Child's play

Updated : 2014-01-17

By ( chinadaily.com.cn )

If you visit the ice festival in Harbin this month, the guidebooks won't tell you how to find the long, slick spot on the river bank, where you can slide butt-first down a chute of frozen reeds and slide smoothly onto the river's glassy surface.

Your hotel concierge probably won't mention it, either. The best way to experience such off-the-radar joys, I've found, is to take direction from some local kids.

Many travelers sigh that it's not easy to meet locals, especially on a quick trip where there is a language barrier. But if some youngsters approach you for a photo, for example, you've found the perfect locals to hang out with for a bit.

Kids are eager to show you what they know. In places like China, they often like to practice their English, and it can turn into a competition. Whose idea will the foreigner like best? Best of all, kids are in the business of having fun. (Hang out with a group, not a single child, and no one will worry about your intentions.)

"Uncle," a merry gang of 7-year-olds once asked me in Kivalena, Alaska, "Do you want to go to the haunted school?" I'd been making a solitary walk on the wooden-plank walkways of that Arctic village for about an hour, and the youngsters had formed a giggling chorus in my wake.

"A haunted school?" I asked. "What will your parents think?"

This got me a look of scorn that only a third-grader can make. They wouldn't dream of inviting Mom or Dad there.

I stifled the urge to collect permission slips from their moms, and we all sauntered to a quiet corner of the village, rousing a few barking dogs but no grown-up interest. We were above the Arctic Circle, after all, and sensible adults were indoors on a minus 30 C afternoon.

The "haunted" building turned out to be the original village school, abandoned 10 years ago when a new one was built. One of the boys quickly prised off the wooden beam that the formidable lock was attached to, and two others yanked the big door open. There was a lot of whistling and chasing and screaming, and I declined an invitation to enter a hole in the floor and follow a tunnel into "the mine".

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