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Harbin the Ice Town

Posted on 25 February 2010 by Sasha

To celebrate the fact that I’m now located in China (without Facebook and Twitter!) freezing my butt of in the Beijing winter, i have a fantastic guest post from Jacqui Rivers about a place much colder than Beijing!

Jacqui and her husband have been living in China for the past year. Who better to ask about what to expect living in China! I love this quote of Jacqui’s about her current home Shanghai…

“Shanghai is an amazing place full of expectation and anticipation. People are generally quite abrupt until you smile or attempt to converse in Mandarin and that changes everything. It is amazing to watch the older generation navigate this cutting edge city and think what they must make of all of it coming out of the cultural revolution and the Great leap forward where they watched friends and family starve to death amongst other things. Now they live is this neon lit progressive city where anything can be bought for a price and making money is the name of the game. What an amazing life they have had!”

Now read on and enjoy hearing about Jacqui’s adventures in Harbin the Ice Town at the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.

Harbin Ice Town

When we arrived in Harbin we were stunned to walk across the tarmac to the waiting of the ramp shuttle bus, it was beyond freezing. We were expecting -15 to -30 degrees Celsius but as we had never been in those temps before we did not really understand what this meant. We did now! Thank god for puffy jackets and friends who lend you theirs so you have two of them.

Harbin was quite an unexpected place. It was a bit like being in the wild west, but with 4 million Chinese in town. Add to that Russian architecture and European wide boulevards, -25 degrees and there you have Harbin. It was quite a surreal.

Harbin Ice Town

On the second morning we caught a taxi out to the famous Harbin Tiger Park, they have over two hundred Siberian tigers in mostly open range enclosures. We had heard that you could pay to feed a goat to the tigers and were most intrigued. I know, I know, how barbaric, but the goat is going to be fed to the tigers dead or alive, imagine how much more exciting it is for the tigers, if occasionally they get to catch a live one rather than have a dead one thrown in?

After an annoying 20 minute taxi ride with the driver telling us we had to book him for the return trip as there was no taxis out there to bring us back we arrived to find hundreds of taxis lining up. But hey, you cannot blame a man for trying to make a buck. We headed into the park where first we were corralled into the eternal ’shop’ where we had to stand being harassed to buy things for 20 minutes while waiting for the mini bus that would tour us around the open enclosures. When they had decided we had bought enough off we went! It was just a standard mini bus with some steel bars over the windows, most of which was broken and you could happily shove your camera filled hand out the window.

We were the only westerners on the bus and quickly surmised that you had to be ruthless to maintain your seat and your window space, but no real worries there as we are that much bigger than most Chinese so have a physical weight advantage.

From stage left a gate opened and all the tigers stood up. They obviously knew what was about to happen, as they started moving in that direction. Suddenly a 4WD appeared, kitted out like something out of Mad Max I. Steel caging all over it, including the tyres. It roared closer, stopped suddenly and before we could get our cameras in focus a chicken popped up through the sunroof! Just as quickly a very large tiger popped up onto the roof took the unsuspecting chicken who was still contemplating how he just went from a snug 22 degrees in the back of a car to a sudden negative 20 degrees.  The tiger gracefully jumped down and skulked off behind a bush to play with it.  A bit like a cat with a mouse really, he then plucked it. I hate to tell you this but that chicken who was now no longer contemplating the sudden change in temperature was still kicking as being plucked!

Now you had to be there to appreciate the entire atmosphere and why we might have paid for four more hapless chickens to come to their demise. Imagine a mini bus full of squealing over excited Chinese and the possibility of making them squeal even more for a lousy 10 bucks a hit. It was just too funny, the whole scene. The bus driver now yells ‘Who will pay to feed another chicken to the great tigers”. I was so impressed with myself having understood what he yelled, I yelled back in Chinese “I will pay for another chicken to feed to the tigers”. Well the bus went crazy! Yelling and screaming and smiling at me.

I got out my 50 kwai and it was quickly passed down the bus to the driver with much appreciation from all the passengers. We then positioned the bus waiting for the mad max car! It appeared over the horizon, speeding into shot, the squealing got louder, the tigers got more agitated and then out popped another dumbstruck chicken and just as quickly over the roof went the tiger. Our bus shook to the rafters with the cheering and squealing I actually did worry a bit that a side might fall off it and we would also be contemplating the sudden change in temperature.

No sooner did that chicken meet his maker that everyone on the bus turned and looked at me with expectant excited eyes and yelled ‘again, again!’ So why the hell not? I yelled ” I will pay for another chicken to feed to the mighty tigers” and the bus went crazy! It was an absolute hoot, we did it four times! So sorry for the chickens, but it was just too much fun.

After that we walked through not so great cages with various other cats and more tigers and then caught one of the plentiful taxis to the snow sculpture park on the river. The difference being that these sculptures were made of snow, rather than ice and better viewed against the bright blue sunny sky. They were quite amazing and most the size of houses. We spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around the park in awe of the skill and size of the sculptures.

