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Saturday, April 14, 2018

May 18-20: Mark Twain & Stonewall Jackson Weekend at the Elkhorn Inn!

Mark Twain and dinner guests at the Elkhorn Inn!
Mark Twain and Elkhorn Inn Guests
Mark Twain at the Elkhorn Inn

Doug Riley as Stonewall Jackson
 LAST CALL! MAY 18-20 WILL BE OUR MARK TWAIN - STONEWALL JACKSON WEEKEND AT THE ELKHORN INN
 CALL US AT 304-862-2031 OR 1-800-708-2040 FOR RESERVATIONS!
This unique and special weekend includes Chef Dan Dinners and Breakfasts, and performances and presentations by Mark Twain and Stonewall Jackson!
Mark Twain, Elisse, and Dan on WVVA News TV
Both Mark Twain and Stonewall will be portrayed by Doug Riley​, the scholar/actor who personifies both for the West Virginia Humanities Council's "History Alive!" program. The Weekend Package (for two people) is $550.00 + tax, and includes two nights lodging at the Elkhorn Inn, two special, themed Chef Dan Dinners and Breakfasts, and all of Mr. Riley's performances and presentations throughout the weekend. Dinners only are $60.00 per person + 15% gratuity and tax each. 
Our October 2017 Mark Twain Weekend at the Elkhorn Inn was featured twice on WVVA News Television, and this will be another great weekend of fine food, literature, history and fun! 
The Elkhorn Inn is the ONLY restaurant in this region on the Bon Appetit Appalachia "foodie" map! The Elkhorn Inn is located at 30767 Coal Heritage Road (Route 52), in Landgraff, West Virginia. The Inn is 18 miles (30 minutes frm Bluefield, WV/VA, and 2.5 hours from Roanoke, VA. 
Call us now at 304-862-2031 or 1-800-708-2040 for reservations!

WVVA News TV filming Mark Twain performing at the Elkhorn Inn

Mark Twain at the Elkhorn Inn
Chef Dan, serving Mark Twain his favorite Buckwheat Crepes for Breakfast!

Elisse & Mark Twain!



Doug Riley as Stonewall Jackson







Mark Twain at the Elkhorn Inn...

Mark Twain's favorite cocktail!


Friday, April 13, 2018

A Month In China: The night train to Harbin- and ICE!


Harbin Ice Festival
At the Tiger Park!
Jewish Synagogue Museum, Harbin















When I was planning our trip to China and realized that Dan and I would be there at the end of the world-famous Harbin Ice Festival I knew we just HAD to go! Harbin is WAY up north- Dan insists I "dragged him to Siberia" LOL- and it gets WAY cold there- like -40 degrees, Minnesota cold! But the photos I'd seen of it online were totally enchanting and amazing- a city carved from blocks of ice and color changing lights! So- with Dan's eye-rolling acquiescence- I re-routed our trip, with help from the great train-ticket-booking gals at China-DIY_Travel.com- and from Beijing we took a Deluxe Sleeper on the night train to Harbin! Harbin also had an historic and important Jewish Community, and I very much wanted to visit the Synagogue in Harbin, which is now a Museum. As I wrote in my post on "Tips for China Trip Planning", we learned the hard way that if you are going to travel by train through China you should only take One Small Suitcase.  We had two Big Suitcases, as well as carry-ons (including my shopping bag of fabulous Beijing hats...), and all that luggage was, to be honest, a royal pain in the butt! Even though we had top-level seats on all our trains, the train stations are huge and often chaotic, there's security to pass through and escalators to deal with, there's no guarantee of finding a porter, and basically no signage in English- or anyone who speaks it. We were in train stations all over China, and most were quite easy to navigate, but the Beijing train stations gave new meaning to the word "chaos".  Not being able to find the correct entrance, we wound up shlepping our bags back and forth across the plaza, and had to deal with an assortment of Train Station Characters, and I was literally about to cry from sheer frustration when Dan pulled us into a fast food place for a bowl of hot, spicy noodles...
Hot spicy noodles!


