Tag Archives: “This is China”

囍 Double Happiness – a beautiful Chinese Wedding

On Saturday we went to a Chinese wedding.  Hui Zhi (a colleague at work) was getting married to Johnson.  As this was my first Chinese wedding, I was very excited to get an invitation.  The wedding started at 5:00pm and upon arrival, we were greeted like the guest of honour.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and the guests were milling around outside.  Meanwhile the bride and groom were having photos with all the guests.  First tradition we learned about!

Hui and Johnson's wedding

Hui and Johnson’s wedding

We were given “tickets” for later, after the ceremony.  They had numbers written inside.  Isabelle’s was 520 written in red – this was a special ticket!!   The children both got given red envelopes.  When we got home, we were very surprised to see that they had money in for each child:

The lucky red ticket, flowers and red envelope.

The lucky red ticket, flowers and red envelope.  520 sounds like “I love you” in Chinese and is often followed by 1314 which sounds like “forever”

We sat outside waiting for the ceremony to begin.  Hui was escorted by her father to the start of the red carpet and then Johnson took over to walk her up to the gazebo to exchange vows and rings.  The actual legal ceremony had already taken place and this was the celebration with friends, family and work colleagues.  Hui had chosen a more western style of wedding. Her first dress was a western traditional white wedding dress.

Showing off the rings.

Showing off the rings.

The cage that is hanging on the right of the picture held the rings and the audience was asked to check their tickets to see who had the red 520.  Of course it was Isabelle!!  She had previously been selected to open the cage so that the rings could be exchanged!  As the whole ceremony is taking place in Chinese and no-one had said anything to me, I could not prep Isabelle for this, so she did not want to go up!  Another little girl eventually opened the cage for Hui and Johnson.  The white and pink balloons behind Hui and Johnson were released into the air after the exchange of rings and vows.  To our great surprise, the General Manager where I work gave the speech toasting the happy couple.  Work is such an important part of the culture here and great importance is placed on the attendance of Senior Managers at events like this.  I had this speech simultaneously translated by another work colleague.  He gave a great speech, placing emphasis on the importance of the Groom always listening and paying attention to his wife!!  I guess some things are Universal……. 🙂

After the sunshine ceremony, it was inside for the lengthy feast and games.  On the way in, we all signed the guest book.  Each of the tables also had a movie theme, so we discovered that we would be sitting on the “Love Actually” table.

Signing the book.  Owen and I were amazed that Isabelle signed with her Chinese name (accurate characters) and then added the Pin Yin - Bei La.

Signing the book. Owen and I were amazed that Isabelle signed with her Chinese name (accurate characters) and then added the Pin Yin – Bei La, underneath (bottom right).  Oliver attempted his Chinese name in Characters and then got carried away!!

The table assignments - Love Actually for us!

The table assignments – Love Actually for us!

The wedding dinner was a traditional Chinese dinner with many courses – the food kept coming and coming.  Poor Owen was struggling to use his chopsticks with his hand still in a cast, but he refused to use silverware!

Our table - sitting with several work colleagues.

Our table – sitting with several work colleagues.  (Notice the cigarettes!!)

We both tried traditional Shanghainese wine.  It has a very rich, yeasty taste that is a little like Port.

Shanghainese wine.

Shanghainese wine.

As is the case with many Chinese dinners that I attend, I do not always know what I am eating.  I try almost everything and have been pleasantly surprised many times when I do this.  I don’t really want to know what I am eating if I cannot recognize it!!!! We did, however, recognize Turtle when it was placed on the table.  Owen and I had seen these for sale in the supermarkets but this was the first time I had seen it prepared and presented.  This, I could not eat.  Neither could anyone else on our table.

Turtle.  Cooked for so long that the shell is like jelly.

Turtle. Cooked for so long that the shell is like jelly.

There were many delicious dishes to try and I was so proud of Isabelle and Oliver who were also very adventurous and tried lots of things.  There was a perfectly cooked huge lobster, dressed crab, salads, whole fish, fried rice, vegetables, pumpkin soup and a chicken broth.  Each place setting had a box with 2 ferrero rocher chocolates in.  The strangest thing on each table were 2 packets of cigarettes!  (A lot of smokers in China and you can still smoke almost everywhere.)

Food, glorious food.

Food, glorious food.

While the dinner was going on, there were many other activities, games and speeches taking place.  Hui and Johnson made the rounds to every table where they were toasted.  As I did not see them sit down, or eat anything, I am quite sure that they must have rolled out by the end of the evening!!  Lots of drinks and “Ganbei” going on.  If you are sitting at a large round table that has the glass lazy susan (most Chinese restaurants are set up in this way) then you do not have to stand and stretch across for each toast, you simply clink the glass table a couple of times instead.

The first game was for all the children.  It took a little bit of persuasion, but eventually Isabelle and Oliver went up on the stage.  I don’t know what was going on, but they came back with cuddly toys.  All the children at the wedding were clutching various lovies!!

Hui had a couple of dress changes.  Right after the outdoor ceremony, she changed into a beautiful blues dress:

2nd dress of the night.

2nd dress of the night.