Harbin Ice Town

That night to the big event! As we approached the Ice Sculpture Park in the taxi we at first thought it was more of the town, as we got closer we realised were looking at the park. The sculptures were that big! There were 10 stories buildings made of ice and lit up to look like real buildings, it was just amazing. We were all dumbstruck!

Harbin Ice Town Night

We spent about 4 hours walking through the park, it was just sensational! We got to get our photos taken with Artic foxes, a yakkity yak and watched one of those shocking bear shows because it was held inside the very toasty warm coffee shop come restaurant and there was no where else to look and we needed to warm up. It was an amazingly surreal night, the park was incredible and we really enjoyed it.

Harbin Ice Town Night

We finished the night in the ice bar at the hotel, where they served your beer warm from a heated box and it quickly cooled as it sat on the ‘ice bar’ so much so that the last few mouthfuls were icing up. It was -10 degrees in the bar, too cold to consider taking off my gloves to use chopsticks to eat dinner so we ran back to our room, had warm baths and room service.

Harbin Ice Town Night

The following morning we went to have a look at the Russian built Sophia Church and headed out to the airport to sit through another two hour delay.  A great trip, if your ever in that part of the world in winter make sure you stop in at Harbin, it’ well worth the effort.

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Thanks to Jacqui for letting me post her story Harbin the Ice Town.  If you’ve been inspired to see the festival in person it runs throughout the entire month of January each year starting around the 5th.

Keep an eye out for even more stories from China as i write about my own experiences of living, teaching and travelling in China.  To keep up to date with my latest adventures subscribe to the RSS Feed.

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Khao Sok National Park

Posted on 18 February 2010 by Sasha

Khao Sok National Park from On UR Way Travel on Vimeo.

When I went to Thailand in July 2009 I absolutely fell in love with the country as indeed I think most people do!  Although I loved everywhere I went for its own unique quirks my absolute favorite place was Khao Sok National Park in Southern Thailand.

After having spend a fantastic yet tiring week in the chaos and noise of Bangkok, escaping into the quite seclusion of the lush Thai jungle was a welcome relief.  The region is absolutely stunning, completely breathtaking.  It was so humbling to be completely surrounded by nature, to hear the birds calling, to hear the rustle of monkeys in the trees and to shower with a gecko!

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Where is it and how do I get there?

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Khao Sok National Park is located in the South of Thailand a few hours from Krabi and Phuket.  If you are coming from Bangkok I would recommend going on the overnight train to Surat Thani Railway Station. From the station you will have at least an hours journey to get to the accommodation located near the national park.  Most resorts and guesthouses have a transfer service that will pick you up from the railway station.

If you have never taken an overnight train in Thailand don’t expect too much, they are very basic. Prepare yourself for using a squat toilet while the train is bumping along the tracks and make sure to hold on to the rails for dear life the last thing you want is spillage! I would definitely recommend getting a sleeper carriage ticket, it won’t be the best nights sleep you ever had but it is reasonably comfortable and trust me you really don’t want to try and sleep in the chairs!!!

If you are in Krabi or Phuket you can take a public bus or organise a private transfer.  The journey takes a few hours and goes through some absolutely spectacular countryside.

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What Can I Do?

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Trekking

Khao Sok National Park and surrounds are a nature lovers paradise!  If you love trekking then there are lots of great spots for hiking from short treks of just a few hours to much longer challenging treks for people a lot fitter than me. I would definitely recommend doing an Elephant Trek though the jungle. It’s a pretty amazing feeling being perched up on this massive majestic beast strolling through the jungle, unless you get a mischievous elephant like I did who gravitated to walking off the path and in the river!

Tubing

Tubing down the Klong Sok river was just awesome, even when managed to drop my camera in the Water (it’s waterproof luckily) and get stuck in the reeds.  It’s great fun cruising down the river then racing over the rapids only to get to the end and want to do it all over again!

Lake Tour

The Cheow Larn Lake Tour was my favourite activity the whole time I was there.  The lake in fact is a huge man made dam, in some places you can even see the tops of what were once trees looming above the surface of the water.  The lake is dotted with floating villages made mostly out of Bamboo, it was really an amazing sight to see whole communities living on the water.  If you do take a tour it is highly likely that you will stop at one of these villages for lunch and the food is just delicious, especially the freshly caught fish straight form the lake.  If you have a few hours to spend in a village then give kayaking a go or take a dip in the ever inviting cool waters.

One of the stops on the lake tour was a visit to the Nam Talu Cave.  To get to the cave we had to trek through the jungle to get to another  village on another part of the lake.  Once there, we group took a bamboo raft across the lake to the entrance of the cave.  The cave isn’t huge and out of all the caves I’ve visited many of which were in Australia I didn’t really rate this one as being a really spectacular.  The best part was the trek to get there.

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Where to Stay?