Dan- waitin' fer a (night) train...
We finally managed to board our train, and, like on the Business Class Bullet Train, the night train attendants were outfitted smartly in dark red down coats and stewardess caps, and they stood at attention outside the entrance to each car along the tracks. We easily found our berth, and it was cute- tiny, but cute! A Deluxe Sleeper is The top-of-the-line train accommodation in China, and Not cheap! A Deluxe Sleeper accommodates only two people, and has  an upper and lower berth, an upholstered chair and window table, and a private toilet; the Harbin night train had unique window curtains emblazoned with the design of the Saint Sophia Cathedral (the symbol of Harbin), and special toiletries, too! The beds and bedding were clean and fresh, with white sheets and good comforters, and rather hard and uncomfortable pillows in white cases...
Special Harbin Train Toiletries!
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After we rammed all our luggage into our tiny berth, we happily opened our bottle of 7-11 Puerto Rican Rum, and poured ourselves celebratory shots as the train left Beijing for The North! We tried to sleep in each other's arms in the lower berth, but I finally got Dan to help boost me up onto the top berth so we could both try to get some real sleep! I woke up about 6:15am with an hour to spare before our arrival in Harbin, and watched the sun rise on a totally different, snowy China! This was an almost Siberian landscape of snow and forest, and truly magical... The snow wasn't deep, however, and we could see lots of tan ground peeking through, so it was quite apparent that spring was in the offing...
Heading north- with shots of Bacardi...

Approaching Harbin at dawn...














As I feared after the Beijing train station fiasco, we had a bit of chaos in the Harbin station, as well. There were no porters waiting on the tracks, as there had been when we arrived in Beijing, but an official I approached made some sort of announcement in Chinese and a lovely, young, English-speaking woman materialized who helped us get a porter, wrote the name and address of our hotel in Chinese for us, and helped us get a taxi. The problem was that the Harbin Train Station Taxi Stand is run by a tough-cookie brothel-madam woman who sets the prices and collects the dough for the drivers- her boys- and she demanded from us what we knew to be an extortionate 150 RMB (approx. $25)- Harbin taxi meters starting at 8 RMB (approx. $1.25). After our suitcases were loaded into the tiny, non-closing trunk, Dan was safely in the cab, and our sweet translator had left, I played dumb, repeatedly proffering Madam 100 RMB (politely, with both hands), and eventually it was accepted, I think out of Madam's sheer frustration with arguing with an idiot foreigner- who had turned out not to be a total idiot. LOL  We spent our two nights in Harbin at the Crowne Plaza Harbin Songbei- which I had booked using my IHG Rewards Club Points, thinking it was near the Ice Festival. Not! As we discovered in traveling through China, the distances are HUGE, even within cities! But the hotel was very nice, and the staff quite helpful- they gave us a very nice high-floor guest room with access to the Executive Lounge; we had a lovely bath for  hot soaks on cold nights, and a view of snow-dusted Harbin...
View from our guest room
Crown Plaza Harbin Songbei
A view- even from the tub!












Our first evening in Harbin we asked the Concierge to write us directions in Chinese, and we took a taxi to the Ice Festival- and it WAS magical, and it WAS worth the trek!  As great as the professional photos of it are, you don't get the scale of it unless you're in the middle of it, surrounded by 6-story towers of color changing ice! And if you're over 70 you get in free, so Dan got in free, and we only had to pay the 300 RMB ($50) for my ticket. :-)  It's literally an enchanting, color-changing Harbin City created of ice blocks and lights: the Russian churches as well as the Synagogue topped with a Star of David, plus towers and turreted castles and bridges and Buddhas and winding stairways you can climb... There were snow sculptures, too, and little snow hills for kids to sled down on the plastic sled-seats being sold at the entrance, and foxes and reindeer to pet... There were also a number  of little restaurants where one could go inside to warm up; we had coffee at one, and dumplings at another...

Dan at the Harbin Ice Festival
WOW! The Harbin Ice Festival in all its glory...





Warming up...
















Comrades Dan and Elisse in Harbin!


A city of ice...

Reindeer to pet...
Snow...

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And ice bridge at the Ice Festival...



















