Author Archives: Theunis Pienaar

About Theunis Pienaar

hopeful dreamer. happiness guru, relationist. addicted to people, quality coffee, wine & whiskey. Discovering 'The Way of the Gift', unwrapping happiness in ancient ways.

Harbin – a Place of Snow & Trains

Harbin is the capital City of China’s Heilongjiang Province, in the North East of this vast country.

In China it is a medium size city.

It has a population of about 6 million people.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s almost three times the size of a South African city like Johannesburg.

It is famous for its annual Snow & Ice Festival and its Russian Architecture.

The city has its origin in China rubbing shoulders with Russia in the 1890’s, as Russia was building their Trans-Siberian Rail-line.

In 1907 the city had almost 600 000 residents of whom nearly 65% were foreigners.

As we walk the city’s streets, we stumble upon an old (but still active) Turkish Mosque, a beautiful Jewish Hall with red tiles on her walls and a Jewish Hospital, built in the early 1900’s.

The center-piece of the city, St Sophia’s Cathedral.

Our Tribe had the opportunity to spend seven days here, during China’s Spring Festival.

This is a busy time in China, people traveling all over the place to get home & spend time with family, much like Christmas time in South Africa, or what I imagine Thanksgiving to be in America.

We booked our tickets early, boarded the train from Jiamusi to Harbin at about nine one evening and arrived in Harbin the the early hours of the next day.

In China trains serve in 3 classes: seats, hard-sleeper or soft-sleeper.  We took hard-sleeper tickets, which is pretty comfortable and very affordable, if you don’t mind a lack of privacy for a few hours.

The trains are clean and run perfectly on time.

Arriving in a foreign city, where you can communicate with people is one thing, arriving in a city where you cannot speak the language or read any of it, is quite another.

We showed a taxi driver our hotel’s address and, at his grace for lack of linguistic ability and because of eagerness to get our Tribe to our hotel, paid the exorbitant fee he charged for the short drive.

In Harbin, as in most Chinese Cities, Taxis are numerous and Taxi Drivers are a special kind of people, optimizing their profits whenever they see a foreigner, who they know cannot possibly be too picky.

Our Hotel is comfortable.

On the 26th floor of a large new building in the heart of the city.

We’re surrounded by International Brands trying hard to catch the hearts of the Chinese Market.

St Sophia’s Cathedral is a 5 minute walk away, Zoalin Park, where a large display of Snow & Ice Sculptures awiat, is just down the street & Central Street, a beautifully preserved shopping street with cobbled road and old Russian Buildings, is just around the corner.

It is Spring in Harbin, but it is still cold and snowy.  Temperatures hovering around -16ºC.

For which we are grateful, since we are excited to see the massive two and three storey Snow and Ice Sculptures, which would’ve melted, had it been any warmer.

Quickly we familiarize ourselves with the public transport system of the city, which includes busses and subway trains, hoping to save ourselves from the entrepreneurial spirit of the taxi drivers.

We take the bus to the Golden Dragon Tower, Asia’s highest steel structure (higher than Paris’ Eifel Tower).  We walk the glass floor, see the 3D museum, view the city from up high.

The views are amazing.  The experience, something we never dreamed we would enjoy.

The feelings of vertigo cancelled by the exquisiteness of experiencing something together – something not described in Western Travel brochures or written about in travel magazines.

From the Tower we walk the precinct. We visit the most amazing City Library.  It is open 24 hours of every day.  It has elevators, bookshops, a food-court and is a hive of activity.

Then we discover an old Russian Palace with regal decoration and massive fish-tanks.  As we walk this monarchical remembrance we can hear old kings making plans and deals, as they build the world’s longest railway line across country borders.

The bus ride costs 1¥.

Public transport is cheap in China and with the help of Google-maps we know which bus to take and where to catch it.  Just make sure you get a good VPN, before you come to China, as Google is blocked and without a VPN you won’t be able to access any of the information.

Beate has an iPhone.  The maps on it isn’t blocked by the great firewall, but it lacks the public transport information offered by Google Maps.  Maybe iPhone users don’t ride the bus or subway?

We lunch at a little noodle shop, rest for a while in our comfortable rooms and reconvene in the late afternoon, hungry to experience as much of this city, as we can, in the seven days we have.

With the sun setting we walk around the corner to Central Street.

There are amazing sculptures everywhere.

Beate, our fellow-traveler who has lived in Germany, The Netherlands,  the UK and United States, comments that the street makes her feel as if she is walking in an old European City, hidden away from time.

The old fashioned Russian music playing in the background, adding to the atmosphere.

We take her word for it.

It is definitely not the China most people imagine.

The feel of the city, its atmosphere is tantelizing.

The mixture of culture and memory energizing.

We look for a hidden away local restaurant to have dinner.  We are hungry, after a day’s experiences.

