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The China Road Trip: A Progress Report


Just in case you all thought I might have let the whole campervanning around China thing fall off my radar, because it was too difficult, costly and just too nuts, here’s the first of a series of updates to whet your appetite for the almost-certain disasters, embarrassing language mess-ups and map confusion to come.

After deciding that the second half of this year would be as good a time as any to pack up the Shanghai house, the family, and the dictionary and set off for a six month road trip around China’s less-travelled roads, we soon realised that this was going to be a logistic nightmare needing to be broken down into more do-able monthly tasks.

The two tasks assigned for February (because it’s a short month and we didn’t want to set ourselves up for failure) were:

1. Get our Chinese driving licence

2. Find a campervan, motorhome or minivan

I’m sad to report I have already FAILED on both these counts, China not being the easiest country in which to organize anything in a short time-frame (except having a suit made, which can happen overnight, or demolishing a historic building, also possible overnight).

Let me explain these miserable failures to you.

The Chinese Drivers Licence Failure

In theory, it should be a piece of cake getting a Chinese Driving Licence because all you need is:

1. An existing international driver’s licence (check)
2. Healthy body and mind (check)
3. The ability to get 90% on a multichoice exam on Chinese road rules (not impossible)
4. 90 days or more remaining on your Chinese residency visa. Really??

Apparently I only have 68 days remaining on my residency visa, because I only have 68 days remainng on my ten-year old passport. It’s kind of coming back to me now that they informed me of this when I last applied for a new visa, but it may have conveniently slipped my mind.

So before I can apply, I need a new passport, and a new visa. And a lot of luck with those multichoice questions. The only positive thing to come out of this whole circuitous paperwork drama is my new passport photo, in which I have failed to age at all over the last ten years thanks to Wally at the photo shop who did a bit of photoshop on me.

Maybe not so easy as I thought then. This may explain the fact that I’ve only seen two foreigners driving cars in three years in China. That’s called a clue, but I choose to ignore it. Next month, with my new passport and visa, I will be reporting Chinese Drivers Licence SUCCESS.

The Chinese Campervan Failure

The vehicle, on the other hand, is going to be much more tricky. I think I may have explained in my last post that a culture of camping, caravans and motorhomes doesn’t really exist in China. I can’t just pop down to the local motorhome display yard to take a look at the latest models, or check the second-hand pages of the China Daily for a bargain minibus. Unlike London and Byron Bay, Shanghai is not littered with the carcasses of fouth-hand campervans left behind by backpackers.

So I started my research on campervans at the place where every Chinese person researches a new purchase – Taobao, the Chinese website/temple to capitalism where you can buy absolutely anything from popcorn to a ten metre neon sign customized with your name. My search for ‘campervan’ however, yielded exactly one match, shown below.

T-shirt 39 yuan, from Kumao Co

Even broadening the search field to ‘motorhome’ yielded only 4 results, and ‘camping’ a measly 820, most of which were children’s books in English (Curious George Goes Camping, Bailey Goes Camping, Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping, Tiny Goes Camping, Maisy Goes Camping etc etc. They have all of them gone camping, just apparently not in China).

I decided to go further afield, this time to Alibaba, an Aladdin’s cave of large hardwear, machinery and stuff you make big stuff out of, like pipes and panels and so on.

My first search for a campervan turned out to be pure gold!

This snappy modern vehicle was made by the Shenzhen Speed Sources Technology company, which sounded extremely professional, reliable and high-tech. 
Then I saw the specs: Length: 17cm. The lifelike photo had me completely fooled. This was nothing but a cheap Chinese homebrand Barbie Camper. Bugger.
Next I discovered the Yiwu Chufeng Commodity Firm were selling ‘Foam Antistress Campervan Shaped Stress Balls’, suggested under the category of ‘Corporate Gifts’ What mid-level executive wouldn’t benefit from squeezing the hell out of a foam campervan? I thought. But if squeezing one doesn’t sufficiently relieve your stress the same firm also make electric cigarette maker and tobacco rolling machines for times when only nicotine will do.
Unfortunately, their minimum order is 3000 pieces. That’s a lot of stress relief right there. I bet you could use 3000 of these to make a giant executuve sress relief campervan pit that you could dive right in to, like those plastic ball pits in the kids’ playroom at Ikea.
Personally, I was most taken by the ‘Hotselling Wooden Motorhome’ from the Hangzhou Hklong Arts and Crafts Co Ltd. A small Swiss chalet on wheels wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for six months on China’s backroads, but it would certainly be a conversation piece whenever we stopped and laid out the white picket fence with the letterbox, birdbath and swing set each night.
At last I found something that appeared to be a real, actual campervan/motorhome/RV large enough for real people and not likely to burn down when I used the gas cooker. This full-sized, non-combustible, non-squeezable campervan from the Qingdao Fe Dora Co Ltd also had a very detailed description of its interior fittings.
Inside, it apparently contains a lot of Luxury Items: 
*Luxury Bathroom *Luxury Lamp *Luxury Furniture
and also a lot of Advanced Items:
*Advanced Sink  *Advanced Sofa  *Advanced Toilet  *Advanced Sound System
then a whole pile of stuff I really don’t understand:
*Warm Wind  *Big Shoe Tank *Protector for Charging and Discharging
and a bedding arrangement that speaks for itself:
*Double Men Bed *Two Double Deck Single Man Bed
Clearly, this is not a family camper.
Also, it’s $30,000 for the basic model. Sigh. The search for the perfect (extremely cheap) camper continues. More next month….

