Who says winters are depressing, filled with blah and fodder for sad, slow songs? There’s a whole world of awesome out there, and it’s all served at zero degree Celsius. Diana Kotwal takes a walk on the cold side, and proudly emerges with all her appendages intact.
It might sound crazy, but you don’t need the summer sun to enjoy a holiday. Freezing cold winds, ice waters and a slowed heart rate can also make a successful, fun vacation. Destinations all over the world are offering new, exciting ice escapades that turn up the heat for the thrill seeker in you. From jumping into frozen lakes to sleeping within four walls made of ice, if it’s served chilled, you know you’re going to want a taste.
Brrr holiday # 1: Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival
Where: Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China
An interesting icebit: The 2007 festival built a snow sculpture that was 250 metres long, 28 feet high and used up 13,000 cubic metres of snow. The design was in two parts. The first one, the Niagara Falls and the second one, “Crossing the Bering Strait”. This mega construction made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records. Who knows what they’ll do next to top that?If it were up to me, I’d head to China for Chinese food (or as they call it, just food). It is, after all the land of Peking duck, Tom Yum soup, shrimp fried rice and a delicious variety of dim sum. So imagine the look on my face when I discovered that during the freezing month of January, people around the world (since 1963, no less!) flock to the Heilongjiang Province to feast their eyeballs on massive, hand-made ice sculptures. That’s right. Instead of diving into a hot pot of noodle soup, they’d rather play with ice!
But these are no ordinary ice sculptures. There are monuments that depict elaborate European folktales, palaces fit for the fussiest kind of blue bloods and structures that go beyond thirty meters. The entire spectacle is lit up in neon colours and a show of water and lights creates amazing displays. One year (2008 I think it was), there was a reconstruction of the Great Wall of China which you could slide all the way down and another of Beijing’s Forbidden City. Now if only someone had built a gigantic ice tribute to a barbeque pork bun, I’d have happily got my tongue stuck to it!
Brrr holiday # 2: IceHotel
Where: Jukkasjärvi, Sweden
Ordinarily, I can’t stand the cold. And by ‘the cold’, I mean anything less than 24 degrees Celsius. But I would make an exception (along with three generations’ worth of layers of warm clothing) to live in a hotel that takes me back to my favourite childhood story: ‘The Palace Of The Snow Queen’, a Hans Christian Andersen classic. The story of the IceHotel, however, involves a different plot. The main characters being the famous Torne River, the freezing arctic temperature and perhaps, a viewing of the Northern Lights.
The frozen water from the Torne River is used by over 200 artists from all over the world to build the IceHotel. The brilliant designs, the flawless construction and spectacular creativity come together beautifully, even if only temporarily. The villain of the piece, the cruel springtime sun, even if deemed mild by tropical standards, melts the hotel down to a flowing puddle every year. There’s something so tragic, yet so precious about this revelation. If Andersen were alive, he’d certainly agree. The IceHotel opens in December, and stays open till April, which sees the rise of the Midnight sun. While temperatures may be abnormally cold outside, inside the hotel it never dips beyond -5 °C to -8 °C. Which makes me wonder, if someone were to turn into an ice cube overnight, would they become part of the décor? Do try and tell.
An interesting icebit: During the summer, you can still visit Jukkasjärvi (pronouncing it correctly might take a few more seasons). They have an ice factory where you could try your hand at sculpting. Who knows? If you’re any good, you might be able to make a contribution to the hotel, come winter.
Brrr holiday # 3: Sampo, the only tourist ice-breaker in the world
Where: Kemi, Gulf of Bothnia, Finnish Lapland
The Arctic Icebreaker Safari is one of those holidays that establishes our domination of nature, over a cocktail. At least, that’s what I think they should say in the brochure. The only reason I would even consider braving the harsh arctic weather, is to experience the thrill of ruthlessly cutting through ice, across a stunning white landscape.
The Sampo is the only tourist icebreaker in the world, so anyone who wants to joyride across frozen water, comes here. The brave hearts (yes, I’m referring to the valiant ones who don’t wear anything under their kilts) can take a dip in the freezing cold water (though I’d advise you to wear a thermal suit if you want to survive the experience).
The icebreaker sails from mid December to the end of April, and offers daily tours that last around four hours. During this time, you get to travel under clear, starry skies, through vast lands of frozen nothingness with plenty of ice for that stiff drink that I’m pretty sure you’re going to need.
An interesting icebit:The Sampo uses its powerful engines to climb on top of the ice, and then applies its heavy weight to break through it. If you get a good seat, you can see the cracks in the ice emerging many meters ahead. Die, die cruel ice!
