insists its 40 Rmb per person. I say no I’ll give you 40 per dog. He keeps up.. I’m surrounded by a whole posse of raggedy guys hassling me for the money, while the dogs howl, already tied up for the lunch break about to come.

It was an absurd sum, but the kids were al ready engaged in chair skating right there and there was no real way to walk away so I paid the guy the money and then told everyone they couldn’t do anything else until we had negotiated a price. We’ve been to other places before where they seep the kids away then post fact tell us some ridiculously inflated price.

It was getting cold and we were a little hungry so we made our way up to the top of the hill, and into a little teahouse there, where we had some tead and ate the granola bars and apricots we were toting around. Unfortunately, we just missed the river swimmers. They keep a section of the river free of ice and roped off for swimming year round. There was a little teahouse inside, then a hallway with a bathroom (for which we had to pay .5 yuan to use) and then a little room.. In there, there were a bunch of old menp laying mahjong and cards. On the wall was a huge photo of a bunch osf swimmers posing in their bathing suits with Zheng Zheman, the former premier, who was wearing a thick overcoat and big fur hat.

In the corner there was a table selling allikinds of stuff.. hats, gloves, Russian nesting dolls – it was really cool how much of a Russian influence there is in Harbin. I looked at some stuff.. Eli was obsessed with the dolls and Jacob needed a new pair of gloves, since his counterfeit Spyders had become soaked through. An old man rushed over, blowing cigarette smoke in my face and smiling with crooked teeth,. His face looked Russian. He grabbed a fur coat and tried to show it to me. I said bu yao, bu yao. He picked up a fox stoll, with head intact and put it on my shoulders. No thanks. He picked up a baseball-hunting cap type thing with fur lining and put it on my head. Hmm, this is more like it. It felt good and very warm.

The guy ran over, “haokan haokan!:” (Looks good!) He said it was fox, which he indicated by picking up the fox stoll and shaking it around pointing at the head then at the hat. Becky walked in to see what I was doing, eyed the hat on my head, rolled her eyes and left. The guy wanted 850 yuan (over $100). I laughed and said no. We were getting ready to leave. I walked away. He kept dropping his price “600!” “no” “500” “no” and so on.. until he got to 150 and then I said yes if he would throw in nesting doll. He agreed. I gave eli the doll and took the hat.

WE walked off down the river, past the parking lot where we had come in and entered a park. We passed people playing ping pong in a little p ublic area. I loved that. 20 degrees max and these guys were pinging away. Kids were also playing on the playground and ours joined them.

There was large gondola going over the river to an island and we decided to ride it. We haggled over price with them – it’s never ending in China. We all climbed in and took off. We got halfway over the river. We were very, very high up.. hundreds of feet. We looked over and saw the large park further down the other side of the river – that was the place we were supposed to go. Not the dinky rundown joints we had spetnt the morning… We got halfway and the wind was blowing hard and we were rocking and I had a panic attack. What the fuck were we doing? How could we be up here? Were we insane? Retarded? Lunatic?

I didn’t want the kids to see my fear but told Becky I thought we should get off on the other side. She said, ‘we bought roundtrip tickets.” I said it doesn’t matter.. Ellen and Becky wanted to ride back. I was too freaked to argue but I should have. We got to the other side, doors opened, we showed the lady our return tickets and continued around.. The doors closed, then we stopped. Well, that happens sometimes. Maybe they had to let someone on. I looked around. No sign of anyone or anything, but we weren’t moving.

Suddenly, the ticket lady and another lady came out.. and pushed us! We were going hundreds of feet over a frozen rive rin harbin China, near Russia and we needed a push start. My heart was thumping in my throat. I got very zen because I didn’t know what else to do. I barely spoke. All the kids tried on my hat and laughed wearing it. I looked at them and it strulk me – there was now ay that fur was anything but dog. Damn! I can’t even look at it now. Maybe I’ll give it to one of the guards or workers around here.

Anyhow, we kicked around for a while more and eventually went back to the Shangri la. That evening, we met up with 18 other people form Beijing for ad inner that was a lot of fun despite being 100% fiasco. We went to a Russian restaurant, which seemed like a good idea and they did give us a private room which was swell. But someone decided that we should order separately as families, -- one of the Britfamilies, I do believe, which would be rather in character. That was underway when ewe got there so we could not stop that train.

