08-15-2006 10:51 02-16-2005 14:15

It's another freezing winter, but the best way to fight the cold is to embrace it. We're here in the northeastern province of Jilin, and we're going to take a ride across the snowy landscape.

It's an exciting journey across the vast snowy landscape of Jilin. We'll start our journey from Chagan Lake in the northwest of the province, and make our way through Changchun, the provincial capital, and Jilin City, and on to Changbai Mountain, before ending up in Hunchun, a little city on the border of China, Russia and the DPRK.

Can you believe it? I'm actually on a huge lake. It's Chagan Lake, and in winter, its waters turn into one big piece of ice. The ice can be two feet thick. And what's even more unbelievable is that people can actually catch fish from beneath the ice. Before they start, they hold a little ritual; it's called the Waking the Lake Ceremony.

Fair enough. Before you take something away from the lake, you should pay your respects. Clearly, the ceremony is a chance to say thanks. The people living around Chagan Lake are mostly Mongolians, and they are followers of the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. This explains the presence of the lamas at the ceremony. Sometimes, it can be very dangerous, catching fish in winter, and that's what this little ritual is all about – appeasing the might of Nature. When the ceremony's over, the boys share some wine to raise their spirits. Then it's off to the lake for some fishing. You would never imagine that fishing could be such a solemn act.

Now we're going to see how they set the net on the lake.

Here, they still use the traditional means of transport – a huge sled pulled by horses. There's a sense of something primitive in the air as we skate over the vast, and seemingly endless, lake.

So, this is the net you're going to use for the fishing? How big is it? Is that one net?

No, this is only half of it. Two of these nets make one big one. It's 500 metres long.

I still can't imagine how they're going to catch fish under the ice with such a big net. I guess I'll understand, once I finally see it.

Chagan Lake is one of the 10 largest freshwater lakes in China. People live on its shores fish in the lake all year round. During winter, the way they bring the fish out of the water is quite unique. It's a very, very old method, and since it's still in use today, I guess it's still the most effective. The first thing to do is to drill a lot of holes through the two-foot-thick ice.

The trick is to get the net under the ice. Even if you see it for yourself, it's quite a while before you really grasp what's going on. Another question is how do they know where to place the net to maximize the catch; in other words, how do they know where the fish gather?

I can't see anything down there. But people have told me if you look carefully, you will see little bubbles, and experienced fishermen can tell which bubbles come from grass and which from the fish. So now they're going to catch the fish beneath this piece of ice.

So, how do they get the big net under the thick ice? What happens is that a rope is tied to a pole, which is inserted under the ice? The pole is pulled out of another of the holes. Eventually, the rope will pull the big net under the ice, and so the trap is set. The net is tied to both buoyant and heavy objects, so that part of it is pulled down to the lake's floor, while part floats just beneath the ice, opening the big net.

Fishman is moving the pole at the bottom of the lake forward. It's like they're sewing up the big ice.

And so, little by little, the big net is inserted beneath the ice. Usually, the net is left in place for a day, before it's hauled in. The moment when the net is pulled in is really exciting. It’s so heavy that horses have to be called in to help.

Watching the fish being hauled up in this most primitive of ways, standing on the boundless ice lake beneath a dull sun, surrounded by the merry crowd; it's a moment that will remain in my memory forever. Amazingly, a single net has been known to yield as much as 50,000 kilograms of fish. No wonder the fishermen are so respectful of the lake. It can be really generous.

Is this the biggest today?

Yes. This is the head of the fish.

Skiing is now the hottest winter sport in China. Just one hour's drive out of the city of Changchun, we find the Lian Huashan Ski Resort. It's time for some fun in the ice and snow.

Lian Huashan claims to be the closest ski resort to a city in China. It's just an hour by road from central Changchun. It's a pretty small resort – a run down its longest piste lasts only a few minutes. The resort is attempting to cash in on the burgeoning love of skiing among China's younger generations. All the equipment and clothing you’ll need is available for hire, since, after all, only the most devoted skiers own their own gear. And professional coaches are also on hand to give you some pointers. A group of youngsters are having their winter camp here. The youngest among them is just six years old.

