The Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival: The Songhua River’s Annual Swan Song

Crouched in near racing positions, we listened as Vicki laid out the rules.

“You have twenty minutes. Do not spend money. Do not even THINK about running. Do not take off your jackets. See you back here in twenty minutes, or we leave you.”

My sister, Margaret, two-and-a-half years younger by birth but five older in maturity, looked at me. Something devilish in her smile told me we’d be spending money, running and risking being left in the middle of the tundra.

“Let’s go, Doug.”

As with the 19 other red puffy coat-clad girls on her synchronized skating team, Margaret took off running, her Ugg boots sliding under her as she headed towards an enormous pagoda, lit up in electric blue and green hues. I followed, suddenly relieved that the less adventurous of us had finally found some cojones. Two minutes lapsed.

The day earlier, I’d arrived to Harbin, China with my family for the 2009 Winter Universiade, an amateur sports competition. As a member of the Junior Synchronized Skating Team at Miami University of Ohio, Margaret was chosen as a member of Team USA and an ambassador of US Figure Skating, competing against teams from Scandinavia and around Northern Europe.

For me and my parents, it was an excuse for an extra stamp in our passports and a two-week break from work.

Harbin was a mind-bending mix of Chinese characters and Russian Cyrillic, as Harbin is a mere two hours’ drive  from the border with Russia. With a population of the urban area straddling 10 million, the hub of northeast China is European in attitude and character: we’d swapped dumplings for goulash and pulled on all of our extra layers, relying on taxis to take us three blocks for fear of literally freezing our buns off.

The Universiade coincided with one of Harbin’s biggest tourist draws (apparently the other is fashion, but all I saw were stouter women and unflattering coats with just the eyes and tip of the nose peeking out of the hoods). The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is considered one of the top winter festivals throughout the world, with artisans perfecting their craft around the world and creating hundreds of sculptures in winter  weather that hovers just about 0°F.

Fearing my sister would twist an ankle or knee and be unable to skate, I begged her to slow down as we reached the pagoda. Margaret had other plans, as she scrambled up a set of stairs carved of snow and slide down an ice slide. I followed suit, and we ran from the pagoda to a giant Buddha, an ice castle and various other Chinese landmarks immortalized in ice that had been excavated from the Songhua River and lit up with bulbs frozen right into the blocks. 14 minutes lapsed.

That afternoon, my family and I had also toured the Zhaolin Gardens between Margaret’s training breaks. Snow from the city’s Sun Island park had been sculpted to create a replica of the Bird’s Nest from the Beijing Olympics, animals and even a gigantic spider. Like a child, I was captivated as the lights fell at 4p.m. and the statues took on an eery glow from the help of flood lights.

My sister pulled out a fistful of yen notes and waved them in front of my face. “Miami gave me bills, let’s take our picture with some Step Arian wolves.” I glanced at my watch. 18 minutes lapsed. Two fluffy white wolves, no larger than a beagle, huddled close together under heat lamps in front of a stand selling candied apples.

Vicki could shove it, for all I cared. We only had twenty minutes to witness one of Asia’s most beautiful festivals, a product of a harsh coach not wanting her athletes’ ankles rolled or muscles pulled. We handed over a few yen and squinted against the lights that set the park aglow.

Skidding into the parking lot a few minutes later, Vicki shook her head at us, but Margaret turned and high-fived me. “That was awesome, Doug.”

If you go: The Harbin Ice Festival is an annual event that takes place between December and February, with the official kick-off on January 5th. We were fortunate to be there in the first place, but our trip was towards the end of February, and some of the artwork had suffered damage and melting. Harbin is also one of the foremost producers of beer in China, and simple leaving it out near your windowsill ensures it stays cold! I lost all of my pictures from Harbin, so these shots were taken by my father, Don Gaa. For the BBC’s report on the 2009 festival, click here.

 Have you been to a famous winter festival? Leave me a message in the comments!

My Seven Super Shots

Maybe it’s just my love of Camarón or my quest to see Seville in new ways, but I was crossing my fingers I’d get to do the Seven Super Shots run by . Similar to the ABCs of Travel, this virtual game of tag centers around photography, which I am all to willing to admit to loving.

The gimmick is to examine the snaps you’ve taken and choose the best out of several categories. When reading a few others on my Google Reader, I already had mine mentally picked out.

