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Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Thursday, June 28, 2012 17:39:05

CHINA 2012: 10 - Mt. Changbai to Qiqihar

Sunday, June 24, 2012

It was a 7 hour drive from the mountain to the 4.6 million population industrial city of Changchun, the last capital of the Qing Dynasty. On the way Brooklyn was telling us about internet buying in China. They have their own version of E-Bay, Amazon and Pay Pal, so it is possible to purchase almost anything on line cheaper than in stores - he even buys furniture on line. In offices internet is used to order lunch from food outlets like Kentucky Fried Chicken - any order over 50 Yuan ($8) is delivered free and hot. We ran parallel to another massive expressway under construction for about half the distance, the rest was on completed expressway. The built in GPS in the car was driving me nuts - a voice warns of approaching vehicles, and even though traffic was very light it got pretty repetitious. There is also a radar detector for the radar cameras mounted under some overpasses. We stopped at a new rest stop along the way, the only people in the massive building on this little used route. There were 52 urinals, loads of toilets, rows of motion activated sinks and the place was spotlessly clean. When we drove the Rolls across China in 2007 we made use of these rest stops - they are a safe bet for clean facilities. Changchun is a city of wide, treed boulevards and loads of modern tall buildings. Our hotel, the Song Yuen, is a lot of steps up from the Days Inn last night where neither fridge nor safe worked and the toilet ran non-stop. This place is a palace. Neither Brooklyn nor our driver has been to Changchun before, so they are playing tourist as well. They found an amazing dumpling restaurant for lunch where we tried this local specialty and other delicious new dishes. After a late lunch we visited the Imperial Palace. It was originally constructed in 1801 as a secondary palace for the Quig Dynasty, but after the Japanese took Shenyang they moved the capital here. Some buildings were built by the Russians, others by the Japanese trying to gain favour with the emperor. This is the scene and theme of the movie "The Last Emperor." He became emperor at the age of 3 in 1911, and was overthrown in an uprising at the age of 6. At age 11 palace politics got him named emperor again, but in 12 days he was overthrown again. He was permitted to live in the palace until 1924 when for safety he moved to the Japanese stronghold of Tianjin. In Nov 1931 he moved back to the palace in Changchun under the protection of the Japanese, and they reappointed him emperor in 1934. He is described as a puppet emperor ruling a puppet empire, as he was virtually a prisoner of the Japanese, required to sign whatever they wanted in return for being pampered by them. In 1945 the Russians captured him and he was imprisoned in Russia for 5 years. When returned to the Chinese they imprisoned him for 10 more years. The rest of his life he worked as a gardener in Beijing. We had a superb English speaking local guide at the palace. The original furniture is still there, so she was able to take us through room by room, bringing them to life with her lively description of the fascinating events that occurred. It is well worth seeing! The hotel lost some points when we went to the deserted bar and were served warm beer. We were told there were no bar snacks, and no ice to cool the beer. Not hard to figure out why it was deserted. The air conditioning wasn't working anywhere in the hotel, so they brought us a fan, but it was an uncomfortably hot night.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Brooklyn saw us to the train station this morning and because he was not allowed onto the platform found an attractive university student in short shorts who spoke some English to show us to our correct coach. Like many Chinese, she has chosen an English name - Crystal. The mass of people at the station was amazing, but well organized. Each train has a long waiting area under signs with the train number and track. Once we got close to our coach a train attendant shooed Crystal away as her coach was 14 cars away from ours and she would have to run. He made certain we were headed in the right direction - we had to get on two cars ahead of ours as the train was pulling out, but arrived at our seats OK. The train is very modern, with a streamlined design. The ride was smooth and quiet and the airline style seats comfortable. A display indicated speed, outside and inside temperatures, next station and so on. We cruised at 150 kph (94 mph). At Harbin we were met on the platform by guide Hank, who we followed through a massive crush of people into this city of almost 11 million. A car and driver were waiting to crawl through heavy traffic to our hotel, a Holiday Inn this time. It made up for a fairly bare lobby by having a well appointed room, but once again the air conditioning didn't work. Incredibly, the city has almost no air pollution - the skies are blue. Hank attributes that to the local governor who is very strong on environmental controls on industry. Harbin was founded as a fishing village in 1880. When an extension of the Trans Siberian Railway was built through the city by the Russians to give a shorter route to Vladivostok and Pacific naval bases it began to boom. They built the original station in 1896, and within a few years far more Russians lived here than Chinese, plus thousands of nationals from 33 countries who set up industrial, banking and commercial companies. The Japanese invaded in 1931, holding the city until the Russians took over in 1945. Many of the resident were White Russians who opposed Communism, and they were shipped back to Siberia where most disappeared. Eventually the area was handed over to the Communist forces of Mao. We arrived earlier than expected so nothing was laid on for today, but Hank agreed to put in extra time to take us on a walking tour of the old consular district on this hot, sunny day. When China was being fought over by various colonial empires Zhongyang Ave was the foreign district with consulates from over 16 countries. The original government and commercial buildings are still in use and well maintained - new buildings are not permitted in the district. At 1.45 km (0.9 miles) long it is China's longest pedestrian street, lined with restaurants, shops, sculptures, and floral arrangements in a form