Are These Shanghai’s Best Noodles?

This Old Place Noodle Restaurant 老地方面馆

When hunting down good, cheap street food in Shanghai, you only need one tool – I’m going to call it the Queue Quotient, and here’s how it works.  The length of the queue is usually – and reliably- directly proportional to the quality of the food, (the longer the queue, the higher the quality) and inversely proportional to the price of the food and unfortunately, the establishment’s cleanliness.  
When you’re looking for good eats, search for a long queue like this one and try and ignore the Shanghai Food Safety Inspection smiley face looking glumly at you from the wall. I’ve found it to be a completely unreliable indicator of the likelihod you’ll spend the night following your meal in the bathroom.
Case in point is This Old Place Noodle Restaurant (lăo dìfang miàn guăn 老地方面馆) on Xiangyang Lu.  Frequently listed on Chinese website Noodle Top Ten lists in Shanghai, along with my favourite noodle joint Ah Niang Noodles, you wouldn’t give its simple drab shopfront a second glance outside of opening hours, but walk past during the brisk lunchtime rush and the queue starting at the tiny shopfront and snaking down the street gives you a pretty good indication of their food’s popularity and safety.
Through the tiny doorway the restaurant is a single low-ceilinged room with four circular formica tables seating eight apiece on miniature plastic stools designed for those tending to the small of bottom. In the minute space between the tables another ten or so customers can cram themselves, crowding the seated diners like seagulls around a newspaper-wrapped piece of fish, waiting for a morsel to drop or a seat to open up.  The owners live upstairs, reached via a ceiling trapdoor and an aluminium ladder wedged against the far wall.
The room, plainly decorated with an old television, is managed by an eagle-eyed waitress with an extraordinary memory and the build and demeanour of a hospital matron, who conducts the room like a symphony. Patrons stand up, sit down, swap seats, and generally try to make life confusing for her but she can singlehandedly memorize the entire room, able to recall exactly in what order each customer was seated, takes orders around the room in turn, and delivers forty correct mealsan hour without a single error.
Most customers are here for just one dish – the zhá zhū pǎi miàn 炸猪排面 – noodles with a deep-fried pork chop. Not just any pork chop, this super-special pork chop is dipped in Taikang Spicy Sauce before being deep-fried in a crisp golden batter. The spicy sauce tastes like chili-infused worcestershire – tangy, vinegary, sweet and a little hot. The accompanying noodles come in a light-flavoured broth which you can have with or without a tangle of seaweed.
The crunchy pork chop is a surprisingly good fit for the simply flavoured silky smooth noodles, either as a side dish or mixed into the broth.

I tried another house specialty on the suggestion of a Chinese friend, the huángshàn gān miàn 黄鳝干面or eel noodles. They were incredible – short oily pieces of fried eel and scallions mixed with a deep dark rich peppery sauce atop a bowl of fine, thin wheat noodles. I loved it.
Other house specialties, all noodle dishes, include fried liver noodles and scallion oil noodles .

