China: Ice Fishing in the Chilly North

Two ice fishermen in northern China. Branson Quenzer photos.
Two ice fishermen in northern China. Branson Quenzer photos.

Chilly Northern China: Across the River from Russia

By Branson Quenzer

Frozen river road.
Frozen river road.

In the winter paradise of northern China sometimes the blanketing cold can make a man stir crazy and winter shenanigan dreams resurrect themselves against the falling temperatures.  The aurora borealis, nature’s own 70’s psychedelic montage is said to make appearances in the northern most village of Bei Ji Tun, Heilongjiang China  

If you were to look at China as a chicken it would be the very tip of a rooster’s crown.  Modern technology now tracks the Northern lights, and despite the past decade migration away from Russia more towards Canada on a good night the aurora fairies might just dance.

Our homestay in Bei Ji Tun, Heilongjiang China.
Our homestay in Bei Ji Tun, Heilongjiang China.

Overzealous minds fell prey to oversight.  The train to Mohe, the end of the line and launching point north, was not an 8-hour trip, but an 18 hour one, not to mention we left at 16 not 6 and thus the waiting game began with big green bottles of bubbles.

With the waiting came a pair of southern Chinese men also on their way to see the north and they had more planned than just a dream of seeing some solar winds.

In Mohe the five of us piled in the micro van heading to ‘Northern Lights Village.’  Two more hours on dark mountain passes in temperatures which plummet so low that glass freezes and multiple panes are stacked taped on top one another, building little squares in front of the driver to peer out of an igloo on wheels.

Props to the southerners who took fair warning of the cold and isolation of the north, making reservations for the ice box ride and village home stay or we would have been out in the cold like frozen fish in ice.  Final stop… no lights, YET, and a warning not to walk across the river.  The River is the border between China and Russia and the site of where my Aussie mate and I would make our exit.

Morning Recon

Morning reconnaissance began as the Chinese three marched with the PLA army to forbidden territory for lao wai (foreigner), the Army outpost guarding against any possible Russian invasion or the occasional inebriated soviet who stumbled a little too far south.

We strolled the frozen river peering across to the Russian banks on the other side making a stop at a local fishing hole.  We received valuable information regarding the watchtowers on either side of the river and any blind spots which could make for a possible night crossing along with how to drill and net fish below the meter thick ice.

Chinese horseshoes with huge cleats needed to walk across frozen tundra.
ice fisherman in Northern China.
ce fisherman

He said that the Russians cross the border from time to time stealing nets.  To retrieve them back, the Russians barter for cheep homebrew baijiu hurled by Chinese over the no-man zone.  The border is marked by wooden stakes and tattered flags frozen midstream every 50 meters demarcating the Heilongjiang from the Amour River.

Before departing we asked if he had ever dared to set a foot on the Amour side of the river, “NO!”  Thirty years of fishing 10 meters from Russia and not a wink of gumption.

Leaving our furry hat friend making our way back to the southern bank and safely back on the Chinese mainland we two were approached by a small, in number and stature, platoon of the PLA demanding a passport in Russian.

I had my American passport but the Australian one was left back at home 20 hours away… no concrete proof of legal residence in China.

I didn’t use my Chinese ability and said something in English like, “I have no idea what you are saying.”  My grin didn’t set their minds at ease as their tone grew sterner.  A spattering of Chinese went back and forth between the army and I trying to steer the conversation away from passports and towards us being ‘Not Russians’ and employees in China.  Falling on deaf ears, they were taking us two ‘Russians’ in for questioning.

Just as they turned and we followed they turned back saying no problem and be careful, don’t go past the posted signs in the middle of the river.

Now puzzled, wondering why they left us two ‘Russians’ illegally entering their country without documents, they vanished.  We laughed and also laughed away our thoughts of crossing the river for the Russian frontier.  In under an hour we had been questioned by the army who had came from nowhere and disappeared into nowhere for merely walking on the river.

The chilly village of Bei Ji Tun, Heilongjiang China
The chilly village of Bei Ji Tun, Heilongjiang China

“I’m Happy You’re OK!” 

Minutes thereafter our traveling Chinese compatriots were dropped off at our feet by the public security.  My buddy’s girlfriend jumped into his arms worried and then quickly retracted her embrace with a gnarled be careful in a ‘I’m happy your ok way’.  While they were in the guard tower in the Chinese PLA outpost they heard radio calls of Russian intruders and ‘guards be on guard.’

ice fishing hole
ice fishing hole

As the armed soldiers approached us ready to detain us for questioning the local Heilongjiang girl snatched the tour guides binoculars and shouted out orders to let the two poor white fellows go they are nothing but poor foolish teachers!

The night came but the northern lights did not.  We asked when, where and finally what time of year the northern lights dazzle the town’s eyes as we point to postcard like pictures with bent corners and faded colors hanging in the general stores.  The answer was this, ‘Oh, yes you can see them here, but not now.’

Some say in spring others in fall and the occasional summer response is thrown out but the for sure answer was, NOT NOW.  From the days investigations with the ice fisherman, the encounter with the armed forces, and final rescue by friends we were going nowhere under the cover of darkness.

Day three passes with little more than ho hum attitudes as hopes were dashed and after circumnavigating the village twice, night soon fell again.  The night threw nothing but black our way.  My beard was frozen as growing ice icicles and only my good buddy was there to share in our failure.

Winding the nets
Winding the nets

Slushy Beer and a Shot of Baijiu

The general store was still open and the only liquid that could survive outdoor temperatures of negative 40C was baijiu.  A slug chased by a beer slushy and a drag of some local tobacco passed the time.

The bite of baijiu faded and as did the consequences of running wildly across a frozen river we sat so near to.  The last slug was the last bit of liquid courage or stupidity that either of us needed.  Game on!!!

A few preparations were needed… camera flash off, two cigarettes rolled and our gloves on the correct hands.  To make one step forward it took three to get there.  To the end of the village and to a spot in our best approximation of where not to be spotted.  Stop and go, to and fro through the waist-deep snow.

On our back we rested with a cigarette and a picture.  No aurora borealis put a shadow on our face.  The only northern lights were a couple of faint cigarette ambers on the south bank of the Amour.  The black picture and a little frostbite followed us back to our beds for a black night’s sleep after being on the most northern side of one place and the most southern side of another.

Branson Quezner
Branson Quezner

Branson Quenzer  has spent the last decade in East Asia using his background in economics to interact with his environment through a lens that sees the emergence and decay of traditions in a modernizing world. Visit his blog at

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