Beijing on ice: 5 ways to cross a frozen lake in style

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Winters in Beijing can be brutal, with temperatures commonly dropping to minus 10 degrees Celsius or worse. It doesn't stop the locals, though. Rather than staying indoors and hibernating until summertime, Beijingers make the most of the freezing temperatures and head for the city's central lakes for some frosty fun, with a difference.

On frozen lakes such as Houhai, it's not just ice skates you can rent. You can try your hand at ice cycling, ice bumper cars or even have a go at pushing yourself round on two wooden school chairs attached to metal runners. Here's our quick-look guide to getting your winter slice of the Beijing ice:

Choosing your ice machine

The Ice Daddy: bumper cars

Bumper cars on a frozen lake. Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

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No one on the lake will mess with you in one of these babies. An accident waiting to happen, the safest place to be when these electric-powered dodgems are darting around the ice is in one.

Pedal power: ice bikes

Ice bikes, what a wonderful way to ride. Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

Mix a good workout for your legs with some boy-racer adrenaline by skidding your way round Houhai on these bicycle-cum-toboggan contraptions. Don't expect to be able to pull off any wheelies, and go easy on tight corners if you don't fancy having to sheepishly walk over to the other side of the lake to collect your runaway bike.

Kids stuff: chair sleds

Glide in style.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

They should patent this. Two wooden school chairs bolted onto runners and propelled across the ice using what look like ski poles, but what in fact are two fire pokers welded together with a screwdriver handle stuck to one end. The steering wheel is for decoration only. You're at the mercy of the ice ruts here.

Slightly creepy baby option: mini rickshaws

Weird and wonderful mini rickshaws.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

There's something a bit Damien from the Omen trilogy about these mini rickshaws that are pulled along by a rather scary-looking clockwork doll that hobbles its way around in circles with an I-know-something-you-don't grin plastered across its face. Still, the kids seem to love them.

The winter classic: ice skates

Two enjoying the ice in a more conventional way. Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

Spinning around a frozen lake on an ice bike is all well and good, but if you're serious about your ice, nothing but skates will do. Don't expect a smooth ride, though. The surface at Houhai has more chips in it than an English pub lunch. Think less triple Salchows and more trying to avoid embarrassing wipeouts.

How to

First, go to one of the ticket booths and load up a swipe card with enough cash to cover what you're planning to hire. Hire prices are as follows:

Bumper Car: 20RMB (US$3) per 10 minutes; deposit 100RMB
Bike:
30RMB per hour; deposit 100RMB
Chair sled:
20RMB per day; deposit 30RMB
Mini rickshaw:
10RMB per 10 minutes; no deposit
Skates:
20RMB per day; deposit 100RMB

Your card will get swiped as you hire things. Once you're done, return the card and get back any unused credit.

Where to

There are in fact three lakes here; Qianhai (Front Lake), Houhai (Back Lake) and Xihai (West Lake). The one people skate on is actually called Qianhai, but the area in general is commonly referred to as Houhai (后海). Nearest subway station: Gulou Dajie.

When to

It's different every year of course, but the lakes in Beijing tend to start freezing over in November and the ice is usually thick enough to skate on towards the end of December. Chinese New Year, aptly called Spring Festival by the Chinese, normally heralds the onset of slightly warmer weather, so that's when the skate-hire guys usually pack up shop and leave. This year Chinese New Year is on February 3.

Daniel McCrohan co-authored the last two editions of Lonely Planet's China guide.