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Bill Cain in Concord Monitor Newspaper

By BILL CAIN For the Monitor, April 08. 2007 10:00AM

Harbin, China's three-month-long annual winter celebration is a feast for the eyes

The glow in the night sky could be detected from a mile away. Though I had looked at pictures of previous Harbin ice festivals on the internet, I was not prepared for what I was about to see. For an instant I thought it couldn't be part of the actual attraction, but rather an elaborate promotional marquee composed of real buildings, some as high as four stories. Upon closer examination, the reality set in: Yes, it's all ice. The one word I found myself repeating for the next 90 minutes was "wow."

In the far northern city of Harbin, China, in the province of Manchuria, they don't gripe about the winter. They celebrate it - big time. Modest ice festivals here have a tradition going back hundreds of years, but in 1985, someone decided to start pushing the envelope and the modern era of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival began. Since then, it has grown each year in size and complexity and become a world-renowned international destination for those willing to brave the intense cold. The festival now has three separate venues for fans and other aficionados of frozen water - two devoted to ice and one to snow.

Every year, thousands of tons of ice are harvested from the Songhua River, which flows through Harbin. Heavy equipment and machinery employing hundreds of laborers is required to cut and transport the ice to the construction sites. Then elaborate scaffoldings and cranes, much like you'd find in a construction zone in the center of the city proper, are used to erect the incredible structures. The term "ice sculpture" is inadequate to describe what's created here. "Architectural engineering in ice" more closely defines it, and the imagination and ingenuity behind these efforts is truly staggering.

In 2000, the ice portion of the festival outgrew the central city park in which it had originated. Now, what's called The Big World of Ice & Snow occupies an area equivalent to that of four football fields across the river on the other side of town, and requires a drive from all the city's hotels. It's here that most of the major ice architecture now resides. But instead of abandoning the city park, festival organizers have retained this venue, now called the Lantern Festival, within convenient walking distance, where the smaller ice buildings and ice sculptures are housed. This is where the ice art gallery can be found - dozens of sculptures, including those created during an international competition, depicting a variety of subjects.

Over in The Big World, to-scale replicas of world-famous buildings have become the forte of the master ice craftsmen. This year's theme reflected a cooperative effort between China and South Korea, and many of the ice attractions featured replicas of Korean sites. One perennial favorite is China's own Great Wall, on top of which is fashioned a long ice slide full of twists and curves just like the actual Great Wall. The line waiting to slide on the evening of my visit was easily a 15-minute long wait in zero-degree temperatures. Temples, cathedrals, palaces and pagodas topped with domes, parapets, spires and cupolas, as well as bridges, igloos and a hexagonal ice maze were some of the other 2007 entries.

All of this ice architecture in and of itself would be a major accomplishment for the artisans involved in its creation, and wondrous to behold by the light of day. But then there are the embedded lights of every color, whose intensity has been expertly calculated and distribution perfectly balanced to create another aspect of the spectacle exclusively for night-time viewing.

After spending several hours over two evenings taking in all this ice, I still had plenty of daylight time for the separate area dedicated to the snow. In a park reached by gondola cable cars across the river, more gigantic and elaborate structures and sculptures can be found, including those from a distinct snow sculpture competition. Because Harbin is known for its bitter cold - and not for large quantities of natural snow - all the objects in this part of the festival are of the manmade variety but still require the same transportation and preparation as that of the ice. Just as the Big World's ice theme had been a collaborative effort with South Korea this year, the snow festival was similarly paired with Canada.

In addition to the many Canadian-influenced subjects of study were various renditions of pigs, to honor and commemorate the Chinese year of the pig, as well as storybook characters like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The major snow attraction for 2007, though, turned out to be a 30-40 foot high scale model of Niagara Falls, complete with an accompanying snow version of the Maid of the Mist skiff.

If all this wasn't enough, there are countless other individual ice carvings that are visible on sidewalks, street corners and smaller parks as one drives around the inner city. In most other cities, these would individually be considered attractions, but in Harbin at this time of year, they're just part of the atmosphere.

