This is our journey to Portugal in conjugation with Spain in 2018. We wandered if we wanted to venture into Portugal. We were glad and not disappointed at all with the decision. I loved Portugal. Simply because it is compact, easy to communicate in English and some fascinating places and things to do.
An amazing journey trough Spain in Oct 2017. The Gothic style architecture in Barcelona and its iconic Sagrada de Familia; the time-forgotten terracotta tiled roofs of Albaraccin and Rubeilos de Mora villages; the heartland of Moorish culture of Cordoba, Granada and the remote mountainous white villages of Casares, Grazalema and Arcos de la Frontera and more. To add to this mix is the intoxicating food – paella and the variety of tapas and enriched by the renown art museums. Sangria did go well in the hot days. Eventually to the beautiful Seville and the capital Madrid. Exploring the main streets as well as the backstreets is not only exciting but always discover something new and facilitating.
These are pictures of my South India journey through Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states. This was special as it was to trace my roots and re-establish ties with family in Tamil Nadu.
The main reason for travel to icy cold Harbin winter is to see the International Ice and Snow Festival held sometime late January till February. It is a magical place. A myriad of structures made from carved ice blocks (possibly sourced from the nearby frozen Songhua River) – from pagodas to castles and anything imaginable. For added attraction, a multitude of colored lights are fitted within the ice block to give the sculptures and structures life. These ice architecture are not only for viewing but also to be walked and sometimes slide upon. The details on some of these are truly works of art. It must be difficult to get the lights working in these freezing temperatures. There were even reindeer rides!
It is easy to get here by local bus and return afterwards. Just be aware that there are several sites offering some sort of ice show (not the international ice festival). Perhaps get the locals to help you, particularly your accommodation staff. Fortunately for us, the bus route is just off my hostel. Taxi drivers may offer to take you there but you may end up at another park and higher cost.
From dusk onward, when the lights come on, this site becomes a wonderland of fairy tales. However, the cold is very real, minus 25 and dropping! Dress appropriately, in layers. Fortunately, eateries provide much needed energy and warmth as we plodded from one sculptor to another.
Indoor entertainment – beauty contest, singing and dancing – also make this festival atmospheric. Long queues, in the cold, for the 100m ice slide diverted me to try ice cycling. It is uniquely Chinese and a lot of fun. It is indeed a unique experience, only made in Harbin , China.
We left Beijing by train to Harbin, Hēilóngjiāng Province located in the north-eastern part of China. It is near the Russian border. It is very cold in Beijing, why go further north to even colder weather? The taxi driver told us today has been the coldest to date this year. Well, we wanted to witness the annual International Snow and Ice Festival held in January and February.
The train station are packed with throngs of people as it is nearing the Spring Festival when the whole country goes on a long holiday – the biggest movement of people for a single event. So, it is best to get there early for screening. We had already pre-purchased all our train tickets.
Once outside Beijing, the scene is rural. Surprisingly, the terrain is flat. Now, I related Leo’s stories about the Mongol’s occupation of Beijing. It was snowing in part and the landscape bleak. Navindd pointed out to coal-powered (perhaps nuclear) power station with its unique towers.
Harbin is neat and obviously very cold. Our hostel was nearby the most famous street, Central Street (Zhōngyāngdàjiē). A cobble stone pedestrian street now filled with ice and snow sculptures. At night time, they are all lit like Christmas in the park. This long street begins from the banks of the, now frozen, Songhua River. Life is moves at a slower pace than Beijing but much colder.
Harbin is close to the Russian border (Valdivostok). Hence, there has been a small population of Russians living earlier. The most obvious signs of Russian influence is the beautiful St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral , now a museum, built in 1907.
