Posts from the ‘Snow’ category

Minus 35° Celsius. Time for a swim

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

Only a couple of days ago it was Minus 35° Celsius in Harbin. (That’s about the same in Fahrenheit – and ridiculously cold whether you speak imperial, metric, or Klingon.)

Naturally, temperatures like that mean only one thing: we’re going for a swim.

Swimming in the river of ice, because you only live once

Apparently, when it is ridiculously cold in China, you go swimming. This is because it ‘feels nice’, and is ‘healthy’.

We didn’t really believe that people would willingly participate in such an obviously mad activity, which involves immersing themselves in water that is just barely this side of being a solid.

And yet – here’s the proof.

We quote from the video;

“people enjoy the way it feels”.

Yeah. No.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

Not actually brave enough to risk losing limbs to frostbite, we’re heading on to a different activity – one that doesn’t involve grievous bodily harm. At least, that’s what we’ve been told.

Photo by mickey, Licensed under CC.

Photo by mickey, Licensed under CC.

Looking at that photo we’re not so sure.

We’re off to see some tigers. As we mentioned yesterday, Harbin was originally a Russian city on the edge of Siberia – though it is now (and has been for a long time) China’s northen-most major city. In apparently the largest park for Siberian tigers in the world, you can observe the tigers up close as they wander through a natural environment.

Photo by mickey, Licensed under CC.

Photo by mickey, Licensed under CC.

Feeding time is a little bit more confronting, often involving food that isn’t quite as processed as that bacon and egg roll you had for breakfast this morning.

Photo by TaQpets, Licensed under CC.

Photo by TaQpets, Licensed under CC.

This guy just wants to give you a big hug. Sort of.

Mostly hug. Just a tiny little bit of gnawing.

Saint Sophia Cathedral

In another Russian connection, Harbin is also home to the “largest Russian Orthodox church in the east”.

Built from timber, it fell into ruin until a charity drive raised around $1.5 million USD to restore it to its former glory.

Photo by timquijano, Licensed under CC.

Photo by timquijano, Licensed under CC.

More of the Harbin Ice Festival

Although that feeling of wandering around a magical wonderland is not quite as strong during the day, it is still very worthwhile revisiting the Harbin Ice Festival.

In some respects, daylight gives a sober view of the sheer scale of some of these architecture marvels.

Photo by Rincewind42, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Rincewind42, Licensed under CC.

You may also encounter some of the wildlife. This is a local Arctic fox, the wild strain of the infamous domesticated Siberian fox. Sadly Sibfox, the company that sold Siberian foxes as pets, is no longer operating. Happily, there are still some photographs of baby foxes (pups) online!

Photo by Denise Chan, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Denise Chan, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Rincewind42, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Rincewind42, Licensed under CC.

Want to Go? Need to Know!

  • Founded by a Russian citizen of Polish descent (aka the Lord of Alcohol), Harbin beer is one of the most popular beers in China, and possibly also the first.
  • According to Shanghai local Nick – Harbin should technically be spelt Haerbin, as it is pronounced in China.
  • There’s not an enormous amount of English language guide information for the (to use the full name) Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. However, we can point you to Wikipedia for more history and loads more pictures of the incredible sculptures created over the years!.
Photo by Ivan Walsh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Ivan Walsh, Licensed under CC.

The memories of those ice towers will (hopefully) last a lot longer than the frostbite! But there’s only just enough time to see them all before tucking in to one last warm dinner of Chinese food. We have an early flight tomorrow from Harbin to Osaka, Japan.

Have you been to Harbin? What did you think? Tell us in the comments!

Hong Kong Days and Harbin Nights

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

Goodbye Hong Kong

We knew we couldn’t fit even a tenth of what Hong Kong has to offer into two short days, but we gave it our best shot, twice.

But destiny calls, and so we bid Hong Kong farewell – with a very quick hunt for some bargains. Just a quick one.