Through the twelve by twelve inch serving hatch in the dining room is the cramped kitchen, staffed by two female cooks using giant pincer-like chopsticks to swirl noodles, fry pork chops, dip sauces and make bowl after bowl of noodle soup at a cracking pace. I’m not sure how I would be able to keep up with the relentless long queue of hungry customers, but they do so with patience and good grace.
The thing I love most about Lao Difang, other than the wonderful flavoursis that they have resisted all pressure from their customers to enlarge, expand, modernize or franchise. Many complain about their early closing time but as the proprietor says – ‘We need to have a life too! We like to relax in the evenings!’ Well said. Get there for lunch or run the risk of missing out!
This Old Place Noodle Shop

233 Xiangyang Lu near Yongkang Lu Shanghai
Open seven days, last orders 6.30pm but will close earlier if sold out.
More Noodle Adventures in China:
Yunnan – Crossing the Bridge Noodles
Xian – Hand-cut noodles
Xinjiang – Lady Style Noodles
Langzhou – Niu Rou La Mian
Shanghai – Master of Noodles

Eating Icecream for Breakfast!

I scream you scream we all scream for ice cream!

Join us for our 9th annual China Ice Cream for Breakfast Day Party

at Asia’s largest Typewriter Museum
248 Wuxing Lu near Jiangguo Xi Lu

When an invitation like this arrives, how can you possibly resist? Who wouldn’t want to visit Asia’s largest typewriter museum and eat icecream at a time of day when it’s normally considered way too indulgent to do so?? 

Definitely on the list of quirky things to do on a sunny Sunday morning in downtown Shanghai, yesterday morning we parked our bicycles outside the Old York Art Space on Wuxing Lu and headed inside.

The now world-famous Eat Icecream for Breakfast Day was invented in 1966 by an American woman, Florence Rappaport, who reportedly invented it as a way of keeping her two youngest children, Ruth and Joe, happy during the long winter months. The celebration caught the imagination of ice-cream-loving people the world over and this year was celebrated in places as far-flung as New York, Jerusalem, Bolivia and Beijing. 

Florence Rappaport’s grand-daughter just happens to be my friend Rebecca, who established the Chinese chapter of the celebration along with her husband Liu Zhen some years ago. Yesterday around a hundred of their friends crowded into the Typewriter Museum with bowls and spoons at the ready for a morning of total unbridled ice cream enjoyment!

Given that this was Shanghai, the icecream flavours included green tea ripple as well as vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, and the toppings were nothing short of spectacular – bourbon cherries, choc chips, strawberries, caramel popcorn and fifty kinds of sprinkles. I whipped up a quick batch of hazelnut praline (as you do when you’re up with the sparrows on a Sunday morning) as our contribution. But there were a few unexpected oddities too – black bean sauce, curry powder, sichuan pepper and Chinese five spice for those with less conventional palates.

I tried a brilliant combination at Rebecca’s suggestion – vanilla ice cream, banana slices, a sprinkle of five spice powder, and a drizzle of rich chocolate sauce. Fabulous!  

By the look of the many happy and slightly messy faces around me, Ice Cream for Breakfast Day was an unqualified success for all the kids (both small and large) in the room. 

On my way out I stopped downstairs to look at the beautiful, magical old typewriters in Asia’s largest typewriter museum. They have quite an impressive selection, but arguments inevitably erupted over whether Seoul or even Tokyo’s typewriter museums were larger (do they even have typewriter museums? I’m skeptical on this count). 

The museum also houses a cafe with the coolest tables doubling as glass typewriter display cases. This must be one of Shanghai’s best kept secrets! You can visit on any regular non ice cream day, sip coffee and imagine the tickity-tickity-tap-tap-ker-zhing! of an old-fashioned typewriter. Beats the dull old tap-tap-tap-tap-tap of a Macbook anyday……

Thanks to Rebecca and Liu Zhen for a wonderful day!

The Shanghai Typewriter Museum
Asia’s Largest, I believe.


Old York Art Space, 248 Wuxing Lu near Jiangguo Xi Lu

Metal Men

Sparks flying in every direction, the whine of a chorus of metal grinders in unison reaches a crescendo on the factory floor. They’re smoothing down the rough edges on an enormous decorative steel panel for a new development in far-off Hong Kong, but most of these guys won’t ever see the panels in their final home. They’re happy to make it, then ship it.
I spent a day this week at the metal fabricating workshop of Mister Xu in far eastern Shanghai, taking photos of their work processes and some portraits of the staff. The workshop used to make air-conditioning vents but now they spend a lot of their time making customized metal decorative panels and artworks for my husband’s company, shipped to projects in all corners of China. They seem to prefer the variety of the art over making the same airconditioning vents every day.
Perhaps it’s years spent around my husband’s own workshop watching men and women make amazing things from metal, but I love watching the welding, the metal grinding and the big heavy pieces come together into a coherent whole. Matt started his business twenty years ago in a workshop exactly like this, making industrial rubbish bins every day (despite his art degree), until the small art orders became bigger and bigger art orders and they were eventually able to stop making skip bins and concentrate on bronze casting and decorative metalwork fulltime. It’s a great story, which I promise I’ll tell you another day.
Like the other factories and workshops I’ve visited on Shanghai’s outskirts, this one was clean and well-organized. None of the workers had to be prompted to use safety equipment, and none of them knew a photographer was coming. I’m sure China still has many, many sub-standard workplaces but it’s great to see that conditions in many places are good, and hours are fair (here, 7.30-4 five days a week).

