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Around the World 2017: Shenyang


View Around the World 2017 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

We arrived in Shenyang early in the morning on the overnight train from Mudanjiang. We had wangled a private sleeping cabin by switching with other passengers so we had all managed to get some sleep, although Mei Ling had to share her bed with Spenser. Mei Ling's mother was with us as well, since we were primarily in Shenyang to get her travel visa from the US consulate, and her father and brother-in-law had come along for the ride as well. I didn't know much about Shenyang, but I was thrilled to be spending part of our China stay anywhere except Mudanjiang. My research had provided a couple of interesting prospects: a daytime market called Wu Ai and the Xingshun night market, reputed to be one of Asia's largest. Aside from that, there was the usual assortment of palaces and parks common to larger Chinese cities. As we left the rail station, I was immediately struck by a much more impressive skyline than that of Mudanjiang.
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The hotel Mei Ling had chosen turned out to be a little downscale even for her family's taste, so she located a more international level place a few blocks away that was practically across the street from the US Consulate. We loaded all our belongings onto a bicycle pushcart and walked beside the cart to the hotel.
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Once settled, we didn't waste any time putting our boots on the ground for the long walk to the Wu Ai market. The half hour walk was longer than I expected from the map, but I enjoyed experiencing the new city's Saturday morning vitality. The market itself proved slightly disappointing, as it was entirely for clothes and dry goods in which we had little interest. At the top floor was a large food court with diverse offerings of noodle soups and dumplings where we got a decent lunch.
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The sidewalk outside the market was lined with pushcart vendors of jewelry, clothing, and brightly colored candies. By this time the kids were awake and even though they hadn't eaten much lunch it was hard to deny them such beautiful candy.
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We were able to find a taxi outside of Wu Ai willing to take all four adults and three kids, but two blocks south we suddenly came across a busy produce market and decided to jump out. Rain cut this visit short but I was able to get a decent video with my iVUE Horizon video sunglasses.
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On the way back to the hotel, we ran into a cluster of outdoor restaurants that were gearing up for the evening with tantalizing lamb legs, trays of fresh shellfish, and pork offal. We weren't ready to eat but resolved to return.
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A few hours later we left the boys with their grandmother and found the restaurants were already quite busy. The lamb legs were twisting on spits over mini grills on each table, and every table had its own tank of ice cold beer with a spigot for rapid refilling of empty glasses. Paired with such delicacies as sauteed clams and silkworms, it was the kind of delicious and satisfying meal that makes me look forward to every trip to China. large_IMG_1925.jpgIMG_1924.jpgIMG_1922.jpg

The next morning Mei Ling, her brother-in-law, the boys and I took a taxi to Shenyang's central pedestrian zone. Cleo decided to hang out with her beloved grandparents and her beloved iPad at the hotel. As soon as we got out of the taxi, we saw there was some kind of food expo on Taiyuan Pedestrian Street with stalls lining either side of the street as far as we could see.
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There was a large variety of street food including stinky tofu, dumplings, and fried seafood. We were thrilled to have randomly stumbled onto a great food event like this.
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We could probably have spent most of the day just hanging out at the food expo, but inevitably we lost interest once our stomachs were overfilled. At the intersection of Taiyuan Street with busy Bei'er Road was a long staircase headed down to a tunnel under the road. It looked a lot like the entrance to a metro station, but there was no metro in that area. I figured it was just an underpass but Mei Ling went down for a closer look and beckoned us to join her, so we carried the strollers all the way downstairs. What I saw down there really amazed me. We were at the entrance of a huge, crowded, multilevel mall that was entirely underground. The first thing we encountered was an awesome food court we surely would have sampled if we weren't already stuffed from the food expo.

For the next hour or so we lost ourselves in the narrow hallways of the mall, walking the equivalent of several blocks underground. Among the things we encountered were juice bars, exotic pet stores, and the complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaur.
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We eventually found an elevator and surfaced some distance away from where we had begun our underground odyssey. We were on the ground floor of a mall of a more conventional type, which we decided to explore as well. Some of the more unusual things we encountered were a local band covering a Bon Jovi song, a restaurant with cloth boobs on every table, and a Lego wall.