Her last change was into a beautiful traditional Chinese wedding dress.  As red is a very lucky colour in China, brides always wear red at their weddings.  In fact, it is considered the height of rudeness for any guest to wear a red outfit at a wedding.

A gorgeous traditional Chinese wedding dress.

A gorgeous traditional Chinese wedding dress.

One of the games (selected by the ticket numbers!) was to go up on the stage and see how many lollipops you could squeeze into your mouth while still be able to say “Congratulations” (in Chinese).  Frank, a colleague from work who was sitting on our table, won this game by getting 7 lollipops in!!

The lollipop game!

Frank winning the lollipop game!

Instead of throwing the brides bouquet of flowers to all the single ladies, the bride choses who is to receive her good wishes and flowers.  In this case, it was Monica – another colleague at work.

Monica receiving the brides bouquet.

Monica receiving the brides bouquet.

Most people were leaving right after the dinner – it was almost 9.00pm by this time anyway!  Isabelle and Oliver had enjoyed themselves – all Chinese people love children, and especially love western children!  They were both very good and were taking all the actions, activities, food and traditions in their stride.  It was a wonderful event and I hope that Hui and Johnson will be very happy together!

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A Naked Retreat Weekend

A lovely weekend at The Naked Retreat at Moganshan, outside of Shanghai. Owen had just returned from one of his UK medical trips and the kids were on Easter/Spring break.  We packed the car and then spent 2.5 hours driving for a lovely long weekend break.

The naked Stables Private Reserve is an exclusive resort in a protected nature reserve.  It is luxury accommodation in spacious Tree Top Villas or single bedroom Earth Huts, spread across a broad, secluded valley in the foothills of Moganshan. No motor vehicles are permitted inside naked Stables Private Reserve but you can get around the extensive estate by electric golf cart or by foot.

We had reserved a Tree Top Villa, “Owl 4” – a 2 bedroom villa with spectacular views across mountain tops.  The deck had a jacuzzi on and a barbecue grill.  We all loved the hot tub and were in it at least twice every day!

Our Tree Top Villa - Owl 4

Our Tree Top Villa – Owl 4.  That is Owen waving down to us.

Owl 4 - all the different areas are named after animals and birds.

Owl 4 – all the different areas are named after animals and birds.

The villas blend in so well with the trees and landscape

The villas blend in so well with the trees and landscape

Now, this is the life!

Now, this is the life!

Relax, get active and get well.  Get ‘naked’.  Lounge on a sundeck beside your private jacuzzi, admire the mountains above the forest and watch the wild deer below, or take advantage of a range of activities from mountain biking, horse riding and hiking.  Cool off in one of our three swimming pools.  Get involved in cultural and culinary events in the evenings.  Children can be let loose in the supervised Little Shoots Kids Club.  For the restoration of mind, body and spirit, the naked Leaf Wellness Center, hidden in the forest, offers personal consultations and a range of treatments, holistic therapies, yoga and meditation, diet and exercise regimes that incorporate all sides of the resort.  It’s pure, private, naked luxury.

Owen and I spent a couple of hours in the spa while the kids played in the Little Shoots Club – it was a fabulous pampering experience.

We had booked both children in for Horse Riding.  Prior to this, Oliver was sure that he did not want to do it.  We persuaded him to try something new and once he was on the horse, he absolutely loved it!  We were so proud of him trying something new….

All suited up and ready to go!

All suited up and ready to go!

Loving the trotting!

Loving the trotting!  He could not keep the smile off his face the whole time!

Isabelle on her horse.

Isabelle on her horse.

The 2 of them walking and trotting around.

The 2 of them walking and trotting around.

The horses at the Retreat are from all over China.  Many of them have had traumatic lives prior to arriving, but they are well looked after here.  One of the horses had given birth to her foal 6 weeks ago.  It was a wonderful creature:

Mummy and Baby

Mummy and Baby

There is quite a bit to do at the Naked Retreat.  I took photos of a tea picking activity:

Tea picking in the mountains.

Tea picking in the mountains.  Can you see them in the fields?

Isabelle and Oliver loved the hot tub.  They were in it at every opportunity!

Night time hot tubbing!

Night time hot tubbing!

More night time hot tubbing!

More night time hot tubbing!

The Kids club was

Indoor and outdoor activities at the Kids Club,

Indoor and outdoor activities at the Kids Club,

Isabelle and Oliver enjoyed spending some time at the Kids Club.  They came back with beautiful paper flowers and stories of falling off the hammock!

The pool shaped like a tea leaf.  The upper pool is heated, but the lower pool is not and was very cold!!

The pool shaped like a tea leaf. The upper pool is heated, but the lower pool is not and was very cold!!

The restaurant served “free” afternoon tea with lots of delicious delicacies.  It also had a lovely buffet breakfast and lots of yummy evening menu items.  The ceiling had an unusual design…..