We find the perfect spot, which we revisit a few times during our stay in Harbin.

It is unpretentious.   The food is amazing.  The proprietors friendly.  It is everything we hope, as we walk new roads.

I take a quick respite from our stay in Harbin to fetch our son from Beijing.  He’d been visiting family back home, enjoying Africa’s Summer.  I take the fast-train from Harbin West Station to Beijing.  The train travels at 200 km/h, reducing the trip to 8 hours travel time.

The train station has the feel of an International Airport.  Large.  Clean.  Well organized, with lots of international brands offered in all the different shops.

Late that evening we fly back from Beijing to Harbin.  A two and a half hour flight.

If you decide to travel to Harbin, you’ll probably fly into Beijing.  Taking a flight is easy.  Domestic Departures are close to International Arrivals and the Airport offers a free shuttle to the apropriate terminal.

If you want to take the fast train, that is easy enough too, and it costs about a third of what a plane ticket would put you back, with the bonus of seeing something of the Chinese Countryside along the way.  To catch the train, you need to get to Beijing Station.  You could take a shuttle for about 200¥, or you could take the subway, which is very easy to navigate and will cost only 28¥, including the first leg of your trip on the special Airport Express.

In Harbin you should set at least an afternoon aside to spend at St Sophia’s Cathedral.

The Cathedral survived the cultural revolution and is now a museum with loads of pictures depicting this city’s rich history.

We are fascinated.

Not only by the pictures, but also by how much of this old Orthodox Cathedral remains and how the Chinese government embraces every inch of the country’s history, giving honor to the people who built the city with effort and innovation.

In 1900 Harbin was a modern city with electric streetcars, electricity and the amenities you would find in London and New York.

The Cathedral always at the heart of activity.

Sun Island is where the major action is, if you want to see the magnificent snow & ice sculptures.

You can take a bus there.  Or a taxi.  Or you could take a cable-car from Swan Castle, across the river to the Island.

That’s what we do.

For Maddi it is her first time in a cable car.

The rest of the Tribe had been to Table Mountain, for all of us it is our first cable-car ride in China.

We share a car with a family from Shanghai.

People from all over China come to Harbin to enjoy the experience it has to offer.

Once on Sun Island, it is difficult to eecide where to start exploring.

The Island isn’t just host to the Snow & Ice Festival.

We start our day at the Russian Village, recreated from original Timber Buildings which used to be in the city.

It is a bit like a museum-village, with Russians in most structures.  One a bakery, the other a home, another a bar or a doctor’s office, a school house and in every building old furniture from the period.

Then there is Polarland.

An amazing Aquarium with fantastical shows of Sea Lion & Beluga Whales.

We see Polar Bears, Penguin, Otters, beautifully created and maintained polar fish displays.

We spend an entire afternoon watching shows and fish and whales, feeding animals and experiencing something stunning.

I love the Beluga Whale show with two Beluga Whales and divers.

It is different from the stuff you see at other aquariums.

Here spectators stand next to a massive wall of glass & the whales perform, alongside their trainers in diving gear, under water.

It leaves you breathless.

Maddi loved the Sea Lion Show.

All shows are bilingual.

Russian and Chinese.

The crowds are massive.

The experience well worth the cost of the tickets, which includes everything, except refreshments.

In Zoalin Park we had our first taste of Ice Sculptures.

Everything from cars to surfers and mermaids.

On Sun Island the scale is massive.

Most sculptures being two or three storeys high.

You should do Zoalin Park one evening, but if you didn’t see the Snow & Ice Sculptures on Sun Island, you did not see what this festival is about.

Seven days is a good time to spend in Harbin.

You need time to walk the streets.

At least, that’s how we enjoy a city.

All over the place there are amazing monuments and statues.

Exquisite, tree-lined  pedestrian streets.

Restaurants with tasty food.

We ride the city’s new and modern subway.

Not just to get around, but also as we make our way back to the train station, on our last day, as we head back to Jiamusi.

For a city with 6 million people, we are surprised to find it uncongested, spacious and clean.

Running on time, costing only 2¥.

We tried to visit Harbin’s Amusement Park, but that will have to be a Summer trip.

In the North of China, it seems, Amusement Parks close down for the winter.

It’ll be worth coming back, even if only to ride the Big Wheel Carousel,  which is bigger than London Eye.

And to get some more ground coffee, butter and cheese, which is readily available here, but not so easily obtainable in Jiamusi.

Maybe you’ll never make it to this part of the world?

For us it was good to see and taste a world which flourished with international cooperation,  while our own world was at war with Britain,  struggling to hang on to something which, perhaps, should never have been, or at least should not have been the place of death and injustice it became as it was fed by colonial hunger.

I imagine the Russians had a similar colonial incentive, building their railway?