It's early morning, and we're here to see the special phenomena of Wusong. On Wusong Island.

It's a scene that's unbelievable and unforgettable. In the bitter cold, the river flows slowly and quietly, shrouded in mist. All in all, there's a tremendous air of mystery about the water. For this reason, there's no better place than the island to see the scene of frost on the trees, a sight that is called Wusong.

Frost doesn't form easily. It depends on the conditions: the temperature, the wind, and the moisture in the air. The temperature of the Songhua River is the key to the frost that forms on the little island. On this stretch, the river has just passed through the Songhua River Hydro-power Plant. After spending some time among all the machines, the water's temperature is quite warm - between 3 and 6 degrees above zero. That’s why this section of the Songhua River never freezes, whatever the time of year.

It's as if it's been touched by magic. The place has been transformed into a frosty wonderland. Wherever you rest your eyes, you see a world that is gently frosted. People in the city of Jilin are so proud – and so serious – about their particular wonder of nature that some years ago they held a public debate – which by all accounts got pretty heated – on what to call it. In the end, they settled for Wusong, a name that has appeared in ancient records.

This calls to mind all the fairy tales I ever knew. For example, if the seven dwarves had wanted to find a place to hide Snow White, that building over there would be the perfect choice.

I never imagined that ice and snow could be so romantic. They have a special power to move you, which reaches into the tenderest corner of your heart and awakens all the innocence and fantasies of your childhood. The white snow seems to purify everything around it, making the world simpler and more friendly. Whichever direction you look, you see a serene, peaceful and benevolent paradise.

We're really lucky; this phenomena doesn't happen every day. Some people come here several times and stay for days, but they don't see it.

Thanks to the Songhua flowing around it, Wusong Island is considered the ideal place to witness Wusong – hence the island's name. Among the most regular visitors are photographers, who come in their droves to immerse themselves in this icy world, in the hope of capturing on film its pure beauty outlined by the whiteness of the frost.

There's no problem remembering the name of Jilin, the city, since it's the only city in the country that shares a name with the province where it's found. .

Hey take a look at these – old-style shoes. They're very strong, made of the hide of some kind of ox. These are what people used to wear when they walked in the forest; water proof, old-fashioned Gortex. And this also keeps you warm. Made of very good wool.

Wen Temple in Jilin City is a must-see for any visitor, if you have the time. It was built in honour of the great philosopher and teacher, Confucius. Such temples used to be a common sight in China; that is, you could find one in every major town or city in the country. First built over a hundred years ago, this temple in Jilin was one of the five largest Wen temples in the country.

In 1976, a special visitor came to the city of Jilin and never left. Eventually, a museum was built to commemorate this visit.

Can you guess who the visitor was? A shooting star.

This is where we are, on the Songhua River, in the museum. Up north, this is where the meteorite landed. At three o’clock in the afternoon, on March 8, 1976, the meteorite came out of the northeast and exploded 18 kilometers above the ground, shattering into countless pieces that covered an area of square kilometres. The most amazing thing is that not a single person or animal was hurt.

This is the largest piece that was gathered from that visit. When it hit the ground, the meteorite opened up a pit six metres deep. The rock is estimated to weigh 1,775 kilograms, or over 1.7 tons, making it the largest rock meteorite the world has ever known. In total, more than a hundred pieces have been collected and are kept in the museum.

When we think of the universe and its many unsolved mysteries, we are only too aware of just how small and insignificant we really are. In recent times, cameras have captured many shooting stars. Some of them have landed on the earth, bringing us important information and messages from the vastness that surrounds us. They are made up of elements and structures that are unknown on earth. It's estimated that the meteorite that visited Jilin was part of a planet that was 4.6 billion years old. It came from an asteroid belt that used to lie between Jupiter and Mars. At the museum you can see meteorite samples from all over the world.

It feels smooth, and at the same time grainy. See the concave surface here; it was formed when the rock passed through the atmosphere. And when you come to think about it, I am actually, literally, touching a star.