No three-month celebration would be complete without live entertainment, and Harbin's festival is no exception. Perhaps the most unusual are the ice swimmers. Several areas along the edge of the Songhua River are kept from freezing over and are turned into near-Olympic size swimming pools. Each morning, a collection of hardy souls don bathing suits and frolic in the icy water for a rapt and incredulous audience who are bundled for temperatures that can reach 40 below.

Harbin is a long way to go from New England for the purpose of attending an ice and snow festival. But if the cold isn't a problem, and an extended itinerary through other parts of China, Mongolia or Siberia can be arranged, start planning now for the 2008 festival, which, if trends continue, promises to be even bigger and better than this year's. To plan a custom winter trip to Harbin and this part of the world, contact Sokol Tours at


By BILL CAIN for the Monitor, March 11. 2007 10:00AM

China's major tourist attraction is 4,000 miles of awe-inspiring architecture

This truly is a great wall," Richard Nixon reportedly was overheard saying to an aide when visiting this quintessential icon of China in the '70s. His understatement can now be appreciated by anyone following in his footsteps of a generation ago, and I decided to see for myself.

When Nixon arrived, there was only one section of the Great Wall of China that had been restored and was open to Chinese visitors and foreign dignitaries. Today, you can choose from any of 10 different sites outside of Beijing for your Great Wall experience. Some of these sections of wall remain in a decrepit, un-restored condition from neglect since centuries ago when the wall was abandoned as a fortification from marauding invaders. For the purists, these sections represent the real Great Wall - true archaeological ruins free of modern materials and conveniences. Some of these sections, as alluring as they are in spectacular mountainous settings, are incredibly steep and dangerous to walk, especially in winter, and are more suited to adventurous mountain climbers with unlimited time.

The restored sections of the Great Wall, like the one I visited at Mutianyu, are closer to Beijing and can be done in half a day. The wall in these sections has been covered on the top with newly laid limestone blocks and, although steep in some areas, is easily handled by most people with some degree of fitness.

Mutianyu Great Wall, its restoration completed in 1986, snakes like a serpent over the nearby hills, and is now one of the most popular Great Wall sites. A gondola system with enclosed cable cars was added several years ago to bypass the strenuous uphill hike just to reach the wall. It was at Mutianyu where, in 1998, Bill Clinton became the second sitting U.S. president to visit the Great Wall, and the cable car used to transport him now bears his name on the outside, along with the date of his visit. After disembarking the cable car at the top, you can walk in either direction for a couple of miles before the wall begins to deteriorate beyond the limits of the restoration project.

Begun in the 1st century B.C., and under various stages of construction through several Chinese dynasties, the wall exhibits several architectural styles along its 4,000-mile length, but still retains some characteristic elements throughout. For example, every several hundred feet a watch tower was constructed as a series of security stations, as well as for respites between lengths of wall.

After descending from the return cable car, you must exit on a path through a gauntlet-like series of souvenir stalls where aggressive women try any means possible to sell knickknacks - from mass-produced miniature Great Wall replicas, to T-shirts with "I Climbed The Great Wall" emblazoned on them both in English and Chinese.

My early morning, mid-winter visit to Mutianyu meant that I had most of the wall virtually to myself until other tourists started trickling in a few hours later. From what I understand, this is not the case in the high summer season when the tour buses roll in around the clock and the wall is clogged with walkers nearly all the time.

Even though there are many impressive ancient structures around the world that required Herculean effort to complete, the Great Wall of China probably ranks at the very top of the list in terms of time, manpower and materials invested. One urban legend even suggested that it was the only manmade object visible with the naked eye from the moon. Returning lunar astronauts, however, have dismissed such claims, saying it was only visible from earth's orbit.

As the Chinese say, "You haven't seen China until you've seen the Great Wall." I'd have to agree, and I suspect that Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton would also. For more information on Mutianyu and all 10 of the Great Wall sites outside of Beijing, go to


By BILL CAIN For the Monitor, March 18. 2007 10:00AM

The colder months make for an exciting, albeit icy, adventure in this Russian region

At -70 degrees, boiling water thrown from a pan will flash freeze in mid-air before reaching the ground," explained my Russian guide, Leonid. "Every square inch of skin must be protected and your eyes must blink continuously," he added. Mercifully, it never got quite that cold on my recent winter excursion to Siberia, but the possibility - however remote - that it could have was enticing.