It overpowered the senses of the Chinese wait staff.. who would take one set of orders, come back with the food, take another, come back with the food, etc.. But the kids were happy, the company was good and the beer was sort of cold when it finally arrived after about 8 requests.

But the whole thing took a long, long time an really sapped our energy. By the time we stumbled out into the cold night and boarded the bus(!) That the other guys had rented, the kids were all verging on wipeout. We trucked on out to the big snow and ice festival, which seemed to be really far away, we trekked across town, through some traffic, into a packed parking lot, which we then had to traverse.. It took forever for everyone to come together and it was scary in the parking lot with the kids. I thought to myself.. this is why we don’t do big group trips. I had Anna on my shoulders. She felt heavy. It was cold. She felt like she was falling asleep.

W made it over to the ticket window. Their guide was there, and they always get discounts here. She talked to the sellers and said we didn’t have to pay for any kids.. the signs said it as 75 rmb for any kids over 1.2 m (Jacob) and 150 for adults. She wanted to wait for everyone to do ito at once but they were all moving so slow, ome were buying trinkets or food. We were frustrated so I said, thanks but I’ll just get the tickets.. I bought two adult tickets and we slogged back to the entrance.. it was quite far and it was hard to keep the kids together. We made our way through the line.. we gave them the two tickets and walked in. We turned to wait.. Jacob was last. The big Russian looking guy in a big fur hat stopped him, said (in Chinese, “No. He needs a ticket.” I said they told us kids no need tickets.. a lady appeared with a measuring stick, showing Jacob exceeded 1.2 meters and needed a ticket. He burst into tears, afraid he would be left behind. I got so mad.. I just lost it. I took a wd of money out of my pocket and threw it at the guy and said “Let him in!” or something close to that.

He didn’t budge. Becky was horrified, walked back out and said she would get another ticket. they let Jacob in.. so it ended up costing us a full adult ticket and my humiliation. Jacob came in and crawled around on the ground collecting crumpled yuan notes. I’m not proud of this, but I’m just being honest. Sometimes we all crack. We do a lot with the kids and it’s usually all great fun but sometimes we push it all a little too far. No denying that. In this case, it only lasted a minute. I purged myself with that immature act and then it was all fine. Surprisingly, pleasantly, the kids did not panic.

Becky came in and it was clear that I was not the only one losing it. Kids were exhausted. We decided to take a single horse sleigh ride around to take it all in.. W e negotitated ftom 500 to 150, the all nine of us climbed in, Eli and I sitting in the front. The scale of the place was immense. Huge field filled with these giant ice castles and Great Walls anda snow Buddha bigger than our house and drums and bells and slides and swing s and chutes and chair skating and ATV tracks.. all of it lit up like crazy.

We circled through and then called it a night.. the cabs didn’t want to take us to our hotel, which was just across the bridge.. would have been 8-9 RMB ride. They demanded flat fees.. we agreed to pay 50 as Anna was falling asleep and took off. I had the distinct impression that city of Harbin has a big vacuum cleaner that connects to your pocket the second you walk off the plane and sucks all your money into their municipal coffers.

The next day we blew off some other ideas we had and returned to the sculpture Fest in daylight because we really had not experienced it in full. It was so empty, the parking lot such a contrast to the night before that we thought at first it was closed. But it was open and empty. We went in and there probably were neve more than 100 people in the whole giant place there for the next two hours while we roamed the whole grounds.. the light obviously are beautiful but in a way the scale was easier tot take in in daylight. It was such a huge, sparse, barren landscape. And there were, of course, no lines. The kids went up and down slides over and over. A few times the only others sliding with them were workers, who used scrap lumber and metal as sleds.

We could also get a sense of how the stuff was all constructed.. there big teams of guys on scaffolding, and cranes lifting massive ice blocks into place on the replica Russian orthodox church. There were a few groups of workers, all young men, who became fascinated with us and followed us around. We went to a tubing hill and some guys volunteered to carry Anna up and down the hill. Then they took her on their laps for slides. It was sweet. As I’ve written many times, Anna gets treated like a rock star but it is usually form women.. I don't recall a time where a group of young men were so interested in her. It was sweet.

Good grief.. I am pushing towards 3,000 words an I haven’t written about Anna locking herself in our hotel room and the comedy that followed. It will have to wait for another time. Feel free to bug me.. it's a good one.