The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Harbin Ice Festival 2016


Harbin St BasilsI’m in Harbin, China, for the annual Ice Festival.  This includes various fine ice sculptures, etc.  But the highlight is the gloriously insane collection of giant ice buildings at the Ice and Snow World.  After dark they are lit from within, to stellar effect.

This year the collection included buildings loosely modeled on St Basil’s, the Blue Mosque, the Brandenburg Gate, and many others.

Harbin Blue MosqueIt’s hard to capture in photographs, but the reality is wonderful over-the-top genuine top-of-the-line insanity.  It’s complete madness!  It’s really great!!

Despite rumors of Arctic weather, the early evening was a balmy Zero Fahrenheit (-18° C).  So distinctly cold, but quite tolerable in my North Face down jacket!

Harbin.4 Harbin Brandeburg

Imelda Marcos rememberedMarikina Shoe MuseumI’m at the Marikina Shoe Museum, in Manila.

It’s a modest affair, in one large two-level room. It extols the shoemakers art and boasts a central column decorated with wooden shoe lasts accompanied by a giant boot.

But that’s not why people come. The undisputed draw is the Imelda Marcos Shoe Collection. The great lady left behind an amazing collection of over 3,000 pairs when she and her husband fled into exile in 1986. Not surprisingly, the collection became a symbol of the excesses of the Marcos family.

The museum has room for only 800 pairs, but they still make for a daunting array. There is a lot of subtle variety, but only within fairly narrow ranges. Somewhat to my surprise, the styles are generally quite restrained, nothing too splashy.

Marikina Shoe Museum Marikina Shoe Museum

It’s a somewhat eccentric experience, but I found it quite amusing.

The museum is at 14.6296,121.0963 at the junction of J.P. Rizal St and I. Mendoza St in Marikina, a slow 40-60 minute taxi ride from Intramuros and downtown Manila.

Masai Mara: Zebra Crossings

IMG_0400I’m in the Masai Mara for the great annual zebra/wildebeest/tourist migration.

The migration climax is when the herds ford the crocodile infested Mara River, so I spent a morning watching at a crossing point. There weren’t many wildebeest crossing that day, but I saw two herds of zebra cross. There were crocs waiting, so the zebras dithered for a very long time before taking the plunge.

IMG_0379For reasons best known to themselves, a zebra herd on the North bank had decided to move South and a herd on the South bank had decided to move North, so I got two watch two files of zebras pass politely in mid river. Umm, how can this be optimal? This is why it is so important to always carry a reliable guidebook when you are migrating.

IMG_0383The crocs grabbed at several of the zebra, but much to my surprise, the first few managed to frantically kick their way free. But eventually the crocs got one and dragged him underwater. The other zebras continued on, business as usual.

I only saw one bold wildebeest charge alone across the crossing, but afterwards I went further North to visit one small part of the great wildebeest migration:


“The plains are alive with the sound of wildebeest… “

Gorilla, Gorilla, Woops

Mr HumbaI’ve been on two Mountain Gorilla treks in the last week, one in DR Congo and one in Rwanda. I got to see two family groups and watch a lot of relaxed interaction and play, which was extremely cool.

In the Virunga National Park in DR Congo, I visited the Humba family. By chance I was the only tourist visiting that family that day, so I lucked into a private tour. After a fairly short hike, I saw a large tree trunk blocking the trail ahead. Oh wait, that’s Mr Humba, the boss silverback himself.

Important safety tip: A silverback in the forest, 20 feet away, looks MUCH bigger than a silverback in a zoo enclosure.

Over the course of the hour, I think I saw everyone in the family group. They were foraging, so the group was frequently moving and a couple of times either the boss silverback or a large female passed quite close to us. A junior silverback seemed to be staying a little bit away from the main family group. He seemed to dislike human presence and would typically move away quickly if we got close. Several times I heard him doing chest-drumming offstage, which was very cool.

In the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, I visited the Pablo family. This is a very large group, with 35 members, but we only saw one part of it. They were having a midday rest and were pretty relaxed about their visitors, including a lot of loud shutter clicking, which they are probably well accustomed to by now.  We got clear views of the boss silverback and about ten others.

SAM_2180Unfortunately on the way back down I managed to slip on a steep section and fall badly on my left wrist. At the hospital the following day the X-ray showed a small simple fracture, so I’m going to be doing the rest of my African trip with a fine Rwandan cast on my wrist and arm. Drat.

Practicalities: I organized my DR Congo trek though the Virunga National Park and my Rwanda trip though Umubano Tours, who also successfully navigated me through the Ruhengeri Hospital. I recommend both of them.

DR Congo: Nyiragongo

“I survived Nyiragongo, but he ate my camera.”

When I was about ten, I had a very clear idea of what a Real Volcano should look like. A steep cone, with a razor sharp rim and sheer cliffs down to an inner caldera with a bubbling pool of lava. Aah, it is to dream.

Nyiragongo is that volcano.

It’s 3470 meters tall, in the Virunga National Park in DR Congo. Complete with steep inner cliffs and the world’s largest lava lake. He only slaughters people occasionally, but he can act decisively: during the 1977 eruption lava flow was clocked at up to 60 kph on the volcano slopes.

I took the trek up (4.5 miles, but 4800 vertical ft, a lot of it on loose slidey volcanic rock) on Wednesday and overnighted at the top.

The mighty volcano graciously gave us a good view of his lava lake. There was mist (and smoke from the lake) but we could clearly see the bright red lava. Most of it was simply red cracks between caked surface slabs, but there were periodic localized bubblings up of fresh red lava, sometimes leaping up in small fountains. We could hear a continual grumbling and rumbling from the lake.  It was mega cool. I just sat and stared!

Unfortunately on the way up we had hit rain. I had thought my camera was safe deep in my day pack, but I deceived myself. Other electronics survived OK, but the camera gave up the ghost and wouldn’t recover. So no exciting Nyiragongo lava pictures for me.  Aargh!  But it was still a great experience.

The photo below from the Virunga National Park website shows a typical night time view of the lava lake, very similar to what I experienced.

© 2015 Virunga National Park

© 2015 Virunga National Park

I highly recommend Nyiragongo.  I arranged my visit (transport in DR Congo, lodging, trek) though the Virunga National Park and it all worked out well.

Kashgar: New Ancient WallsI’m in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar, in North-West China,  famous for its wonderfully preserved Ancient City Walls.  Or rather, about to become famous, as the Ancient City Walls are still under construction.  They’re coming along well, and in just a year to two I expect the tour guides will be enthusiastically showing off these venerable Ancient Relics.

Kasgar: Wall ConstructionOK, OK, there are still some genuinely old pieces of city walls here and there, and maybe some of the current work is only over-aggressive “restoration”.  But there are definitely large sections of wall that are still covered in white construction dust and look spanking new.  I was even privileged to see a section of Ancient City Walls being built before my very eyes.  They are doing a good job, and with a few years of natural weathering, it will look fine – definitely more impressive and authentic than the mundane older sections.

Kashgar: Really old walls

Authentic Old Walls

“Authenticity” is often a flexible concept in China.  But I was amused to see the creative process happening right in front of me.