Kites and Food are two of things I have so far failed to mention:
I own a kite, I purchased it a while ago in Taunton and flew it once or twice in Vivary Park there - I reckon it got to about 30 feet before crashing or just dropping from the sky. Here in China loads of people own kites - mainly in the shapes of eagles - and they are flown to amazing heights - up to 800 to 1,000 feet at least, and all done so casually and in the least of winds... my jealously watching them is total!
However food is a different level of amazement. The English perception is that go to China and you will get real genuine Chinese food. At my first impression this is not strictly true. Certainly there is more choice (including much you would not eat from parts of the animal body you would not cook!) and it is produced more 'ad hoc', but in broad terms whatever you can buy in the west (or at least any takeaway in any village in England) you can buy here - except chop suey! The difference lies at the extremes:
Street food is widely available - the health and safety fascista of England would hate it. Basically people set up a tub of boiling water, place a griddle over it and cook dumplings and sweetcorn (typically) and sell it openly and freely - often just out of the window of their house/flat window.
Further, populations are such that the cities are just teeming with restaurants. You can buy and eat to virtually any standard you want. You can imagine my shock to find the cockerel's head in my bowl of chicken and mushroom roast (it's a specialty in northern provinces apparently!).
We have now arrived in Harbin (Hae r binn), which is the most northerly provincial capital of China and famously the base for much of the Japanese Manchouko State (Film – the Last Emperor). It is very cold here, at least minus twenty and often lower, but because the wind is currently low the cold doesn't bite as it did in Beijing.
This city is really very different from Beijing and I'm told most Chinese cities - called 'the Russian City' due to the architectural, trade and transport links - it has a lot of 'white' faces rather than just the Chinese. Signs are in English, Chinese and Russian and the food range is much wider.
Harbin is the centre of the tradition of ice carving, which is literally carving in ice. There are the most amazing and detailed ice carvings around the streets (statues, gateways, tableau's) - the river is completely frozen and has ice carving, skating and sledging on it - and in the park there are vast, vast built sculptures up to 30 feet tall. Many of them are lit internally as well as externally and by night look just stunning. It really is impressive and well, breath-taking. Sculptures here include Big Ben, the Parthenon, The Planets, Chinese rocket to space, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall (a particular favourite we are told) and Rome's Coliseum...
Taking full advantage of the terrain we went skiing today in Yabuli - a small village, but the biggest and best Chinese skiing resort. In short, the facilities are dismal and the tourism customer care worthy of an Orange Mobile help line... However, skiing is fairly new to the Chinese here and to say that I felt quite good and accomplished tells you how bad most of them were at skiing – three perplexed Chinese ladies did clap when I came to an unexpectedly good stop at some speed!
Most amusing was booking the trip - you would think that they don't want you to go - first impossible to find details and second it is clearly the preserve of the upper middle classes. I was struck at how the fur and pearls suddenly appeared as we bumped into China's rich and prosperous. It certainly reversed my perception of China being about poverty and the breadline...
Everyone booking to go skiing had to give their name to the travel agent - simple enough - except when you are not Chinese! So my adopted name (from the travel agent I should add) is Dashan. Amusing on two counts, first Dashan means 'Big mountain' and second it is the name of a famous TV personality over here who is a Canadian Chinese teacher - it has amused most of the Chinese on the trip at least and left Russell indignant as his name doesn't translate! So he has adopted a translated name that means 'Handsome mountain peak'...
The other giggle is trying to book a train ticket. We have tried and failed twice now. You can't buy long distance tickets on the day of travel. You can't buy tickets for Beijing from normal ticket booths. You can't buy return fares and... wait for this... you can't buy the ticket at the rail station. So, we are having to go at the crack of dawn to the Chinese Travel Service to try and get sleeper tickets to Beijing and then either Wuhan or Xi’an... And I thought unhelpful and obstructive was just a feature of those who worked on UK rail networks!
STOP PRESS: It proved so impossible to get a ticket (apparently the Harbin to Beijing train is booked up for three days) that we are now flying tomorrow to Chongqing and getting the river boat through the three gorges and down the Yangtze to Wuhan.
The other great laugh here is animals - I have never been a fan of circus or zoos so perhaps I am biased, but! At the street fairs here they have a sort of hoopla where you have wooden hoops and throw them over various gifts - some of the gifts are small rabbits and bird chicks! Though the competition for the most shocking is between the woman on the tube who literally had a bag of live hamsters type things in a plastic bag carried as though they were any old shopping and the man today on the street corner who was selling chicks - which were died green, pink and yellow. To be fair to the latter gentleman, he did change the chicks for others from his box when they got so cold that they fell off the small mat he had them on - we have a photo of this to prove it as it seemed so ridiculous (I thought cruel really!).
Will send another note at the next stage of travel...