The workshop’s lone female employee, project manager Xiao Chen looks gentle but is apparently tough and exacting on building sites, just what’s needed to get the job finished on time, and on budget!
Chief Angle Grinder. He was very excited to have his photograph taken but found it incredibly difficult to relax and stood stiff and straight no matter what I tried! His shirt reads “Shanghai Olympics” with a maple leaf. Anyone know what year they held the combined Canadian/Shanghai Olympic Games?

You might also enjoy Shanghai Factory Girls, photos from a garment factory, and Hand of Buddha, about a stone-carving workshop.

Worshipping at the Shrine of Vegetarianism: Dashu Wujie 大蔬无界

If you had told me yesterday I was about to eat one of my most memorable meals without a single sliver of meat passing my lips, nobody would have been more surprised than myself. This unashamed carnivore, lover of roast duck, confit of rabbit, rare roast beef and lamb shanks, has fallen hard for the vegetarian food at a new Shanghai eatery called Dashu Wujie 大蔬无界.
Last night I was very kindly invited to enjoy a ten course vegetarian degustation dinner, in the company of both Chinese and English language food writers and bloggers (for example the lovely and well-travelled Sugared & Spiced). This was a specially prepared dinner, so I’m planning to get back there soon and try their regular menu when I have a chance.
Overlooking Xujiahui Park, the entire five story restaurant was designed by a Buddhist monk who happens to be an architect (or an architect who happens to be a monk, I’m a little unclear which) and exudes a zen-like calm with beautiful interior wood panelling, natural linen curtains, heavy timber chairs and paper screens. Each floor represents one of five essential Chinese elements, starting with water and rising a floor at a time through wood, fire (naturally, the fire floor is the restaurant’s huge wok-fired kitchen), earth and finally gold.
It’s a far cry from many of Shanghai’s other vegetarian restaurants, featuring a surfeit of orange formica and fake roast goose. I’ve never understood why a vegetarian would want to eat gluten in the shape of a pork cutlet, or tofu shaped as shrimp. These places seem to have an uncertain foot in both camps, as though to say ‘Yes, we’re a vegetarian restaurant! But we also have fake meat!’ Why not celebrate the essence of the vegetables themselves?
Chef Tony Chang, from Taiwan, invited specifically for this four day tasting event, executed ten perfect small dishes doing just that, and left us all reeling as dish after exquisite dish was placed in front of us. I got to try many unusual ingredients or flavour combinations I’d never tried before. Here’s a little taste:
L: Papaya and wild mushroom tower – layers of sweet papaya with a mildly spiced salsa, caramelized pineapple and wild mushrooms served on a sliver of white radish. Sweet, soft, crunchy and spicy, a very palate-cleansing start to the meal.
R: To give you some idea of the complexity of this food, the tiny, perfect tomato in this dish of eggplant with lotus seed puree had been peeled, marinated in red wine vinegar, red wine, and then plum juice for six hours before being roasted, then painstakingly cored and filled with miniature apple mirepoix. It tasted sublime and after a small bite I just put the whole thing in my mouth and enjoyed the intense explosion of sweet tomato flavour.

L: Fresh green pea soup with light milk foam and roast tomato vegetable crisp
R: Three mushrooms. The large textured mushroom is a Lion’s Mane mushroom (also called hóu tóu gū 猴头菇 or monkey head mushroom), rare and flown fresh from Yunnan and cooked with light Sichuan spiciness. The mushroom rested on a circle of white mushroom roasted with miso, alongside a single morel. I’ve never tried a Lion’s Mane mushroom before but it had a wonderful soft smooth texture and (dare I say it) beefy flavour enhanced by the miso and spice.

 L: Braised chickpeas with a soft pumpkin crepe and fresh broadbeans. Sweet, nutty and one of my favourites.

