Coal may not be China’s only environmental problem

Everybody has read in the news recently about how the air pollution levels were so high that an almost opaque fog descended on the city for over a week. While a large portion of this is due to massive number of cars used in a small area and coal being burned as a source of energy, I learned from one of students there are probably many more reasons. During a class I teach every week, the 15 year old girl and I got on the topic of recycling. I was teaching her the word cycle and used recycle as an example. To emphasize it, I held up my water bottle. And then she told me something that even a week later I’m so shocked by that I feel the need to write about it. She said “my family burns those, we don’t want them to end up on the ground or in the ocean if we throw them away.” I was pretty dumbfounded and sputtered “really?!” She explained to me that hers and the other families in their neighborhood burn all their plastic garbage, that way it can’t become litter. She smiled proudly and said they are good people who save the Earth. When I told her breathing in plastic fumes can seriously hurt her, she gave me a understanding look and said “sometimes I get head aches when we take care of the garbage.” She wasn’t very responsive after that, so I switched the topic and continued teaching. But I now think China’s coal consumption may not be its only hurtle towards becoming environmentally friendly.


Seat’s Taken

I’m noticing a trend when I’m out at public places in China. About half the time when I go to sit down, a person nearby me will tell me another person has that seat. There are no things nearby that could be somebody else’s, and sometimes it’s obvious not enough people are left in the cafe to even claim the spot. Today in Starbucks, a well dressed man in his mid 30s told me I couldn’t sit in the seat across from him, and said it was his friend’s. I had some time to kill, so I waited around for a seat to open up. After 10 minutes I decided I would sit down regardless of the guy. He repeated himself and I asked him who. He responded with the standard ‘go away foreigner’ response of “I don’t understand what I hear.” I’m writing this sitting in that seat, 30 minutes later. He has his headphones in and has photographed me on his phone twice. He refuses to make eye contact, though he’ll shoot me an unreadable glance every now and then. I find humor in the irony that a guy drinking coffee from my country can’t sit next to me. As petty as it is, it’s a usual thing here

The first Chinese man to threaten me was named Marc

I’ve pulled this off of my Facebook, it was written on 10/30/2012

About 5 weeks ago I met a guy who offered me a job. He came up to me in the middle of my school’s lobby and told me how he’d been eavesdropping on me for the last week. He said he thought my English was great and I had to be successful because Donald Trump was also from NY. His name was Marc and he was part of the business department at a Beijing college nearby me. He wanted me to teach a 4 part power point course that focused on American culture and taught formal English skills. He told me I would be paid 300RMB an hour, or 50$, and it would all be under the table.

When I accepted his job offer, he bought me a 500$ fitted suit and told me we’d start in a week. I asked him if I had to pay him back for the suit and he said no, it was a gift to show me that he and his partners were serious about my employment, and nothing will be owed by accepting it. Waiting for classes to be scheduled, we would meet to practice the power point and add to it whatever was needed. Over the course of 5 weeks I spent about 15-20 hours fine tuning the course with him, and also doing demonstrations for his colleagues. Multiple times I was assured that we would begin in the coming week, only to be assured again that week with the same “Next week, we’re very close” line.

During this time of practicing I found out some disconcerting things about Marc. He was the only person on the project, which contradicted his story about his business partners. He invited me to dinner at his house and I found that he also lived with his parents. I began to notice he wasn’t exactly a social butterfly either, and when we went over the student-teacher relationship aspect of the course he told me that I was to treat them harshly. The 4th week I saw the biggest red flag yet, he wanted me to tell the students that they were weak, and physically not allow them to reenter the classroom if they left to use the bathroom. His reasoning for this was that the course’s goal had changed, now being meant to mold future Fortune 500 Company CEOs. The course itself also had no reward in place for a student who paid and excelled, other than Marc’s unqualified declaration that the student was fit to be a Fortune 500 Company CEO… It wasn’t exactly going to open any doors for them. Marc also told me it was my job to design parts 3 and 4 of the power point course that he’d originally said were finished. All the while, he still continued to postpone our start, every week telling me classes would start the next week.

After being assured that the 6th week would be our start for sure, and that there were no more obstacles, I received even more disconcerting news. He told me the college had denied his proposal for the course and we would have to set it up ourselves. He began to ramble on about how to create marketing campaigns, all of which consisted of me handing out fliers of some forms and ambushing unexpecting students coming to and from classes for, wait for it, a commission that equaled $1.50 per sale. This was the final straw and I decided it was time to cut ties and accept sunken costs.

My conversation with Marc about quitting. Enjoy the chinglish

Marc: “How’s it going?”