Ceiling design

Ceiling design at Kikaboni restaurant

The story behind “The Naked Retreat”:   South African Grant Horsfield, the founder of naked Retreats, came to China in 2005.  He wanted to identify a product that he could import and sell to the infamous ‘China market’, the untapped maker of fortunes that has attracted so many speculators for so many years.  Grant is selling an idea, and he has found a vast market for it – while he was working in the bustling city of Shanghai, Grant missed the open spaces of his home country.  He was brought up on a farm, the Veldt and mountains were his playground.  Much like anyone, he found the pace of city life, the pollution, the stress, debilitating. He started looking for an escape, a rural retreat.

After several scouting trips by car and bicycle into the hinterland west of Shanghai, Grant came upon Moganshan, a bamboo clad mountain that was a popular heat retreat in the days of Shanghai’s foreign concessions.  Just below the mountain’s peak and its surviving foreign-built villas, he discovered a farming hamlet called Shanjiuwu, also known as ‘395’.  The houses were old, rundown, and mostly abandoned. A small, aging community grew tea and vegetables on smallholdings and harvested bamboo.  Grant had found his idea – with immense difficulty he tracked down the owners of the neglected farmhouses, he roused the village chief and approached the local township authorities.  His proposal was equally difficult for them to understand, let alone approve and enact.  Grant wanted to rent some underused farmhouses and convert them into guesthouses. He prevailed, and naked Retreats Home Village was born. The year was 2007. The eight guesthouses have been all but fully booked ever since.  Grant, with partners Gabriela Lo and Evan Lai, and his wife Delphine Yip, has built naked Retreats into a well known, successful company and brand.  In October 2011 they opened naked Stables Private Reserve, a purpose built collection of Tree Top Villas and Earth Huts at the foot of the valley below 395. naked Retreats are now looking further afield, yet always within a few hours of a major city, for places to create their unique retreats for the vast, untapped market of urban China.

One of the private rooms at the Kikaboni restaurant.  These chairs are fabulous!

One of the private rooms at the Kikaboni restaurant. These chairs are fabulous!

The cabins are tucked in the mountains.....

The cabins are tucked in the mountains…..  You can barely see them when walking around.

Look at the Bamboo forest behind Isabelle and Oliver.  The whole mountain is covered with bamboo and tea!

Look at the Bamboo forest behind Isabelle and Oliver. The whole mountain is covered with bamboo and tea!

A lovely relaxing, peaceful weekend.  We all enjoyed this wonderful place and will try to get back again before we leave China.

The Ex-pat Phenomenon

Why is it that I have met so many Ex-pats who say that although they love their “home” country, it is now a place to visit vs a place to live in again?  Most of my friends here (from many different Countries) say that they don’t think they can return home to live.  In doing a quick search on the Internet, it appears that my local findings mirror a global trend – over 60% of British Ex-pats do not want to return home (sources: Daily Telegraph survey October 2010 and  Lloyds TSB survey November 2011).  69% of the estimated 5.5 million Brits living in other Countries have no plans to return “home”.

‘Expats have an enlightening view of the UK, having experienced life both home and away, so it’s worrying that life in Britain appears so bleak when viewed through their eyes,’ said Lloyds TSB’s Expatriate Banking Managing Director Tony Wilcox.

Having left the UK for the first time in 1995 and extending what was then a 2 year assignment into 15 years, returning “home” in 2010 was a difficult transition for me and my family.  The Britain we returned to was vastly different from the Britain we left, and in my humble opinion, not for the better.  Everything is so expensive, taxes are high, crime (and violent crime) is up (or maybe it is reported more sensationally) and the sense of hopelessness I felt in the younger generation was depressing.  Even the brilliant British TV seemed to have sunk to the lowest levels of society.  When did British comedy have to be so crass, rude and mind numbing to be funny?  We could only find QI to save us!

The problem was that living in America we had found ourselves split in 2 and torn between 2 worlds.  We often said that we wished we could “import” our family and friends and then we never would have left.  People become Ex-pats for many reasons – work, a fresh start, a new experience, or in a bid to leave something behind; and although you miss home, the longer you are away, the more your mind creates a memory.  Home in that sense becomes something that it isn’t.

So, in 2012 when I was presented with the chance of a brilliant professional challenge as well as a huge cultural learning opportunity in China, the whole family jumped at it.  1 year on and it has been a roller coaster ride and one that I would not change.  1 year to go and we have no idea what is next.

So, what is next for me and my family?  I believe that we are all now “Global Citizens”.  As such, we no longer fit in anywhere 100%.  We are jigsaw puzzles with pieces that are coloured in so many different shades.  My children have friends from different Countries around the world and could tell you about the traditions and culture in at least 4 or 5 of them.  Diversity is valued and celebrated at their school.  Their passports have more stamps in them in 7 short years than in the first 30 years of my life.  They have seen and experienced more than their peers in either UK and USA.  Will “normal” life seem boring and bleak to them after this experience?  Will their beginning grasp of Mandarin fade into a distant memory?  What do we do with our careers?  Where is the next BIG opportunity for either of us?

So many questions with many possible answers.  And none of them will be right or wrong.  Such is the life of an Ex Pat, such is the life of a Global Citizen.