How different, however, it came to be, as people greeted each other & worked together, to create something.

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Tangyuan, Heilongjiang, Northeastern China

Our Tribe loves traveling together.

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Sometimes it is impossible & we travel vicariously through each others’ experiences.

When Xia Yin invited us to join her family for a day trip to Tangyuan,  I knew I won’t be able to join in, but encouraged Zuko & the girls to enjoy the day.

They left at 07h00 from Jiamusi.

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Tangyuan is just 50 kilometres away.

You can get there by car, bus or train.

Jiamusi is surrounded by beautiful, exquisite towns, filled with beautiful exquisite people & hugged by stunning parks, mountains & forests.

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By 08h30 they arrived in Tangyuan.

At the temple.

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For Zuko’s travel companions this was an important day.

There are many temples all over China, but this one is special.  It is buzzing with activity.  Monks spending months at a time here, studying, meditating, praying.

Our friends pray.

Zuko & the girls taste the holy space.

A monk befriends Maddi.

Gives her a hug & green stone bracelet.

Inside this space they do not take pictures, respecting the sanctity of the moment.

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From the temple they take a tractor train to the forest.

Beautiful Asian trees & wooden decks greet them.

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They play games.

They love games.

They share a meal.

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They talk.

Mostly with smiles & gentle touching, for language is limited.

They nap & relax on the hangmats.

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Take a walk into the mountain.

Listen to the sound of the wind rustling through leaves.

Then the return by tractor-train to the temple & from there they head out back towards Jiamusi.

On the way, they stop for dinner along the Shongua River.

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Barbeque meat on sticks are very popular.

Corn is picked in the fields right next to the restaurant.

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They play some more.

Eat some more beautiful food.

And then the day is gone.

And as they tell their story, we resolve, in October, when I have a few days, they’ll take me there too & maybe we’ll follow the track of the train, disembarking wherever it stops, spending a day, to embark again, to see another little town, meet more beautiful people, taste a different China.

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Fuyuan, Heilongjiang, Northeastern China

We left Jiamusi City early on Tuesday morning, eager to experience this 3-day trip to China’s most Northeastern border.

We were heading to Fuyuan, the place where the sun brushes China first, every day.

It is a place of history.

A place of conflict.

Like most border-towns, a place where cultures spill into each other.

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We looked forward to visiting Dong Ji Square, Black Bear Island, the world’s largest Wetland & walk the streets of an old Chinese City influenced by Eastern European ways.

We took a Coach, so that we could stop along the way & see where the Yellow Dragon River & Black Dragon River meet.

And visit the birth place of the world’s first Eskimos.

If you come to Fuyuan via Beijing you should fly.

It is remote.

In a corner of the world known to few.

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The Coach was comfortable & air-conditioned.

There is also a train to Fuyuan.

Until 1998 the city was cut off from the rest of China.

The railway only reaching the city in the Autumn of that year.

The airport quite recently completed.

A deep water harbour being built.

It was a place where outcasts were sent.

Siberia.

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Iced for the greatest part of the year with temperatures dropping below -40ºC for almost 7 months of each year, Spring & Autumn bringing good weather with temperatures rising to zero & a short summer creating the opportunity to grow food & stock up for winter.

If you visit Fuyuan,  you should come in summer – July & August.

By September temperatures drop again & by October it becomes unbearable, unless you are equiped with Alaskan-gear.

Han Mei, one of our travel companions tell us her story along the way.

She came to Fuyuan when she was six years old.

She came from wealth.

The Han-family prominent & influential.

Her father an artist.

A leader.

An influencer.

In 1965, as it always does, things changed, in China & in the life of the Han-family.

Where her father’s influence brought them privilege,  suddenly it did not.

They were ‘redeployed’.

To Fuyuan.

Not to be a teacher of art or leader, but to be a laborer.

Carrying building material down the mountain to the River harbor, from early morning to sunset & beyond.

Her life changed.

Suddenly expected, as six year old, to go into the mountains to fetch wood for the fire that would keep them warm as temperatures drop too low to measure.

Can you imagine that?

A six year old, walking axe in hand, through deep frozen snow, into wild mountains.

Her only company a 10 year old brother & a few other brave children.

To come home, bring life to a dwindling fire & start cooking dinner.

Not from pre-packed shop stuffs.

A chicken to be caught & killed & skinned.

Rice to be cooked.

Flour to be kneeded into bread.

To sleep & do it all again, tomorrow.

And the next day.

In 1976 change came again.

Her father never restored, but at least his artistic talents not squandered anymore.

And as an 18 year old, having excelled at school, despite life’s demands, she is off to University.

To become a nurse.

Later to study in the USA, during the early 90’s.

To become Professor of nursing management at one of China’s biggest Medical Schools & Director of an International Language School.