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On the top level there was a transparent floor over the central atrium, which Ian found a little perturbing.
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Having done enough mall-walking for one day, we decided to explore the surrounding area a little. In nearby Zhongshan Square we found the well-known statue called Long Live the Victory of Mao Zedong Thought. It's one of the few Cultural Revolution monuments not to have been removed in later years. Outside a bank we encountered a replica of Wall Street's charging bull, so Mei Ling did her impression of Fearless Girl.
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Our next destination was the Mukden Palace, a former residence of the Qing emperors. In the end, we walked around the pedestrianised area surrounding the palace and never actually went inside. The appearance and atmosphere were just too reminiscent of Beijing's Forbidden City which had bored me to tears a decade previously. The most interesting thing we ended up seeing there was a collection of elongated pushcarts laden with pretty but overpriced fruit.
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We went back to the hotel and exchanged the boys for Cleo, then found another taxi to take us to our most anticipated attraction in Shenyang. Xingshun night market had opened just two years earlier so there was very little information about it on the internet, but I knew that it was large and exotic. We made sure we arrived not long after the 5:30 opening time. When we got out of the taxi, there was a sensation of electricity in the air. It was similar to the feeling of arriving at a huge rave in the West. The market wasn't along a street as I expected, but rather in a large enclosed area. We walked past shops selling cheap trinkets and some carnival rides and then found ourselves in an open area the size of a couple of football fields. I could see row after row of kiosks with food on grills and skewers. Initially we tried to walk around the entire market before buying anything to eat, but we soon realized that we might not be able to find our way back to the offerings we liked most so we just decided to eat as we went.

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There were too many amazing and exotic snacks to count, let alone consume, but probably the most impressive were the stalls devoted to reptiles and bugs. The last video reminds me of how much I've evolved in terms of food courage in the ten years since I met Mei Ling. I don't think I could have imagined myself eating tarantulas and centipedes before, but now I have a hard time imagining anything I wouldn't at least try. For me, it's a badge of honor to see the locals giving me horrified looks as I bite chunks out of the assorted creepy crawlies.
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Our last day in Shenyang was going to be cut short by our evening departure, so we had to think carefully about what we wanted to do since we might never be returning. Shenyang had exceeded our expectations, but there have to be at least fifty more Chinese cities of a similar size that we've never seen. We always prioritize the unknown, unless it's NYC or London where every visit is as novel as the first. We decided to get lunch at the street market which we'd been driven from by rain two days earlier, and then spend the afternoon at Beiling Park before heading to the airport. We found the market in full swing on a Monday morning, with plenty of appetizing food options.
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We knew we weren't likely to find the best stuff at one of the few small restaurants in the market, so we decided to buy our favorite foods and then bring them to the restaurant to be cooked. We've had good success with that stunt in both Asia and Latin America. Soon afterwards, we were chowing down on steamed shellfish and roasted chicken and washing it down with plenty of cold beer. It was our fourth great meal in Shenyang in four attempts.
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Beiling Park is the largest park in Shenyang and well-known for its beautiful lake and gardens. Soon after we arrived we encountered a fairly large jump rope demonstration or competition. Mei Ling immediately joined in and did quite well, although I'm still not sure if she won anything.

We only had another half hour so we walked as far as the lake, which was quite large and pretty. There were paddleboats and some kids' games but we didn't want to take any chances with getting to the airport on time.
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We had our most brutal travel schedule of the trip that night. First we had to fly to Beijing, and then take another flight onward to Copenhagen with a layover in Moscow. We found a solid Russian meal at a restaurant in the Moscow airport (not the one pictured), and the kids got to blow off some energy playing a game of our own invention involving cylindrical seat cushions. Still, we were very weary of flying once we finally arrived at Copenhagen. Fortunately, for the next three weeks we wouldn't have to worry about any travel except for driving and a ferry.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:39 Archived in China Tagged shenyang xingshun Comments (0)

Around the World 2017: Mudanjiang


View Around the World 2017 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

This was my second time in Mudanjiang, a city I've not so fondly described as the "Cleveland of China". This might be unfair to Cleveland, considering I've never been there and I'm often pleasantly surprised by unheralded mid-sized American cities. It's more because Mudanjiang calls to mind the popular conception of Cleveland as a colorless, industrial city with a distinct lack of culture and fun things to do. Why Mudanjiang instead of one of the countless amazing and beautiful cities in China? Because that's where Mei Ling's sister, brother-in-law, and nephew live. Her parents come over from Jixi, a couple of hours away by train, when we visit.