Chinese New Year celebrations – Welcome to the year of the Snake 蛇 Shé

Chinese New Year is the most important and, at 15 days, the longest holiday in China.  Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the lunar calendar, so it is also called Lunar New Year, and it is considered the beginning of spring, so it is also called Spring Festival.  Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays.  Regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year vary widely.  The Chinese New Year celebrations ended on Sunday February 24th.  We heard hours and hours of firecrackers and fireworks going off until the early hours!  We also lit 2 Chinese lanterns and sent them soaring into the sky.

The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it’s been called since the 20th century, remains the most important social and economic holiday in China.  It is also a time to bring family together for feasting.  With the adoption in China of the Western calendar in 1912, the Chinese joined in celebrating January 1 as New Year’s Day.  However, they continue to celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year, although in a shorter version with a new name–the Spring Festival.   (Significantly, younger generations of Chinese now observe the holiday in a very different manner from their ancestors. For some young people, the holiday has evolved from an opportunity to renew family ties to a chance for relaxation from work.)

Some of the traditions at this time include: each family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck.  Windows and doors are often decorated with red colour paper cut-outs with themes of “good fortune”, “happiness”, “wealth” and “longevity”.  Other activities include lighting firecrackers (to frighten evil spirits) and giving money in red paper envelopes – red is very lucky colour in China!   People post scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and elders give out money to children. In fact, many of the rites carried out during this period are meant to bring good luck to the household and long life to the family–particularly to the parents.

The Chinese calendar is a complex timepiece.  Its parameters are set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar, as do the Chinese zodiac, the twelve “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos.  Each new year is marked by the characteristics of one of the 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey (me), rooster (Owen and Isabelle), dog and pig (Oliver).

Most important is the feasting. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family joins around the table for a meal that includes as the last course a fish that is symbolic of abundance and therefore not meant to be eaten.  In the first five days of the New Year, people eat long noodles to symbolize long life.  On the 15th and final day of the New Year, round dumplings shaped like the full moon are shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection.  It is a time for family get together, cooking and celebrating!

The Friday before New Year (February 7th) BISS finished the week of Chinese celebrations with the opportunity for the children to dress up in traditional dress.  Isabelle and Ava were suitably attired:

Chinese New Year celebrations at BISS.  Isabelle and Ava dressed in traditional Chinese dresses.

Chinese New Year celebrations at BISS. Isabelle and Ava dressed in traditional Chinese dresses.

Oliver is born under the sign of the Pig, specifically the Fire Pig, and those born in the year of the Fire Pig are supposed to be enthusiastic, extroverted, rebellious, passionate, brave and valiant; however, they can also be hot-tempered, snappy, uncontrollable and short-tempered.

Isabelle and Owen are born under the sign of the Rooster who is supposed to have a very flamboyant and expressive personality, very talkative, an extrovert who loves to showoff.  The Rooster is a trustworthy, hardworking and confident individual.  Brave, romantic, motivated, proud, blunt, resentful and boastful.  Isabelle is a Wood Rooster who likes the company of others and is a good friend.

Chinese New Year (CNY) is also the time for companies to hold their annual parties to celebrate and recognize their employees.  My company is no different and on Tuesday February 5th we were all at a posh hotel for dinner.  We all signed a huge board on our way in:

Signing the board (bottom left)

Signing the board (bottom left)

I walked into the Ballroom that had a stage set up and lots of tables.  I was asked to sit at the center table.  (This meant that I had lots of toasts to keep up with the Chinese Baijiu wine, which is lethal!!!!)  This consequently meant a pounding head on Wednesday.  🙂

The "Red" table - many courses over the evening and many toasts!

The “Red” table – many courses over the evening and many toasts!

Throughout the dinner, the employees were engaged in the entertainment.  I was amazed to see displays of karaoke, drinking games and dancing.  The first show was a flamboyant dance to Abba’s Dancing Queen:

"Dancing Queen"

“Dancing Queen”

"Sales" and "Operations" singing about their love/hate relationship!

“Sales” and “Operations” singing about their love/hate relationship!

This drinking game involved a large glass of Baijiu and glasses of water.  The goal was to guess who was drinking the alcohol!

This drinking game involved a large glass of Baijiu and glasses of water. The goal was to guess who was drinking the alcohol!

A fantastic voice singing a lovely song!

A fantastic voice singing a lovely song!

I got "volunteered" for a game on the stage.  This involved getting a pretzel stick to the shortest length possible with your partner.

I got “volunteered” for a game on the stage. This involved getting a pretzel stick to the shortest length possible with your partner.

In many ways, all the games were a throwback to my youth!  It was all unexpected at a business function, but everyone is actively participating.

Speeches and flowers to the support staff.

Speeches and flowers to the support staff.

The final song of the night.

The final song of the night.

My first Chinese New Year celebration was fun (very alcoholic!) and an unforgettable experience.

Celebrating the end of the Chinese New year festivities with the lanterns:

Lighting the lantern - it took several minutes to fill with warm air.

Lighting the lantern – it took several minutes to fill with warm air.

Kids letting it go.......

Kids letting it go…….

Up, up and away.  We watched it soar so high - it was still flying and alight by the time it was out of sight!

Up, up and away. We watched it soar so high – it was still flying and alight by the time it was out of sight!