When Dan got too cold for it to be any fun any more we took a cab downtown to the neon-lit "Main Street", intending to find one of the "ex-pat bars" our hotel's Russian staff lady spoke of, but it was just too cold! After a latte in a chic, little French-style cafe we called it a night and hailed a cab back to our hotel. We just both SO wished we were still young enough to want to be out half the night in the icy cold...
Downtown Harbin's "Main Street"









I had booked (thru Viator) only a car with a driver for our one full day in Harbin, as I thought that with a list of sites we wanted to visit that was all we really needed. Happily, we not only got a car and driver, but an excellent, English speaking guide, as well, and that, as it turned out, really made the day for us! As we learned, "drivers" in China do NOT speak English, but guides do! (And this time Dan put the hand-and-foot-warmers we'd brought with us in his shoes and gloves!)  We started out our day taking the "ropeway", a tram that goes across the frozen, Mississippi-wide river (upon which cars drive and 100s of people ice skate, or walk across- which looked like a lot of fun... ) from one "Disney castle" to another, and walked through an odd little Russian village 'living museum' of Harbin's Russian past. We went into two of the old houses, where we were greeted (and hugged) by obviously lonely Russian women 'docents' clad in 1950s period dress and fur coats against the cold...  
Crossing the frozen river...

Comrade Dan does the tram!


On the tram...
On the "ropeway" tram...



Playing the piano...
In the Russian Village
Balabusta!
You can't make this stuff up...
Coal Train! :-)
At the Russian Village



We then went to Harbin's excellent Siberian Tiger Park, where we took a bus and then a walkway through the park, seeing lots of gorgeous (and contented-looking, well fed, and cared for) tigers, as well as white tigers, lions, a liger, leopards, panthers, and even a (hello, West Virginia!) cougar! We paid 10 RMB each to feed the tigers through the bars with chunks of meat on tongs, but I turned away as the Chinese lady feeder threw down a live chicken... 
Tiger!

Feeding the tigers!
Elisse, feeding a tiger!

With our guide at the Tiger Park
Tiger!
Lions!
Tickets for attractions in Harbin are expensive, many costing $50 each, and we decided not to go to the Snow Park as it was going to cost $100 (no free ride for Dan this time...), after we learned that much of it had already started to melt :-(  We treated our driver and guide to lunch(!), and for 140 RMB ($23) we all had a feast, including very good stir-fried beef and green pepper, pork with tofu, and a veggie dish of the black fungus I love, mushrooms, and onions, served with rice, hot chili paste, and hot tea... 

A really yummy lunch...

Or guide, making us all tea at lunch...

Then we went to the Jewish Synagogue, which is now an excellent Museum that tells the story of the Harbin Jewish Community that contributed so much to its success.  The community began around 1903, with the first Jews settling there from Russia; at its peak, the Jewish community of Harbin numbered 15,000.  Most of Harbin's Jews emigrated to the West in the years after World War II; from 1951-1953, about 3,500 settled in Israel, and 1968 marked the end of the Jewish community of Harbin; the last Jew of Harbin left the city in 1985. Old Jewish schools, streets, and houses are kept intact or have been renovated, among them two synagogues, a school, and the largest Jewish cemetery in the Far East, with approximately 700 gravestones bearing Hebrew inscriptions. We stopped at the other synagogue in town and the Jewish school, but neither was open to the public; one building is now a school, and one a Steinway piano store... We weren't able to visit the historic Jewish Cemetery, but the Museum had fine exhibit on the cemetery, and the Israelis of Harbin decent (including Ehud Olmert, whose father was an illustrious member of the Harbin Jewish Community), who returned to the city in 2004 and visited their family's graves. We were very pleased to see that Harbin openly and proudly acknowledges and values its Jewish history and heritage, as Russian Jews, whose descendants are by-and-large Israelis, truly built the city and contributed a tremendous amount to it. There are even plaques on many of the beautiful old buildings on the main pedestrian shopping streets that explain who the Jewish builders were. But everything Jewish about Harbin is history; there is no longer a Jewish Community there, and when your life, history, religion, and culture only exists in a museum it's pretty depressing... I thought a lot about a friend of mine in Israel who had immigrated to Israel from Harbin, and missed her much...  For information on the Jewish Community of Harbin, here are several links:
The Jewish Synagogue Museum
 