R: Bamboo Fungus Eight Treasure pouch – this soft, sponge-textured fungus (which takes an entire year to sprout), had been carefully wrapped around various edible treasures including red date, frilly translucent white fungus, goji berries, black fungus, and dried long’ans, and served in a delicate vegetable consomme. Very refined, although the bamboo fungus’ texture had uncomfotable parallels in the decidedly non-vegetarian fried boiled pig skin.

L: Baby cabbage, carrot aspargus and water bamboo shoot, braised with three cup sauce and served with a soft spinach timbale with the tiniest hint of fresh nutmeg. I loved the water bamboo – a new taste and texture (not unlike cooked radish) for me.

R: Ravioli with red and yellow peppers and tomato concasse. Perfectly soft, yielding ravioli with the sweetness of peppers.

The two sweet courses:

L: A dish I never expected to enjoy – red bean soup served with homemade mochi stuffed with sweet fermented black rice. Red bean is my least favourite sweet Chinese flavour, with its cloying powdery aftertaste but this soup was flavoured with a little dried citrus peel and served smooth and hot, and had an unmistakeable hint of chocolatey-ness about it. Perhaps it was the mental conjuring together of chocolate and orange.

R: Pineapple oreo roll with banana chocolate mousse and meringue tartlet. Chef Chang advised us to move from right to left in eating this dish, tasting the tart pineapple first and the smooth sweet meringue last. The tiny pineapple ‘oreo’ was constructed of laminated layers of pineapple rolled around a frozen chocolate centre, a brilliant combination of intense acid sweetness and chocolate. I can still taste it today!

We finished the evening with strong organic Yunnan coffee served in happily mismatched ceramic cups from Spin ceramics, and a chat with chef Tony Chang, a very jovial man in his late fifties with a broad smile and a kind round face who had clearly enjoyed having complete free rein in the vast kitchens at Dashu Wujie. He sought, but largely failed to elicit any criticism we could offer – a tough ask given that every single dish had been so carefully thought out and so well executed.

It really is the mark of a good meal when you’re still thinking about it long into the following day. Eating vegetarian food is often difficult in a country so recently deprived of meat that they’re now obsessed with it, but I’ve noticed a growing movement away from heavy meat dishes and towards healthy, light eating with an emphasis on organic food.

Good food generously given will keep me happy for some hours (I’m easily pleased) but it takes a particularly special meal to keep me happy for several days as I rethink new tastes, textures and combinations and try and analyse why they were so enjoyable. Very exciting.


392 Tianping Lu between Hengshan Lu and Zhaojiabang Lu


Open 7 days for lunch, afternoon tea and dinner
Phone:  +86 21 34692857

Prix fixe menu (6 courses) from 268 yuan ($40)

Things to do Outdoors in Harbin. Like Swimming.

