Thursday, February 27, 2014

Scam City Shanghai

Has anyone seen the show Scam City on National Geographic? The premise is simple, really. The host visits some of the world’s most popular cities in an effort to expose the darker side of tourism. He intentionally falls victim to swindlers to display local adaptations of popular scams such as pick pockets, expensive cab fares, or bars luring people in with adult entertainment at a high cost. Thankfully, I have been lucky enough not to be on the receiving end of any scams in Shanghai. However, I have friends (both visitors and locals) who have been. In an effort to keep others from following prey, here is a rundown of the most common scams in Shanghai.

Tea Ceremony/English student
You'll be approached in a tourist spot (this is very common in People's Square) by someone claiming they are an English student at a local university. Then comes the hook. The "student" will ask if you would mind helping them practice their English. In exchange, they will offer to treat you to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. After your new friend orders snacks and tea, they will excuse themselves. The bill will arrive shortly after and you will be forced to pay the exorbitant cost of the meal.

There are some actual students who may approach you to practice English. Just let them know you will be picking the location.

Dropped Metro Card
This trick that has gotten many Shanghai newbies. The taxi driver will "accidentally" drop your transportation card as he attempts to hand it back to you. The taxi driver likely saw that you had a lot of money on your card and dropped it by his feet to quickly switch it for an empty one. An easy way to circumvent this dupe is by placing a sticker or other identifying marker on your card to confirm the correct one is handed back to you.


Black Taxi 
As much as I complain about Shanghai taxis, only use the official ones. If a car (usually a black car that looks nicer than usual taxis) pulls up next to you and the driver asks where you want to go, or simply says "taxi?", you should walk away. These unmetered "taxis" seek out foreigners and charge outlandish fares, or worse.

If you are hanging out on Nanjing Lu or other tourist spots, be on the lookout. Typically, a single man or a pair of women with babies strapped to their chests approach you from behind, unzip your bag, and make off with anything inside (many a friend has lost an iPhone this way). Remember to keep your bags in front of you and do not place valuables in your back pocket.

This con is mostly directed at men visiting Shanghai. If some pretty Chinese girls randomly ask if you want to go to KTV, the correct answer is NO. It's not uncommon for girls to find naive foreigners to go out drinking with them, run up a huge bill and then leave you to foot it. Generally speaking, any time you are going to a bar with strangers, you should always pay for drinks as you go. Running up a bar tab with people you don't know can be a dangerous exercise.

As with most things, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. While most of these schemes will only result in a loss of your money (and perhaps dignity), many of them can become dangerous if you refuse to pay. If you find yourself in one of these situations, it is often best to pay the bill and then dial 110 for the police or 962288 for bilingual assistance. You should also follow up directly with your credit card company to quickly dispute the charges. Overall, I feel much safer in Shanghai than I did in large cities back in the US, however, all big cities come with some level of crime. It's best to be aware of the types of crimes you may encounter.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Harbin Eats

When researching places to eat in Harbin, we found very little information. Tripadvisor wasn't a huge help with McDonalds coming in near the top of the restaurant list.

Additionally, we found very few places with English menus. With our basic Chinese and Waygo phone app, we were able to order without too many issues though restaurants along the pedestrian street seemed to have more English menus available.

We had some hits and misses but overall, greatly enjoyed the food in Harbin. Here are the places we tried throughout our stay.

Dongfang Jiaozi Wang/Eastern Dumplings King (Numerous locations)
We actually ate here twice because it was close to our hotel, cheap, and tasty. We noshed on various dumplings (I'd recommend the pork and chive as well as the mushroom) with a side of eggplant, all washed down with a few cups of tea. Our bill was around 65 rmb for two people each visit.


Tatos (127 Zhongyang Dajie)
Tatos was one of the few places to offer us an English menu. We ventured here because I wanted to try some Russian food. To be honest, I don't have a ton of experience with Russian food (other than borscht) and had no idea what to expect. The food here was good, but not great. But maybe I'm just not that huge a fan of Russian food? The prices were okay, we spent around 200 rmb for two people, including drinks. I'd recommend trying the baked claypot dishes if you go.


Lao Chang Spring Pancake (178 Zhongyang Dajie)
Again, no English menu though this was easily my favorite meal in Harbin. I'd highly recommend rolling up some spicy pork and red peppers with sliced cucumber as well as one of the egg fillings. And don't forget to order a sauce. 100 rmb will get you more food than you'll be able to finish.


After dinner, be sure to purchase a popsicle outside the Modern Hotel (89 Zhongyang Dajie). The ice cream sold here is supposedly made according to a hundred year tradition. Apparently that makes it extra tasty because we went back every day for one of these. Matthew declared it the best ice cream he has eaten in China. That's high praise from my husband.


Anyone else been to Harbin? Did I leave your favorite spot off the list?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Harbin: Saint Sophia Cathedral

Harbin is a city with strong Russian roots. At one time, over a third of all the people living in the city were Russian. Because of this, a strong Russian influence can be seen in the architecture and food of the region.

One of the most visible places to see this is at Saint Sophia Cathedral.


Saint Sophia is a former Russian Orthodox church, built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.


The church was closed for a number of years during the Great Leap Forward as well as the Cultural Revolution and decades of neglect have sadly taken their toil on this beautiful example of Neo-Byzantine architecture. The inside of the church shows multiple cracks in the walls and much of the intricately decorated plaster has fallen away.



Thankfully, the government designated the cathedral a national cultural heritage site in 1996 as part of a nationwide campaign to protect historical sites. The following year, the cathedral was turned into the Municipal Architecture and Art Museum.