The cold, below 30 degrees was bearable with the appropriate layers of clothing. However, the annoying part is, having to remove all the layers every time we entered a shopping mall, restaurant and even the public bus. It gets very hot as all these places are heated. Protect your cameras in sealed plastic bags to aclimatise
One day we decided to go to an ice park, by mistake, as we thought we were going to the Ice festival. We ended up at a park outside Harbin. To make to most, we went skiing. None of us had any experience. We suited up with the gear provided and immediately onto the ski field with a guide. The sun had already set. It was freezing. On a long down hill slope, I fell numerous times. With much difficulty, got up only to fall down on the ice again and again. However, on my second run, I was flying down the slope a a great speed. Fearing for my life, I decided to end this free sprite ride, I tumbled onto the ice to stop. After a few unceremonious tumbles, I was relieved. Now with frozen toes and finger, I fumbled into the office. I was unable to get my gear off due to the unbearable cold. However, there were some ice carvings, all light up. That was my skiing experience!
A great skiing area is Mundajiang, a town few hours out of Harbin towards the Russian border.
My accommodation was right on the corner of Dongsi West Street and pedestrian only Wangfujing Street in Dongcheng District. It is a prosperous shopping and business street. We walked on this street throughout our stay in Beijing. During the day it was filled with people – shoppers, retail workers and departmental stores including high-end brands, eateries which included Quanjude Roast Duck and the popular Snack Food Street. On arriving in the city, we headed for a delicious breakfast.
The iconic street was still filled with shoppers, workers, street artist and performers, high fashion, glimmering buildings and pedestrian only street. The glittering neon lights were blurred in this cold and polluted evening. In the middle, in the courtyard of St Joseph Church, a smartly dressed couple danced with passion. We watched for a while before the aromas of cooked food persuaded us to keep moving. Later we watched a typical Chinese opera dance, with colorful costumes and music. It was a street show.
Peking Duck – there are several popular outlets throughout Beijing. We chose Quanjude Roast Duck at Wanfujing. This iconic dish is not only tasty but theatrical as well. Once cooked, the whole duck is delivered to the table. It is then delicately carved by a skilled chef. First the crispy skin with accompaniment. Then the meat and followed by a assorted duck dishes including soups and stir fries. This dish is consumed slowly. I don’t eat duck, but my family confirmed that it was a worthwhile dish to taste.
Snack Food Street – a hundred meters of assorted food. From exotic to the outrages. To each his or her own, I guess. There seem to be no place to start or to finish. Just indulge on sight. It was crowded and the bright lights and aromas attracted people like bees to nectar. One problem, although welcomed, is selection – what to eat?
Dongsi area is also a great place for dining and connections on the efficient, but crowded Metro.
From Sichahai, via the wonderful Yan Dai Byway (Skewed Tabacco Pouch Street, we entered the Gulou Dong Dajie. Here lies one of the symbols of the old city, Drum Tower. An imposing pagoda like structure rose against a blue sky at the end of the busy road. Inside the compound, several rickshaw drivers offered Hutong tours. At the other end, is the formidable gray-looking Bell Tower. Hutongs surround this ancient towers. The locals gathered in this convenient large cobbled stoned compound. Some just chatted away with little ones running around.
Both these towers are symbols of the old city. They were built around 1272 during the Yuan dynasty and the capital (Beijing) was named Dadu. They were historically used for telling time during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. They set the tempo and beat of daily life in Beijing. A small collection of colorful rickshaws gathered at the entrance. They gently persuaded us to take their hutong tours. They were not pushy or aggressive. We just turned down their offers. We wanted to walk through the hutongs at a leisurely pace.
We headed first to the Bell Tower. It is a decent climb up to the top. Albeit the pollution laden air, the views were wonderful. On one end, the towering CBD and nearby, compactly arranged gray roof-tops of the hutongs. This is old Beijing, still preserved in pockets in the heart of modern Beijing. The huge bell, at 57 tonnes, had a rather sad story. The maker tried several times but failed. Eventually, his daughter jumped into the furnace and the finished bell resonated perfectly. We wandered around a park adjacent to the Bell Tower. Adults and kids played badminton and some elderly people played mahjong. We surveyed the area while exercising on some exercise implements.
The walk up the steep staircase to the top of Drum Tower was tiring. However, the view from the top was similar to the Bell Tower. Originally, thee were 24 drums but only one had survived. We timed our visit here with the scheduled drum performance. It was interesting and entertaining. It was getting late as we left these ancient towers. We were ready to hit the hutongs, near the northern lake areas.