I've seen nowhere else - internationally or in China. A wire mesh used to form fanciful designs and statues is coated with mud, then two colours of plant, bright green and a darkish brown, are rooted in the mud to fill out the design. In November the plants are removed and they become snow and ice sculptures. Hank says 180 days of the year the temperatures below freezing. The biggest tourist season is two months in winter when the city turns into a fairyland of huge illuminated ice and snow buildings and sculptures. Russia once again has the largest foreign presence for investment and foreign workers. Our hotel is well located at one end of Zhongyang Ave, and the Songhua River is at the other end. This large, navigable river is 1,434 km (891 miles) long and flows into the Amur River in Russia. There is a cable car crossing the river, and a wide embankment has walkways, flower gardens, recreational docks and restaurant/pubs located along it for miles. The excellent Harbin beer makes the pub stops well worthwhile. We had several at the English style pub in the hotel when we returned, where we met a crew of engineers who are more than tripling the output capacity of the Canadian company McCain's frozen potato products plant.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hank & the driver picked us up at 9:30 to go to a museum, most of which was closed for renovation, and to St. Sophia's Russian Orthodox Church. The original wood church was built in 1896 for the railroad workers and the Russian soldiers protecting them. It was torn down and in 1932 replaced with the existing stone one. Inside was a gallery of old photos dating from the beginnings of the city until the Japanese left. The artwork inside the church and all ornamentation was destroyed during the cultural revolution, however it was one of the very few church buildings to survived. Beside the church was a large plaza with jets of water shooting two or three feet into the air. It was crowded with parents and their kids getting wet to beat the heat - a photo op Marilynn couldn't resist. Lunch was a local specialty called pancakes. It is a plate of large crepes and many dishes of different foods that are placed inside along with sauces. They were delicious and filling. The first thing on the table is a teapot full of hot water, which people in north China drink. Hank says it is to clean the palate between dishes. We had nothing on our program for the afternoon, so Hank brought his own car to the hotel and took us to the Siberian Tiger Park. Here we boarded small busses with the tires and all windows covered with very heavy wire mesh and went into the reserve through gates remotely controlled from a high control tower. Inside are various areas cut off from one another - for adult tigers, for breeding pairs, etc. Hank says they have 1,200 of this endangered species, many of whom are in a wild state. We witnessed a feeding, done from an armoured bus with a round chute out the back. Food is dropped from the chute as the bus passes through each area. The reason for the armor was evident when some cats attacked the bus. Next stop was Sun Island Park, where electric carts circulate on a hop on, hop off basis. It is a big park, with artificial waterfalls, an island with a unique population of squirrels, boating lakes and other sites, but nothing could compare with a huge, high freezer facility filled with ice statues, buildings, columns, and so on. Hank warned us to rent a heavy coat before going in, and at first we declined not understanding exactly what it was about, however he insisted and we were glad he did as it is maintained at about 30 degrees below freezing. By the time we finished exploring the complex my ears were freezing. It was indescribably spectacular, done on a huge scale, but Hank says it gives only a tiny idea of what the city and area are like in winter. Dinner was beer and popcorn, with a shared bowl of noodles. We were still stuffed from lunch.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Our pickup was at 6 AM to catch the train to Qiqihar. The hotel made box lunches, as they were not yet open for breakfast. We said a fond farewell to Hank. Although his English was not great and communications were difficult he certainly more than made up for it with enthusiasm, friendliness and in ensuring we saw some of the best of this marvellous city. The train compartment was three bunks high, with the center one folded so we could sit on the lower bunk. Our compartment mates were four Chinese men. The bunks were hard, so everyone got up and walked around now and then to stretch and relieve numb bums. The countryside is flat with lot of heavy industry and a huge oil field with loads of pumps and a couple of refineries. There is lots of construction of expressways, elevated high speed train tracks, and buildings. I can't imagine what the highways budget must be for China! The train was slower than the previous one - it took about three hours to arrive at Qiqihar where we were met by a guide who understood no English, although she could speak a little. She is a university teacher of travel (which I take to mean tourism) but did not know the English words tourist or tourism, and we couldn't explain. Qiquihar, a city of 2.4 million, has some wide streets and boulevards, but is not particularly attractive. The rain didn't improve the appearance. Our guide arranged a reasonable lunch where only the two of us were seated in a private dining room at a table for 10 with a place setting on opposite sides of the table! The driver, who is very sharp and helps the guide regularly, then took us to the 21 million hectare (51,870,000 acre) Zhalong Nature Reserve. An electric cart took us to an electric boat for a trip through tall grass and reed lined channels. There are 269 species of birds using this reserve, but the most impressive is the huge, endangered red crowned crane. We witnessed a feeding of these stately birds, so got some close up photos. The birds appear to be up to 5 feet (1 ½ meters) tall. They have a breeding program, and a training program that teaches the young to fly and to fend for themselves in the wild. The hotel is located in an area of car repair shops with no good restaurants, so eating in the hotel was the only option. The hotel manager, who spoke reasonable English, took us under his wing and a really good dinner was produced. We finally had air conditioning that worked so I got some much needed sleep. Tomorrow we fly for Beijing.