Insert Flight to Harbin, China

Despite being amongst the ten most populated cities in China, Harbin doesn’t really register that strongly on most people’s travel radar. In the north of China, it doesn’t rank the way that Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Hangzhou do.

Actually founded by the Russians, this city experiences some of the most bitter winters imaginable.

Which doesn’t scream “visit me!”.

But when life gives you devastating cold and frostbite for months and months every year – you make lemonade.

Or in Harbin’s case – you make an Ice Festival.

In the Kingdom of the Frost

With a midday flight from Hong Kong, we don’t properly arrive at our hotel in central Harbin until mid-afternoon. The sun will set in just an hour, and then, my friends, cometh the frost.

Also – the ice slides.

You see – Harbin have turned their possibly disadvantageous winter of freezing cold into one of the most unique festivals in the world. A celebration of all things that chill the bones. Just wandering into the Ice Festival in Harbin is jaw-dropping, and the marvels are everywhere.

Giant slide made out of ice. Check.

Photo by Ivan Walsh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Ivan Walsh, Licensed under CC.

Giant palace made out of ice. Check.

Photo by Dayou_X, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Dayou_X, Licensed under CC.

Giant weird-looking but ultimately pretty cool things made out of ice.

Photo by Hugh Lee, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Hugh Lee, Licensed under CC.


Photo by Hugh Lee, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Hugh Lee, Licensed under CC.

Double Check.

Teams of ice sculptors come here to compete. Let’s say that again – people willingly travel to a location where it can be -35° Celsius outside, to build palaces made out of ice with their hands.

You know it has to be entertaining.

History of the Harbin Ice Festival

According to, the festival’s traditions originate in the practice of;

local peasants and fishermen [who] often made and used ice lanterns as jack-lights during the winter months. At that time these were made simply by pouring water into a bucket that was then put out in the open to freeze. It was then gently warmed before the water froze completely so that the bucket-shaped ice could be pulled out. A hole was chiseled in the top and the water remaining inside poured out creating a hollow vessel. A candle was then placed inside resulting in a windproof lantern that gained great popularity in the region around the city.

So we wandered out into the cold

It is these experiences that we should seek to travel for. To marvel at human ingenuity, mixed with more than a small dose of sheer bloody-mindedness. It’s exhilarating, and not just because of the cold.

It is a quite contemplative experience. The sharp precision of the cuts of the ice-blocks (some of them completely clear, like glass) lit up from inside in shocking neon colours…it is a wonderful experience.

Magical, even.

But bloody cold.

Photo by Dayou_X, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Dayou_X, Licensed under CC.

More photos of the Ice Festival, please

If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you join them?

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Travel to Australia and New Zealand from Europe or North America, and you might be tempted to lump these two countries together. Experience them both, however, and you will see that the similarities don’t extend much past funny accents. Case in point: we spent last weekend on an Australia road trip taking in the east coast beaches; this week our New Zealand road trip will involve Whitewater Rafting, and a hike across a glacier!

Our local guide Dene suggests we go easy on our Friday morning breakfast, although he’s promised us “a calm morning white water rafting“. We’re not sure how that could possibly work, but at 8.15am we find ourselves on the banks of the Kawarau River, which is much easier to navigate than the Shotover River we took the jetboat through yesterday.

Rapido Rapido

And this is the beginners guide to Whitewater rafting New Zealand! Photo by Queenstown Rafting, Licensed under Creative Commons

(Lord of the Rings fanatics will observe that the Kawarau looks a lot like the River Anduin that flows parallel to the Misty Mountains.)

With Queenstown Rafting we actually spend a couple of hours cruising the river, and it is an ideal experience rafting for beginners – though the heart rate does pick up as we plunge into the 400m long Dog Leg Rapid. The hot shower and sauna at the end are welcome, and some of us probably wish we could stay here when Dene let’s us in on the next destination…

…Bungy Jumping off Kawarau Bridge!

He seems to be enjoying that!