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Expat Life in Photos: Wafunjing Snack Street

They say a picture’s worth 1.000 words, but here’s a few anyway.
Most of my research for China was done through the book River Town by Peter Hessler, a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to the provincial city of Fuling, along the banks of the Yangtze. While his sweeping description of the Dragon Gorge didn’t prepare me for the vehicle-clogged alleys of Beijing, the food he described seemed succulent, exotic enough to be touted by Anthony Bourdain and fun to try. I left the planning to my dad and instead prepared my stomach.
After a dizzying day of travel, my dad took me to snack street, a city block with food stands open throughout the night. This is Chinese fast food at its finest: raw pipping dumplings, ears of corn and sweet potatoes get dumped into steam baths, hot oil or handed over to you as soon as you order it. Cooks echoing used car salesmen call after you, offering bok choy and sheep penis. Steam rises from stalls, making it hard to see prices or even know what you’re ordering, which is almost half the fun.
Don and I tried grasshopper that night, a crunchy snack before bed. Throughout our 10 days in China, we’d eat duck heart and webbed feet, shrimp longer than my arm, pig snout and watch fishmongers toss parts into freezers while customers grabbed them, gloveless.
China’s opening up to new people, ideas and traditions. But food as culture has always been an ancient thing for the Chinese.


China 6: Universiade and The long journey home

The city of Harbin is nearly three times the size of Chicago, population-wise at least, so we couldn’t even tell you in what direction the river was from our hotel, nor Beijing for that matter. My dad suggested we get a bird’s-eye view of the city from the Dragon Tower, one of the 25 tallest buildings in the world and the telecommunications center for northeast China. After the Berkowitzes and we paid nearly 20 bucks a piece to ride an elevator, climb some rickety stairs and barely see a few blocks ahead of us because of the smog. My dad really didn’t get the view he wanted, but we did give Ellen a little bit of a scare because of her fear of heights. She did a quick lap around the top and went inside to look at the butterfly collection.

The new ice sports complex wasn’t more than a 15 minute walk, but the clear day was mistakenly took for a warm day, and we suffered because of it. The two rink are connected by a long tunnel lines with inflatable Dong Dongs and the hotel in front of them made us pass through security and metal detectors just to make it into the lobby! We had originally only wanted to stay for the 10-minute practice, but because of a lack of good information, we were told we may not be allowed to enter for the competition. This was at 12:50 p.m. and synchronized skating wasn’t scheduled to start until 9:30 p.m. Instead of taking risks, my family decided to stay and I was thankfully to have brought a book and snacks (we were also told there would be no food, so Nance and Linder brought cheese, crackers, chips and fruit).

Margaret’s team skated third to Roxanne from Moulin Rouge. In the collegiate division, they skate just one program that’s about 7 minutes long and is creative and includes a lot of lifts and stunts. The short program, which is about four minutes and much more technical and precise, consists of compulsory moves that a team must complete – big moving circles that cover 75% of the ice, for example, or a backwards pass. Out of the five teams competing, they came in fourth after the short program for not having all of their moves counted. But, you have to give them credit for learning a new program while perfecting another one for national championships. The girls were upset, but I thought it looked cool and everyone stayed on their feet.

The next morning, my dad and I headed to a Confucious Temple in town. It’s on a pedestrian street, and the first thing I noticed was that the people were actually fat. Not fat in comparison to Americans, but fat in comparison to the other Chinese we’d seen. The temple was masked by a heavy cloud of incense, as people used giant pits to burn incense in paper bags while saying prayers to giants Buddhas placed all over the complex, which is bigggg. In the middle, there’s a giant golden guy and people left food offerings at his feet. The buildings that ring around him have the traditional tiers and dragon riding kings, which made me feel like we’d escaped the city. Then, upon leaving, we saw a monk wearing crocs and talking on a cell phone. And people think China is cut off to the rest of the world!

We met Helen and Larry for an early dinner at the Russian restaurant we’d eaten at a few days before, where I ordered the exact same thing, and headed to the rink for the end of ladies free skate. We sat much closer this time, so we could see every finger on the skaters’ hands as they landed jumps and spun out of spins. For the long skate, the girls skated second, after Switzerland. They had these AWFUL pepto bismal pink dresses and danced to Mamma Mia! and it was a fun program. The hockey team came to cheer them on and many of the spectators behind us took flags to participate. Margaret didn’t skate this program, but she did get on the ice to pick up sequins that had fallen. The finished fourth behind Sweden, Finland and Russia, despite not being the senior team. They were disappointed not to medal, but just recently won the National title at the nationwide collegiate competition. I was especially proud of Margaret because she was cut from the team her sophomore year and won a spot back on the team by dedicating a lot of time to working out and passing skating tests.