Her father now 80.

His battered body showing the scars of more than a decade’s hard labor, his heart the scars of life’s rhythm of loss & gain & loss again, always bringing new life, new experiences, new gain to be lost again.

A story isn’t told in a moment.

Our travel companion sharing it with us as we visit different sights, share meals & walk along ancient paths.

On day one we stop for a moment at the place where the eskimos of old were born, a little village with a little musuem and less than 5000 people.

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They are the Hezheh-people of China.

One of the 56 peoples who form this nation.

Now protected & their lifestyle of hunting & fishing supported by their government.

We also stop at the place of three rivers, where the Yellow Dragon and Black Dragon Rivers flow into on big Heilongjiang River.

It is late afternoon when we arrive in Fuyuan.

The Eastern European influence very visible in the buildings, the food & signage.

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Everything is bilingual.

Chinese & Russian.

Caviar is on the menu.

And Salmon.

Beer is deep rich Russian-style beer.

Pagodas are relieved by domed roofs.

Day two takes us to Dong Ji Square with its 40 meter high Sculpture.

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Until 2008 Black Bear Island was taken by the Russians.

Then half was given back to China.

Now Dong Ji Square comemorates peace & positive relationships.

Nearby Usu Town, the smallest village in China, with a single road & a single family, remembers a different time of conflict, the commemorative wall remembering the conflict of 1929, the battle, the lives lost.

We visit there too.

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And we visit the largest Wetland in Northeast Asia.

This world has 56 ponds & 700 lakes.

It is a paradise for birds & water plants.

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Many protected species & most only found here, in this little corner where China & Russia rub shoulders, sometimes even embracing each other.

Across the river is Russia’s smallest Village.

With its own history.

Its own story to tell.

Perhaps another story.

As in life.

A story of loss & gain & loss again, as seasons give way to the resilient rhythm of high tide & low tide, of abundance & poverty.

The Treasure Tower is our last stop for the day.

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Reaching high into the sky, surrounded by 56 pillars,  symbolizing the 56 peoples who are China.

A new structure with carved stone & a deep spiritual feel.

A sign.

Even here, far away, people recognizing that treasure is gift received, never earned, for a moment to be grateful for, no matter how uncertain your connection with the Divine.

We enjoy a late lunch.

Fish.

Prawns.

Sweet & Sour Pork.

Pork leg.

Green Beans & shank of goat.

Soft white bread & sweet tea.

Then we walk  the streets of Fuyuan in the golden rays of another precious Summer’s afternoon.

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Traders approach us in Russian, believing we are just another group of Russians who came to Fuyuan to buy special goods at low rates.

But we are not.

Our journey is of another kind.

We came to become more.

We feel our beings expand, a cool breeze rustling through our leaves, from off the smooth cool surface of the Ussuri River as it flows towards the Japanese Sea.

Day three starts with another beautiful breakfast.

Then we head to the Fish Museum.

A 800 sq meter Pavilion featuring this world’s ancient Sturgeon.

The largest freshwater fish to be found anywhere.

It is called the living fossil of the Ussuri & Heilongjiang, believed to be 130 million years old.

It is carnivorous.

It grows 8 metres long & can weigh up to 1000kg.

It matures at 17 and can become 100 years old.

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Some Sturgeon, born during Chin’s Cultural Revolution, still swimming the waters of these dragon rivers, spawning off-spring, providing Caviar to those who can afford it.

Then we drive up to the mountain.

Walk in the forest.

Take lunch, before we grab our luggage at the hotel & head back to Jiamusi City.

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As we drive past kilometres and kilometres of rice paddies,  sometimes broken by fields of corn, I think of what we’ve seen.

A place where even the street lamps are works of art, whith a welcome gate which reminds of the Arc d’Triomf & people whove known what life truly is.

I think of my own Tribe of Vagabonds.

And I am grateful.

For we see from another perspective.

And we become.

Every day.

As we taste & share & experience.

Our own vagabond-culture taking shape in new ways, as we see a golden thread amongst all people, expressed in different ways, along the way.

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Shuangyashan, Heilongjiang, Northern China

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It has been a while since we let you know of the Adventures of the Traveling Tribe.

We are from Nelson Mandela Bay, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

We live in Jiamusi, in Siberian China.

Tasting a different Far-Far East.

Recently we traveled to Shuangyashan & discovered beautiful people & stunning places.

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It was early morning when we left for Jiamusi’ s train station.

Train travel is inexpensive, here. We paid 8Y per ticket, for the 2 hour ride which would take us to Shuangyashan.

This was a first for us.

Taking the train in China.

We were a bit nervous of crowds & finding the right train on the right platform.