Passport Woes

The Chinese New Year is the biggest travel time within China.  It is the equivalent of the Western Christmas/New Year celebrations or Thanksgiving.  Many people travel back to their home towns and cities for extended celebrations with their families.  Most Ex-pats leave the Country!  (Shops are closed, drivers are with families, Ayi’s are with families, so it is difficult to stay).  We had decided to book a trip to anywhere that we could get flights to.  All our Emerald friends had told us that getting out of China would be difficult at this time of year, and they were right.  Owen and John (friends who we would be travelling with), spent almost a day with a travel agent working out an itinerary that would work for us all.

Having decided on Vietnam and because of long layovers on flight connections, we decided to extend our time in Hong Kong at both ends of the trip.  January 8th and our trip is booked, signed and paid for!!  I am in Beijing while all this is being done.  The following week I am in Singapore and Owen then calls me in a panic because he has been researching the Visa requirements for Vietnam and sees that they require 6 months validity on passports to issue the visa.  I have 4 months left on mine!  Uh-oh……

It is 3 weeks to go before we depart and it looks like I will not be able to get a Visa.  I research a fast passport renewal process when you are out of the UK and am told that I can do an expedited service (2 weeks) through Hong Kong (mainland China no longer allows UK passport services).  However, my Residence Permit is in my “old” (current) passport and I will need that to get back into China.  The Chinese Government also require you to carry your passport at all times, so the renewal process is unique in that you do not send your old passport in with the application.

I took a colour photocopy of my passport, complete the application form, take copies of our travel itinerary, rush to get photo’s done and DHL the packet to Hong Kong on January 25th – exactly 2 weeks and 1 day before travel day.   I check my UK bank account and see that the expedite passport service fee has been deducted from my account on January 31st, which means that the UK has received the application and is processing it.  Yippee, I think!  Then I wait and wait.

Wednesday February 6th and now I getting nervous as I still have no passport.  I have processed Vietnam Visa-on-Arrival paperwork for the rest of the family so they are good to go.  Owen is in the UK and says that he can collect my passport from the UK office if it is there.  I phone the helpline to see if this can be done and am told that there is no way I will be getting my passport before Saturday February 9th and there is no way that Owen can collect it.  HELP – what is a girl to do?  The helpline is actually helpful and I am told that if I visit the British Consulate in Shanghai they may be able to issue me an Emergency Passport.  Now, the new research starts……  will Hong Kong and Vietnam allow entry with an Emergency passport?  Can I get a Visa in time?  Will I be allowed back into China on a cancelled passport with a valid residents permit AND an emergency passport?  Will the Consulate even process an Emergency Passport for these reasons?

Thursday morning dawns and I am waiting for the Consulate to open to get answers to all these questions!  Eventually, they phone me back at noon to let me know the answer to all the questions is YES, YES, MAYBE, YES and YES!  Again, YIPPEE, I think!  The only problem may be in getting a Vietnam visa as it is Lunar New Year celebrations across Asia and many Government agencies are already closed.  I rush down to the Consulate with photos and paperwork and they tell me to come back first thing in the morning to collect my Emergency Passport.

I am waiting outside the Consulate doors on Friday morning for opening time!  2 minutes later and I have a passport in hand – valid for 7 months for 1 trip only – to Vietnam via Hong Kong!!  Now, to get the Visa.  I find a company online that will process it for me – for an astronomical fee, of course!

Friday afternoon and I have the emergency passport and Visa-on-Arrival approval!  Less than 24 hours before travel time!

Friday afternoon and I have the emergency passport and Vietnam Visa-on-Arrival approval! Less than 24 hours before travel time!

For any British people living in Shanghai – the Consulate is awesome.  Very helpful, calm and patient people working there.  They went above and beyond to help me out at short notice.  This is very handy to know 🙂

I am so glad that I phoned the UK passport helpline – they immediately had visibility into my application process and could give me the information that enabled me to work on a Plan B.  I have Marie, Lin and Emma to thank for that advice!  It was becoming the morning bus stop conversation – the ongoing saga of Sara’s passport!!  Everyone was nervous for me.  I had offers to spend Chinese New Year with the only set of friends staying in Shanghai!

I was so nervous travelling on this document, but I had no problems with any immigration.  Just a few funny looks and intelligent comments like: “this is an emergency passport” and, “did you know that this is an emergency travel document”.

February 20th – I still do not have my full passport back from the UK.  So much for an expedited process!

Harbin – Tigers, Snow and Ice Spectacular

We had a fabulous weekend in Harbin.  Friday January 18th, we collected the kids from school at noon ready to fly up to Harbin in the very north of China. In fact, any further north and we would have been in Russia!  Evidence of this can be seen in the town centre:

Chinese and Russian signs above the shops in Harbin.

Chinese and Russian signs above the shops in Harbin.

