Photo Of The Day: Crossing The Frozen Songhua River In China

With daytime getting longer and longer each day, spring is soon approaching. But winter doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere anytime soon – especially in places like this one, featured in this photo by Flickr user Bernard Siao taken in Harbin, a city in northeastern China.

The frozen Songhua River freezes hard in the winter and people commonly cross it on foot, but as you can see in this photo, there’s another option to dart across the frozen river on a horse-drawn carriage. Harbin is a city of interesting and unique history. Originally founded by Russia and inhabited by Jewish immigrants, it also hosts the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, which goes on throughout January.

If you have some great photos just sitting there, fragmenting on your hard drive, share them with us on Instagram or in our Gadling Flickr Pool and they can be featured as our “Photo of the Day.”

[Photo Credit: Flickr User Bernard-SD]

Photo of the day – Harbin Ice And Snow Festival, China

Today’s Photo of the Day comes from Harbin, China‘s annual Ice And Snow Sculpture Festival. The festival starts in January and lasts about a month, or as long as the temperatures stay low enough not to melt the huge sculptures and buildings. Flickr user Bernard-SD took the shot on a -28C night. Sculptures are made with hi-tech methods like lasers, as well as lo-tech methods like lanterns (think sandcastles, water is poured into a lantern and frozen, and the resulting shapes are moulded into sculptures). Last year, Gadling’s Leigh Caldwell checked out Gaylord Hotels’ ICE! festival in the United States with many of Harbin’s master carvers.

Have you captured any fun festivals on your travels? Add them to the Gadling group on Flickr and we might just pick one of yours as a future Photo of the Day.

ICE!: Behind the scenes at Gaylord Hotels’ holiday exhibit

Each holiday season, the four Gaylord Hotels in the United States import about 100 master ice carvers from Harbin, China’s Winter Festival to carve elaborate, life-size exhibits for the resorts.

I recently got to peek behind the curtain and watch the artists at work at the Gaylord Palms Resort near Orlando, Florida.

The ICE! exhibits are a wonder to walk through, with room out of room full of sculptures where everything – even walls and stairs – are made out of ice.

ICE! gets its start months before the exhibit premieres in November, with a theme and technical drawings to plan the exhibit. The carvers start their work about 30 days before ICE! opens.

Bringing in the ice is a logistical feat in itself. Each sculpture starts as a 400-pound ice block trucked to Orlando from Adel, Georgia. The timing of the ice’s arrival is carefully planned because all of the colors in the exhibit are added when the ice is frozen and not on-site.

Larry Walter, one of the show’s on-site producers, said two to four trucks of ice are delivered each day, with largely clear and white ice being delivered at the beginning of the process and the colored ice coming to add the finishing touches later.

The artists start the carving with chain saws to shape the ice. Fine detail work is done with small chisels and other hand tools.

All this work happens in rooms at the hotel’s convention center that are chilled to 9 degrees Farenheit. Visitors to the exhibit are loaned parkas to walk through.

This year’s ICE! exhibit at the Gaylord Palms has the theme “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The rooms are set up as if you are walking through the poem. The whole thing is lit and musically scored like a show.

Once the exhibit opens, most of the artists return to China. But a team of about 10 stays behind at each resort to do touch-up work and be on call to take care of any mishaps. Walter said guests usually can’t resist touching the sculptures, and things do wind up breaking off from time to time.

The other Gaylord hotels have different ICE! themes. The Gaylord National near Washington, D.C. has “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee has “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” And “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the theme at the Gaylord Texan near Dallas, Texas.

There are a couple of popular features that make their way into each ICE! exhibit, regardless of the theme. There’s always a “slide room” with ice slides for kids (and some adventurous parents) to play on. And ICE! always ends with a life-size Nativity, done completely in crystal clear ice.

The ICE! exhibits all open in mid-November. You can save a few bucks on tickets if you buy them online in advance at the Gaylord Hotels Web site.

Here’s a video look at my behind-the-scenes visit to ICE!:

I asked Walter what happens to the sculptures after the exhibit closes in early January. He said everything is bull-dozed, crushed and moved out to an area of the resort’s parking lot to melt, which usually takes just two days in Florida.

Dispatch from China: The time I got drunk off tiger wine (part 2 of 2)

Read part 1 of this story here.

The automated gates chug and clatter open as a jeep, its windows ribbed with steel, noisily announces its arrival in the tiger park. Without the usual gaggle of tourists to impress, the occupants of a neighbouring jeep toss out a skinny pheasant as the driver shouts obscenities at a dozen lounging Siberian tigers.

One tiger finally takes notice and lunges at the fluttering fowl, which has enough brains to scuttle under one of the jeeps. The tiger, neither as sharp nor as small as the pheasant, slams into the vehicle with a thud. And as the hulking beast shakes off the dust and disappointment of his failed attempt, the pheasant dashes into the brush. The striped leviathan promptly settles back down, seemingly deciding that the prey isn’t worth the effort.

