Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A new year -what will it bring?

Chinese New Year has come and gone amongst a storm of fireworks, quite literally. Things have quietened down now but might heat up again in a week once the festive period officially ends. Beijing is not that much fun during Chinese New Year; everyone goes to visit friends and family and stuffs themselves silly for the whole week off. I got assigned to a new, very interesting, project, so had to work 1 day (and am now working flat out, but gladly so).

Me and Andrea flew up to Harbin for 3 days, in the far North-east of China, where the average temperature is 20 or 25 below, but we had a warm spell -it was only minus 15 in the daytime! Wrapped up warm we traipsed around the old town that was built by Europeans and Russians at the turn of the century when the Railway came out here and when turmoil in Europe and Russia during the war led to massive immigration. Most had left once China had become chaotic in the 60s, but their buildings remained and look wonderful; many are in pretty decent condition. The beautiful church has an exhibition of photos inside showcasing what the town was really like, and it's quite well done -something had to be done in the Church as everything else in it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution!

Every winter Harbin hosts an Ice lights and Snow Carving festival so we visited them and were suitably impressed by the replica (life-size, almost) castles and churches that were built of ice and bathed in LED lights; and both the massive and intricate carvings of snow. The Ice buildings are big, but somewhat like a film set, have nothing on the inside (well, they are solid ice really) so you look at the buildings and ooh and aah, then go on all the slides and go ooh and aah some more. In fact, I discovered that trying to go down an ice slide on one's feet is 3 times faster (and more dangerous) than doing so on one's backside. Faster and dangerous is also much more fun too!

We also went to Unit 731, a division of the Japanese military, that during WW2, performed scientific experiments on prisoners in order to develop weapons and to generally conduct research. The research was not something that would stand up to an ethics test and the Americans valued such research so highly (because they would not be allowed to conduct it themselves), that they let all the scientists off the hook in return for the results. Visiting the few buildings remaining is somewhat eery and the stories told through photos, models and equipment reveals another piece of history and insights into just what human beings can do. The Nazis had similar Units, but not as intensive as the Japanese.

Last stop was a new museum in a restored Synagogue showcasing the history of the Jews in Harbin. There were 20,000 in the 1920s and 30s and, not surprisingly, were running many of the banks and other businesses. The museum was surprisingly well done (by Chinese standards), but that is partly due to the large funding they seem to have and partly due to the connections of those who lived in Harbin then, including Ehud Olmert's Father (Ehud Olmert has visited Harbin and, one presumes, help to get funding for the museum).

Chinese New Year did allow some time to watch some movies: Slumdog Millionaire being the best, Benjamin Button being good, and Red Cliff 2 putting in a credible Chinese showing. Now, though, it is time to get back to the interesting project... Happy Niu Year everyone, so they say over here, since Niu is the Chinese word for Ox (and is pronounced like 'new') -and congratulations to Ian and Hannah on the birth of little Owen, a future Wolverhampton Wanderers superstar I am sure!

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