Our wakeup call the following morning was 4:30 a.m., and it was even colder than we could have imagined. One of the other dads was nice enough to preorder breakfast for us, so we had fruit and dim sum and sausages and thermoses of coffee. The Harbin airport is goofy city. There was hardly anything written in English, so we couldn’t figure out which ticketing counter belonged to our flight back to Beijing and ended up being pushed to the end of the line with a bunch of other athletes. The security checks were seperated into three parts – ticket and ID, bags and finally body searches. This wasted enough time to get us to the gate with just 2o minutes to boarding.

Once in Beijing, we were met at the gate by an army of Harbin Universiade athletes. I had a four-hour layover and wanted to stay with my family for a little while before heading out, but the volunteers practically pulled me away from them to get the bus to another terminal. They all seemed a little disoriented, so I kept getting handed off from one to another. Finally, I found myself with a tall, skinny boy and another girl. They offered to carry all of my bags, convinced I was an athlete despite my objections. They rode the bus with me even though I assured them it wasn’t necessary and I could get there on my own. The queue at Air France was long, so I once again told them they could leave, but they instead checked me in at the Business Class counter and tried to upgrade my seat before accompanying me all the way to the gate.

The 10.5 hour flight passed without sleep, so by the time I got to Paris, changed terminals, had my passport stamped assuring I got into the EU (at which point I realized my French lessons were COMPLETELY worthless because I couldn’t tell the man, “J’habite dans l’Espagne” when he asked why I was going to Spain), then going through security again and having a man tell me our government didn’t spend money properly, I realized I was completely wiped. I could barely keep my eyes open waiting and listening to music, so I grabbed the cookbook my sister gave me. I got on a shuttle to the plane and started hearing Spanish. FINALLY a language I understand and can express myself in! I recognized one of the other passengers from the airport in Beijing and smiled weakly, still overcome by my heavy eyelids and the fact that I’d been up well over 20 hours. He was speaking on his mobile and said, “There’s a girl here coming from Beijing, too. I think she’s foreign because she’s reading a book in English about Spain. She must be going to Spain for tourism purposes.” So I broke out some Spanish slang to tell him I was returning to my curro, or work, in Sevilla.

We talked for a bit (I think his name was Jorge? I was so asleep at that point I could barely string a few sentences together!) and I wished him a good trip. Turns out he was sitting right next to me. Que casualidad, right? We talked for the whole trip before he told me, “Tienes cara de sueno” – you look tired. You think? Once we arrived in Barajas, he offered to accompany me by metro because he lives a stop away from the bus station. I accepted and grabbed my bag from the luggage claim. As we were leaving, a study abroad student chased me down and said, I think you have my bag. I apologized and said mine was the same size and color and I had completely neglected to read the tag. He said, “I asked if there was another big, blue backpack that had arrived and they said no.” AWESOME. It’s 24 hours after I left Harbin and I have no bag and a six-hour bus ride to endure before getting to my bed.

Jorge helped me with the baggage claim simply because I was too tired to speak. My cell phone needs to be unlocked every time it’s switched on by a four-digit pin, but it had somehow become locked while in China and I had to enter a bar code used to activate the card. So when she asked for the phone number so the airline could deliver my bag (which was chilling out in Paris still), I tried to give her my home line. I of course couldn’t remember it, nor did it do any good to give her Kike’s number since he was in Somalia. I started crying out of exhaustion and frustration. The good news was my bag had been located and I had a light load to take on the metro, which has a transfer. By the time I got on the overnight bus from Mendez Alvaro a few hours later, I passed out, only waking up in Ecija, a mere hour from Sevilla.

I have never been happy to get back to Spain. The more I travel and the more of the world I see, the more I feel at home in Sevilla and the more I like even the most bothersome things. I’ll put up with beauracracy and moscas if it means I can drink beer at 11 am every day and get to swear at my kids when I’m frustrated!

For pictures of China and the rest of the year, check out .