Me: “God. I have been putting thought into this though and am starting to question it as a job. I have put in almost 20 hours of work without pay and was supposed to begin 5 weeks ago. I have even turned down other opportunities for this job. It still has not started and now we are on our own. I am thinking I must begin to pursue other interests.”

Marc: “Iunderstand you are eager to see cash. But it takes a little more effort. If u are no longer interested, we can depart.”

Me: “I am thinking so. Best oF luck.”

Marc: “Not luck, our effort will pay off. We take you and christinas well being into consideration. We are not kid english.”

Me: “Thank you.”

Marc: “And I learned. Best oF l@ck. Haha.”

1 hour later

Marc: “You made contribution to this course. How much should I pay?”

Me: “1500RMB would be reasonable.”

Marc: “and I get my suit and shoes back.”

Me: “Those were a gift of good faith and not contingent to employment. I would expect more if I return those.”

Marc: “ok u keep those. I feed America. Your new job seems good, and you are in finance trouble. I wont see this as offense. You are too young and bold. But the best oF luck thing, if u do not apologize, I counteract.”

Me: “I am not in financial trouble, I just do not donate my time. It has been almost 3 times as long as promised, and you still have no classes for me to teach.”

Me: “And in America best of luck is a friendly and good expression. No apology is necessary.”

Marc: “u use uppercase, drop F bomb. But this is china.”

Me: “No it was typo because my phone here is crap. Haha not at all what I meant. If I wanted to say the F word to you I’d simply say it, but I have no reason to.”

Marc: “You return my stuff or I wish you best of luck on your way home, your way to the gym. Beijing is much safer in NY.”

Me: “No it was a gift and now compensation for my lost time.”

Me: “It will not be returned. I think you are upset over confusing a typo. Think rationally instead of making threats.”

Marc: “You have chosen best of luck.”

There was no way I was going to give back the suit, besides the fact it had been tailored for me personally and wasn’t going to be of much use to anybody but me. My gym was located in his housing complex, and I had to walk by his house to get there and to leave. I’m pretty sure he tried to follow me home a couple times, but I always took alternate routes and lost him. I saw him several times in the lobby of my school as well; he would always yell hello to me, and I’d nod and say hi. He’d then glare at me for the duration of us being in the same room together. Nothing ever came of it, and I haven’t seen him since November. I learned that day typo’s are serious business. He was an interesting guy…

A Foreigner’s Guide to Taxis in Beijing


As you’ll quickly notice once in Beijing, you can’t even make it to the end of the block without several taxis passing by you. All in all, they’re an incredibly convenient resource and a quick way to get almost anywhere you want in the city. Compared to western nations they’re also a fraction of the price. The distance a western taxi would charge $25-40 for would be barely $8 in RMB. Every legitimate taxi will have a small sign in its windshield that flips to show different colored sides. The “in service” side is lit up bright red at night, and if the sign is flipped so that it is no longer visible then the taxi is in use. This should be pretty easy to realize though from the other people in the car. Besides the red side that means it is available, there is also a yellow side for when the taxi is reserved, and a white side that means the driver is on a break. Sometimes though it is much more obvious and the sign isn’t needed.


As with anything though there are drawbacks, and also as with anything in China, you being a foreigner means you’re going to have to deal with three times as many of them. These are all the problems I have encountered or heard of:

