Journey to the northeast
Tips on visiting the icy climes of Dongbei, and the scams and pitfalls to look out for
Published: Feb 04, 2016 05:53 PM

Snowy and frozen Northeast China (Dongbei) is a popular tourist destination during winter, as people from other parts of China flock to experience temperatures that can drop lower than -30 C.

This Global Times reporter, together with her daughter and niece, took a five-day trip to the region last January. Here are some tips I picked up while there.

Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province, hosts its world-famous annual ice sculpture festival starting around January 1. Each year, the festival has a different theme.

You should set aside as much time as possible to spend exploring the festival since it is so huge and there are many activities in which you can participate.

You should also be prepared for large crowds at the festival. The 300 yuan ($45.60) all-in-one admission ticket for adults gives access to all the indoor and outdoor activities in the park. Tickets for students and children are discounted.

We didn't enter the park until about 4 pm on the day we arrived in Harbin. One thing we didn't expect was for the falling evening temperature to cause our smartphones to stop working.

Also, make sure you charge your battery fully if you're planning to take lots of photos. One food stand was charging 10 yuan to charge a phone for 10 minutes, which did little to replenish my battery.

As well as the usual cold-weather gear of gloves, hats and scarves, suitable footwear is a must.

It should be thick-soled to prevent against the stinging cold of the ground, and also have a good grip to help prevent slipping on the ice.

(Top) People take a stroll on a frozen river in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province. Photos: Feng Yu/GT

Ski scams

Besides Harbin, we also went to Yabuli - a ski resort about 200 kilometers from Harbin - and Xuexiang, a town that is covered with thick snow during winter.

We fell into the trap of taking a tourist coach to get to these destinations. Rather than going directly to them, it stopped at many overpriced and disappointing places.

On the way to Yabuli, I didn't want the children to miss out on anything just to save some money, so I paid for all these extra places that were strongly recommended by the tourist guide. It turned out to be a waste of money.

We paid 180 yuan for a visit to a village house which in fact was just a showpiece without any real villagers living in it. All you see is an interior that will be familiar from any Dongbei-based TV series.

We were also led into a so-called bandits' cave, which had just a few people at the entrance and exit trying to shock you.

Snow business

The tourist guide also lied, saying that the ski admission staff would be very strict with regard to our clothes, protective glasses and other equipment in an attempt to make us hire "high-quality and professional" equipment designated by the tour company.

However, when we arrived, it turned out that the ski staff were not as strict as we had been led to believe. Indeed, some of the items they hired out themselves were dirty and shabby.

Upon arriving at the entrance to the ski resort, so-called trainers will surround new arrivals, trying to sell coaching sessions at 200 yuan per hour.

I booked one for my daughter, but after the session I found that she still didn't grasp the basics of skiing.

Based on the lessons we gathered at Yabuli, we decided to ignore any recommendations made by the guide during our trip to Xuexiang, including a mountain-hiking experience for 360 yuan.

Instead, we chose another excursion - a drive through thick snow in the mountains costing 180 yuan per person - based on Internet reviews.

However, later that night, the two Harbin women sharing our kang (a bed warmed by fire beneath it) told us that they had paid just 50 yuan per person for the same excursion.

Apparently, it's an open secret among local people to charge non-locals extra.

The food provided by the travel agency was of low quality. If you need good nutrition to fight against severe cold, you'd better bring along chocolate or other snacks with you.

When we were there, news spread that there were some problems with the local water supply, so we were advised not to eat or drink a lot there to protect ourselves.

The semi-starvation we faced in Xuexiang caused us to hunt for barbecue as soon as we returned Harbin. We were so happy to be back in a modern city again and we ate a lot.

What's more, we tasted the long-desired Dongbei Daban (a local ice lollipop, pictured above), which resulted in collective suicidal vomiting and diarrhea at midnight.

To me, Dongbei is still a good place, but make sure you protect yourself against the freezing temperatures and the merciless scammers.