This was an “Emerald” weekend away as there would be 6 families staying in the same hotel and doing all the same site seeing!  We had travelled up with John, Jenny and their 2 boys: Daniel and Luke, and the others were arriving at different times during Friday and Saturday morning.  Once we had walked off the plane into the baggage claim area, we (along with every other person on the plane) immediately started to bundle up: ski gloves, scarves, additional layers.  It was cold, cold, cold!  We stepped out of the airport and felt the cold air on our faces.  It was only minus 27 degrees centigrade that night!  Luckily it was a short walk to the waiting car.  It was funny to see the inside of the car windows frost up during our 45 minute drive to the hotel.  Once we got to the hotel (Shangri-la – highly recommended in Harbin) it was time for dinner.  We dropped bags off and decided to eat in the hotel restaurant.  It was buffet style and the kids loved being able to help themselves.  We also met up with Marie and Tim and their 3 children: Cai, Lia and Seren.  They had arrived earlier this morning and had already done some sight-seeing.

We got up early on Saturday morning and began the long task of getting dressed. Layering up with thermals, long sleeves, 2 pairs of socks, sweaters and then ski coats.  Then add ski gloves and liners, hats, ear muffs, face warmers and scarves!!  Poor Isabelle and Oliver did not like wearing so many clothes and they weebled their way down the hotel corridor to the elevator!  They both look the Michelin Man!  We had arranged for a mini-bus to take us, John & Jenny + family and Tim & Marie + family to the Tiger breeding station first.

Tiger Breeding Organization

Tiger Breeding Organization

The Siberian Tiger Park covers an area of more than a million square meters (250 acres+) and it was set up as a place to breed and house Siberian tigers.  The Siberian tiger is the largest of the big cats.  The breeding program has been very successful, and there are now about 800 Siberian tigers (about 100 can be seen here) along with other large cats like lions and pumas.  This is amazing, since it is estimated that there are only about 500 Siberian tigers left in the wild.  Almost all of these wild ones are in Russia, and maybe 12 are in China.  The facility includes a museum, breeding areas, and cages/pens for the other large cats.  It is amazing to see a group of striped golden tigers walk and run together.   You can also have the option to buy some live animals to feed the tigers with:

Tiger Menu

Tiger Menu

We were full of good intentions to buy a chicken but by the time we had walked through to the bus, we had lost our opportunity.

All of the kids waiting to go into the Tiger Park.

All of the kids waiting to go into the Tiger Park.  Dan, Isabelle, Seren, Lia, Oliver, Cai and Luke.

Riding in the tiger cart

Riding in the tiger cart

Once we moved into through the gift shop, we got into the bus that would drive us through the large open areas filled with the tigers.  It was fantastic to be so close to these magnificent animals.  They are beautiful.

Beautiful White Siberian Tiger.  Quite Rare!

Beautiful White Siberian Tiger. Quite Rare!

So many tigers here......

So many tigers here……

This tiger has just fed on a chicken!

This tiger has just fed on a chicken!  You can even see a feather hanging down near its mouth!

At the tiger feeding area - there must have been between 30-40 here.

At the tiger feeding area – there must have been between 30-40 here.

Wow Mum, we saw a lot of tigers!

Wow Mum, we saw a lot of tigers!

Owen and Oliver getting eaten by a Tiger!!

Owen and Oliver getting eaten by a Tiger!!

After spending a good few hours here, our feet and our faces were starting to get numb.  The temperature was minus 35 degrees centigrade and you cannot stay out for too long!  We all got back into our lovely warm bus and drove back to the Hotel for lunch and to warm through!  After we were toastie again, it was back in the bus to check out the snow sculptures at Sun Island Park.

The Harbin Snow and Ice festival officially starts January 5th and usually lasts one month.  Ice sculpture decoration technology ranges from the modern (using lasers) to traditional (with ice lanterns).   Some of the most impressive ice sculptures are full size buildings made from blocks of 2–3 feet thick crystal clear ice directly taken from the Songhua River.

Sun Island Park Entrance

Sun Island Park Entrance

The first sculpture we saw was this one of the 7 dwarves.

The first sculpture we saw was this one of the 7 dwarves.

Snow sculpture

Snoopy Snow sculpture

more snow

Oliver and me by a beautiful sculpture.  This gives you an idea of the scale of a lot of the sculptures in this park.

Just the girls posing by the greenery at the Snow sculptures at the Sun Park.

Isabelle, Lia, me and Oliver posing by the greenery at the Snow sculptures at the Sun Island Park.

Getting ready for mass slide

Getting ready for mass slide

Slide executed!

Slide executed!

Isabelle and Oliver by a sculpture

Isabelle and Oliver by a sculpture

Ludwig Beethoven in Snow!

Ludwig van Beethoven in Snow!

More music in snow

More music in snow

Amazing sculptures here in China

Amazing sculptures here in China

Snow egg

Snow egg

The sculptures are absolutely amazing.  Many of them are huge – towering above us.  They are all intricately carved with exquisite detail.  There was even a building with a slide.  We all rode down this on a rubber ring – it was thrilling!

Waiting to ride the slide

Waiting to ride the slide

Harbin - Snow and Ice Capital!

Harbin – Snow and Ice Capital!

The detail is amazing.

The detail is amazing.

I loved this simple design.

I loved this simple design.

More detail.......

More detail…….