They breed’em tough in far northern China. This pair of diehards are dōng yǒng 冬泳 or winter swimmers, and they’re about to dive into a swimming pool cut directly from the thick ice of the frozen Song Hua River in Harbin, wearing nothing but the scantiest shreds of lycra and a swimming cap. 
Winter swimming is apparently good for your health, but possibly only if you already possess an extremely robust disposition, or you need a full-body shock now and again to let you know you’re alive. Just like sticking your finger in a powerpoint, but colder.
I heard about these winter swimmers before I left Shanghai and I felt an immediate affiliation – I mean, I’m a winter swimmer myself! Winter swimmers like to pride themselves on swimming outdoors all through the winter months, because indoor swimmers in heated pools are just babies who can’t take a bit of cold. Or maybe they’re just sensible. One or the other.
But my winter swimming usually took place in subtropical Queensland, where a chilly winter day was about..oh.. twenty degrees celsius, or in the Pacific Ocean where the water temperature never drops below twenty four degrees. Not exactly a rugged hardship then. More like a summer vacation somewhere a bit further from the equator than Brisbane.
This sophisticated machine keeps the water churning constantly so it doesn’t freeze over. Water temperature – minus five degrees celsius.
There are very cold parts of the world like Russia, Scandinavia, and China, where winter swimming actually takes place in sub-zero conditions and they have to employ all sorts of smart techniques to stop the water re-freezing. These guys are truly hard-core and can proudly call themselves ‘Polar Bears’, which most of them do. They even have a Winter Swimming World Championships every December!
What I didn’t realise was just what a tight-knit and unique group winter swimmers are. More of a cult really, if you consider the many winter swimmers who believe that plunging into ice-cold water on a regular basis will bring you closer to God. But then again, most near-death experiences tend to do that.
According to winter swimming advocate Dr Vladimir Antonov  (a prolific writer who has written books on Atlantis and the Atlanteans and Sexology, amongst other learned classics), winter swimming can also cure a whole stack of diseases previously thought tricky to get rid of, like TB. This, from his Eco-Psychology website:
‘winter swimming decreases the sickness rate for cold-type diseases 60 (!) times, and for other diseases 30 times….winter swimming can heal many diseases including radiculitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, pancreatic diabetes, chronic gastrintestinal diseases, inflammations in genitals, menstrual cycle abnormalities, dermatoses and so on [32,65]’
Try as I might I couldn’t find Dr Antonov’s references 32 and 65 anywhere, which is a shame because I’m sure they might have made for interesting reading. He does caution that swimming ‘in water with temperature over 8 degrees…may even cause untrained individuals to catch cold’. So take care, and only swim in the really icy stuff. 
Back to China though, where life is much more pragmatic and a whole lot less spiritual. These guys swim in winter, yes, and they do believe it’s good for your health….but they’re only getting in the water if you pay them quite a lot of money. Totally sensible, like a paid dare really. The rest of the time they’re sitting in a cosy heated cabin drinking hot tea and waiting for guileless tourists like us to happen along.
This guy is the official swim pimp. For only 200 yuan (about $30) he said he could arrange for someone to swim for us. We bantered the price back and forth, but when my husband opened his wallet there was only 120 yuan inside. He snatched it quickly and shuffled on the slippery ice back to the heated cabin, to break the good news to the swimmer. 
In the end though, we got two swimmers for our money, a man in his sixties and a younger woman. They strode out of the cabin without robes, looking for all the world like they really enjoyed this stuff, hamming it up with crazy poses and growls of bravery. Neither of them popped a single goosebump the entire time, perhaps an indication they’re genetically suited to winter swimming.
I was alarmed to see they were planning to dive from the not-very-sturdy diving platform, a feat worth every yuan of the danger money we were paying. The platform was constructed from tent poles and a few planks of wood, with spindly legs embedded in the river ice, and the whole precarious contraption wobbled and swayed when the first swimmer took to the ladder.

Look at that. After diving in and swimming half a length, not a single goosebump, although I think the involuntary look of pain when he resurfaced after the dive says it all. Extraordinary.
Next, the woman climbed to the highest rung and edged out along the diving plank. At the last moment she took off her plastic slippers, positioned herself and blew us a kiss before executing a perfect dive into the water below. 

I’ll make sure I think of these guys when I’m next doing my winter laps back home in Brisbane, sun shining and a balmy twenty-one winter degrees.

The Harbin Ice Festival: Ten Kinds of Spectacular

It’s just one jaw-dropping spectacle after another when you walk through the gates of the Harbin Ice Festival’s showpiece ‘Ice and Snow World’, where everything you see elicits an involuntary ‘wow!’ 
Harbin builds excitement about its annual Ice Festival from the moment you arrive in the city. Every corner, every roundabout, and every public space is graced with an ice sculpture – small archways contain ice Venus de Milos, ice pavilions large enough to walk through sit alongside rows of giant carved ice vases, and parks are lined with ice colonnades. Even the pavements are fenced in a zig-zag patterned ice barrier. It’s over the top.
Which makes it hard to imagine that Ice and Snow World might not be something of a let-down, a tacky overblown, overpriced folly. From our hotel room on the first night I can see what appears to be a sprawling multicoloured neon ice city on the opposite side of the frozen Song Hua River. It looks massive, the size of a whole city block, and the coloured neon lights flash and change colours continuously. I can make out something that looks like the Kremlin with a flashing pink onion dome.
But the Ice Festival is what we’re here for and night-time seems the best time to go with all those neon lights, but first we have to figure out how we can spend several hours outdoors without freezing. To death.
Harbin is seriously cold – daily maximum temperatures during winter are minus sixteen to minus twenty degrees, with overnight temperatures dropping to minus thirty or more. The ideal place to build a whole city out of ice and light it up with crazily-coloured lights.
But for an Australian from sub-tropical Brisbane, this sounds dangerous. My family asks me what the treatment for frostbite is, and I’m forced to admit to them that in my medical exams I kind of skipped over the chapter on frostbite on the grounds I was never likely to encounter it, and instead studied practical and useful wilderness medicine like snakebite, sharkbite and heat stroke. And venomous spiders like funnelwebs and redbacks, because we have a lot of those in Australia.
Spiders would be hard pressed to live in Harbin. 
Just to make sure we have no chance of getting frostbite, or chillblains, or hypothermia, each of us is wearing enough clothes to outfit a small village – thermals, ski trousers, down jackets, glove liners, ski gloves, undersocks, snow socks, balaclavas, beanies and snow boots. For extra warmth, we’ve also bought eight packets of adhesive heat-packs in every size. My husband, who has large feet and couldn’t buy any snowboots, has discovered his thick-soled shoes are useless in this cold so ingeniously he’s using the heat patches keep his feet warm but looks like a bizarre nicotine addict with stick-on patches on the top and bottom of each socked foot. 
When we do finally make it to the festival, in the sparkling company of travel blogger Sally of unbrave girl (She’s famous! Just been nominated for a Bloggie!) who happens to be in Harbin too (and is wearing four fewer layers than us because she’s from Buffalo, and therefore tough), we realise this Ice Festival business is going to get expensive. Really expensive.
Money falls out of your pockets at every turn, starting with the extraordinary 300 yuan entrance fee, and doesn’t stop until you’re back at your hotel and have paid the taxi driver his 70 yuan/hour fee for waiting for you so you don’t freeze to death walking home. Want to cuddle a baby snow fox? That’ll be an extra twenty. Ride on snow yak? Thirty. Recline in a horse-drawn carriage with sleighbells? A hundred. Never mind, this is an Ice Festival, and building a whole city from blocks of ice hauled up from the Song Hau River by 12,000 workers isn’t cheap. Even in China. So just empty your pockets and enjoy it I say!