It remains quite a thing that we cannot read Chinese.  Try to find your way & use public transport without being able to read anything!  Or even ask for help.  After 4 months in China we can say ‘hello’ & ask ‘how are you’ in Chinese.  We can ask you about your day or how yoir family is & we can even respond in perfect Chinese, should you be so kind as to enquire.  We can bargain for better prices, understanding numbers & we’ve become proficient in gestures, but none of that helps you if you have to catch a train from a station with many platforms.

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We did it though.

We arrived at the station just after 4 and at about 5 we were on our way.

With the help of very friendly staff who saw that these foreigners might just end-up in Harbin or Beijing, if left to their own devices.

The train was clean & comfortable.  The views of rural China, exquisite.

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We saw the most beautiful sunrise over farmland.

Little villages all along the line.

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Ting-Ting & her husband met us in Shuangyashan.

I remain constantly overwhelmed by the warmth & kindness of the people we meet here in the far north east of this massive country.

We’ve never met Ting-Ting or her husband Tang.

They are friends of friends we’ve made in Jiamusi, yet they’ve cleared their schedules for 3 days, in order to take us around & show us their bit of world.

After 3 days, they are friends.

I love seeing peoples’ worlds.

By Chinese standards, Shuangyashan is a small town, home to perhaps 500 000 people.

Here China & Russia rubs shoulders, daily busses bringing Russians to the city for shopping on a short 2 hour ride.

Everywhere, everything is marked in Chinese & Russian.

And everybody asumes we are ‘Ruskies’.

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We arrive in Shuangyashan,  just after 7.

We share breakfast, my first experience of Chinese porridge,  which is very different from the porridge we know.  It is more like a soup, with rice & vegetables & meat.  With it we have dumplings, fantastic bread, for which this part of China is famous & some fish as well.

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Then we head out into the countryside.

Our first stop is a reservoir which feeds the farming community & city.

They say Chairman Mao once swam here.

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It is beautiful & we end up being cajoled into joining a group of locals playing old fashioned games.

Zuko & I enter the three-legged race & to everyone’s delight we win by a wide margin.

I thank the crowd, in my best Chinese, for their kindness, saying we are happy to be here & share their joy, before receiving our prize.

Pictures are taken.

Friendly conversations are had.  Conversations of which we understand nothing more than they are friendly & kind & inquisitive.

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Then we head for the forest, where we will have a picnic lunch.

Along the way we stop at a village of small farmers, bee-keepers & foresters.

It blows us away.

The beauty.

The care taken in creating a home for people of little means & less influence.

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We take a rest & then we head into the forest itself, walking up a small hill, along a well kept boardwalk, to a beautiful pagoda, from where we can see amazing vistas.

We eat.

We rest.

We talk.

Ting-Ting speaks good English & she is keen to practice.

Out here in the north there isn’t much opportunity to speak English.

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After lunch we make our way to a Temple.

The forest has a temple as well, but we drive past it, Tang hoping to show us the bigger temple of the goddess of a thousand hands.

He tells us she is the goddess of grace.

In each hand she holds something she would like to give.

In kindness.

To the people.

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As we walk through the temple, Tang explains every alcove & place of offering.

People are praying.

For health.

For wealth.

For good fortune.

At the top of the Temple Complex we see the Bhuda.

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I am amazed at the lengths our kind go too, in order to feel connected to our Origin.

Reminded that all of us long to know our Creator.

To feel sheltered by our Source.

From the Temple we make our way to Tang’s family home.

This is special.

It is reserved for very special people to be invited to the family home.

Tang’s family are farmers.

They live in a little compound, among many more little compounds, from where they farm communal land, alongside others.

We make dumplings together.

Tang’s Aunt preparing dinner since early afternoon.

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Then dinner is served.

Dinner, in China starts early.

No later than five-thirty.

And it is a slow, relaxed affair,  with many toasts & easy conversation.

The table is heavy with scrumptious food.

Ting-Ting translates for us, so we can connect with their family.

Tang’s uncle declares that we are now close friends, for it is only close friends who’ve been to their home.

We express gratitude & complement Tang’s Aunt on delectable fair.

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We eat outside, the cool Spring breeze contributing to the warmth of our experience.

We are reminded of what it is which is important.

Not oppulance or accumelated riches, locked away wealth, but hospitality & generosity,  kindness & love.

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By seven-thirty we retire to our hotel.

It has been a long first day in Shuangyashan.

Tomorrow we’ll head to Tsi Fung Mountain, climbing the highest peak in Heilongjiang Province.

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Tang & Ting-Ting meet us at the hotel, just after eight.

We grab a quick breakfast & then we drive out to the mountain.

It is about a 30 minute drive & on our own we would not have found it.

We see a city being rebuilt & modernized.  Along the way I count 17 high rise cranes.  One building site has 9 multi-story towers, reaching 30 floors into the clouds.

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The walk up the mountain is easy enough.