Siberia! Just the name conjures up images of exiled prisoners laboring in harsh, frigid conditions far from civilization. The days of the Gulag and banishment to the Russian icebox are gone, and most areas of Siberia today are accessible to tourists.

But to appreciate what it must have been like when this far eastern Russian province was earning its infamous reputation, a winter trip is required.

Near the major city of Irkutsk lies Lake Baikal - the perfect destination from which to experience the wonders of a Siberian winter. "Largest, deepest, oldest, clearest" are some of the superlatives this awesome lake can boast. Its deep spot is just short of one mile, it contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply and its total volume is greater than all five Great Lakes combined. This mother of all lakes is so vast and ocean-like, commercial navigation licenses are issued based on seafaring conditions and contingencies.

At the beginning of each January, Baikal begins to freeze, and by the end of the month the ice in most of the areas around its protected bays and coves is 2-3 feet thick and can be safely explored by motor vehicle.

A three-hour drive from Irkutsk brought me to the spot where Olkhon Island, Baikal's largest at more than 75 miles long, can be reached by crossing the 4½-mile strait from the mainland. Here, where the summer water remains relatively calm, the ice freezes remarkably clearly and creates a disconcerting glass-like effect, which can be viewed during a stretch break about half way across.

The village of Kuzir takes another 45 minutes of driving, and most excursions in and around Olkhon Island originate here both in winter and the busier summer season. Nikita's Homestead provides comfortable, though rustic accommodations for those who don't mind the absence of modern plumbing coupled with outhouses and sub-zero temperatures. Business is brisk for Nikita, an enterprising Siberian who has an internet site and attracts visitors from all over the world. Chinese-, French-, German- and English-speaking guests were all in attendance during my two-night stay.

Driving on ice is never risk-free, especially on large bodies of water like Baikal, whose currents continually cause cracks, breaks and weak spots. I timed my visit to take advantage of the season's first expedition attempt over the frozen water up to Olkhon Island's wild northern tip. There, the lake opens up and results in unusual ice formations.

Only the most experienced local drivers who know how to read the ice are qualified to make this drive in a Russian military vehicle, as constant monitoring of the cracks and irregularities is necessary. According to Leonid, several cars are lost each year around the lake due to incorrect estimations of ice thickness. This danger hit home for me when, after stopping to photograph a chunk of ice several hundred feet from shore, I broke through the ice up to my waist in water and scrambled to safety after a second attempt at regaining firm hold of the 3-4-inch ice edge. I was okay, but my boots took several days to dry out.

Near the northern tip of Olkhon jagged ice shards - some as high as 8 to 10 feet - have been heaved to and fro during the freezing process, and litter the area, making it difficult to continue. It's in this remote area where, with expert guiding, several ice caves that re-form along the craggy shore each winter can be discovered.

In late January, the lake is not completely frozen, and with careful maneuvering, the edge where ice meets water can be approached within several feet. Doing this is considered a great accomplishment among local guides and is cause for celebration.

Closer to the village is Shaman Rock - an enormous massif jutting just off shore, which is regarded as a holy place by the indigenous Shaman population, but which is also regularly scaled by tourists during warmer times of the year. The island does offer many more recreational opportunities in the summer season, but there is something to be said for the quiet solitude, intense cold and sense of mystery that can only be found during a Baikal winter.

"Siberia in the winter?" I was asked before I left. At a time of the year when many people in these parts would like to escape New England winter for more sunny climes, it should be noted that unusual and rewarding travel experiences can be found by thinking outside the box. "Just envision Dr. Zhivago," I told people, "and travel to Siberia in the winter begins to make sense."


The Trans-Siberian Railway affords beautiful views, varied cuisine and a chance to make new friends
By BILL CAIN For the Monitor, April 29. 2007 10:00AM

Opens at noon" was the message that came through in broken English from the Russian dining car attendant. That meant no breakfast. Fortunately, I had come prepared with plenty of snacks. Life on board the Trans-Siberian Railway and its two major branches - the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian lines - can be inconvenient now and then, especially by those expecting western standards. But the experience of riding the rails in this part of the world is well worth an occasional frustration.