  • The taxi drivers can be notoriously reckless and sometimes make you fear for your life. They will also talk on their cell phones to the point of not driving properly.
  • Heavy traffic is a sure fire way to get a large bill, and your driver will either be great and fight to get out of it or avoid it; or knowingly drive into it or leisurely sit in it. If a driver is going outrageously slow, it’s OK to tell them to hurry up.
  • The meter begins at 11RMB at night and rises at a faster rate, you are not being scammed.
  • If it is raining, some cab drivers will attempt to charge you an outrageous price or drive away. This has happened to me multiple times, and if you know how to handle it, it shouldn’t be a problem. Their registration number and picture is on their dashboard, if you can get a picture you can threaten to report them. Usually this will make them not act like a piece of shit.
  • Be careful when paying with 100RMB notes, it’s a common scam for them to give you counterfeit 50s, or switch out your bill with a fake and claim its counterfeit, asking you if you have another. Whenever I give them a large bill I put a rip in the corner so I know if they swapped it and can call the out on it. I’ve had one driver who looked at the tear, made a look of realization and then scowled at me. After he complimented me for being clever.
  • The cab drivers, as far as Chinese people go, will have the WORST accent you’ve heard. Don’t feel bad about you language skills if you have difficulty communicating with them, but make sure you have agreed where he’s going to take you.
  • The taxi takes you on a tour: This is 99% more likely to happen later at night than in the day, and can be done several ways, though each will result in a large bill for you. As stated above, taxi drivers will speak the harshest thickest Mandarin you’ll hear in Beijing. Though this can happen innocently, some more devious cab drivers will take you somewhere else and claim you said to go there. They will blame you and your Chinese skills, and even if you know you’re right there’s no way to prove it and you’re already in the cab with the meter running. The cab drivers will also assume you don’t know Beijing well because you are a foreigner. They will go the most illogical zig-zagged route they can get away with. You can mention it to them, but they will save face and make up some excuse. Your bill is still going to be high, and you’re going to have to get into an argument or potential conflict to change that. You’ll learn quickly that arguing with the Chinese over money is a losing battle, and I doubt you will get them to adjust the bill. If you offer a smaller amount of money after arguing, most will take it and call it even. Depending on the driver though, and if there are a lot of people who will help them in the area, he may get physical for the money. In these situations, once you start arguing you’re in it until you win or lose. Because of this, if it is night I generally just act oblivious, direct the cab close by but not my place, and book it. Give yourself a head start by pretending to struggle to access your wallet, and getting out of the cab to be able to grab your money, then take off. I’ve never had a cab driver chase me, just yell, and feel that morally this is the best way to deal with them trying to cheat you. Live by the sword die by the sword.
  • The meter rises much faster than it should: Generally this ‘trick meter’ is toggled by the cab driver and done to foreigners they think won’t know any better to get a larger than legal payment from them. Handling this has all the same considerations as when the driver takes you for a tour. There’s nothing you can really do about it to change it, so decide if you’re going to attempt to fight it, suck it up and pay it, or run away and give this guy a taste of his own medicine.
  • The taxi driver won’t use the meter: This can happen out you not paying attention, the taxi driver lying and saying it is broken, or because the taxi driver convinces you it is in your best interest to not use it. Right off the bat let me tell you: it is not in your best interest. If you can help it don’t use any taxi without the meter on, it will never cost you less and could easily be double the price. If they refuse to put on the meter, there are always more cabs. Qĭng dă biăo– Please put on the meter.
  • The taxi won’t take you or pull over for you even though the red light is on: There are some cases where it is illegal for cabs to stop. You should have some idea, if you are attempting to hail a cab on a road with no pull off area or side lane then it probably isn’t the cab being dumb. But if you are walking down a quiet street, try to grab a cab and the driver says no then it is you. There have been many times during my stay where cabs would drive right past me, and a little ways down the street pick up some Chinese people. Face it: Some of the Chinese don’t like us, and as with everything except dating, the majority of the Chinese will help or side with other Chinese people over you. If you want to push the matter, photograph their registration number and threaten to report them.
  • Black cabs: It has and will happen to every foreigner: a regular car with a red light hanging in the windshield driving past pulls over to you, and the driver begins to heckle you for a ride. The quotes he gives you are usually outrageous, and these guys are sketchy at best. I don’t advise you ever take these cabs. I’ve heard stories where they take your money upfront, drive to an area that would be incredibly hard for you to get back from and gouge you for more money or threaten to leave you where you are. It will always be better to just wait for a legitimate taxi.
  • Taxi sinkholes: Places like Sanlitun and Houhai are notorious for having large amounts of cabs that will not turn on the meter. There are no other cabs to be found besides black cabs, so you’re options aren’t better. This will almost always happen late at night, because the option of public transportation won’t be available. These are also the same guys who will use a trick meter. Threatening to report these guys doesn’t always work because they’re much bolder than most drivers, they know you don’t have other options to get home, and they have other drivers to back them up on any claims you make. I suggest walking to another area if you can to grab a cab. Usually it isn’t a long walk, and if it is you can also take one of these cabs and sprint away.

Chinese New Year’s Eve Celebrations, AKA Baghdad in Beijing

When I left my apartment that Saturday morning, I was surprised to find the usually bustling streets resembling a ghost town. Very few people were out, the streets weren’t clogged with traffic, and even the smallest of businesses were closed down. The weather was nice too, with a pollution index of only 170ppms. I felt like I had Beijing to myself, it was both peaceful and nice. I was naive and stupid.