China 5: Harbin pre-Universiade

I will tell you that, more or less, all fast food worldwide tastes the same. And then KFC creates the spicy chicken breakfast sandwich and I find myself passing the one KFC in Sevilla reminding myself about it. We hopped on a plane to Harbin, a town two hours south of the Russian border, a town known for its cold temperatures, fashion and ice sculpture festival. Yes, ice sculpture festival.I was warned about the Chinese being pushy, but I witnessed it first-hand when the plane landed. We were seated near the back in a nearly empty plane. Instead of waiting for use to grab our luggage from the overhead compartments, someone went careening past us, sending Linder toppling over into her seat. Que moro tienen. We were welcomed to an airport in the middle of an ice field by life-sized caricatures of a snowflake. This would be Dong Dong, the mascot of the Winter Universiade. Apparently my sister and her synchronized skating team at Miami of Ohio are pretty big deals because this competition attracts full time university students from all over the world (including Borat’s home country of Kazhakstan!) The students are treated like Olympic athletes – they live and eat at an athlete’s village, have interpreters and security badges, and are often asked to pose for photos.We took a taxi to the center of town too a big, fancy, five-star hotel. The team mom, Janine, was waiting for us with all of our tickets and plans and schedules for the next few days. The woman is una puta maquina!! (a machine) We joined some of the other team parents for lunch at a restaurant nearby. A concierge insisted he take us so he could translate, as this place isn’t so touristy and we would have a hard time understanding. There were two high schoolers with us who asked, “Do they have sweet and sour chicken on the menu?” only to find out that they had pigs ears and other strange-looking things. By now, we were pros with chopsticks and our stomachs had adjusted to weird foods prepared under questionable hygiene, so we drove our chopsticks into some beef dishes and spicy prawns.

Our hotel is located next to a new mall known for its fashion. We were disappointed times ten to find Hello Kitty stores cozied up to a wannabe Starbucks and an appliances store, but the basement supermarket was definitely a trip. We got pushed into the Super-Walmart like store that had everything-even free sample! The candy aisle featured corn flavored soft candy, and there were a few aisles dedicated to noodles that just required hot water. A sandbox full of rice stood in front of the checkout lines. I’m used to seeing supermarkets dead after the meal time started, but you could barely steer a cart through this place! The kids were snapping pictures because they’ve never seen anyone chopping fish heads off and the guts spilling out, nor to watch a woman boil pig feet or makes an omelette right in front of you. There were all kinds of strange foods for sale, and in the international aisle, I was not shocked to find just olive oil from Spain.

We had a rest, which consisted of my dad and I propping ourselves up on the silk blankets and watching the National Geographic Channel while we ate some cookies we found at the supermarket. We also picked up a few beers because Harbin is known for its beer culture, as well. The city welcome the first beer factory to Harbin in 1900, and surprisingly the beer is better warm! Janine made a reservation for us at a Russian restaurant down the street. Even at 5 p.m. the place had live music – a tall, blonde Russian woman and a shorter man clad in traditional clothes kicking his legs in time with the music. Rose and I split borsch and chicken stuffed with grapes in a cream sauce and I had some Russian beer. It was AMAZING to not eat Chinese food for the first time in a week! Because of our fears of sanitation and some sensitive tummies, we tried not to go too wacko with the foods.

The following morning, after getting things settled with the schedules regarding practice and competition, my parents, Linder and I took a cab to Central Street, a long strip of Russian tea shops, American fashion stores and ice sculptures. I swear, if it weren’t for all of the Chinese characters on the buildings and all the Asiatic people, this city could look European! There is baroque architecture up and down the street, Orthodox turrets piercing the sky and Russian letter accompanying the characters. Snow began falling, making the weather outside nearly unbearable by the time we reached the Soagua river, marked by an odd-looking monument to the hundreds who died when the banks flooded in the 50s or something.

Harbin’s always featured for its ice and snow festivals, which consist of three parks – two of ice sculptures and one of snow. The Children’s Park is located right off of Center Street and is a couple of acres of castles, pirate ships and Disney characters. The park was closed, so my mom walked into the first doorway she saw to try to get warm and ended up in a pet shop. It was the ODDEST place I have ever been, and thankfully it wasn’t a puppy mill. There were plants next to dog booties, dozens of turtles piled into a single tank and grain. It was like a Chinese Farm and Fleet.