However, there are times when man-made beauty can rival that of nature. The Songhua River, where it runs through Jilin, is the backdrop to many major events that take place in the city. Each year, to celebrate the Jilin Ice and Snow Festival, a grand firework display is held along the river. Despite the deadly cold of the night, the magnificent lighting-up of the night sky brings visitors to the city from near and far.

Finally we're climbing Changbai Mountain.

The uphill ride isn't that easy. Only a powerful vehicle, something like a tank, can safely negotiate the sharp turns of the zigzagging path, pushing through the thick snow and ice on the surface. At first, we were traveling through forests, but gradually the trees became sparser, and eventually disappeared. That was when the view became truly magnificent.

The view is getting better and better, I don't know what's waiting for me up there..

45 minutes' drive up here. If you have time, I would recommend hiking – could be much more exciting. And over there, you can see that's the heavenly pond.

Finally, on top of the mountain, the view is almost surreal. It's as if you're standing at a special place that transcends all worldly concerns. The clouds on the distant horizon make you feel the real world is far, far away.

From here you get a clearer idea of how the vegetation on the slopes of Changbai Mountain varies. It's said that the biological divergence between the foot and the top of the mountain is equivalent to that between Beijing and the Antarctic.

It's a 45 minutes drive, but if you have the time, a hike up here would be great. Over there, that's the pond of heaven.

Changbai Mountain is actually a volcano, and the pond of heaven is a volcanic lake.

In its name, the lake reflects our sense of awe in the face of Nature. Changbai is the sacred mountain of the Korean people, and the lake is their sacred lake. Each year, thousands of Koreans come here to pay tribute to the mountain. Although I'm not Korean, I'm still deeply moved by the beauty of it. Actually, you're considered lucky if you get to see the real face of the Pond of Heaven, since the weather up here is pretty unpredictable, and more often than not, the lady hides behind clouds and mist.

It's kind of sweet and not very cold, actually. The water comes from the heavenly pond. It's funny people call it a pond; actually, the pond of heaven is so big that if you were to divide the water in it among the 1.3 billion Chinese people, each one of us would get 1.5 tons. Imagine that.

The waterfall comes directly from the Pond of Heaven. Later it becomes the Erdaohi River, which is, in turn, the source of the Songhua River, which we've already visited on our travels. The water comes from deep down in the pond of heaven, and never freezes, whatever the time of year. Changbai Mountain is a dormant volcano, rising 2,744 metres above sea level. Records show that between 1597 and 1702, it erupted three times. And there still might have been other, unrecorded eruptions. So, deep down beneath the snow and ice, hot magna is boiling at the heart of the volcano. That's why you can have the best hot spring bath here on Changbai Mountain. And that's not the only use the hot water can be put to.

Wow, it's hot. This is the hottest spring around here, 82 degrees. People actually cook eggs in it. All you need to do is just put one in the water. And fifteen minutes later, the egg is done. It's still not that well done, but still it tastes good. And not only is the water here special; the rocks are unique as well.

If you were to come in the summer, Changbai Mountain would be very different. Foliage would block the sunlight, and all kinds of wild flowers and grasses would carpet the land. The bad news is that you won't be able to enjoy a hot bath in the teeth-chattering cold, or the fun of skiing down the mountain.

There's plenty of choice when it comes to places to stay on the mountain. Many of the hotels have an in-house hot spring bath. But if you want to get a real sense of the local life, you should stay at the Huangjia Family Inn, near the town of Erdaohe. The hotel is, in fact, the home of former loggers, and you're guaranteed a warm night. And the homemade food here is absolutely delicious.

What could be better than having a hot breakfast in a cottage in the forest in a warm bed? It's really warm.

From Changbai Mountain, we headed north to see the spot where three countries meet. It's called Hunchun, and it's a major border-trading city. From here, vast quantities of goods are imported and exported daily between Russia, China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The three countries possess very distinctive cultures, yet they're so close to each other here. It's fascinating to see how the invisible borderlines demarcate different national characteristics. If you travel on from here, you'll come to Russia or the DPRK, but our trip stops here, at the border. I know it must have seemed a very chilly journey. But let me assure you, if you ever come here, you'll be assured the very warmest of welcomes.


Editor:Chen Minji