Around 3pm I heard the first explosion. It started with a screech and ended with a deep resonating boom. It echoed through the many buildings squished into one area that form my apartment complex. Nearby where the explosion came from, several car alarms went off from just how loud it had been. That firework was the first I heard that day, but within 3 hours I would begin hear over 10 rapports a minute. Sitting at my desk by the window of my 16th floor apartment, I couldn’t concentrate on my writing. It was 8pm and every other minute flashes of neon light would burst through my window. There were enough fireworks going off that I now heard possibly 30 explosions a minute, some close and some far, but all still loud enough to shake your concentration off whatever you’re doing. From my days of living in downtown Albany, they sounded very similar to gunshots. As the night progressed, there were so many explosions that when skyping with friends I would have to repeat myself so that they could hear me over the noise. Everything from high pitched screeches to low end BOOOOMS, to the sizzling of sparks, to the machine gun fire of firecracker strips and the car alarms complaining about the noise; all of it together forming a cacophony that both gave me an entertaining window show, a small headache as well as subconsciously making me incredibly edgy and snappy. I’m guessing that a lack of peace of mind from explosions outside your home and an inability to concentrate on anything are the right mixture to turn somebody’s mood sour and reactive. By 11pm it felt like I was in middle of a full parking lot, each of the cars blasting base from subwoofers as loud as possible. The view from my window is an amazing one, showing me many buildings, some tall and some only a couple stories high. From within the alley ways of these buildings green, red, and blue fire shot up towards the sky. From the side roads mortars launched into the air, each detonating in an orb of multi-colored fire. The city was alive with fireworks coming up from the ground every thirty feet, like a colorful fountain from the streets. Even on the roof tops of a couple buildings you could see the Chinese, lighting tube after tube to contribute to the mayhem coming from below. I decided I had to go outside and see it for myself.

The air was really hazy when I got outside, and it smelled like cordite and gunpowder. As always when I go outside, I checked the pollution index. This time I was astounded to see that in only 7 hours the air pollution rating in Beijing had risen to 580ppms! Over 400ppms of smog, grime and smoke had been added to the atmosphere from the sheer amount of fireworks they had shot into the sky that night! I could barely even believe it. I continued out into the main streets and discovered it was actually pretty believable, as I watched the Chinese declare war on the sky.


Clean up took a long, long time

Fireworks were detonated with absolutely no regard for traffic, structures or other people. Cars were gridlocked for minutes because of the explosions happening in their lanes of traffic. There were several very close calls where a car swerving to avoid having a mortar launched into its undercarriage almost drove into another car, or a crowd of people watching the mayhem. Several mortars launched upwards had power lines or tree branches in their paths, and were deflected in dangerous angles towards the public or into the sides of buildings. I’m surprised there wasn’t a structure fire in my area! Because the ground was practically covered in debris and used firework cases, the just barely lit explosives were sometimes hard to identify from the rubbish. Multiple times pedestrians almost walked into or over the equivalent of a landmine. All the while the Chinese drank their moonshine and continued to bombard the sky with explosions, unaware of anything except the next KABOOM.

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Being so close to everything my ears began to pop, and my head began pound. I started to make my way back home. To get home I have to take a narrow road that runs along a canal. The once desolate street had been filled by crowds of the Chinese, drawn out to watch the midnight festivities; and with the crowds came mortars, strips of firecrackers and moonshine. The men merrily drank small bottles of rice liquor as they coated the street with primed explosives, without little concern for their proximity to others. As I made my way back I couldn’t help but be surrounded by the insanity; balls of fire shooting past my periphery, strips of small m80’s and black cats creating the sound of machine gun fire and turning their portions of the ground into a flashing fire. Several burning pieces of debris flew from these strips and hit my jacket and my hood, potentially burning me if I hadn’t covered my face to move forward through the smoke and blinding sudden lights. When I made it out of the central fuckery I was able to watch and enjoy a lot more of what was happening. The whole street was full of fireworks, one persons’ work almost burning the person next to them. It was a clusterfuck, and could very easily have ended with a piece of flying fire blinding or scarring me.

I was able to relax at that point, and watched as a man set up a mortar tube not 7 feet away from me. I took my iPhone to capture it up close and on video.

I don’t know if it was a dud or that was its purpose, but instead of launching something up into the air, the tube exploded with what can only be described as a concussive force. I felt my heart literally shutter for a moment and skip a beat, and my ears popped to silence for a second. I felt a sudden dizziness and my body didn’t respond immediately, as I fell into the wall behind me and just barely kept myself from going to the ground. Somewhat recovered, I made it back to my house as quickly as possible, avoiding any crowds I could. I stumbled a little, and sometimes saw double from all the lights. I was shaking from adrenaline and felt like I was escaping a warzone.

The purpose of fireworks in Chinese Culture on New Year’s Eve is to drive away any hostile spirits or demons that plan to bring bad fortune during the coming year. After what I’ve seen tonight, I can’t imagine much has been left standing. To be sure, they even continued to shoot off fireworks at a rate of 20 per minute until 3 or 4 in the morning. The whole Chinese New Year’s Eve, as well as the night following it, were never silent… filled with the sounds of a man made thunder storm for  10s of hours on end. Fourth of July in America has been diminished to sparklers and dollar store smoke bombs when compared to the epic scale of mayhem and insanity that was Chinese New Year in Beijing!