Almost the same.  Minor changes in these heads make you look twice!

Almost the same. Minor changes in these heads make you look twice!

Cinderella shall go to the ball.

Cinderella shall go to the ball.  I laughed at the fact that Cinderella and Prince Charming cannot possibly get into this carriage!  Still a fabulous sculpture though!

Another wonderful sculpture

Another wonderful sculpture

Solider shooting in snow.

Solider shooting in snow.

The magic flute

The magic flute

We spent all afternoon here and as the sun began to set, the light was amazing and the photos that we took later in the day were spectacular.

Such wonderful detail

Such wonderful detail

And then the evening lights came on too!

And then the evening lights came on too!

Back to the beginning, this time this is all lit up.

Back to the beginning, this time this is all lit up.

We had been overwhelmed enough for 1 day!  Tigers and snow sculptures and we had been outside for most of it.  Our feet were cold and it was time for dinner.  All the other families from Emerald had arrived earlier in the day so we were looking forward to a lovely meal with everyone!

We had booked several tables at the back of the restaurant in the hotel.  All the boys gravitated towards one, while the girls took another and that left all the adults to enjoy an evening together at the main table!  🙂

The boys at Dinner

The boys at Dinner – Ethan, Oliver, Luke, Cai, Daniel and Harry (Joseph is missing from the boys table).

The Girls table - Maddie, Lia, Isabelle and Ava.  Seren and Amelie are missing from this photo.

The Girls table – Maddie, Lia, Isabelle and Ava. Seren and Amelie are missing from this photo.  Isabelle is getting quite good with chopsticks!

A selection of the adults"

A selection of the adults: Nick, Owen, Marie, Lin, Tim, Kevin, Jenny and Emma

Obviously towards the end of the evening......Kevin, Jenny, Emma, John and Jane

Obviously towards the end of the evening……Kevin, Jenny, Emma, John and Jane

Oliver, Seren and Ethan

Oliver, Seren and Ethan.  Oliver and Ethan both love Seren and she knows exactly how to make this work to her advantage!  All 3 play so well together and they are wonderful to watch.  They had a great weekend!

girls

Isabelle, Ava, Maddie, Lia and Amelie chilling out after dinner!

We had another early morning on Sunday so that we could go down to the Songhua River.  We wanted to walk on water!!  The kids laughed at this!

The ice sculpted entrance to the river slides.

The ice sculpted entrance to the river slides.

The view from the top.  So many activities on the river.

The view from the top. So many activities on the frozen river.

Time to slide down to the River so we can ride in a tank!

Time to slide down to the River so we can ride in a tank!

And down we all went......

And down we all went……

Time for a ride in the Tank!

Time for a ride in the Tank!

Owen and Isabelle on the left, with Oliver and me to the right.  This was HUGE FUN!!!!!

Owen and Isabelle on the left, with Oliver and me to the right. This was HUGE FUN!!!!!  Of course, with Owen’s Army background he drove it perfectly.  I had to be rescued off the center divides several times!!!!!

Isabelle cheering a perfect round!

Isabelle cheering a perfect round!

Oliver and I cheering the fact that it was a straight run!

Oliver and I cheering the fact that it was a straight run!

So. Much. Fun.

So. Much. Fun.

The ice is so clear.  It is taken from the river and carved into wonderful sculptures.  This block is almost 2 feet thick.  You can clearly see my victory salute through the this.

The ice is so clear. It is taken from the river and carved into wonderful sculptures. This block is almost 2 feet thick. You can clearly see my victory salute through this.

We spent hours on this slide.

We spent hours on this slide.  The only downside was pulling the tires back up to the top each time!  Eventually Isabelle had been down enough times with Owen or John, that she decided she was brave enough to do it herself.  There was no stopping her then.

Oliver posing!

Oliver posing!  So many layers on him!

Fruit on a stick

After all the fun on the river, it was time to warm up before going to the Ice Festival.  We saw this fruit on a stick display and the kids immediately wanted to try one.

Oliver's choice was huge.  He ate it all!!

Oliver’s choice was huge. He ate it all!!

Just cherries for Isabelle.

Just cherries for Isabelle.

Tourist attractions again in Harbin.  They are getting used to all the photos that the locals want to take of them!

Tourist attractions again in Harbin. They are getting used to all the photos that the locals want to take of them!

We had found a Costa coffee shop and warmed up with coffee and hot chocolate.  After that, we needed to get from downtown to the Ice Festival and so jumped in a couple of taxis.  This was a very interesting experience as Owen watched our driver signing the driver of the other taxi (where John, Jenny, Luke and Daniel were) and then both taxis pulled over into a side road.  The drivers were trying to negotiate an exorbitant fee to take us.  Thank goodness for iPhone’s with maps as John saw that our hotel was right around the corner so we just got out the taxis and started walking.  A little bit scary and I was sad that we were targetted for a rip off (especially with young children with us).  Once back at the hotel, we (hotel concierge!) negotiated taxis to take us to the Ice Festival at Zhaolin Park and then wait to bring us back to the hotel when we were done!  A much better solution.

Ice Time!

Ice Time!

