In the far northeast of China, the first thing guaranteed to take your breath away is the cold.
Three neighboring provinces—Jilin, Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang—nudge the fringes of Siberia, with average winter temperatures of -25°C, and lows of -45.
Beijing is hundreds of miles to the south, behind the Great Wall. The subtropical rainforests of Yunnan might as well be on another planet.
In his 1980s China book, Riding the Iron Rooster, travel writer Paul Theroux took the Trans-Manchurian Express north into Jilin and Heilongjiang, bemoaning the winter cold in as many ways as the Eskimos have words for snow.
So you might wonder what thousands of northern Chinese folk are up to when they don coats and sheepskin hats and drive en masse out on to the frigid, icy expanse of Chagan Lake in Jilin each winter.
Viewed from above, this annual pilgrimage looks like a sort of inverse Burning Man festival, a vast loop of cars on an endless level plain, mobs of people everywhere, and in the very center, the performers.
In this case, Mongolian-Chinese ice fisherman.
Chagan Lake (Chagan is Mongolian in origin, meaning sacred, white or pure), is a body of fresh water over 400 square kilometers in size, and one of the last places on earth where a peculiar kind of fishing spectacle has been held for thousands of years.
Displaying the sort of historic Chinese ingenuity that gave the world paper, gunpowder and the compass, dozens of holes are hacked in a neat circular perimeter around the thick ice, before a huge two-kilometer-wide net is woven through them to catching whole shoals of fish beneath.
No machinery is used. Horses operate primitive wooden winches to draw in the nets and the hauls of fish—mostly carp—can be enormous.
In 2009, the lake set a Guinness World Record with a single net yield of 168,000kg of fish. In a single winter season, you’re looking at a haul of about a million tons.
The nets are designed so that only fully-grown adults are caught, which will ensure the future of the supply chain.
‘It’s one of the last places on earth where a peculiar kind of fishing spectacle takes place’
Over a period of about two chilly months, the ice becomes a giant, slippery market place as people descend from all around to buy fish for Chinese New Year. (The word for fish—yú—is auspicious as it sounds like the word for surplus, meaning if you eat it you’ll have a surplus of riches for the coming year.)
The very first fish pulled up from under the ice each year is the most auspicious and is often auctioned off for big bucks—in 2015 it went for as much as US$120,000 USD.
This age-old tradition is now known as the Ice and Snow Fishing and Hunting Cultural Tourism Festival, and is a winter fixture in Jilin.
But far and away the most famous winter tourist spectacle in this part of China happens further north in Harbin, Heilongjiang’s capital—and it also owes its heritage to ice fishing.
The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival might best be described as Narnia on acid: a town-sized wonderland of buildings, world monuments and statues, all cut from ice, inset with neon lights and laid out on an astonishing scale.
The festival itself is fairly new (the first one took place in the mid 1980s), but the origins of this cold weather spectacle go back much earlier.
Before the Trans-Siberian Railway had put Harbin on the map in the early 20th century, it was little more than a fishing village on the shore of the Songhua River.
‘The very first fish pulled up from under the ice each year is the most auspicious and is often auctioned off for big bucks’
It’s said that local fisherman had developed the custom of freezing water to create lanterns, then cutting a hole inside for an oil lamp.
And so this custom, with a bit of tourist board nudging, evolved into the world’s biggest ice sculpture festival, where enormous blocks of ice are cut from the frozen Songhua River to become the building materials.
Like the Chagan River fishermen and their bountiful catches, northern China doesn’t do things by halves.
In Harbin, as well as admiring the epic ice and snow sculptures, you can race down ice slides carved to look like the Great Wall, and even try your hand at ice-climbing, skidoo racing and ice mini golf.
Which is probably understandable; after all, you’ve got to keep warm somehow, right?
What other winter spectacles would you brave sub-zero temperatures to see? Tell us more with #momentumtravel.
Main photo: Getty Images; body photos: Getty Images and Alamy