My Trip to Harbin, China: The Ice Festival and the Manchurian Siberian Tiger Preserve

Day 1

Monday afternoon my girlfriend and I left Beijing on a train, leaving behind the smoggy, snowless city for Harbin. We had soft seat tickets, which meant we had padded seats and sat 2 per row and effectively by ourselves. As far as 9 hour train rides go, this one was way better than expected, it being my first China train ride. I was comfortable and undisturbed, and though their seats didn’t have power outlets, it was comparable to America (except half the price!). Every winter this northern city holds the Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, a Guinness record holding event that is one of the world’s four largest ice festivals. I knew I was heading into some very cold weather, but when I got off the train into 2 foot high snow as far as I could see… Well I guess you could say I was surprised. Thankfully there was no wind, and the air was refreshingly clean. I can’t say I’m surprised, seeing as the city is on the border of Russia and I WAS at an ice and snow festival. I know how to pack for cold from years of boy scouts and skiing, and without the wind it was pretty enjoyable. The air alone made it worth it after being in Beijing for 6 months, -16C temperatures or not.

The taxi ride into the city was interesting, the roads were covered in ice and the car spun out multiple times. Our cab driver didn’t seem worried, just continued to hotbox the taxi with cigarette smoke and read his cell phone recklessly. At one point he even turned his head backwards to talk to us, and almost got us rear ended as he drifted into another lane. He reminded me of an oblivious puppy.

We arrived at the Little Russia Hostel. It was decent enough and 70$ for a 3 night stay is nothing to complain about. Our room smelled musty and was pretty small, but if it’s cheap and in a convenient location I could care less to be honest. And they had wifi, so I had no complaints. Since our train took 8 hours and we only ate snacks, I was famished and we set out to find a restaurant. It was 9:20 when we set out, and being a small city most businesses had already shut down. Most of the restaurants were the kitchen style kind you can find in Beijing, also the kind I’ve consistently gotten food poisoning from because of half cooked or fouled meat. Not wanting to spend my vacation on a toilet, we set out to find a nice restaurant that was still open in a city we knew nothing about.

Beijing, as far as Chinese values go, is one of the most western cities in China. The people are impatient and inconsiderate, and also totally unfazed by western tourists. Harbin is not the same, and in retrospect I actually think I prefer Beijing more. We came across a restaurant after 15 minutes of walking, and when we entered it was pretty clear they were about to close up and go home. We told them we hadn’t eaten any food that night, and tried to ask if they knew of another restaurant in the area. Instead of telling us, they did us one better; they invited us up and kept the chef from going home to feed us. In Chinese culture, the concept of guests and host hospitality is huge. It’s considered shameful to disappoint a guest, and most traditional Chinese families and establishments will bend over backwards to help you and make sure you walk away happy. It’s actually seen as an insult to the host’s concept of face to fully finish your meal. Even if you’re on the verge of vomiting from stuffing yourself, it signifies they didn’t feed you enough and left you hungry. I’ve been in Beijing for awhile, and overall Chinese service can be more than lacking, so I was quite pleased with this. We got upstairs and began to order our food, but each dish we asked for was unavailable. Dish after dish the Fuyuan responded “that takes too long to cook” or “we’re all out of that tonight.” I think only 5% of the menu was available, which we frustratingly were forced to find out by asking over and over again. The food we could order were items such as salads and pickled meats, all of them neither appetizing or nutritious. After wasting fifteen famished minutes with a not-at-all-helpful Fuyuan who most likely just wanted to go home, we decided to try out luck elsewhere. A taxi driver picked us up just as we exited the restaurant, and after explaining our situation to him, he drove us in search of a place open to eat. He also stopped and tried to get every group of girls he could talk to to also get into our cab. I have no idea why he was doing this, since we had no clue where we were going and there was only room for one other person, possibly two if somebody sat on a lap. With no luck adding women to the cab, he brought us to a Chinese restaurant open 24 hours. The food was awful, the fried duck we ordered was actually duck tendon and cartilage… Not meat. Completely indelible. The duck legs we ordered were 90% bone, and the rice had strangely bitter freeze dried pork in it. We suffered through the food and went back to the hostel to rest for the next day.


Before heading to any tourist attractions, we decided to walk around and explore the city while finding something to eat. It was designed a lot differently than Beijing. If it weren’t for the hanyu I think I’d have felt like we were in Russia. The streets and sidewalks were coated in ice and snow, often to the point of being dangerous, and the roads were much too wide for the amount of traffic going through them. The architecture was much different than that of Beijing. The buildings didn’t look like they obeyed the laws of fengshui, and had European style arches and ledges plus the round-topped towers like I’ve seen in pictures of Moscow. The buildings here had a very European feel, and I’m going to guess Russian design has greatly influenced their construction. The streets had alcoves with statues of Romanesque naked men, and most signs also had Cyrillic on them.