The conservation area extremely clean & well kept despite the number of people who visit this area every day.

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We spend the day here.

It takes us about 2 hours to walk to the top where we rest, before coming down again.

Along the way people greet & try to talk.

They tell us how beautiful Maddi is & every few steps we stop for pictures with people we’ve never met.

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At the top of the mountain we rest.

Then we climb along a treacherous chain to the very top, from where you can see almost the whole province.

It is magnificent.

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It is stunning how doing things together, how sharing an experience, brings people together, binds our souls.

Our friendship with Ting-Ting & Tang & their family growing deeper with every step we share up the mountain.

On the way back to the hotel everyone is quiet.

Tired.

In a good way.

We share dinner at a beautiful restaurant.

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Barbeque style.

In a private room.

You’ll love the restaurants in China.

They’re places where you have time.

And intimacy.

Most of them have private rooms with a dedicated waitress & tonight they grill our food at our table.

Restaurants aren’t expensive.

The 12 of us have a stunning meal for 350Y.

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After dinner we find a spot with ice-cream for the kids, coffee for Zuko & whiskey for me, with some live music added to the mix.

It is the perfect end to a wonderful day.

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Our third day in Shuangyashan starts with another scrumptious breakfast.

We do a bit of a breakfast crawl.

First we find coffee, which is special, since coffee is not  normal in this part of China.

Then we find breakfast.

Then we head to the Park.

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We spend an entire day taking amusement park rides & eating amusement park food.

We laugh.

We are silly.

We eat copious amounts of snacks.

We see animals.

Lovely people.

We ride bumper cars & boats & roller coasters.

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It is late afternoon when we head to the train station.

Late evening when we arrive in Jiamusi.

We don’t know if you’ll ever be in this part of the Far East, but if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity, it is a place where you will find beauty beyond reason.

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Ice Fun

Earlier this week we discovered Jiamusi’s Children’s Park.

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It was Theunsie, our son’s, 14th birthday.

We wanted to do something special.

He’d been wanting to ice skate since we got here & so we decided his birthday is the ideal opportunity to explore the Ice Fun created in this famous park.

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It isn’t far from where we live.

Jiamusi is a compact city.

Nothing more than 10 kilometres away.

The Children’s Park is a short 3.5 kilometres from our home.

An easy walk.

Except for the -28 degrees celcius temperature, which we’re getting used to, although little Maddi still struggles to control her little body’s heat.

So Beate, Wilhelmina & I decided we’ll walk, while Zuko, Maddi, Theunsie & Sophia follow in a taxi-cab.

Taxi-cabs are abundant in Jiamusi.

They’re everywhere.

And they’re cheap.

The drive from our home to the park costing only 8Yuan.

I like walking a city.

You see more of it.

Experience more of it.

Notice more, as you slowly make your way, on foot, from one street to the next.

Jiamusi has beautiful architecture,  sprinkled in between the more mundane modern buildings.

The city is well kept.

The streets are clean, naked trees, in tidy rows, patiently waiting for summer all along the way.

At the entrance of the park we are greeted by a statue of the Chairman.

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Nope, that’s not it.  It is a statue at a Bhuddist Temple  we visited, which my tablet inserted, for some stupid reason & I can’t seem to remove it from this post.

I’ll tell you about the Temple in another post.

Back to the Park.

It is situated close to some University buildings.

It sports an art centre.

Beautiful bridges & I can I imagine in summer people will enjoy rowing quant boats on the lake, while others play music or picnic in the shade of the many trees & pagodas.

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Today the lake is frozen.

Solid.

Huge ramps allow children to fly down the ice, on inflatable tubes at breakneck speeds.

There’s a skating rink.

Some ‘snowmobiles’, chair skiing & an area where they play an interesting local game with whips and a spinning top.

Fascinating.

Popular Chinese music fill the air, along with excited chatter & children’s laughter.

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Zuko & Maddi fly down the ramp on a tube.

Fluffy snow spattering in their wake as they speed by.

Then the game is on.

The other kids and Beate chasing each other from one icy ramp to the next.

After an hour or so, Zuko & Maddi seek refuge in the cabin where the ice skates & other items are being rented out.

The local ladies are friendly & chatty and although we really don’t u derstand a word they say, we know they think Maddi is addorable.

We know they’re stunned at the size of our family & fascinated by these foreigners who’ve chosen to come and live amongst them for a time.

They make space for Zuko in front of a warm heater while the rest of us skate & ski & glide on ice.

Races are done.

Skates & skiing chairs exchanged.

Energy expended on experiencing a world unknown to us.

My mustache collect icy crystals and my feet become numb on the cold of the frozen lake.

We’re amazed by the immense fun we have.