Nance and Linder headed for home, so my dad and I stopped to have a coffee at a Russian Restaurant to warm up. We sat in the plush booths for two hours and our coffee stretched into beers and eventually onion rings and a club sandwich to split. We could watch the entrance gate from the window next to our table, so as soon as the giant ferris wheel started turning, we bought our tickets for 150RMB and went into the park. The fence was made of ice with Mickey Mouse ears, and recreations of famous Disney movies and sets were all over – Cars from Cars, a few castles, spaceships from Toy Story, the pirate ship from Pirates of the Carribean, Aladdin’s castle, life-size Shreks, etc. Everything was carved from ice that’s carved from the river – huge blocks that are worked on by artists from all over the year. My dad and I took an elevator to the top of one of the castles and pushed each other down ice slides (probably not smart or safe) and ended up with snow-covered butts and then climbed a pagoda when the lights began to turn on. Pink, blue, green and gold lights are frozen into each of the sculptures and at 5pm they began to light up, starting at one end of the park and spreading to another. Aladdin’s castle glowed a golden blue, the lighthouse on the pond became a pink beacon. Children suddenly appeared from the trees for all I know, and they were running through the park carrying fruit kebabs.

We had a meeting with the girls FINALLY back at the hotel at 6:00, so my dad and I tried to hail a cab. Most people sped off upon seeing us, and the cabbie who picked us up picked up another guy two blocks away! Because it was rush hour, we were told cabbies often pick up several people in more or less the same direction. What was even stranger that he started screaming and then drove onto the sidewalk and proceeded to speed past the traffic until the next traffic light! It was great to see Margaret, who gave me the Gwenyth Paltrow Spain cookbook with made me crave Spanish food. I ordered gazpacho off the menu that night for dinner while we caught up with Margaret, who told us all about life in the village and the crazy dude from the US Hockey team who followed around all of the synchro girls. Hay gente pa todo.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel, the same fried noodles and dumplings we’d been eating for over a week. My dad and I bought cookies and Sprite for Margaret, who wasn’t staying in a five-star hotel and had only eaten bread and fried rice since arriving. Janine arranged for us to take a tour of the city with an interpreter who I didn’t understand (this, after listening to pueblo kids for three semesters). We picked up the skaters at the village and Margaret and I sat chattering more than our mother does while the interpreter Cindy droned on. Our first stop was at St. Sofia church, a Russian Orthodox, brown brick church with green turrets surrounded by a plaza. There was Universiade memorabilia all over the place and people snapping pictures of 20 girls wearing the same red jacket (known to them as snuggies or elmos). The church is breathtaking on the outside, but the inside has a souvenir stand and its all falling apart inside. I really love old, abused objects, but this place just looked like crap. A choir sang songs like Santa Lucia in Chinese and wore these obnoxious pink dresses, which I later came to realize were the same as my sister’s long program dresses.

We drove across the city to a recreational area called Sun Island Park. The giant snow sculpture park dominates the lake and hills that make up sun island, featuring reindeer and Santa Clauses to pay homage to Finland, as well as the recreation of a Bird’s Nest, a mountain dominated Dong Dong and his female counterpart, Dong Dong. There were giant lions, mountable pigs and tractors (have to represent Iowa) and dozens of representations of oxes. The city had experienced a heat wave a few weeks before, so half of the statues looked like hoodlums had knocked off the arms or Santa or the snouts of the reindeer. Afterwards we had dinner at a famous dumpling restaurant that Margaret’s coach wanted to go to. I expected this place to have dumplings de puta madre, but they gave us soy bean crazy things, tripe and another assortment of weird things. I have no idea what I put into my mouth, but I didn’t like most of it. I had to wash it down with coke, which I also don’t like much.

I was the most excited to see the Ice Sculptures on a bigger scale than the one my dad and I had seen the day before, called the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. I was blown away by this place. The west end of Sun Island practically glows from the arena, which is about as big as three football fields. The whole thing is surrounded by a wall of ice and a decorated main gate, like the portada de la Feria here in Sevilla. Inside, with only a time of 30 minutes allowed because of the cold, my sister and I RAN around the whole park my dad caught us in his viewfinder and said something along the lines of, “There go the girls; nice to see them enjoying the festival.” I would have loved to get better pictures of the miniature temples and pagodas, the bright green Dong Dongs or the Giant Peaceful Buddha. In years past, the festival has been more extensive and they’ve collaborated with other countries to recreate famous landmarks. Margaret paid some of the University’s money to take our pictures with snow foxes, who were so afraid of the heat lamps they were put under. If they didn’t grow up to be so ferocious, I might have tried to keep one!