If China was drawn as a chicken, Mudanjiang would be its forehead. Didn't know that China looks like a chicken? Here you go.
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Another similarity to Cleveland is the climate. Mudanjiang is located in the northeasternmost province of Heilongjiang in close proximity to Siberia and North Korea. Illustrious neighbors. Even in June, the mornings were uncomfortably cold. That was an issue since probably the most interesting thing to see in Mudanjiang is the daily morning market. Because China is on one time zone, daybreak comes very early in the northeast so the morning market is over by nine. That's how I found myself groggy and shivering on a busy street in Mudanjiang at seven in the morning the day after our arrival from Taipei.

It didn't take long for me to be drawn into the energy of the market and absorbed in all the delicious and exotic foods that are unique to China. Even in a backwater town like Mudanjiang, the variety of produce and prepared foods on display seemed endless.
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One of the high points of any market in China is the abundance of fresh fruit, especially berries. One particular vendor was wheeling a cart down the center of the market that was practically groaning under the weight of cherries, yang mei, and golden gooseberries.
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Mei Ling's sister's house was about a fifteen minute walk from a busy pedestrian zone with department stores and a miniature amusement park. The department store had upgraded itself substantially from our last visit two years earlier and now boasted a deli section and a food court that rivaled the ones one might see in Shanghai or Beijing.
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On the pedestrian street outside there were food vendors already set up in advance of the night market which would begin several hours later.
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That evening we had our first homecooked meal in Mei Ling's sister's apartment. Everyone tripped over themselves trying to fit in the tiny kitchen while I amused myself torturing the kids with still-living food items.
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Dinner finally appeared with not one but two silkworm dishes. There's nothing like washing down homecooked spicy northern Chinese food with ice cold Snow beer.
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I didn't have it in me the next day to get up by seven for the morning market, so I joined Mei Ling and the kids a little later at a smaller street market which had its own collection of interesting foods. The highlight was the vendor of stir-fried unhatched chickens, which proved to be quite spicy and tasty once you got past the little feathers. For anyone who prefers their little chicks already hatched before being fried, they had those as well.
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Next stop was the barber shop for haircuts for Ian and Spenser.
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After some lazing around at the apartment with the kids it was time to hit the night market on the main pedestrian street. large_IMG_0250.jpglarge_493EFE9505FF31388E4D1AF35E5D3013.jpglarge_IMG_1801.jpg

On our last evening in Mudanjiang we walked to a park where a couple of hundred people were getting some exercise doing a communal dance to Chinese pop.

Outside the park was another small night market but it couldn't hold a candle to the one in the pedestrian zone. However, I did get a chance to chew a pig tail.
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By a stroke of good fortune, we had to visit a larger city called Shenyang in order to obtain a visa for Mei Ling's Mom to visit us in the US. Through persistent campaigning, I managed to convince Mei Ling to split our time in China equally between Mudanjiang and Shenyang. I didn't know a thing about Shenyang, but I figured three days there had to be better than three more in Cleveland ... er Mudanjiang. Therefore, we found ourselves taking an overnight train to Shenyang before I'd even had time to get bored. Hopefully I'll be able to find another way to cut down our stay in Mudanjiang the next time we visit China. The visit itself is non-negotiable. The town may be Cleveland to me, but to Mei Ling it's home.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:08 Archived in China Tagged heilongjiang mudanjiang Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Guangzhou, China

China is a huge and diverse country. Even after five previous visits, I only felt like I'd seen at most five percent of what was worth seeing in China. I was looking forward to adding to that with a visit to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. While Guangzhou may be only vaguely familiar to Westerners, it is one of the ten most populous cities in the world by any form of measurement, and possibly the most populous by metropolitan area. It's better known to Americans by its Anglicized name of Canton, and as the origin of most of what Americans and other Westerners consider to be Chinese, or Cantonese food. Guangzhou is well-regarded throughout China for its food, especially seafood, and is famous for its markets. For Mei Ling and me, that's nirvana.