Bungy Jumping is safe – just scary as hell! Photo by Los viajes del Cangrejo, CC License

Bungy jumping – now available all around the world – actually began on this bridge in 1988. We’re not sure what possessed AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch to jump off a perfectly good bridge, but we’re glad they did! Now can we muster the confidence to follow in their footsteps. (To be fair – it’s not even a footstep – lean forward and let gravity do the rest!).

Any second thoughts we have drop away when we see the person in front of our group calmly step over the edge … completely naked! And if you’re not sure you could do the same, Queenstown’s only tandem jump means you can hand that decision over to another person and leap together.

You don’t really have time to get nervous. Without much fuss you, too, are strapped into a harness and then, quite suddenly, you’re standing up on the platform and there’s nothing in front of you but air. That’s when your heart starts beating faster and your grip tightens on the pole, which is all that anchors you to earth.

Three, two, one, JUMP!

Everything in your body prevents you from jumping, every instinct says no, and yet…

It happens in fast forward and slow motion, the sky, the ground, the river, then SPLASH! Your head is soaked, you’re smiling like a maniac, and you’ve done your first (and maybe last?) bungy in New Zealand.

Going, Going, Gone!

Going, Going, Gone! The first two photos are Adam Selwood; the splashdown photo is by Mat, CC License.

Beautiful Lake Wanaka

View of Lake Wanaka. Photo by Edwin, CC License

We use New Zealand’s long summer twilight to make the short drive out of Queenstown to the town of Wanaka. Plenty of New Zealand tours spend a few nights among the scenery here – we get stuck into “Her Majesty’s” pizza at The Cow Restaurant, before a sleepover and a Saturday morning drive towards the Franz Josef glacier on New Zealand’s west coast.

Some people are hikers, and full day treks across the glacier are available. Some people are more sedate, preferring to experience the 12 km (7.5 mi) long glacier and the nearby Mount Cook from the air. Dene has never seen the point in limiting our experience, so we’re doing both (it’s called heli-hiking)!

There’s a beauty to the scenic helicopter flight across the glacier, but there’s real danger here as well. Unstable ice cliffs mean many hiking tracks are now off limits, and the Maori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, which speaks of a tale when Hinehukatere’s lover Wawe was swept to her death here by an avalanche.

Helicopter view of Franz Josef Glacier

Helicopter view of Franz Josef Glacier. Photo by Greg Hewgill, CC License.

It’s hard not to think about those stories as the helicopter drops us off (and disappears over the horizon!). But during the 2 hour hike back to the town of Franz Josef our guide keeps us amazed with the scenery, and also demonstrates the tangible evidence that climate change is having on this World Heritage Site.

Hiking Franz Josef Glacier

Hiking the Glacier. Photo by Edwin, CC License

It is summer, but increasingly the walk is over rock formations carved by the glacier as it recedes under global warming.

The adventure portion of our New Zealand trip is closing, as Dene fares us well. Sunday will be a relaxing day, a four hour drive through national parks to the city of Christchurch. But to help us sleep tonight, and to reward our bodies for the stress of navigating rapids, jumping off bridges, and trekking in crampons across a glacier, we head for an evening at the Glacier Hot Pools.

That’s right – you can immerse yourself in New Zealand’s natural beauty without needing to check your travel insurance first! Now who has the first massage …?

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Queenstown Rafting offer twice-daily adventures on the Kawarau river
  • We always felt that bungy jumping was a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience; and if you’re going to do it once, do it where it all began
  • The most popular helicopter experience in New Zealand is to the top of Mount Cook, allowing you to walk around up top without having to do any climbing. Most of these depart from Glentanner Park, NOT the Franz Josef town (
  • The drive from Franz Josef to Christchurch is longer than it looks – it’s due east as the crow flies, but you have to drive 90 minutes north before the road actually turns inland through Arthur’s Pass
What is a Crampon?

Crampons! Photo by Edwin, CC License

Have you toured New Zealand’s South Island? Got your heart rate thumping? What are your memories – Let us know in the comments below.