What is left of the chandeliers and decorated walls gives you a glimpse into what a masterpiece this building must have been in her hay day. Tickets are worth the 20 RMB entrance fee to not only warm up your hands, but also gaze upon what is left of this charming building.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Harbin Packing List

We knew it was going to be cold in Harbin. As we stepped off the plane, the inside of the jet bridge was covered in two inch thick ice and our breath immediately became visible. Thankfully, a little research and smart packing on our part left us feeling toasty. Ok, maybe toasty isn't the right adjective, but we managed to stay warm enough to enjoy ourselves while we ventured outside for a few hours at a time. And we didn't get frostbite (despite the -27F/-33C temperatures).

So what exactly should you pack? Here is a handy list of the items we found useful on our trip.

Packing List for 3 Days in Harbin

2-3 wool/silk/polyester long sleeve shirts
2-3 pairs of wool/silk/polyester long underwear or tights
1 pair of fleece pants
2 wool/fleece/down shirts (preferably with a hood and thumb holes)
1 pair of wind resistant pants (preferably insulated snow pants)
3 pairs of thin wool or synthetic wicking socks
3 pairs of thick wool socks
1 wind and water resistant jacket (preferably with a hood)
1 hat
1 pair of thin or liner gloves
1 pair of heavy gloves or mittens
1 pair of boots
2 face masks (2.5 PM compatible)
Disposable hand warmers

Why do we suggest the items above? Our research taught us that wearing the correct type of clothing can allow you to wear less items while staying warmer. The important thing to understand is the purpose of each layer.

Base Layer
Your base layer is the clothing closest to your body (after your undergarments that is). Because of this, you want to look for clothing that will keep you warm while being comfortable and wicking away moisture. Most people don't realize how much they sweat when bundled up under multiple layers and your base layer is used to regulate this. If you wear something like cotton, which does not wick away moisture, you may end up feeling much colder as your clothing will remain damp after you sweat. There is nothing enjoyable about cold, wet clothing. Instead opt for a base layer made of wool, silk, or polyester. These fabrics are soft on your skin and will keep you warm and dry. Plan to wear one long sleeve shirt and one pair of pants (long underwear/tights/etc) per day.

Insulating Layer
Over your base layer, comes the insulating layer of clothing which keeps you warm by trapping air close to your body. Wool, down, and fleece are all good choices for this layer. Most days, I wore one fleece and was more than warm enough. When temperatures dipped down in the evening, I added a second fleece for extra warmth. On my legs, I wore a pair of fleece pants. Mine happened to also be wind resistant which meant I only had to wear two layers on my legs most of the time.

Matthew and I asked for the Patagonia R1 hoodies for Christmas. I don't want to sound like an advertisement for Patagonia, but these were a lifesaver for us. They have a built in balaclava style hood which covers most of your face when zipped fully. They also have thumb holes to help keep your wrists warm. We would put on a pair of liner gloves, then use the thumb hole to keep our shirts pulled up, allowing us to limit the amount of skin that was exposed.


Outer Layer
The shell or outer layer protects you from wind, rain or snow and can add warmth if lined. You want to look for items that are either waterproof or water resistant but still allow breathability. Many ski jackets come lined with a fleece layer, allowing you to skip the insulating layer on warmer days if you choose. I would highly recommend a jacket with a hood on it.

This is going to be controversial to some people, but do not wear more than two pairs of socks. Others who went to Harbin told me to wear 5 or 6 pairs but frankly, that's insane. Not only would my boots not fit, my feet would overheat and become sweaty. I wore a thin pair of wool socks under a thicker pair for our entire trip. I only had an issue when my feet became too hot inside a restaurant and started to sweat. Once my feet were wet, it was hard to keep my toes warm outside. Two pairs of proper socks and a pair of good boots is enough to keep your feet feeling fine.


We brought along disposable hand warmers and found them quite useful. Most of the time, correctly layering was able to keep us warm. However, our bulky gloves made it hard to take photos, handle money, or zip jacket pockets. We were forced to remove our thick gloves more often than we wanted and were glad to use the hand warmers to help defrost our fingers. This is also why I would recommend a thinner pair of gloves for under or inside your thicker pair.

You may have noticed I also mentioned bringing face masks. The pollution in Harbin is bad and air quality was poor at various points throughout our trip. The face mask ensured that we were safe to be outside and had the added bonus of keeping our faces warm. I'd recommend two masks as ours often became wet (and icy) from our breath. Alternating between two will allow for the other mask to dry out between wears.


I hope this list helps you plan what to pack for Harbin or other cold climates. With a little research, you can spend your time thinking about ice castles and not your frozen toes.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Harbin: Ice and Snow World

The Ice and Snow World is the main attraction to visit during the Harbin Ice Festival. Roughly 7,000 artists use over 4 million cubic feet of ice to transform Sun Island into a frozen architecture park. Much of the inspiration for the ice and snow sculptures is derived from traditional Chinese fairy tales or world famous architecture. 

Harbin - Ice and Snow World

For this year's 30th anniversary of the festival, recreations of New York’s Empire State Building, Rome’s Colosseum, Reykjavik’s Hallgrimskirkja Church and the Great Wall of China were all on display.

Harbin - Ice and Snow World

Harbin - Ice and Snow World

Each of the buildings are carved from ice using picks, chisels, saws and lasers, resulting in a magical frozen wonderland.


This ice thermometer shows off the negative temperatures we braved to climb (and slide down) the ice castles.

Harbin - Ice and Snow World

Harbin - Ice and Snow World

Harbin - Ice and Snow World

Harbin - Ice and Snow World

Harbin Ice and Snow World

Harbin - Ice and Snow World

Entrance tickets run 300rmb/person and the best time to visit is after dark. Ask your cab driver to wait for you as finding one after can be a nightmare. It's a common practice and will only cost you an extra 50 rmb on your fare.

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