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Most of the accommodation is located outside of the national park.  I stayed at a lovely resort called Morning Mist which was located about an hour from the Cheow Larn Lake but was in a centralized area with a few restaurants and a convenience store.  The resort had excellent facilities for the price staring at 550 Thai baht a night.  The rooms were nice each with a porch and a hammock or chair to enjoy the lush surrounds.  The restaurant had quite a good variety of food although they tended to make the food visually such a work of art that it took forever to come out!

If you do want to stay in the national park you can stay in a hut at one of the floating villages on the Cheow Larn Lake.  The rooms are very small and basic made out of bamboo with only sleeping mats.  There is no formal bathroom but there is a very basic squat toilet.  They have a kitchen where you can order a delicious array of Thai Dishes.

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South East Asia

Posted on 28 November 2009 by Sasha

South East Asia is a region with a melting pot of vibrant cultures, diverse religions and unique and fascinating history.  The temperate is warm and tropical, the food amazingly flavoursome and the people are some of the nicest most welcoming people you are likely to meet anywhere in the world.  

South East Asia is an incredibly beautiful region to travel in but in some places it is extremely chaotic and claustrophobic.  The region has gone through many hardships in recent history and although the countries are developing at an overwhelming pace there is still an overwhelming number of poor people, and petty crime isn’t uncommon.  As long as you travel with an open heart and open mind travelling South East Asia is joy with surprises around every corner.  It’s a place you will want to go back to again and again.

 

Shopping

South East Asia is a fantastic place for shopping with beautifully made handicrafts, cheap electronics and other goods. The region is also well known for its trade in knockoff designer goods.  The trick with shopping is Bargain, Bargain, Bargain and Bargain Hard!!!  Bargaining is a huge part of the culture if you wish to buy anything you are expected to bargain.  Don’t worry bargaining can be fun, the trick is to be assertive and keep your sense of humour.  Ask the price, then halve it, u will generally meet somewhere in the middle.  Don’t be afraid to walk away if it is not the price your after, often they will come after you and give u the price you want, if not there will most likely be a stall selling the same thing nearby.

 

Transport


Typically Asia can be a difficult place to get around independently outside of the major cities due to many countries still developing and as a result lack transport infrastructure and efficient public transport systems.  That said it’s not impossible and if you don’t mind erratic schedules, sharing with the locals and hard mattresses on overnight trains then travelling is not so bad.  Now days there are quite a few budget airlines servicing the region making it cheap and quick to travel from place to place.

By Air…

Tiger Aiways offer cheap fares on flights to Asia departing from Perth as well as cheap fares on flights within Asia.  There hub city is Singapore.

Jet Star have cheap flights departing Australia to Asia as well as a huge range of flights within Asia.

Air Asia have flights departing from Australia to Kuala Lumpur (KL) from the Gold Coast, Melbourne and Perth. They have a huge network of flights within Asia departing from KL.

By Land…

State Railway of Thailand is a great way to get around the country. For long travelling days or overnight trips you can get a sleeper car.

KTM Malaysian Railways rail network will take you all over Malaysia and on to Singapore.

 

Tours

Spotlight on Intrepid Travel 
Intrepid Travel offer small group off the beaten track tours all over Asia.  What’s unique about these tours over traditional coach tours is that you take local transport such as public buses and overnight trains where you get the opportunity to mingle in the with locals.  Intrepid use expert local tour guides who  give you a unique insight into culture and local life. 

Intrepid have a new touring option called Urban Adventures, these are short tours from half a day to a few days that give you a unique local insight into a city or destination.  They are a great way to get your bearings in a new place and really learn about the local life and culture.

 

 Tips

  • Take only small amounts of clothing and buy most of your clothes over there, not only are the clothes cheap but they are also more appropriate for the humid climate.
  • Many part of South East Asia including Malaysia and Indonesia are Muslim countries, it is polite to dress modestly covering up your shoulders and wear bottoms that go bellow the knee.  This dress code also needs to be followed if you are planning on visiting any temples whether they are Buddhists, Muslim or Hindu.
  • Be patient.  DO NOT GET ANGRY!!!  South East Asia runs in its own time, it’s not uncommon for food to take a long time to come out from a restaurant and sometimes it may not even be what you ordered and on top of that the language barrier can be quite a challenge.  Take a deep breath, try and resolve the problem calmly.  South East Asian’s are very friendly people and they often don’t understand why the crazy westerner is shouting at them.
  • Be aware of scams, it’s a good idea to ask about common tourist scams at the nearest tourist information centre, they will have great tips and advice to avoid getting scammed.  Trust your gut, if you feel like your getting scammed or something seems too good to be true then it probably is.

 

More Info.

  • Travel Fish is a fantastic site to find out info on South East Asia and to plan your trip.  The site  has great travel tips and advice, comprehensive information on destinations and provides independent reviews on accommodation and services.
  • Backpacker South East Asia is a free magazine that has fantastic stories and travel inspiration for Backpacking SE Asia.  The magazine can be picked up at hostels, information centres and other tourism institutions throughout Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.  It is also available for download off the website.
  • For comprehensive information from an expat on travelling Chiang Mai and Thailand check out Visit Chiang Mai Online.
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