It's an early wake up call on our night train from Changbai Shan to Shenyang, listening to Chinese passengers yelling instructions at each other. I grab a few sheets of loose paper out of my Mandarin book and hop down from my bunk to stare out the window from a hard seat. I slip my boots back on, a point of contention with the night guard a few hours earlier in the 14-hour journey.
We're on our way back from the North Korean border after a week of exploration. It all started six days ago with a Ice and Snow Festival. A word to the wise: be prepared for the -20°C (-4°F) temps with snow pants, boots, gloves (double bag 'em, and use a hand warmer if you're going to be tromping around in the elements for longer than an hour), thermal socks, long underwear and a solid ski jacket. Entry to the park is a steep RMB 300 on peak days but well worth it for the chance to frolic amongst enormous frozen structures and glide down giant ice luges....
Warm up with a regional dinner of hearty Dōngběi (东北) dishes like dì sān xiān (fried eggplant, peppers and onions; 地三鲜), a whole fish and various beef and potato concoctions. Another quick survival tip for Western palates is to bring extra snacks: protein or granola bars, dried fruit and trail mix (as well as a stash of antacid tablets) in case your stomach doesn't take to all the new flavors. Dishes like jiǎozi (steamed dumplings, 饺子) are always delicious and won't make you feel queasy.
We head south toward Changbai Shan, where ruddy, weathered faces and Korean characters reveal just how close we are to the border. Our next stop is Dongsheng Forest where we set off fireworks and party under the stars with a blazing bonfire keeping the night alive. We sleep on kàng (炕; beds for 2-8 people) that are heated by a fire underneath. After a toasty night's rest, we arise early, down hard boiled eggs and throw on our packs for a five-hour hike over the mountain. The snowy trail is steep at times with horse-drawn sleighs occasionally forcing us to abandon our path. The tree line gives way to a panoramic peak just as our quads give out.
After a few celebratory snow angels we feel our toes growing cold and quickly trot down the other side, arriving at the "snow village" for a quick rest and a lunch of jiaozi and hot pot at a tiny local B&B. Energy lifted, we explore the main street, picking up postcards and taking photos with dog sleds before heading on our way to find a spot to crash until morning.
Day four and we're on the road again to Jingpo Hu for an unexpected midday fiesta with some local friends. The ice on the lake is 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) thick above the water, so we drive out onto the lake and join in setting off fireworks, doing donuts and munching on what tastes like raw shrimp. Onward to Changbai Shan (a 7-hour journey) where we rejoice upon arrival with a feast of Korean barbecue and a typical drinking competition before stumbling to a nearby KTV.
Needless to say we sleep like babies and wake up early to head up the mountain on shuttle buses to arrive at the mountaintop lodge. We take a short hike to the nearby picturesque waterfalls and spend the rest of the afternoon in the hot springs. On our final day, we hit the slopes in glorious snowboarding conditions, shredding through powder, going off-trail and hitting jumps to our hearts content. Still in our snow gear, we hop a taxi (about RMB 100) to board the night train for a 14-hour journey from Changbai Shan to Shenyang. Another word to the wise: be sure to stock up on snacks and a noodle bowl as there's no food on the train, nor is there an opportunity to hop off for very long at any of the stops. When you finally get off the train around 7am, go up the escalator and head straight to McDonald's for a well-deserved breakfast of hash browns, coffee and egg sandwiches.
It's been REAL Dongbei. One last tip? Don't attempt this trip on a solo mission unless your Mandarin skills are up to speed.