And why not, for these tigers are already well-fed, particularly by the 300,000 tourists who flock every year to the tiger park at the Hengdaohezi Feline Breeding Centre on the outskirts of Harbin in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province.

But in the last year or so, the center has been subject to all sorts of media attention, from gruesome videos on the Internet of tigers eviscerating a bull as tourists gape, to reports of plans to reintroduce 600 of the cattle-fed, people-friendly tigers into the wild.

At a UN meeting last June in The Hague, the Netherlands, China’s tiger-breeding program was criticized for at best creating tourist traps, and at worst being flat-out farms for the animals. Indeed the Hengdaohezi facility was developed as a government-run enterprise to capitalize on the tiger-bone trade. Since the practice was outlawed in 1993, the park has depended on tourism for 80% of its $4 million per year operating costs. But shortly after the CITES meeting, Wang Wei, a deputy director at the State Forestry Administration in Beijing threatened the imminent reopening of the tiger trade, inviting 70 international tiger experts to Hengdaohezi that July to hear the merits of such a move.

So far, Western scientists are unconvinced that the proceeds from farming the animals might fund conservation efforts. Moreover they doubt whether conservation is something the facility is interested in or even equipped to do.

In a concrete bunker off-limits to gawking tourists, mother tigers nurse their cubs in tiny cages. The park’s chief scientist, Liu Dan, proudly surveys his charges. For him, the objective is straightforward. “Our goal is to reintroduce them into the wild,” he says. He denies media reports of an earlier failed reintroduction. The center did, however, send ten tigers to a small area resembling alpine forest in the Changbaishan reserve, close to the North Korean border. “It’s a very good wild habitat. A good exercise in all aspects of training, but still a big difference to the wild,” Liu Dan says to me.

The park contains roughly twice the number of Siberian tigers that exist in the wild, and letting loose even a few captives would have widespread conservation implications – especially in the small remaining natural range in northeastern China where perhaps ten tigers reside. But reintroduction wouldn’t be just about bolstering the wild population.

At Wolong Panda Reserve, keepers are increasing the population to maintain a healthy genetic reservoir in case of a sharp drop or extinction in the wild. Three hundred pandas is apparently the magic number, and tourists are no less impressed. There, as in Hengdaohezi, even keeping the animals caged can benefit conservation, as long as pedigrees are tracked and specific pairs matched to maximize diversity.

The tourists here love the liger enclosure – they can’t snap enough pictures as the tour bus slowly rolls past lions, tigers and their enormous hybrid offspring, all basking next to each other. The huge animals, a cross between a male lion and a female tiger, are a dramatic sight, but such disregard for intermixing could lead to bigger problems. The property also contains Bengal tigers, technically a different subspecies from their Siberian cohabitants, and the subspecies could produce harder-to-spot hybrids together.

In general, Hengdaohezi’s breeding strategy is crude compared with Western practices. Unlike US and European zoos that use computer models to calculate exactly which animals should mate together – and stud books to track every individual at Hengdaohezi, this tourist haven doesn’t control or record which tigers breed together

In captivity each female may mate with several male tigers when sexually receptive, confusing keepers on the paternity of the resulting cubs. The centre also rarely exchanges tigers with other breeding facilities. US zoos regularly shuttle tigers across the country to breed. The breeding facility is also not a member of the international stud book for Siberian tigers, which includes almost all US and European zoos.

For now, the Siberian tiger’s foothold seems sturdier than that of its cousin, the South China tiger. As a result of poor breeding and poaching, the South China population now numbers 66, all caged in a handful of zoos.

So the next time you’re happen to be in Harbin, should you drop by this place? After visiting, my take is an emphatic no! If you’re really curious, check out the Youtube videos of tigers at the park devouring a live bull in front of photo-snappy tourists. But that’s exactly the problem with this tiger farm. It’s a tourist trap, and an evil one at that.

Supporting this operation through tourism will encourage the tiger trade to reopen and possibly even harm the wild population. Basically you’ve just run over a cute little tiger kitten in a oil-spewing Hummer. You don’t want that to be you, right?


Is Shenyang, China worth a visit?

I recently spent a day in Shenyang, a huge metropolis in northwestern China above Beijing. It has been far overshadowed by superstars like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and even upstarts like Chengdu.

When it comes to Shenyang, I think there’s good reason why you haven’t heard of it. For a city of this size, there’s not a proportionally impressive amount of cultural and sightseeing outlets. Of course, that’s not to say forget about Shenyang.

If you’re on your way to the northern playground of Harbin, for instance, it might be nice to drop by Shenyang. Same if you’re off to the beach resort of Dalian. Here’s why: there’s the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is in the same style as the Forbidden City in Beijing, and has much less foot-traffic (definitely worth a visit); a 2,000 year old pagoda right outside of town (look in Lonely Planet), and the “Strange Slope,” a bump of a hill on which gravity takes you uphills if you’re driving a car.

Of course, there’s also the ridiculous giganto monument of Mao in the center of the city that’s worth a look. Neil has the gallery below as well as a post about Mao in Shenyang.