Harbin Ice and Snow World

Runs annually from Jan 5 for approximately one month, open 7 days and nights
Adults 300 yuan
Children 160 yuan
Ice slides and all shows and hourly performances free
Eating bing tang hu lu 10 yuan
Holding a baby snow fox 20 yuan
Sitting on a snow yak 30 yuan
Riding in a neon-lit pumpkin coach 50-100 yuan
Taxi from downtown Harbin approx 15 yuan. Ice and Snow World is in a fairly isolated spot and you may have difficulty finding a taxi back. Your driver will wait for you for a negotiated fee, around 70 yuan/hour.

Train Travel Chinese Style, with Pot Noodles.

Soft-sleeper car, early morning

It’s a long way from Shanghai to Harbin by train – two nights and a day, in fact. That’s two nights and half a day longer than flying there. 

Why on earth then would you do it? Well, because it’s a train, and train travel, even in China, is capable of being a romantic and memorable experience mirroring the great train journeys of old. As long as you can shut out the smokers, the squat toilets, the PA announcements and the toothbrush hawkers that is. More on them later.

Train journeys anywhere in China always begin in a cavernous, cold, poorly lit waiting room, a place that would feel like the antechamber to a mausoleum actually, were it not filled with so many thousands of people with luggage and bags of brightly-coloured pot noodles.

In the waiting room, you wait, and wait, and just when you think your train must be running late they call for boarding and the neon-yellow sign above your gate turns green, a signal to the entire crowd to leap out of their seats and run madly across the waiting room to assemble as a tightly-packed mosh-pit in front of the narrow gate. 

Some desperate buggers who have standing-only tickets cram their way to the front, shoving violently, and can later be seen sprinting across the platform to secure any spare seats so they don’t have to sleep standing up.

The whole mosh-pit then squeezes through the single gate and on to the platform where it’s just a matter of finding your car and berth number, more difficult than it should be because sometimes an entire Chinese family or very deaf grandmother has taken occupation of your seat. They know it’s yours, they’re just hoping you wouldn’t turn up. After some to-and-fro and the eventual intervention of the guard, they give in, take their pot noodles and leave.

After memorable past experiences such as these in hard seat and hard sleeper class, for long journeys there is only one way to go – soft sleeper. It’s as cheap as chips, and sounds luxurious, doesn’t it? And it is, in the same way riding a bicycle is luxurious if you’re accustomed to walking barefoot on icy ground with frostbite to all your toes.

In soft sleeper you’re the master of your own four-berth compartment, two up, two down, with your own window, lockable door, soft cotton-coverd quilts, lace antimacassars and a Ministry of Railways thermos, standard issue. 

This is perfect if you travel as a family of four, as we do. If you take a berth on your own you will have to contend with a degree of smoking, snoring, spitting, plus or minus unexpected extra passengers in the berth above you, snuck in after the guards have gone to bed to share a bunk with their mother/brother/girlfriend.