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I can’t say I was all that surprised to see these similarities because of Harbin’s proximity to Russia, nor that most of their business district was Russian as well. Even most of the cars and motorbikes were of Russian make. The street foods weren’t the typical Chinese types, less meats and more nuts and insect pupae. I enjoyed be able to get kielbasa as Chuar though! It was very interesting to walk around and take it all in, and overall it speaks to the massiveness of China and how the many ethnic groups contribute their own cultures to create almost pseudo nations within one giant nation.

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After exploring the city a little bit and finding something to eat, our first stop was the Manchourian Siberian Tiger preserve. When we arrived i wasn’t really sure what to expect. There were anime style tiger people doing strange things, as well as giant gaudy plastic tiger statues. The tourist center was offering a service that poorly photoshops you “petting” a tiger, as well as stuffed animals and a wine made from tiger piss. I had the feeling that I’d stumbled into China’s equivalent of the highway road stop “Come see batboy and the world’s only living dinosaur at exit 47,” where the dinosaur turns out to be an alligator and batboy is just inbred. We purchased our tickets and our chicken vouchers, and boarded a bus painted with tiger stripes. That’s when the tackiness ended; and we began to drive through several miles of fields with over a hundred grown tigers stalking our bus or resting and playing. Multiple times large tigers would chase the bus and swipe at the back of it. The driver threw chickens out of the window of the bus for the tigers to catch and tear apart in front of us. If we’d spent 2600RMB we could’ve had a cow sent in for them to eat, but that was way too steep for me. Overall I gotta say it was a pretty awesome experience. And when I say awesome I don’t mean the typical everyday uses it’s been wasted on, such as saying Great!, and describing a good movie or a fun day. There are plenty of other ways of saying that. But when you see 500 pound tigers from 10 feet away, swiping at your bus and tearing apart farm animals, you realize not many feelings can convey just how in awe you are. These animals are the most beautiful yet powerful creatures I’ve ever seen. It was humbling to be so close observing them. I have no illusions one wouldn’t even have to try to kill to me, as strong as they are gorgeous. THAT is what awesome means. Being the second largest tiger preserve in the world, I’m very happy I got the chance to see this. I definitely recommend it if you go to Harbin.

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The second event of the day was the Zhaolin Garden Ice Lantern festival. Zhaolin garden is a huge park in the middle of the city, and every winter it’s full of ice buildings and ice pathways with multi-colored lights shining and reflecting through them. Many famous buildings were recreated, as well as bulls charging and Cinderella carriage were sculpted from ice. It was very cool, and since it was dark the lights were beautiful. The Harbin international ice art exhibition contest was also held here. The submissions were mostly from Russia and China, though there were several from Mongolia and Malaysia, as well as a single and very unique one from France called “the free electron theory.” The Mongolians focused on nature and animals, which is interesting because a lot of their cultures folklore holds animals in high regards. The Malaysian ones were very wholesome and uplifting, much like their carefree loving culture. The parallels were interesting, though there were way too many from Russia and China to make any distinctions. Unfortunately the translucency of ice and lighting made it hard to show the intricate detail in many of these sculptures, but I’m sure the pictures will be able to show most of how exquisite they are. We spent about an hour and a half there, and after that it all began to look the same.

To end the night we stopped by a Russian restaurant called Tatoc. The inside made me feel like I was in a mob movie, dim lighting and finely finished woods everywhere, with a very family owned but also expensive atmosphere to it. The music playing sounded like the score from Eastern Promises. Their menu was pretty smart, you could order dishes separately but they also had a section of meals for 1-3 people who want to try traditional Russian food. At first glance it’s pretty expensive, but when you break it down you’re getting 9 dishes for about 350RMB, and more than enough food for two people. Most of the food was exquisite, though I don’t think I’ll ever get a good steak in China. The mutton le duchese was melt in your mouth tender, and the borsch was rich and flavorful. I definitely believe I got a good taste of what Russia had to offer, on top of a food coma and happy belly.

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Afterwards we hit a bar called The Western Bar. There were pictures of Jesus with naked black manakin pieces in piles before it scattered around the bar, and the wallpaper said “Stock market fraud” over and over again. The pictures in the bathroom were both erotic and disturbing, including a dick soldier and obvious necrophilia. I’m not going to upload them or talk more about them though since I’d like my blog to stay in the SFW realm of the Internet. I will say I think they have some misconceptions about what’s hip and provocative, and what’s not socially acceptable and creepy. There’s a fine line, and they passed it three miles ago. They were trying to pull off hipster, and I really can’t blame them; since an ESL person who had to literally translate the word hit the nail on the head for “douchey and being a fan of things no one else likes.” The beer was good though, and regardless of the creepy, erotic decorations and pictures of known terrorists on the walls, it somehow managed to have a nice atmosphere.



