Friday, 23 July 2010

Harbin - Sun Island

Harbin Sun Island Scenic Area 太阳岛风景区

Harbin Sun Island is one the landmark attractions of Harbin, and it is also the venue for the much acclaimed ice and snow festival which is held every year in winter. It is also rated as a AAAAA tourist attraction by the China tourism authorities, probably by virtue of the ice and snow festival rather than actual scenery.

There are four ways of getting to Sun Island, which is bounded by the Songhua River and water canals. The first method would be to board a ferry from Stalin Park on the opposite bank. Alternatively, one can also walk across the frozen Songhua River in winter. A more interesting way would be to take a cable car ride from Stalin Park, while the more mundane method would be to cross the Songhua River Bridge by bus or car. Unfortunately, we were stuck with the last option since we were travelling as a tour group.

Songhua River Bridge 松花江大桥

The Songhua River bridge is an elaborate concrete bridge which was designed by the Russians in 1986 to provide a convenient connection from the city centre's Daoli district to the Songbei district across the river. From the top view, the circular up and down ramps which exist only at the Daoli district end of the bridge causes the bridge to resemble a pair of scissors. This has the literal meaning of cutting up the Songhua River which was a significant barrier before the bridge was built.

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Encompassing 38 square kilometres, buying a ticket for the electric trams or trains to get around the park is definitely recommended (RMB20 (~S$4.10)).
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A pair of very cute dragon plant 'sculptures' at a roundabout in the park.
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Man-made waterfall
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An artificial limestone cavern cafe carved out behind the waterfall. Although it looks rather fake as compared to a real limestone cave, the waterfall curtain does allow one to rest from the scorching summer heat. Summer temperatures in Harbin seldom exceed 30 degrees Celsius, but due to the current La Nina effect, it rose to 40 degrees during our visit!
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Man-made lake with boardwalk and a wooden sampan thrown in for good measure.
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Squirrel Island 松鼠岛

Squirrel island is a small island which is surrounded by a moat in the park. The star attraction at this spot is naturall squirrels which enjoy free roam within the confines of the forested park.

Draw bridge to the island. A pair of heavy revolving doors at the main entrance completes the defence to prevent the furry mammals from escaping.
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It is relatively simple to spot squirrels in the park. The easiest way would be to listen out for the sounds of the squirrels chewing seeds or nuts. Here a squirrel is busy trying to crack a nut in his mouth in the relative safety of a tree branch.
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The squirrel sunflower seed eating competition is in full swing as these 2 plump squirrels struggle to outdo each other in eating the most number of seeds. These normally shy creatures transform totally upon the sight of food and even allows visitors to pet and carrass them!
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Kiosks are available in the park to sell packets of sunflower or pumpkin seeds to visitors who wish to personally feed the squirrels.
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A shy squirrel secretly chewing on a seed under the cover of a bush.
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Sun Island Ice & Snow Sculpture Art Museum 太阳岛冰雪艺术馆

This museum was set up to preserve the winning ice sculptures from the previous ice and snow festival, thus making it possible for visitors to have a glimpse of the famous colourfully lit ice sculptures even in summer. Set at a bone-chilling -18 degrees Celsius, winter parkas are also available for rent to visitors to the museum.

As this year is the year of the Tiger, ice sculptures in the form of tigers feature prominently in the display.
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The ice sculptures are carved using ice blocks hewn from the frozen Songhua River.
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Snow white welcomes visitors to the next section of the museum. LED lights are used extensively to simulate the effect of frozen trees.
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Fancy having a cup of hot chocolate in the freezing cold at an ice cafe?
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Violinist in coloured ice
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An ice carving of the London cityscape which prominently features landmarks such as the London Eye.
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The political turmoil which had plagued Bangkok in recent times provided the inspiration for Thai artists to produce a sculpture which was entitled "Peace Praying Buddha".
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A pair of ice sculptures engaged in the ancient art of fencing in this work produced by Chinese artists.
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Ice Temple. The size of the exhibits displayed in this 5,000 sq metre hall is limited by the height of the 2 storey complex.
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Russian Town 俄罗斯风情小镇

Russian Town is a former Russian settlement in Harbin, and the houses had been preserved for visitors to have a glimpse of an authentic Russian town. This town is jointly managed by both the Chinese and Russian governments.

