The snowfield was dazzling white under the mid-day sun. Except for the fluttering of small colourful buntings strung around the farm houses to usher in the Chinese New Year, it was dead silent as people stayed indoors. The temperature was -15°C even under the blazing sun. It was 1pm in Wusong Island near Jilin City, capital city of Jilin Province, part of former Manchuria of China, a well hidden gem largely missed out by foreign tourists.
I took a walk outside my homestay farm house, Zhao Si Hotel. The pathway was carved through the snow with the shoved up snow piled up to two to three feet high on both sides. It was snow for as far as the eye could see, carpeting cars, roofs, every flat surface and blanketing fields and mountains.
The air was freezing but refreshing. I was soon to find out that the pathway was slippery and could send one flying down the road.
Inside the farm house, my host Zhao Si, 53, was preparing a typical northeastern Chinese steamboat with thinly sliced mutton rolls, pork belly slabs and salad for lunch. Our room comes with free breakfast, but there is charge for other meals which have to be preordered.
Wusong Island is an islet embraced by a split of the Songhua River that snakes around Jilin City. It used to be the Manchurian heartland but has been developed since the 1990s as a winter resort and is fast growing though largely outshined by Harbin’s Ice Festival, about 250km to the north.
But Wusong Island has its unique attraction, the Wusong, or rime trees, a natural phenomenon touted as one of the forth natural wonder of China after the Stone Forest of Yunnan, Lijiang of Yangsuo, and Three Gorges of the Yangtze River.
When comparatively warmer vapour from the water released from a dam upstream of the Songhua River rises to meet the freezing air, it crystallises and clings to the bare branches, turning the rows of trees along the river banks, indeed the whole area, into a surreal fairyland. It is unique and amazingly beautiful.
Even more interesting is its geographical setting, especially for history buffs. Wusong Island is linked to Nurhachi, the legendary tribal chief who united the three Nujin tribes and founded the Manchurian Kingdom which eventually overturned the Ming Dynasty and established the Qing Dynasty, ruling China and expanding its dominance until its collapse in 1911.
Nurhachi’s fourth wife was from Wusong Island where there still exists the Wula-Manchurian
Street Town with remnant of Manchurian architecture and cultural relics.
Homestay host Zhao Si also provides free transport to the Wula-Manchurian Museum, a small cultural centre where one can learn more about the Wula-Manchurian tribe and enjoy winter activities at a little fair ground just outside it. Horse and dog sledge rides are a great amusement to children. A huge man-made icy rock outcrop with water cascading into a pool next to Wusong rime trees is so scenic that tourists have to queue up to use it as a backdrop for photoshoots.
A purpose-built wooden house on the fair grounds is a replica of a north-easterner’s home long ago. It is a vivid remake for local young adults who used to stay with their grandparents in such homes. It is completely furnished and equipped with the old fashioned appliances and the house looks as if its occupants have just gone out to work on the farm.
As the sun set around 4pm, it being winter, colourful lights came on to light up the ice-sculptured play area turning it into a fairyland for ice-sliding on huge rubber tubes called “donuts” at only RMB30 (RM18) per hour. What a reasonably low price for an exhilarating family time! As the day trippers left, those staying overnight took over, draining all their energy until there was none left before returning to their homestay for a good sumptuous dinner.
For the less adventurous, there is plenty of photo opportunities, including a mini-tea house where one can take photos sitting on an ice block stool before an ice-carved table with a steamboat pot on the ready... display item only.
On the other end of the fairyland, a troupe of dancers in colourful costumes performed Wula cultural dances which are repeated in the mornings for day trippers.
We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly until dinner time when our tummies groaned. We boarded Zhao Si’s van for his homestay. Mind you, wearing three to four layers of warm clothing can be burdensome even for half an hour. But
it was no issue for the children who had a whale of a time in the snow.
Once inside Zhao Si’s homestay, we simply curled up on the “Kang”, our bed, under thick blankets while dinner was being prepared. Our beds are unusual. The Kang is a unique cement bed with steam from the kitchen stoves channelled under it to warm it up. Another unique feature of the north-eastern Chinese.
Zhao Si and his wife Zhang Kui Feng have been running the homestay since 2015, beginning with three rooms. When business flourished, he bought the neighbour’s house and extended his hotel to accommodate 14 rooms.
He hosts about 2,000 guests yearly, largely from China itself, especially from the south. “I cook for them, take them around and tell them the history of the island. I find my job very satisfying as I delight in meeting people, ” he said.
“I run this homestay for only three months in winter and earn around RMB150,000 (RM90,688). At other times, I am a farmer, planting sweet corns.”
As we spoke, his wife Zhang was busy preparing our dinner. I went round to the kitchen and asked her how she found life as a hotel-keeper and farmer in the north-east. “Too comfortable, especially now that everything about farming is mechanised, ” shs said with a big smile.
Zhao and wife seem to typify the life of a new generation of enterprising Chinese, enjoying the fruits of China’s opening up.
We visited Jilin late last year just before the outbreak of Covid-19, taking a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and boarding to a local flight to Changchun. From there, we took a 45-minute train ride to Jilin.
Due to time factor, we missed seeing the famous Mt Changbaishan bordering North Korea, Yanbian, a border city populated by Korean Chinese, Puyi’s Palace in Changchun where the last emperor Puyi set up his Japanese-sponsored government, nor the Jilin Meteorite Museum, reputed to be one of the biggest in the world.
Nevertheless, it was a holiday with memories not only in photographs but deeply etched in our minds. It is an amazing trip to an ice land in winter, worth taking after Covid-19 is over.
The views expressed are entirely the reader's own.
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