I think because day 2 was such a great day, day 3 was destined to be shit. It was one of those days where the Chinese are infuriating and seriously test one’s patience and self restraint. After grabbing a quick breakfast we headed out for the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair, a snow theme park which features large scale snow sculptures as well as tourist rides such as tubing and dog sledding. As usual the venue had a student pricing option. When we got in line, a burned man was ahead of us using some sort of ID, either student or military, to receive a discount. He kept turning around to talk to us instead of the woman helping him, and because I figure people turn him away often because of his disfigurement, I decided I’d be nice and talk back. He began to offer us half price tickets, and as a rule of thumb in China more goods are counterfeit than authentic. Knock off Nikes and name brand clothing are a blessing, fake tickets that don’t get you into the park are not. We said no and moved to another line, only to be refused by the woman selling tickets. Meanwhile the burned man was shooed away from the ticket booth, and I noticed in his hand he had an ID much like mine, with a photograph attached inside it rather than printed onto a page… Just like mine. When I pressed the woman for a reason why we’d have to pay full price, she told us it was because our IDs could be fake as well, and probably because I’d talked with that man for a minute or two. I’m pretty sure he was using his maimed face to use another persons ID and claim it was before the accident, then scalping the discounted ticket for a profit. After arguing with the woman for almost ten minutes, we ended up paying the full price of 240RMB instead of 120. If we’d had another form of ID it probably could’ve been smoothed out, but I prefer to have my passport in a safe place instead of out and about with me. I gotta say, as annoyed as I was to pay the full price, it was worth it. The snow sculptures were gigantic, Guinness-book-of-world-records-breaking gigantic. The amount of detail in each was astounding too. At multiple sites there would be people dancing to traditional Chinese music and waving flags, which was interesting to watch. The other attractions were pretty lacking though. The bobsledding and tubing would only be fun for a child in elementary school, and the dogs used for dog sledding looked like they might feint if I forced them to pull me. It was pretty sad actually, they didn’t look well taken care of at all. The park was also incredibly slippery, most of the paths had iced over and multiple people fell as we walked the park. There was way too much walking in between each snow site, and the slickness of the paths quickly became annoying. We were HELLO’d a lot as well by many of the Chinese men in the park (described in detail in its own blog entry) and as usual the Chinese had no regard for the picture you were taking, which was frustrating on top of everything else. I was pretty happy though when one young douchebag screamed hello at us and then right after fucked himself on a patch of black ice. He should’ve known better than to be a prick in the shadow of goddess that belongs to Hinduism, a religion all about karma. Setbacks aside, it was definitely worth it though to stand underneath a 40 foot tall snow statue of a Shiva or a Greek goddess unleashing dragons. The pictures cannot do this place justice.


After dinner we grabbed a cab to head out to the Harbin Ice and Snow World. It took us many tries to get the driver to turn on the meter, but the hassle was necessary since we were in a bad cab area and also in a rush against time to make the park before it closed. Just as we neared the bridge to Sun Island, the tourist area of Harbin, he picked up another woman. We tried to tell him no but he didn’t listen and she had already closed the door. She told him where to go and he assured us it was on the way, right after which he turned away from the bridge that was in sight and became grid locked in side road traffic for 10 minutes. It made it worse that they flirted the whole time, and I was close to snapping at him. I held my tongue though because it would probably take us more time to get another cab in the traffic jam than to sit in the one we already had. Eventually he came to her destination and again began to approach the bridge with it in sight. He began to ask us if we had tickets for the festival. We told him no, and that we’ll buy them there. Upon hearing that answer he turned down another side road and yet again away from the event wanted to go to and were already late for. He ignored us telling him no and that we didn’t want them, and instead assured us they were a good price… 10RMB and not even 2 dollars cheaper, as well as probably fake. We sat outside the general store his friend was selling tickets out of and argued with him furiously, which he continued to ignore and practically plead with us to just buy the tickets. I began to exit the car, and he started to yell at me. I gave him the ultimatum to drive or we’d leave and not pay. He wasn’t a big man, and I already wanted to bounce him off the pavement. He started to posture but then backed down, and offered to take us where we wanted to go. He patronized us the whole way there, saying how the tickets were a great price and we were dumb. The logic that ‘he was going to say they were real even if they weren’t’ fell on deaf ears.

Exiting the cab as quickly as possible, we rushed into the ticket center only to hit another obstacle. The regular price is 300, but the student price is 150. Even with no burned men to cast suspicion on us, we were yet again told we’d need to pay full price, with the reason being “foreign students who are studying at Chinese universities aren’t students and don’t get a discount. Chinese people only.” I wanted to stand in front of the window and block the line until they gave me my discount but figured a half price ticket didn’t matter if the park closed half an hour after we got inside. I bit my tongue and bought the tickets, with one hour left to explore the biggest ice exhibit in Harbin.