And as the sun starts to set, which is quite early in this Siberian part of the world in Northern China, we head home where Maddi takes a warm bath & then a solid nap, while we talk about the amazingness we experienced & Zuko cooks a beautiful meal.

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Zuko & the Markets

Where we are from, not just the place, also the way of life, food shopping was a mundane rushed affair.

Getting in your car.

Driving to the supermarket.

Hurriedly buying mass produced food, from anonymous employees who work for a big corporation.

Stuffing it in a few bags & heading home.

I suppose it could be the same here in Siberian China where we now find ourselves.

There are massive malls with escelators, food courts & whole floors occupied with a single product.

It was quite overwhelming to go shopping for shoes suited to the weather.

It took us a whole day to browse the 40 stores grouped together on the 1st floor of the Newmart Mall.

We found great value & awesome product.

These malls all have grocery stores as well.

With a selection beyond comprehension.

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Zuko, however, have discovered the markets right on our doorstep.

And along with them, she’s discovered a beautiful daily ritual.

Walking to them.

Picking the day’s fruit, vegetables & meat.

Slowly.

With consideration.

While talking to shop owners.

Learning the names of produce.

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Exploring new varieties.

Greeting owners.

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Asking advice.

Discovering new gems.

Meeting new people.

Tasting new ideas.

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Perhaps this is something lost in a rushed western existence.

Every neighbourhood has these markets.

Little shops.

Some with fruit.

Others with vegetables.

Some with bread and rice and meat and beans.

More still with cooldrink and beer, rice wine, floor cleaner and dish washing liquid.

Here in China they’re not called neighbourhoods.

They speak of communities.

Five or six apartment blocks, with two or three play parks.

A clinic.

A daycare centre.

A billiards room.

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It isn’t green, like in Africa.

Not right now.

But it is warm.

Friendly.

A place where people greet you friendly.

With a smile.

And have whole conversations.

Even though you don’t understand each other.

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Perhaps this is part of the gift of living in the cold of Northern China.

Walking to the market.

Choosing the day’s food.

Locally produced.

Carefully set out.

Bringing it home.

Perhaps this changes meals?

Into something more?

It certainly makes life richer.

Fuller.

As intimacy & a slower pace collide with beautiful food & beautiful people.

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Hot Pot on a Cold Day

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We heard of the ‘Hot Pot’-phenomenon shortly after arriving in China.

Every morning as I walk from our simple apartment to classes, I walk past a ‘Hot Pot’-spot.

Then we’re invited.

Lunch.

Hot Pot.

Wow!

What a stunning way to dine.

The table is set with meats, vegetables & the most stunning bread.

Each guest has a hot pot, which is constantly filled with a kind of soup.

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And then you feast.

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Putting in your pot whatever your heart desires.

Waiting for it to cook.

Then eating, while adding some more scrumptiousness to your pot.

On arrival we’re served ‘sweet milk tea’.

Then the tray with spices arrive.

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Everyone flavours their pot to perfection.

Drinks are served.

And along with drinks, a wild succession of toasts.

To health.

Happiness.

Success.

That we may feel welcomed.

That we may love our time here.

We’ve come to love Chinese Beer.

At a meal your glass is never empty.

We’ve come to love Chinese warmth.

You’re always embraced.

The meal lingers for hours.

Conversation is easy.

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We love the slow pace.

The time taken to enjoy.

I nibble on a piece of sweet bread.

Zuko picks a piece of corn bread.

A perfect little ball, sprinkled with sesame seeds, at its centre, colorful sweet beans.

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The waiters are always hovering.

This is our second opportunity at an upmarket restaurant, all of them sporting private rooms.

With its own bathroom & lounge.

The waiters don’t use pencil and paper.

They type our orders into a little device. Minutes later the food appear, beautifully displayed on fine China plates.

These people are exquisitely cultured.

Ancient customs filling every moment of their existence.

We’re glad to be here.

Grateful.

Humbled by generosity & kindness.

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Perceptions & Misconceptions

Nope.  The city where we live is not polluted.

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This is Wilhelmina & Sophia.

Yip, they’re wearing face masks.

But not because of polution.

Because of the cold.

It is so terribly cold, if I walk around without a face mask, the beads on my beard are frozen solid in less than a kilometre.

Yet, on every website & every blog I read, before coming to China, if I saw people with face masks, it was associated to pollution.

Don’t get me wrong.

Jiamusi is a city of almost 1.6 million people.

By Chinese standards, that’s a small city.

And there are industry here.

The very famous American John Deere is built here.

There’s also logging and a paper mill.

A wind farm.

A pharmaceutical plant.

But it is small in comparison to the industry of our home city.

Another misconception we contemplated was the absence of bread.

On the ground floor of the building in which I teach there is a stunning pastry shop, the aroma of which contends for my last yuan, every day.

Every supermarket has a bakery.

And carry flour on their shelves.