We took so many photos of the fantastic ice sculptures.  It is amazing what is built and how beautifully lit up they all are.  This was truly a fantastic experience.

We took so many photos of the fantastic ice sculptures. It is amazing what is built and how beautifully lit up they all are. This was truly a fantastic experience.

We tried the Harbin beer!  A little too much like Bud Lite for us!

We tried the Harbin beer! A little too much like Bud Lite for us!

Ice, ice and more ice.

Ice, ice and more ice.

A lot of the buildings had ice slides incorporated into them.  Everyone enjoyed these - "big kids" and little kids!

A lot of the buildings had ice slides incorporated into them. Everyone enjoyed these – “big kids” and little kids!

A mass tumble down this slide!

A mass tumble down this slide!

More slides

Oliver trying different moves down the slides

Some of the ice buildings are HUGE.

Some of the ice buildings are HUGE.

Lots of different themes this year.

Lots of different themes this year.

...

Quite the view from the top of this one.

A slightly different angle.

A slightly different angle.

More ice

You can just see the top of Oliver’s hat on this slide.  The kids had sooooo much fun here.  We stayed until quite late and they had not even started moaning about being cold!  It was us adults that had had enough of the cold for one day!

The Temperate reads

The Temperate reads minus 26 degrees centigrade

People

Harbin is a very popular destination in January and February.  Even so, it does not feel too crowded as you walk around.

Spectacular architecture surrounded us.

Spectacular architecture surrounded us.

There was a ski lift and ski slope at the back of the park.  There was also some cool rides down.  What I especially liked here is that this slope was just for children 16 and under.  There was a slightly steeper slope for the adults.

There was a ski lift and ski slope at the back of the park. There were also some cool rides down. What I especially liked here is that this slope was just for children 16 and under. There was a slightly steeper slope for the adults.  You can just see me escorting Isabelle and Oliver up (dragging their tyres to sit in).  I then had to run down as I was too old to ride!!!

Not just ice sculptures, some snow ones too!

Not just ice sculptures, some snow ones too!

Even the transportation around the park was lit up!

Even the transportation around the park was lit up!

Owen and John inside an Ice Bar.

Owen and John propping up an Ice Bar.

Movie entertainment inside the park.

Movie entertainment inside the park.

The kids liked the detail of the Ice Age animals.

The kids liked the detail of the Ice Age animals.  Oliver immediately named Diego, Manny and Sid!

More Ice

More Ice

And more ice.....

And more ice…..

And even more ice

And even more ice (with some snow!)

Isabelle and Oliver playing peek-a-boo at the Angry Birds sculpture.

Isabelle and Oliver playing peek-a-boo at the Angry Birds sculpture.

I had to join in too!

I had to join in too!

Restaurants and bars were made out of ice too.

The Angry Birds sculpture.

Restaurants and bars made out of Ice.

The Angry Birds catapult!  This was a very clever sculpture.  There were people dressed up as the birds putting on a show every 15 minutes.

The lights in all the sculptures are very cool.

The lights in all the sculptures are very cool.

Lots of very cool lights

Lots of very cool lights in very cool sculptures

Amazing

Amazing…….

It was all so wonderful.  So much effort for such spectacular results that last such a short time.

It was all so wonderful. So much effort for such spectacular results that last such a short time.

The scale of the layout

The scale of everything was over-whelming.

Me and my little chicks....

Me and my little chicks….

John playing with Oliver in the Ice Bar

John playing with Oliver in the Ice Bar.  Oliver won that arm wrestle!

Family Jones - proof that we were there!

Family Jones – proof that we were there!  Only if you can tell who those people are underneath all the layers!

We safely returned to the hotel (not to be under-estimated, given our earlier experience with the taxi ride!)  It was hot chocolate all round before we all crashed into our beds.  An exhausting day with so much walking and the biting cold.  I definitely could not live in this climate!  We had decided to get up early again to take advantage of a couple more hours on the frozen river.  Our flight back to Shanghai was early afternoon on Monday January 21st and we wanted to make the most of our final hours.  Isabelle and Oliver both wanted to ride in the tanks again, do the tyre slide down a few more times and try out the ice bumper cars:

Bumper cars on ice!

Bumper cars on ice!  Isabelle and Owen having fun.

This was a fantastic, fabulous, wonderful weekend.  It would not have been on our “must see” list if it were not for Jane Steele, lovely Emerald friend.  She organised all the families, researched transportation, hotels, things to do and gave us the inspiration to go!  If you come to China in the Winter, Harbin should not be missed!

100th Post

This is my 100th post documenting the adventures of OSIO in China.  Looking back over our journey so far, I see a variety of posts on many different subjects: kids, school, China culture, China life, toilets (it must seem that I have an obsession here), friends, ex-pat life, and of course, our travels and experiences in Asia.

100 posts in approximately 300 days (since we arrived in Shanghai) – I am astonished to find that I have managed to keep up the pace of a post every 3-4 days….  With approximately 420 days left on my assignment, I hope I can keep up the journalling.  OSIO all enjoy looking back on our adventures and I hope that the memories (along with our many new friendships) we are creating here will last a lifetime.