Recently, Baji Group八吉集团, a Chinese developer of songhua stone松花石 and financial heavyweight, generously invited 50 of us individuals from around China to visit their headquarters in the city of Changchun, Jilin Province, a trip that coincided with the annual winter fish harvest on the feet thick ice sheet covering Chagan Lake.
Changchun is the capital city of Jilin Province in the far northeast, and along with Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia, is known widely as one of the coldest winter destinations in China, one that certainly lived up to reputation over the course of our visit this week!
A frigid blast of minus 20 degree air swept our faces on our first step outside Longjia Airport. Snow rested upon a layer of solid ice covering the roads and pavements, and streetlight halos fought their way through the dense evening fog.
Well over a thousand miles east of Chongqing, yet on standard time like the entire country, the skies dim from around three in the afternoon, and the sun shines palidly, low in the sky, throughout the day.
We hurried to load our suitcases onto the coach and huddle away inside for the hour plus journey through the evening rush hour, sleepy toll booths, then grid upon grid of traffic lights, before we finally pulled up outside the Warren Hotel opposite Baji headquarters.
In the midst of our frigid surroundings, very few locals ventured into the streets. Occasionally, anonymous and foolhardy jaywalkers scurried across the dark roads, all wrapped up tightly in countless layers of thick clothing.
Even during the day, pedestrians were few and far between. I saw parents hauling children along the streets in sledges, as the pocked, slippery ice rendered futile any hope of navigating anywhere with a pushchair.
Bellowing smokestacks embellished the neighbourhood skylines, and ticker-tape signs boasted extremely unhealthy levels of PM2.5 particulate contamination.
We passed old tram cars reminiscent of the Soviet era as they ferried passengers their rails, and also numerous accidents were vehicles had skidded into innocent fellow road users.
However, despict my rather dystopian portrayal of downtown Changchun in winter, there were two unique highlights of our three day trip that made our venture into the frozen hinterlands worthwhile.
In my first installment, I wish to focus on the touristic element, the annual fish harvest on the frozen surfaces of Chagan Lake, an fascinating experience I dare say you’ll struggle to witness anywhere else.
Next time round, I will focus on the songhua stone of Jilin Province, and how Baji Group has based a financial empire upon this precious natural resource.
Prior to the onset of winter, fishermen cast acres worth of linked nets in advance of the big annual freeze, and once the ice sheet thickens enough to support armies of vehicles, people and horses, the hardy locals begin drawing the catch through a small hole they dig in the ice.
The basic method is to dig two small holes in the ice, that freezes solid to over a foot in thickness. One hole needs to be large enough to draw out the huge nets, while a smaller hole is used to quickly heat lake water by means of a fuel generator, and pump over the emerging catch to prevent re-icing.
Above the main ice hole, a man sprays a constant stream of warm water over the nets, as he sits rather precariously on top a mound of ice, a mere block of polystyrene keeping frostbite away from the nether regions.
Directly in front is a straight, hundred metre iceway where fisherman untangle the gigantic fish, then leave them to freeze completely solid out in the open.
Tourists vie to pose for shots with a considerably burdensome live catch in each hand.
Apart from the gasoline generator, the rest is achieved through a culmination of traditional human ingenuity coupled with the physical might of horses. These handsome beasts, seemingly oblivious to the cold, work alternately in teams as they turn a wheel that drags out the nets, then wind them up into bundles for re-use the following year.
Witnessing this incredible event isn’t so easy. We had the fortune and exclusive use of a coach throughout our stay, but even so, it took the best part of four hours to reach the Mongolian style lakeside village of Guoerluosi in Songyuan County up north, close to the yet colder lands of Heilongjiang Province.
After feasting on tasty dishes based on the local catch, we squeezed into local cars for a 20 yuan each return journey to the fishing site.
Our driver speeded gleefully along the roads of black ice, before making a turn onto the lake, and shot along the ice at a frightening pace.
We joined a countless number of cars parked up near the catch site, and the driver politely waited as we braved the frigid temperatures to witness a true wonder of human ingenuity and battle for survival against the harsh elements.
Other than multiple layers of warm clothing, another must are exra thick woolen soles you push inside your shoes, as well as warmth pads 暖包(Nuan-bao) you stick directly onto the base of your feet, which then emit desperately welcome heat for many hours.
Before our long return to the cosy Warren Hotel, where I delightfully thawed out that night in the basement spahouse, a few locals accompanying us as guides bought some giant blocks of whole frozen fish, that villagers lay out in piles by the roadside.
At a bargain 16 yuan per kilogram, I was certainly tempted to purchase one myself, but there wouldn’t be any way of transporting them to Chongqing through warm hotels, coaches and airports!
As for the rest, I’ll leave my photos and videos of this once in lifetime experience, and let you marvel for yourself!