 
Jewish life in Harbin...
The Synagogue Museum



Exhibition on the Jewish Cemetery of Harbin
The New Jewish Synagogue
Our next stop was  St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral, (free entrance for Dan this time LOL), the famous Russian Orthodox Church that is the symbol of Harbin. I had expected to find there some kind of Russian presence, but there was none. To our surprise (and dismay), the magnificent church has been gutted of pews, alters, art, and everything that once made it a church, and is sadly and sorely in need of repair and maintenance. It's been turned into a museum of historic photographs- but as there was no signage in English, it was impossible for us to understand the subject of the exhibition... St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral was built in 1907 of timber. In 1921, Harbin had a Russian population 100,000, and the church was expanded and renovated from 1923 to 1932; upon completion it was hailed as a monumental work of art, the largest Orthodox church in the Far East, and a perfect example of Neo-Byzantine architecture. The main structure is laid out like a cross, with the main hall topped by a huge green-tipped dome, and under the bright sun, the church and the square area it stands on look quite like Red Square in Moscow... But the cathedral was  closed by the government from the "Great Leap Forward" (1958-61) thru the"Cultural Revolution" (1966-76), and although the cathedral's sturdy structure withstood its intended destruction during the Cultural Revolution, its empty hull became a warehouse for a nearby state-run department store, its windows were bricked up, and saplings grew from the roof. Prefabricated concrete high-rises boxed the church in on all four sides, coming within yards of its walls, making the cathedral inaccessible and essentially invisible. For decades it remained the invisible center of the city, surrounded by shopping stalls, a factory, and apartments for city government employees, until the Beijing government designated the cathedral a "national cultural heritage" site in 1996 as part of a nationwide campaign to protect historical sites. Local corporations, individual businesses, and workers from nearby department stores donated money to restore the cathedral and renovate the square, and in 1997 the surrounding buildings were torn down, a new "Harbin Architecture Square" was created, and the cathedral was turned into the "Municipal Architecture and Art Museum". We saw families feeding the doves that nest on the side of the church, and walked around the plaza,  looking in vain for some sign of a Russian presence in Harbin...
 
St. Sophia Cathedral
Inside the cathedral...

















Feeding the doves that nest on the cathedral...
St. Sophia Cathedral



















Our guide then took us to "Central Ave.", one of the main shopping pedestrian streets, where we stopped for a coffee ice cream (yes, in the winter cold!) at the Famous Harbin Since 1906 Ice Cream Kiosk, and saw the rather sad dismantling of Chinese New Year decorations and the chopping up of half-melted snow and ice sculptures... 
Harbin's famous Coffee Ice Cream- since 1906!

Jewish Heritage Architecture of Harbin

Central Ave., Harbin





Our final stop of the day was at a small ice sculpture park in town- at 6p.m., just as they turned on the lights and Harbin came alive again with neon and the glowing, colorful blocks of ice sculptures! It was only about -17 C that day (1.4 F), and NOT cold for Harbin!
Ice Fest in the city...

I love ice festivals!
In the evening, we again enjoyed the Crowne Plaza's Executive Lounge, making a nice, light supper from their hot hors d'oeuvres (noodles, pork satay ("meat on a stick" LOL), white fungus pickles, and desert petit fours, topped off with wine and whiskey), and perusing copies of Harper's Bazaar China and the China Daily newspaper. Then we stayed up half the night talking in our room like we haven't done in ages, and it was wonderful...
Although I though we might do some more touring the next day, we wound up sleeping late, relaxing, and having a "lazy day" doing Absolutely Nothing!  Dan went down for breakfast and brought me back a nice, hot bowl of spicy soup, dumplings, and black fungus! :-) We got a late, 2pm check-out, thanks to being IHG Platinum Elite :-)  had our two free glasses of wine at the Lobby Bar (a huge production, as no one, apparently, Ever used the freebie cards to request wine LOL), and then took a cab to the Train Station to catch our night train back down to Beijing, after which we were to get another train to Xi'An. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get us a Deluxe Sleeper on this train- or any kind of a sleeper- and we wound up with First Class seats. Although very nice, as seats go, and with my inflatable travel pillow I can basically sleep Anywhere, they were still seats, and poor Dan didn't get much sleep...

Next up: Xi'An: Terracotta Warriors and Foodie Fun!