Like most of the world's great cities, Guangzhou is intimately associated with water. Around the city, multiple river systems converge to form the wide and powerful Zhujiang (formerly Pearl) river which splits and rejoins itself countless times forming numerous small islands in the river. Our hotel was in the Shamian Residential District, a tiny rectangular island formed by a narrow canal of the Zhujiang River. Shamian was clearly an enclave of the wealthy. It had a wide central street with a beautifully landscaped park running down the middle. The park had well-maintained exercise equipment and a running track. The buildings were relatively new and attractive, and the shops and restaurants on the island seemed to cater to expats.
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As soon as we'd dropped off the bags, we headed across the canal to Guangzhou's busy pedestrian zone. Mei Ling and Ian split off for a rendezvous with an old friend while Cleo and I ate a snack at a tiny alley restaurant that served a delicious salad made with crunchy fish skin. As is so often the case with dishes that I absolutely love in Asia, we were never able to find that salad again during our visit. Mei Ling still hadn't found her way back once we'd finished eating, so we went to the spa next door to get our feet nibbled by tiny Garra rufa fish. Cleo made a valiant attempt but eventually her two year old mind couldn't overcome her natural instinct to keep her feet from being bitten.
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Mei LIng eventually rejoined us and we spent some more time exploring the main pedestrian street Shangxiaju and snacking before heading back home for an early sleep. We still had to recover from our grueling train journey and flight earlier.
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The next day was a market day, of course, so we met up with Mei Ling's friends and crossed the Renmin Bridge across the Zhujiang to Haizhu, the largest river island in the Guangzhou area. We spent an entire day wandering from market to market at the western tip of Haizhu. I was disappointed that I couldn't convince Mei Ling to buy the sandals with the incomprehensible Chinglish slogan.
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Later we crossed back north across the river and circled back towards Shamian, where the enormous Huangsha seafood market awaited us. One of the more interesting discoveries there was sand worms, also known as peanut worms. We couldn't resist buying a bag of these unappetizing pinkish-grey tubes and eventually brought them to the most well-known seafood restaurant in the market where they were prepared for us with a garlic sauce. They tasted like garlic sauce.

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The next day we spent a little more time exploring the neighborhoods close by our hotel and then took a taxi to Liuhua Hu Park in the northern part of the city. The beautiful park was full of serene walking paths and grassy lakes where locals were boating. One of the highlights was watching some guys playing jian zi, the Chinese version of the hacky sack game I saw Mei Ling playing in Seoul.
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In the evening, we met up with Mei Ling's friend Guo Guo again and explored one of Guangzhou's upscale modern malls before having dinner in a hot pot restaurant.
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We decided to check out of our hotel the next morning. Another of Mei Ling's old friends was driving us southwest to the city of Kaiping, and it would be easier for us not to go back to Guangzhou at all. We walked back across the canal for one last meal at Huangsha market.
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On the road, we stopped at a special restaurant Mei Ling's friend knew about where we seemed to be the only customers. The specialty was paddlefish, which had a wide paddle-shaped snout. Several of them were swimming in large tanks at the restaurant. I tried looking them up afterwards, but couldn't find any convincing identification of what we had eaten. They're clearly not the same fish as what is commonly described as a Chinese paddlefish, which appears to be practically extinct. Hopefully the ones we ate weren't endangered!
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The only reason to visit the Kaiping area that I'm aware of is to see the eerie, multistory diaolou houses that were built intermittently between the 15th century and the early part of the 20th century. Some of the structures were constructed to serve as watchtowers, while others were multifamily residences. The mysterious diaolou reminded me of the imposing towers of Bologna, whose builders and true purposes have largely become obscured by the passage of time. In the area we explored, the diaolou arose incongruously from rice paddies that could only be traversed by narrow flagstone paths.
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On the way back east from Kaiping we stopped in the coastal town of Zhuhai for dinner. The star attraction here was Zhuhai Wanzai Seafood Street, with a long seafood night market on one side and a row of seafood restaurants on the other. Mei Ling immediately went to work on buying delicacies for us to bring to a restaurant. The best part was watching her negotiating for a huge horseshoe crab.