The downside of soft sleeper? Well there’s a few. There’s the PA message on loop with a hidden volume switch it takes hours to find. The incessant smoking. And the pot noodle and toothbrush vendors who trundle their long narrow steel trolleys through the carriage every half hour with the same sing-song sales cry – “Bee-er! Instant noooo-dellls! Tooooth-brsh-toooooth-pste! Beee-er!” and on it goes. 

But the worst by far is the single stainless steel squatter toilet you have to share with the whole carriage. Now if, for example, you have a supernatural ability to go to the bathroom at the start of a thirty-three hour train journey and never again, this won’t bother you one bit. On the other hand, if you need to use the toilet more than once and you have some ridiculous hang-up about flushing, or about ones and twos being confined to the receptacle of the squatter, or about used toilet paper thrown on the floor, or even about touching the same door handle as the person who left their large number two in the corner of the room, then thirty three hours in soft-sleeper is going to be tough for you. 

I prefer not to think about it. It’s just shit, after all. And it’s much worse in hard sleeper.

But it does then get you thinking about the troubling grimy carpet, and where all that grime has been tracked from. Better to just take your shoes off when you get back to your room. And try not to drink any water.

The first night on the train is noisy and busy. I hadn’t paid attention to the schedule when I booked our tickets, and our first 13 stops occurr in the first overnight stretch of 11 hours. Just frequently enough to drift off to sleep before the next load of passengers boards and wakes you with a jolt, in combination with the searchlight strength platform lights streaming in your window and the platform PA message. 

Even at three am Chinese train passengers have no sense of quiet awareness of a carriage full of sleeping bodies, and consider it perfectly natural to wander up and down the corridor yelling:
‘Where is number 33?’ 
‘What berth are you again?’
‘Are you sure we’re in the right car?’
‘Oh! There’s 33!’
‘I just passed it.’
‘There! Behind you! No! The other way!’ 

The same guys always need to get out of bed for a smoke once an hour. 

If nothing else, train travel is great for people watching. My favorites are the train guards – a special breed of slightly fierce-looking but actually really goofy individuals. They sport a navy blue uniform with a pilot’s hat, with degrees of red braid and gold buttons you can acquire depending on rank. 
The guards in my carriage. ‘No photos! My hat’s crooked!’
Soon after we get on the train I find one of them dragging a reluctant six year old down the corridor to the 130cm mark on the wall at the end of every carriage, to check he isn’t scamming an under-130cm ticket when he should be paying for a regular child’s ticket, the pint-sized 131cm rascal. I hear his dad pleading that his shoes have extra thick soles. The guards let him off, just this once. The dad smiles a lot, nervously, as the guards return his son but the kid knew all along it was one big funny joke at his father’s expense and the guards were in on it.

Of course, you’ll want to know about train food, that special variety of cuisine served up by the Ministry of Railways. It varies by route, and runs the gamut from unidentifiable slop (I’ve described my first train meal consisting of fingernails and gristle before) to really quite tasty in a retro, boarding school sort of way. 

The dining car is often empty, becuase the meals are expensive compared to a five yuan pot of instant noodles, but there are always one or two hardy souls sleeping with their heads on the table nursing a bottle of fiery bai jiu so they don’t have to return to the horror of the debris-strewn hard-seat carriages, and a couple of off-duty guards lounging around. The cook always wears the dirtiest white coat and has little hair. 

Faced with the look of some train food, it’s no wonder that at least fifty percent of our meals turn out to be pot noodles. Instant ramen, two-minute noodles, cup-a-noodles, whatever you know them by, the Chinese name for them is the best ever – fangbian main 方便面 -convenience noodles. My husband is always disappointed that the sachet of dehydrated green and brown flakes doesn’t transmogrify into a hearty beef and vegetable stew under the influence of hot water from our thermos, just like the picture on the pot. But they are only five yuan. 

Chinese train travel is still, in spite of the downsides, for me the most wonderful way to travel. You go to sleep in Shanghai, and wake up to a winter-scoured landscape in Shandong province, and through the day see frozen rivers, and village houses stacked with golden corn, and beautiful parts of the Chinese countryside out of view for the air traveller. 

Dinner over for the second time, just outside Tianjin I drift off to sleep to the comforting thought that it’s only ten hours until I can use a clean hotel toilet. And tomorrow I’ll be in Harbin.

Train fanatic? Other train journeys you might enjoy:

Shanghai to Guilin by Slow Train

To Ancient Xian by Train

Train to Nanjing