Entrance to the town with signs in both Chinese and Cyrillic.
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Numerous amorous statues which depicts a typical Russian lifestyle are scattered throughout the park. In addition, Russian folk songs are also played in the park as background music.
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A typical 1950s Russian timber house. Traditional houses are constructed out of red pine which is abundant in the Russian Far East.
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Dining area which also serves as a living room.
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This small cottage used to be the town police station and jail.
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An antique World War II era Chinese radio set.
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Torture equipment in the holding cell.
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Camping in a caravan is a popular holiday option for Russians.
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Town Bakery. The statue of the Russian woman is holding what is known as a Da Lie Ba, which is one of the unique foodstuff in Harbin.
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The Da Lie Ba 大列巴 is Harbin's answer to the French baguette, and is typically a very large round bread that weighs a hefty 2.5kg. It is crisp on the outside but soft in the inside. The bread is usually presented in a hemp drawstring bag, and has a shelf live of approximately a week.
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Russia is often instantly associated with its high grain vodka, which is the poison of choice for many of its inhabitants who seek a quick relief against the biting cold in winter. With a mind popping 40%-50% proof, it is little wonder that one can easily get extremely drunk after a tipple!
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Besides the usual rectangular glass bottle packaging, vodka bottles are also cleverly hidden in one of Russian's other famous export - a matryoshka doll.
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Matryohka dolls were initially created in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin, and gained world fame after it was exhibited at the Paris World Expo in 1900. There are basically 2 main kinds of these unique dolls. The first kind are based on a church theme and patterns are burnt onto unpainted wood. The second and more familiar type are the wholly painted dolls which often depict peasant girls in traditional Russian dress. These 2 types are shown below, as well as the unique entrance 'ticket' to the park.
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It is a little known fact that Russia is the world's third largest exporter of chocolates after Switzerland and Belgium. Russian chocolate differs from the usual chocolate by having an extremely high cocoa content and very little flour and milk is used in the processing. Thus, the chocolates would not melt or soften even when left at room temperatures in summer! Not surprisingly, the most popular flavour is vodka according to the staff.
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Former Soviet Union leaders - Khruschev, Stalin & Lenin from left to right - painted in the form of matryoshka dolls. The 'Russian leaders' series of dolls usually depict Lenin as the smallest and the current leader as the largest doll. It is interesting to see Stalin being depicted without his signature moustache.
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Cute wooden statues of a railway minature in the park.
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Siberian Tiger Park 东北虎林园

The Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin is the world's largest conservatory for the endangered Siberian Tiger. Hundreds of these majestic large cats are housed in different enclosures according to their age group, and visitors get to have a close up view of them in a safari style. This usually takes the form of an half hour ride in of the specially equipped touring buses which have some windows replaced by grilles. The bus driver would double as a safari guide and point out the location of the tigers to the passengers. 黑A04386 is one of the few Higer KLQ6728 buses which have been modified for the task.
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The entrance to the enclosures are guarded by a pair of sequential and electrically controlled sliding mesh doors to prevent tigers from escaping.
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One of the few tigers which were awake and prowling around the enclosure.
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A tiger which had just awaken and turned around to investigate the source of noise that had disrupted its noontime slumber.
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Unfortunately, most of the tigers were spotted dozing off in the shade to escape the summer heat.....
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...while some of the tigers took the opportunity for a dip in the pool to cool themselves
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In addition to tigers, there are also female lions being reared in this compound in a bid to create a mixed offspring between a Tiger and a Lion (known as a Liger). However, such cases are extremely rare as it is hard for these 2 species to develop affections towards each other.
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Older tigers are segregated from the main population and housed in seperate walled enclosures instead. These are then seperated from the public by two layers of wire fence which posed a challenge in obtaining good shots of these creatures.
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Visitors to the park also have an opportunity to cuddle and take a photo with a tiger cub for a fee.
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Next Post: Mudanjiang Jingpo Lake

Previous Post: Harbin - City Impressions

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Harbin - City Impressions

Harbin 哈尔滨

Background

Harbin traces its roots as a sleepy fishing village in the remote northeast of China, and its name means 'a place to dry fishing nets' in Manchu. This quickly became history in 1898 when the settlement was transformed by the Russians into a strategic crossroad for the new Chinese Eastern Railway (KVZhD) as a shortcut for the Trans-Siberian Railway. Since then, international trade with other countries such as the United States, Germany, France and Japan had also further cemented the city's reputation as a bustling metropolis.

The cosmopolitan outlook of the city, coupled with its array of unique European architecture, had led many to regard China's northernmost major city as one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Thus, it is also popularly known as the Paris of the East and the Oriental St Petersburg. Till date, at least 20% of the city's residents are ethnic Russians and Harbin remains a popular tourist destinations for many Russians. In addition, visitors from around the world also brave the harsh winter to partake in the spectacular Ice and Snow Festival which opens on Christmas Day each year. The map below shows the location of the places which are featured in this blog (credits to Google Maps).

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St Sophia Cathedral 圣索菲亚教堂

St Sophia Cathedral is the most recognisable and prominent landmark in Harbin. Also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God, the former Russian Orthodox church is also the largest of its kind in the far east with a height of 53.3 metres and covering and area of 0.18 acres. This highly distinctive cathedral was initially consecrated in 1907 as a spiritual symbol for the elite Russian troops who are stationed in the city following the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1907. The cathedral was expanded and renovated into its current form in 1932.

