China’s icy northeast relies on winter tourism as a source of growth
By Duncan Gordon
There is only one road to Xuecun (Snow Village). It is long, bumpy and, at this time of year, covered in ice. Night had fallen as our coach driver navigated the last stretches of treacherous road, while the outside temperature had dropped to minus 23 degrees Celsius. With very low visibility, we were relieved to finally reach our destination.
Snow Village is located in Dunhua, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in Jilin Province; a remote corner of China’s northeast. Nestled amongst the Changbai Mountains, the village is beautiful, but its residents do not have access to all the modern amenities available in Jilin’s cities. A group of foreign students and journalists visited Snow Village to learn about village life and how people celebrate Chinese New Year in this part of the world.
Quality of Life
After a journey to Dunhua, many of the foreign entourage were impressed by the remote location of the village. How do the villagers make a living out here? Local resident Ran Yan smiled when asked if she found life difficult in Snow Village.
“I’m used to living here,” she said. “I have houses I could go to in nearby cities, but I choose to live here because I prefer the environment. There is pollution in the city.” And the long, freezing winters? “I don’t feel the cold!” she laughed.
The inhabitants of Dunhua Snow Village know how to get through the harsh Jilin winters. Homes are fitted with traditional kang bed-stoves. Logs are burned on a stove underneath the beds and the heat is carried through a chute system to keep them warm. This system takes up a lot of space in the room, but the beds can be used for other purposes during the day, like playing games with family and friends.
From a city-dweller’s perspective, life in this frozen wilderness seems tough. However, Ran Yan explained that although her parents had moved to the city due to poor health (there is no hospital close to the village), she found life in the countryside more convenient.
“I can sleep on the kang here, and we store meat in an outdoor warehouse for the winter; there is no need for a refrigerator,” she added. “Plus, I grew up here and I don’t want to live anywhere else.”
Recently, Dunhua Snow Village has seen a greater flow of tourists coming to stay as the area’s natural beauty grows in fame. When asked how the increased tourism had affected her life and the village as a whole, Ran Yan was very enthusiastic.
“We can make more money now,” she replied. “Before, I used to cut wood to make money. Now I prepare food for tourists, who stay in our accommodation, and they buy our food to take with them when they leave as well. It’s a good way to make a living. I like it!”
Ran Yan said she makes enough money for her living costs and even saves some money each month to put towards her son’s marriage.
Her current guests were exploring the village and the surrounding hills after enjoying a good night’s sleep on a kang for the first time, in the village’s guesthouses. The villagers have built an ice slide on the northern hill facing the village, with rubber rings to ride down it. It keeps children (as well as adults) entertained for hours on end. The inhabitants of Dunhua Snow Village have kept alive some local traditions that fascinate their guests. In a traditional wooden log cabin Liu Xuejun was making tofu. He seemed delighted that the foreign guests were all enjoying his cooking and some were even coming back for seconds. It’s not every day that so many international guests come to Snow Village. Next door, people warmed their frozen hands and feet by the stove. The locals reminisced about sitting around a warm stove in their primary school days, before local schools had modern heating. Although to outsiders visiting Snow Village may seem like a step back in time, as they listened to the locals talk, it was clear that, as is true all over China, life here has changed a lot in recent decades.
New Year Celebrations
Ran Yan’s guests watched her make niandoubao, red-bean dumplings made especially for Chinese New Year. She made it look easy, but when the foreign visitors had a try, they soon realized it’s harder than it looked to get them right.
“Most of the preparation I do for the New Year involves making food. We cook meat and make dumplings and suancai [pickled cabbage]”, Ran explained.
Mohamed Djimaleh, an engineering student from Djibouti currently attending Shenyang Ligong University in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning Province, said he really enjoyed eating the red-bean dumplings and seeing Chinese New Year decorations being put up in the village.
“I’ve seen traditional Chinese culture on television before, but never in real life,” Djimaleh said.
Family members who live in the city come home towards the end of December to spend New Year in the village. During the Spring Festival the family will eat together, make dumplings and go for walks in the snowy mountains and pine forests that surround the village. They also take sledges up the slopes so the kids can race down them. Like in the rest of the country, children are given hongbao (red envelopes filled with money), and are expected to koutou (bow) to their parents in turn. Ran Yan explained that her hometown also has its own particular New Year traditions. On January 15 the locals roll around on the ice in order to ward off illness in the coming year.
It’s not just family who come to this remote Jilin village during the long winter.
“Besides June, November until March is our peak tourist season, when the area is covered in snow and the scenery is beautiful,” Ran Yan explained.
It snows in Dunhua for around four months every year. A winter that long requires a lot of preparation. The local people plant vegetables and mushrooms in the mountains, collect oats, and get ready for the cold, as well as the visitors.
To hikers looking for some wilderness, culture vultures wanting to learn more about northeastern villagers’ way of life, and those who just want to get away from busy city life, Snow Village has a lot to offer. There is no doubt that many of the foreign visitors were planning their return to this isolated corner of Jilin as our bus bounced along the country road, away from Snow Village.