Beijing 4: Temple of Heaven, Tianamen Square and Hutong tour

Our last day in Beijing started just as early as the others, even though we took a van down Wafujing Jie to the Temple of Heaven. Dad went out to get breakfast and found just McDonalds. Signs around the city advertise value meals for the equivalent of about $2.80!! My dad got breakfast for four – coffee, hashbrowns and a sausage biscuit – for less than $10, and it was easily the worst food we had the whole time in Beijing (and I love McD breakfast!). Sadly, our sweet little Mr. Tian could not drive us, as Jack explained, because Beijing traffic laws dictate that you can’t have your registered car on the road more than five days in a week. How this is inforced, he couldn’t tell us, so he hired another driver who was about his age.The roads were packed, even at 9am. We first went back to the Silk Market so my mom and Linda could finish the end of their shopping, but we had Jack run around and bargain for us. Thankfully, we were some of the only people in the mall and did a good job. According to Chinese tradition, you must make the first sale of the day in order to have a good sales day. I got gifts for cheaaaaapppp! And we didn´t lose our heads with all of the people running after us practically shoving the goods into our hands.The Temple of Heaven is a series of small temples and a large, circular one to which emperors used to pray for good harvests once a year. Like all great cities, the center of Beijing was built on an axis that starts at the temple of Heaven and runs through Tianamen Square to the Forbidden City and beyond. We entered the park surrounding the buildings, all built on the axis, from the west gate. Snow had, again, fallen in a light dust, but people were outside exercising and playing a game that was like hackey sack, only with a shuttlecock. And, in a cement jungle, this was one of the only natural places we saw. This is where the doggies were hiding!

We went to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a circular building at the southern part of the park that´s preceeded by an acoustics wall and a round, granite altar. The decoration mirrored that of the forbidden City – golds, reds, jades and royal blues. Walking along the axis back north, we passed a series of guards marching, half of them dressed in plainclothes. Their discipline is astounding. The Temple of the Great Harvest, also cylindrical but with three tiers, is covered in paintings and embellishments on the inside to match its grandeur from the outside. The street sweepers were doing their jobs, making small mounds of snow with equal distances. Jack told us that the characters on the front meant “good Harvest Year”

Jack and the nameless driver took us to Tiananmen Square, the largest public, open air square in the world. My mom remembers watching Mao preside over military parades from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, so she just about flipped out as we pulled up. Jack lead us through the underground security points, where we had to put our bags through a scanner and get the wand passed over us. The day was icky and gray and the snow had begun to turn to slush. I got all crabby because my boots soaked through and I hate my feet being wet. We came into the square at the southern edge, meeting a large tower with the old train station behind it. Also in the square are museums to the history of the PRC and famous, influential people, as well as an enormous mausoleum that dominates the center. My mom ignored mine and Jack´s insistence that taking pictures with the soldiers staffed all around the plaza was illegal.

Jack lives close to the square, so he took us to one of his favorite restaurants. We were the only westerners in their. We sat at a round table with a large, glass wheel in the center upon which the food was served. Jack ordered us a bucket (literally a bucket) of fried rice, fried noodles, pork and chicken dishes, spicy shrimp and other delicious stuff that we gladly snarfed down. We watched the place fill up and I had an eyeshot to the tanks where people picked out their lunch. We ate for about $5 a head with a drink. I was still clumsy with chopsticks at this point, even after several days in China.

I had been most keen on seeing the hutongs, traditional alleys that have survived amidst China´s massive growth. These neighborhood are dreary and sandwiched between skyscrapers and shopping malls. Jack showed us around one that was listed in my dad´s book as very up and coming. It was hip, crowded and dilapidated. Bars and boutiques stood next to traditional homes. Bikes crossed with cars and trams. I saw a man selling sweet potatoes on the street to people as their cars passed his little stand, which consisted of a grill on wheels. There were fabric shops next to tea houses, luxury hotels next to shacks. It was an interesting juxtaposition, mirroring that of China´s uneven expansion. Thankfully, the government has taken steps to ensure that these neighborhoods be saved to preserve some of the cultural impact they´ve had.
After a tea ceremony demonstration that had me so desperate to peepee that I used a squatty potty (aka a hole in the ground), we headed back to the hotel to pack before meeting the Berkowitzes, the parents of one of Margaret´s roommates, for dinner. We went to the same restaurant as lunch, which greatly excited Jack. The whole day got us wiped out, and we needed to be at the airport at 5:30 am for the flight to Harbin the next day.

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