The cathedral now does not hold any more services and had been transformed into the Harbin Architectural Art Gallery (admission RMB15 (~S$3.06))
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Highly detailed brick features adorn the exterior of this Neo-Bryzantine structure.
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St Sophia Cathedral was modelled after the ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral in Borki, Ukraine. It was originally constructed from timber.
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The cathedral was painstakingly restored in 1996 at a cost of US$1.5million and was re-opened to the public in 1997.
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The space around the prominent landmark had also been redeveloped into 'Harbin Architectural Square' and features European style buildings to create a unique European feel in a Chinese city. These include art galleries (complete with a Cyrillic signboard) and a bizzare mesh megastructure.

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The low humidity and clear skies provides a very conducive environment for 'contrail spotting' in Harbin. Here 2 aircraft converge onto a single airway at different altitudes heading west.
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Central Street (Kitaiskaya Street) 中央大街

Central Street, which was also known as Kitaiskaya Street in the past, was where international business trade first began in the city at the turn of the 20th century. This pedestrian only road paved with individual cobbled stones which are mined from the Changbaishan mountain range in Jilin province. Distinctive buildings which features classic western architectural designs such as Baroque and Bryzantine line this century old avenue.
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The bulk of the preserved buildings now house top end fashion labels from around the world.
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Low rise buildings juxtapose against modern high rise commercial and residential developments.
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Central Street is also dominated by mid to high end business and boutique hotels to cater to visitors who wish to experience a stay in this historic district
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Stalin Park 斯大林公园

Stalin Park was built along the banks of the Songhua River as a tribute to Josef Stalin who helped secure the release of Harbin from the Japanese during World War II. There is interestingly, not a statue of the famous leader to be found in the park as the locals still retains an ambivalent attitude towards the Soviets.

Today, the park serves a recreational destination for the residents and overlooks the Songhua River. Ferries are also available to bring visitors over to Sun Island Scenic Area on the opposite bank of the river.

In 2005, a benzene plant in Jilin exploded and discharged dangerous levels of the chemical into the upstream portion of the Songhua River. The city authorities shut the local water supply in Harbin as a precautionary measure for a week, forcing residents to resort to bottled water for their daily needs. Tap water is now processed from ground water, and thus first time visitors would often have a shock to discover ice cold water from the tap even though outdoor temperatures could reach up to 40 degrees during summer!

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Where ice sculptures are impossible to display in the outdoors with the searing summer heat, carefully pruned bushes take their place instead in the park.
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Harbin Flood Control Monument 哈尔滨防洪纪念碑

In addition, the park also houses a monument to commemorate the great flood in 1957 when the swollen Songhua River burst its bank. It is a tribute to the volunteers who helped to overcome the natural disaster and to those who had unfortunately sacrificed their lives in the process.
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The Harbin Flood Control Monument is situated at the end of Central Street. The Roman styled column is 13 metres high and features the statues of the volunteers at the top.
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A carved mural in the monument extolled the greatness of the Chinese Communist Party.
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Guogeli Street 果戈里大街

In addition to Central Street, Guogeli Street is also home to a large concentration of Russian buildings and structures. Spared from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution as it was shielded from view by residential buildings, this century old Catholic Church still remains in use today.
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A modest clock tower in the church square incorporates the famed domed structure typically found on Russian Orthodox churches.
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Unlike many other Chinese cities, bicycles are few and far between in Harbin. This is mainly because of the long and harsh winters when iced slippery roads poses a real danger to cyclists. Thus, public buses are the preferred form of transportation. It is curious to note that most buses (even the newer ones) have front mounted engines where they are less likely to seize up in extreme low temperatures, not to mention that the engine heat would also be very much appreciated by the driver!

A83400, a Huanghai DD6109S03F was photographed picking up passengers along Guogeli St during evening peak while working on service 7.
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Harbin Kunlun Hotel 哈尔滨昆仑大酒店

Harbin Kunlun Hotel is a standard 4 star hotel which is located besides the busy Harbin Railway Station, thus most of its rooms offer a view of the sprawling railway yard opposite the hotel.

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The streets around the hotel are choked with taxis waiting for passengers even at 7am in the morning. Judicious amount of guts accompanied by incessant honking are essential to maintain a safe co-existance between pedestrians and motor vehicles in busy Chinese cities.
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Harbin Railway Station still retains its importance as it did when it was first built at the end of the 19th century with connections to Inner Mongolia, the northern part of Heilongjiang province and onwards to Russia. The Trans-Siberian railway calls at this station every Friday, and there are daily trains to Heihe and Suifenhe where one can cross into Russia.
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One of the many public bus stations which can be found around the railway station.
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To cope with the summer heat, many public buses in Northeast China have part or the entire radiator grille removed to improve air cooling around the front mounted engine!
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