I gotta say, it probably wasn’t worth the stress. Don’t get me wrong it was amazing. A once in a lifetime experience. The sometimes-6 story tall ice buildings were beautiful, each with multi-colored neon lighting frozen into it and changing colors every couple seconds. There was a Smurf, and an Ice Age exhibit, as well as a whole site designed to be a mock Angry Birds level.

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But quickly you notice that besides the handful of special and unique structures, each castle looks the same. If you were pressed for time and didn’t care to slide down any slides you could walk the place in 30 minutes. Besides the ice structures, the festival had features that included ice bicycling, skiing, and a live war reenactment/opera with skiers and figure dancers.

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Horse and carriages went up and down the ice city streets for tourists who wanted a ride around the attractions. There was one stand that even had snow foxes that you could hold and get a picture with. Their fur was out of this world soft, but I had to walk away when the workers would grab the fox by the tail and drag it across the cage. I wish I hadn’t given them money to get my picture with the fox, these animals are obviously mistreated and I’d never knowingly support that.

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The slides here were much larger than at snow world, and definitely would’ve been a cool ride if it weren’t for their lines, which alone would have eaten up half our time to explore. As I tried to photograph one of the ice slides from the bottom, a worker appeared in the shot and snatched at my phone, almost managing to grab it out of my hands. I’m not very friendly to somebody trying to grab a 700$ phone out of my hands, and replied in a knee jerk reaction “Yo, fuck you!” I was told I wasn’t allowed to photograph, standing 5 feet away from 3 different Chinese men snapping away pictures. I figured it would be best to just move on, logic wasn’t going to win here and this guy was familiar with the Fbomb.


This guy is a douchebag

Don’t let my jadedness from this last leg of the trip skew just how magnificent the place was. The pictures I hope will give some credence to how beautiful it was, and the ice statues were bigger than most of the buildings in Harbin city. I unfortunately was there in the wrong mindset and circumstances, but hey, I’m writing my experience and this was it. I will say though, I’d have been upset if I missed it, it was Harbin’s most spectacular attraction.

The cab ride home was again a headache, the cab driver made us get out on the highway and switch to another cab where we were forced to pack in with other tourists. This cab driver kept trying to get us to go to another area of the city, and the Chinese tourists we were with couldn’t even get him to stop. Eventually he told us we’d arrived, but upon getting out we realized he’d lied. We said our goodbyes to the couple, who happened to live ten minutes away from us in Beijing, and went to get a late dinner. I’ve realized something about Harbin, it is a very difficult city to eat in. Either the restaurants are all kitchen style, and small and dodgy with Chinese only menus, or they’re upscale and expensive with poor service. It was very hard during our stay here to find a happy medium that wasn’t a fast food chain. We stumbled onto a little place called The Dumpling King, and found it. The food was good for what it was, and it was quick affordable and easy. It helped after the stressful day.


As we left, many of the locals were burning fake money to honor and give as thanks to their deceased relatives. In Beijing they are forced to burn paper or cardboard, and anything resembling RMB is illegal. Here though, they were burning large bundles at a time of parody RMB, which was also being sold on the streets. I’m not sure if it isn’t a law up here or it just isn’t enforced, but the tradition is always interesting, and in a weird way cute to see as long as you avoid the chemical smoke that comes off of the fires.



To be honest, our fourth day in Harbin really wasn’t worth writing about. We had just enough time to kill that we had to find something to do, and not enough time to really begin anything worthwhile; not to mention anything we did do would have to be done while carrying all of our luggage. So we did what any other sensible people would do; we found the nearest place with both coffee and free wifi. After waiting it out at a Starbucks, we made our train and headed home on an overnight trip. This train ride our tickets were soft sleepers, meaning we had padded beds instead of hard beds or padded chairs. There were four beds to each compartment, arranged in a double bunk bed fashion. Our compartment had one empty bunk, holding just us on the bottom two bunks and a middle aged woman above us. She smelled funky and kept telling us she had a fever and a head ache, asking if we could switch beds. We told her no each time, and when that didn’t work she called her friend and told them in Chinese she didn’t want to sleep on the top bunk. It was awkward because I don’t think she knew we could understand her that well. Eventually she complained to one of the workers and was switched to a new compartment. Some advice to any foreigners, unless you are taking an overnight train just get a soft seat; it’s cheaper and you’re not going to be put with somebody who smells, coughs and sneezes towards to you, and who in general will not leave you alone because of your novelty as a foreigner.