There are train rides and then there's the Trans-Siberian Railway - the world's longest rail system and considered by many to be the pre-eminent journey of its kind. Sure, you can purchase a trip from one of many tour operators that offer private tours with luxurious dining and sleeping cars on the same par as the famed Orient Express. But the more authentic way to experience the Trans-Siberian is to take local trains on your own, where chance encounters with everyday people in these distant lands is always a possibility.

The route I recently chose encompassed all three of the aforementioned major branches, beginning in Beijing, China; traveling north through Mongolia; stopping in Irkutsk, Siberia for four nights; and then continuing south back into Manchuria, China. The two legs required two overnights each, and a total of three border crossings - just enough to get the flavor of rail travel in this otherwise overlooked part of the world.

  • Seating and facilities

    Although there's only one dining car to accommodate 10 to 15 passenger carriages, seating is never a problem. The food is not necessarily bad, but most riders choose to bring their own on board and, for long journeys, supplement it by making purchases from local hawkers at various stops. At every border crossing, the dining car is changed to one whose cuisine matches that of the country being entered. The Chinese dining car serves large quantities of rice, but unless you have the foresight to bring your own silverware, only chopsticks are available. Trips to the dining car can be a chilly experience during the winter, as passage between cars requires short bursts of exposures to outside temperatures at least as cold as -18 degrees Fahrenheit, as recorded on my January trip.

    Private two-passenger compartments are slightly cramped but otherwise comfortable and offer about 50 square feet of space, with just enough room for a small table and two window seats that convert to narrow, rock-hard beds at night. Temperature control in the compartments, especially when it's below zero outside, is mostly uncontrollable and can fluctuate wildly. On the first night I had to sleep fully clothed to keep warm, but during the second I was sweltering in my skivvies.

    Those expecting private bath facilities are out of luck and would be better suited taking a group tour. Showers are nonexistent on local trains, but each passenger carriage is equipped with two toilet rooms, one at each end of the car, which are shared by up to 18 passengers plus two provodniks, or carriage attendants. Once in a while, a wait is required, but more important, trips to the lavatory must be timed to not coincide with station stops, when the doors are locked by the provodniks. This makes sense when you realize there is no modern plumbing or even chemical toilets on these trains, and that flushes are a direct shot to the tracks below.

    The duties of the provodniks are keeping the carriages as clean as possible, catering to their passengers' needs as best they can and providing a constant supply of boiling hot water - essential for the food do-it-yourselfers - from the samovar at one end of each car. Just remember to bring your own plates, utensils and cups.

  • At the border

    Perhaps the most nerve-wracking and time-consuming experience aboard this polar express is the border crossings. It's no exaggeration that the crossing from Siberian Russia into Manchurian China takes 11 hours. This is partly because of the bureaucratic immigration formalities with the accompanying forms and red tape, and partly because of train mechanics.

    At the exiting country's station, stern-looking border guards decked out in military garb demand passports, which are taken and returned hours later, as well as forms. One particular form was in Chinese on one side and Russian on the other, with nary an English word to be found. Compartments are occasionally searched for contraband, and passengers have to vacate, regardless of the time of day or night. Then the whole process is repeated again a short ways down the tracks at the entering country's station.

    During the Sino-Soviet dispute in the 1960s, the Chinese government decided to thumb its nose at tradition and adopt some of its own rail specifications, regardless of the standards established by the Russians decades ago. This included narrower train tracks. Consequently, carriage wheels now need to be changed every time a train passes between China and Russia, requiring hours of labor. If you choose to remain in your compartment, during these "bogie changing" events, you're subjected to 5-6 hours of violent shaking and shuddering.

    Time spent on the train affords opportunities to meet your fellow carriage mates if language barriers can be overcome, or you can simply watch the ever-changing countryside between small villages and larger industrial cities from the comfort of one's compartment picture window. At night, the constant clickity-clack and gentle swaying of the carriage is enough to induce a reasonable night's sleep.

    It's sometimes said that the journey is more important than the destination, and if the inconveniences can be tolerated that adage rings true when traveling locally on the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian Railways.

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