And off course, Chinese people eat dog?

Nope.

We’ve not seen dog meat for sale.  I imagine you could find it.  Somewhere.  But we’ve only seen chicken, pork, beef & the most amazing array of live seafood.

And exquisite pasta.

They call it noodles, but it’s pasta.

Tasty pasta.

Everyone was right about the cold though.

That was no misconception.

And it is a bit tough to catch a bus.

Although they drive by every 5 minutes, as regular as clock work, we have no idea where they’re heading.

And so we opt for Jiamusi’s version of New York’s yellow taxi cabs.  They’re blue & silver.  They cost 6Y kr R10 or less than a dollar,  no matter where you’re heading, too.

And we can show them a piece of paper with the address of our destination.

And they take us right to our doorstep.

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We fly, we fly, we arrive, we settle.

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Our journey from Johannesburg,  South Africa to Jiamusi, China started suddenly a few weeks ago, but it was om Sunday 29 Decemner 2013 that we got in the car in Bloemfontein, drove 430 kilometres to OR Tambo International, to board three flights to Jiamusi.

We traveled for almost 24 hours.

From summer into winter.

From the Southern Hemisphere, into the far reaches of the Northern.

To experience something new.

To learn.

To live.

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It was the kid’s 1st time on an aeroplane.

Everything went without a single glitch.

Even from Beijing to Jiamusi, on our domestic flight, we glided through security, our luggage way within the weight restrictions.

May Han met as at a white Jiamusi Airport.

We found what would be our homes for the forseeable future.

We got internet linked.

We got wi-fi set up.

We got mobile phone numbers.

We’ve eaten Chinese.

We’ve had KFC.

We’ve been hosted at the city’s most desired restaurant.

We’ve gone shopping for winter clothing which would help us cope with minus 25 degree temperatures.

We’ve bought groceries.

Walked to the river, where Theunsie was brave enough to sled down the ice onto the river.

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Its only been 9 days.

The people of the North of China are warm & friendly & generous.

There are beautiful pastry shops in town.

Enough meat to satisfy our dude’s carnivorous desires.

Coffee, sugar, salt & milk is expensive, but the rest is cheap.

A beer sells for R5 of less than half a dollar.

2.5 litre Coke sells for R10 or $1.

Restaurants are affordable.

Everybody stares at Maddi & Sophia with their blonde hair & big round eyes.

Myself & Zuko seem to be able to pass ourselves off as Russians, who seem to visit Jiamusi from time to time, as the border is just a stones throw over the river.

We hope to visit the lake soon.

And the underground market.  It is literally under the ground.

Towards the end of the month the city will host an ice festival, along with Spring Festival or what you might call Chinese New Year.

Every night we hear fireworks.

Every morning a fesh smidgen of snow covers this world.

It is early days on our adventure.

There are still some stuff to resolve at home.

Promises broken.

Dissapointment served.

But as we settle into the rhythm of this adventure and embrace new experiences with every new sunrise, it is gratitude which fills our being.

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For our lives are connected to the Origin of Being & we are following a flow beyond comprehension,  bringingmus to new places, not just on the globe, but also in our being.

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Care Fully Pre Paired

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In less than a week our Tribe will be in Jiamusi, China.

On Friday we collected our passports, with our visas, from the Chinese consulate in Johannesburg.

On Thursday we found flights from Beijing to Jiamusi.

Ever since we’ve been trying to find something which resembles winter clothing, so that we’ll be sort of prepared for the siberian temperatures awaiting us.

This is quite a challenge in summer in central South Africa.

We hope we’ll find something more appropriate along the way.

How do you prepare for something you have no idea about?

We’ve been packing bags.

Carefully weighing them.

Making sure we’re inside the weight restrictions of all the airlines.

On Sunday afternoon I took a moment.

The kids went to play with friends.

A friend did a talk.

I took time away from travel plans & suitcases.

He spoke about ‘carefully prepared times’.

He spoke about ‘coming‘.

About ‘being‘.

About time announced.

And time leading into time.

Always again.

Which reminded me.

Of how stunningly & full of care our lives have been pre paired.

How fortunate I am to be sharing it witb Zuko.

Willing to travel into the unknown.

Not just now, as we head to northern China, but always.

Perhaps tomorrow is the unknown?

Always coming again?

The only certainty, if you wish, or are enlightened,  to believe, that our Origin did not desert us.

Even our individual lives not chance or inconsequential,  but interwoven & filled to the brim with meaning.

With care, full.

Paired.

Previously.

With the Beginning of Being.

Who is.

So that we may be.

And so it is our hope, as you journey too, that you might see the fullness of care.

As you live.

Not alone.

But paired.

With.

One.

Who is us.

May this be yours at a time when tinsel & overcrowded stores are the only respite for many.

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