St. Sophia Russian Orthodox Church in Harbin, China

Sofia Church is located on the South bank of the Songhua River on what is now called Harbin Architecture Art Square with many European-style buildings. Another building of historical and cultural value around the Square is the Jewish New Hall built in 1918 and the largest Jewish hall building in China. Inactive since the Cultural Revolution when religion was suppressed, St. Sophia is a gorgeous example of Byzantine architecture. Built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway which connected Vladivostok to northeast China, it is now a museum displaying photographs of Harbin’s past and present history.


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Polar Bear Swimming and Other Icy Activities in Harbin, China

People can adapt to their surroundings even when below -17 degrees Celsius or 0 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the winter. A daily Polar Plunge into a swimming pool carved from ice takes place at 10:00a along the frozen Songhua River. This swimming pools freezes completely over every 30 minutes and maintenance comes out to break the ice on top.

Polar bear swimming is traditionally popular in China’s northeast, believed to improve circulation and benefit health. You can watch my polar plunge video in the Arctic and I must say, it did momentary do wonders for my circulation! It’s also said to increase mental awareness (uh, duh, “Swim to the edge as fast as possible and get out of the pool before hypothermia sets in”), release stress, remove aches and pains, increase vitality and impart an overall feeling of well-being.


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Holiday Inn City Center, Harbin, China

Harbin Taiping International Airport is 39 kilometers/24 miles away from downtown Harbin. Picked up at the airport by a driver and transfer guide, Harbin immediately impressed with lit up ice sculptures at the airport and along streets leading into central Harbin. The Holiday Inn City Center is on Jing Wei Street, directly across the street from pedestrianized and busy Zhongyang Street (Central Street or Center Street).

My tour operator had offered a choice of two hotels at two different price points; the five-star Shangri-La or four-star Holiday Inn Center. Just three nights and two days would be spent in Harbin filled with all-day sightseeing so we opted for the less expensive Holiday Inn since it would only be used for breakfast and to sleep and were glad we did. Central Street is filled with stores, Heritage buildings, and lined with snow and ice sculptures along its one-half mile length.

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Welcome to Harbin, The Ice City of China


Harbin is known for having the most bitterly cold winters among major Chinese cities, and referred to as the Ice City, which is why we were here right now. Coincidentally, Chicago could have tied Harbin for the Ice City title since frigid temperatures were exactly the same when we visited; a frigid -27 degrees Celsius/-17 degrees Fahrenheit during the night and -13 degrees Celsius/7 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Harbin temperatures can go as low as -35 degrees Celsius/-31 degrees Fahrenheit. Besides being known for its cold weather, Harbin has a long winter due to the Siberian high and location above 45 degrees north latitude.

Famous for its Russian legacy and incredible Ice Festival held from December through February each winter, Harbin grew from a small rural fishing settlement on the Songhua River to one of the largest cities in Northeast China in 1898 when the Trans-Manchurian Railway was built. The city prospered from the majority of the immigrants who came from the Russian Empire.


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Adios Chile: Santiago Airport, Lounge and Copa Airlines

TIP: Persist if trying to score an airline upgrade and use Skype for 1-800 or 1-877 toll-free calls when out of the country. We called United Airlines daily on Skype to see if Copa Airlines made an upgrade available until it cleared.

An early morning wake up and short walk across the street leads right into Santiago International Airport from Holiday Inn. An easy to get around airport with all the amenities, it was a fast check-in with Copa Airlines, and Immigration didn’t take more than a nano-second. I only regret not spending more time in the very nice, all Chile shop near Duty-Free; they had an excellent selection of classy tourist items.


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Holiday Inn Hotel at Santiago Airport, Chile

Hotel O’tai in Hanga Roa was gracious enough to extend a late checkout since the LAN flight from Easter Island to Santiago was delayed for two hours. Once again in Economy Class, LAN left at 3:50p Easter Island time and landed in Santiago, two hours ahead in a different time zone at 11:30p. LAN served a hot meal with two choices; ravioli or chicken and rice, wine, and small dessert. Landing once again in Santiago, our suitcases were again the last to make an appearance and we were very grateful that the Holiday Inn was located directly across from Arrivals and steps from baggage claim.

I debated long and hard about whether to book a hotel in downtown Santiago or stay at the airport since Holiday Inn is not inexpensive. After factoring in taxis to and from the airport for the Copa Airlines flight tomorrow, I decided to go with Holiday Inn.


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Tour Easter Island: The Crater Lake of Rano Raraku Quarry

After almost filling a memory card with hundreds of moai photos, we walked back down the trail and up another one to the crater lake itself (not all visitors have time to do this). It is a very, very, hot walk up and signs warn, “Beware of wild horses!” Every now and then a herd would gallop past us in one direction, then reverse and gallop back the other way. Signs also told visitors how The Rapa Nui National Park is proceeding in its efforts to restore native flora to the wetlands.

Many more moai were quarried from this part of Rano Raraku Volcano but of the most interest to me was a potential Bird Man competitor training in the fresh water lake.


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Tour Easter Island: The Astonishing & Massive Quarry of Rano Raraku

How to choose which of the 115 photographs taken at unbelievable Rano Raraku to include in this article? Arghh… And even so, Rano Raraku is just one of those places that a person has to see in person to get the full impact. I saved Rano Raraku, arguably the #1 sight on Easter Island, for last. Rano Raraku is the big kahuna, mother lode, and/or top dog of all staggering quarries.  Approximately 887 Moai were quarried here and close to 400 remain in different stages of completion.

Moai, moai everywhere – partially completed, in a kneeling position, tattooed, standing and lying silently under a brilliant Easter Island sun. I guarantee that your first sight will be emotional and memorable.


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Tour Easter Island: The Tattoos of Ahu Ature Hiki on Anakena Beach

Ahu Ature Hiki on Anakena Beach is thought to be the landing area of the first Polynesians. A line up of seven moai, four have Pukao on (topknots) and most others are only fragments of their former size.

A piece of one ear on the third moai from the left when facing the row was broken off by a Finnish tourist who climbed the statue and hacked off a piece. According to guide Hugo, the people almost murdered him for desecrating a cultural relic and today, no one from Finland is allowed on Easter Island without guides following them. (Or so our guide “said.”). Guide Hugo also stated that the remaining ruins are from the first village on the island while an information board said, the village ruins are from a later date. Visitors can see remains of ovens, boat shaped houses (use your imagination) and other objects if you walk uphill behind the moai. Again, whatever…


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Tour Easter Island: Petroglyphs of Papa Vaka and Ahu Te Pito Kura

Still on the Southeast circuit, the tour continued to Papa Vaka where the largest remaining petroglyphs on Easter Island are slowly eroding. It was difficult to film, or pick them out in a blinding sun. Try to visit early in the morning when it’s easier to see the figures. Several platforms around the stones allow visitors to see figures from a more appropriate perspective and informative signs help identify some of the drawings.

The word papa means “stone” in Rapa Nui, and vaka means “canoe”; so the site’s name refers to a 12-meter/40 foot long canoe that is fairly easy to see, the largest petroglyph ever found on Easter Island. I could make out the tuna and sharks, hooks for catching fish, and the large double canoe. The primarily sea and fishing motifs such a turtle, tuna fish, shark, octopus and other details were almost impossible to decipher in the bright sunlight. I did a little better finding the tuna and shark on the Papa Mango rocks in the same complex.


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