Refrigeration for the seafood probably hasn't changed in a hundred years. Here you can see how the guys on the ice truck carve up and distribute their product.

We spent the next day in Shenzhen, hanging out with yet another of Mei Ling's old friends. We spent a few hours in one of Shenzhen's many theme parks, of which the most interesting part for the kids was the monorail. In the evening, we had yet another seafood banquet at a coastal restaurant where we picked our food from tanks.
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The next day we crossed into Hong Kong, where we had less than twenty-four hours before our flight to India. Fortunately I'd been to Hong Kong twice before, so I'd already seen most of the interesting sights and markets. We stayed in a luxurious hotel suite on an upper floor of the Nina Tower, one of the most prestigious hotels in Hong Kong. We'd gotten a very low rate thanks to Mei Ling's local connections.
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In the morning before our flight we hung out in the busy Sham Shui Po market area of Kowloon, where we window shopped for a couple of hours and tried some snake soup.
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I wasn't sorry to be heading to the airport once again. I'd been waiting a long time for my first visit to India.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:25 Archived in China Tagged hong_kong guangzhou guangdong shenzhen zhuhai kaiping Comments (2)

Around the World 2015: Mudanjiang, China

Of all the countries I've visited, there's none that I prefer to China. I love Europe, especially the big three of Italy, France, and Spain, but nothing compares to the incredible markets, food, frenzy, and natural beauty of China. Now that I'm married to Mei Ling and my children are partly Chinese, I'm permanently joined to this foreign country and culture that is positioned diametrically opposite on the globe from the place of my birth. At some point Mei Ling and I agreed we would visit her family in China every other year so that we would still be able to spend some summers in Europe. The bonus is that there are so many other countries in Asia we've never visited, and traveling to China is a great excuse to stop over in some place that is completely new. The only downside is that Mei Ling's family lives in Mudanjiang, a mid-sized city in northern China with very little of interest for travelers. I like to think of it as the "Cleveland of China". This was my second go round in Mudanjiang, and after the excitement and novelty of Napa and Seoul I wasn't thrilled about six days of schlepping around in familiar neighborhoods and markets. Nevertheless, visiting the in-laws is non-negotiable so I resolved to try and have as much fun as possible.

Mei Ling's brother in law insisted on meeting us at the airport in a small taxi, which meant the four of us had to squeeze into the back seat and pile bags and strollers all over ourselves, the roof of the cab, and projecting improbably from the trunk while secured by a bungee cord. I half expected to show up at the family apartment missing half our belongings, but on arrival our property seemed to be intact. Mei LIng's sister, her husband, and their son live in a nice two bedroom apartment on a upper floor in a newly-constructed building close to the center of town.
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Everyone had already met Cleo two years earlier when she was a super cute one year old, but as I expected Ian was able to upstage her this time around.
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Mei Ling's younger brother also showed up and was staying in the apartment and her parents were in and out the whole time. Given the number of people sleeping in the apartment and the strain on the single bathroom, I insisted on booking a room in an inexpensive hotel nearby where I stayed with Cleo. Mudanjiang may not be the most interesting place in China, but that doesn't mean the food isn't awesome. We had some amazing restaurant dishes encompassing everything from sea snails to stir fried cow trachea.
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We had some spectacular home-cooked banquets as well. Mei Ling is the best cook I've ever known, and both her brother and brother-in-law are professional chefs. There was a visit to a market most days, which was followed by several hours of bustling food preparation and then an incredible multi-course meal.
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One thing that always seemed to be constant is that whenever we sat down to eat, there was always plenty of Snow beer.
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Aside from shopping for food, cooking, and eating our days mostly consisted of walks around the city center and visits to the little amusement park downtown where the kids could bungee bounce or catch minnows.
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Eventually our time in Mudanjiang came to a close. Mei Ling was more sorry to leave than I was, but it was great to have seen her and the kids reconnect with her family. We had a brutally early wake up call to catch a train to Harbin for the flight to Guangzhou.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 11:23 Archived in China Tagged mudanjiang Comments (0)

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