Brrr holiday # 4: Chadar ice trek
Where: Zanskar river, Ladakh, India
Cue theme to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Space Odyssey’. Do your best slow-motion movie walk (refer to ‘Armageddon’, or any other planet-about-to-blow-up-let’s-get Bruce-Willis movie.). Display your finest one-eye squint in the manner of Clint Eastwood (before he got his cataracts removed). For here, on the Chadar ice trek, you get to walk on frozen water! This is as bad-ass as you can get on an adventure holiday. However, I should also point out that the local inhabitants have been walking on the frozen Zanskar River for ages. You see, it’s the only way for them to travel out of their area during winter (so what’s bad ass for us, is just routine for them). On this trek, you get to travel to some of the most remote regions in the Zanskar Mountains. And you better get a full physical check up, because you’ll be walking in the freezing cold (a possible -30 degrees Celsius) for an average of five to eight hours a day. However, the reward for your endurance and frozen flesh would be setting your sights on some of the most gorgeous winter scenery and possibly even some wildlife. Ladakh has been called ‘heaven on Earth’ for a reason. And you don’t get to heaven without suffering for it first.
An interesting icebit:Villages like Chiling and Lingshed are worth visiting on this trek, if you really want to get a feel of local life. Or just want to make some human contact.
Insider Tip: A trip to Ladakh is not for the faint hearted. Literally! Ladakh’s high altitude and difficult terrain bring with them a host of complications, which, with a little precaution and information, can easily be avoided.
This survival guide, which takes you through a list of do’s and don’ts in Ladakh, is an invaluable tool for a more comfortable and enjoyable trip.
Brrr holiday # 5: Niseko Village, ski destination
Where: Hokkaido, Japan
I like my sushi served chilled. You know, the kind of cold that causes your teeth to chip and your eyeballs to roll back inside your head and freeze your brain. Add some saké and skiing, and we’ve got an incredibly cool holiday to brag about. Japan isn’t the first place you think of for a ski vacation, but that hasn’t stopped tourists from all over the world to come on over and make their footprints in the deep, powder snow.
The beauty of this ski resort lies in the powder. Soft, smooth, baby-bottom perfect… it’s even perfectly safe if you want to do a little nighttime skiing. However, if instead, you find your bottom is constantly making too much contact with the snow, you still have many reasons to put on the cute skiing outfits and party. The village of Hirafu has many cool bars, like Blo Blo, an ice bar that’s like a little fairyland with icicles and lights, if you excuse the retro porn that’s flashed on the ceiling.
An interesting icebit:If you can rise and shine early in the morning, without having to scrap alarm clock bits off the wall, go on a ‘first tracks’ trip. Here you can ride up to the Niseko Village ski area at 7 am to watch the sun rise over on Mount Yotei.
Brrr holiday # 6: Ice diving
Where: Tignes, France
Ever look at a tub of ice and thought, “Hey, does anyone else think it would be really cool to jump into this?” I haven’t, but that’s because I’m normal. However, if plunging headlong into frozen water is your thing, head on down to France. While us normal tourists would visit Paris and eat a buttery croissant at a sidewalk café on the Champs Elysees, ice diving enthusiasts can make their way to Tignes. The freshwater lake is a favourite with divers, and there’s even an ice diving school that offers lessons. All you need to do is show up, take a deep breath and take the icy plunge.
So what’s the point of it all? Asks someone who’s eating French bread al fresco style. The point is the view down under. It’s like the Ice Age never went away, and is alive and well inside a French lake. Little air bubbles bob around like principal dancers in ‘Swan lake’, light bounces off the ice to produce beautiful patterns and even though it’s nearly zero degrees, you still get a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling to take home.
An interesting icebit:Ice diving in the freshwater lake is not as sinister as it sounds. For one, professional divers guide you through the process. You then put on a dry suit, sit at the edge of the ice hole and wait, while your air tank, flippers and mask are attached. If you’ve done this sort of thing before, you’re free to dive in. If you’re new and noticeably nervous, as a beginner you get a safety rope and professional guide attached to you the entire time.
Brrr holiday # 7: Fox and Franz Josef glaciers
Where: West coast, New Zealand
These two glaciers are not to be trifled with. And by that, I mean you can’t stand in front of them, point and giggle in amusement. Located in the West Coast Mountains, the glaciers come with a back story. The snow gathers in the Nevé, which is a giant basin in the mountains, and as the snow compresses, it forms hard ice. Gravity pulls the ice to 200 metres above sea level. Brave ones can take a helicopter flight over the glaciers. And braver ones can walk on the glaciers, after the helicopter lands. Either way, it’s the stuff postcards are made of.
An interesting icebit: If helicopters rides aren’t really your thing, you can take guided walks to both glaciers. The Fox glacier walk includes a first look at the chunks of dead ice that were leftover when the glacier retreated back in the ‘60s. The Franz Josef glacier walk starts off with a riverside view and gradually progresses to a rocky road, which means the glacier is just ahead.
Diana Kotwal loves travel and food, and finds that writing about the former is a good way to pay for the latter.
She’s visited several cities across the world, and brought back quite a few souvenirs (especially in the form of body fat), making her love handles the perfect ode to her two loves.
Diana has written for Lonely Planet, Mid-Day, Femina, Jade Magazine and Random House India.
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