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Climbing China’s Korean Corner

Changbaishan, otherwise known to me as ‘Ever-white-mountain’ is famous around these parts, as long as the parts we are talking about is the province of Jilin, China.

And for all you geography buffs out there, it is located in the largest nature reserve in China covering an area of some 210,000 hectares. What we have is acres of dense, eye pleasing, lovely fresh air producing lush forest of all varieties and corresponding colours, all just waiting to be attacked by friendly logging companies sometime in the future,………. maybe. Apparently there are some rare Manchurian tigers out there roaming around just mooching around the place, although I didn’t have the fortune/misfortune to come across one. 

The mountain is the eye-catching centerpiece of all this nature stuff, displaying a rumbling 68-meter waterfall providing the backdrop to many a tourist’s happy snapshots, and ‘heaven pool’, which is a vast, deep lake filling the volcanic crater on top of the mountain. No mountain of such fame would be complete without a legend or a myth, and as such in the deep, dark depths of the lake lies a monster that has been seen occasionally stretching his limbs, doing the backstroke or getting some fresh air as monsters do. The fact that this lake boasts its very own Loch Ness Monster is surely great for local tourism one would think, so it is fair play to all concerned to talk it up a little.
This mountain is actually a real mountain-type looking mountain, the type you could get stranded on and die owing to sudden changes in the local weather, where the rescue party eventually finds you frozen like an ice pop, rather than a big hill as is often the case I find on other trips to so called mountains in China. A good example being when I took a trip to Erlongshan, otherwise known to me as ‘2-dragon-mountain’, a place with rather a cool and intimidating name, but really just turns out to be two hills you can amble up in less than half an hour. And where were the two dragons I asked?

In May of the year, the Chinese government gives everyone a bit of a break, a chance to put the feet up and unwind in the name of ‘Labour Day’ celebrations. What was originally conceived as a one-day knees-up to say thanks to the workers keeping the cogs of communism moving, has now evolved into a 7-day holiday allowing the folks to go on one long spending spree. As such, I had some down time to fill and decided to go find and then photograph old Loch Ness’s long lost Chinese cousin. Some fresh air, good exercise and fame beckoned.

I grabbed all the essential items I would need for such a trip and threw them in my tatty old bag; gloves and wooly hat for if it got a bit nippy, camera and film to capture Nessie, good book to pass potential hours of boredom, spare socks and pants because I should, thermos flask with a variety of drink sachets for relaxing times, CD player with carefully chosen tunes, and the girlfriend of course.

One overnight train journey efficiently dealt with, we arrived in the early hours at the small town of Yanji, over by the North Korean border. We were dismayed to find we could not book tickets ahead for our journey back to Harbin from this backwater town, but optimistically bought bus tickets onwards anyway. All the morning busses were full, so we resolved that little problem by purchasing afternoon tickets allowing us the delight of exploring this backwater town we had landed in. Oh what a joy.
With no map, no guidebook, no buddy in town with the low-down on what to do and where to eat, we picked a direction that looked promising and set off to find gold. Morning hunger was fought off with steaming bowls of noodles and a boiled egg, and baggage dumped with a trusty looking shop keeper to lighten the burden on our soon to be plodding the streets legs.  The town itself turned out to be pleasant enough with a few small parks, narrow shopping streets, a wide river running through and mountains in the distance. We wandered around taking in the mix of North Korean and Chinese architecture and language, doing some window shopping, getting hassled by well organized prowling child beggars, chatting to the local old people more than happy to practice what English they have picked up/can still remember and repairing the recently broken zipper on my fetching brown cardigan. We found a small lake and settled on benches in the shade of trees as morning wore on and the temperature rose. For a couple of hours we did some serious people watching to pass the time and read our books drinking some icy cold Pepsi. Some days you just cannot beat an icy cold can of Pepsi, especially from the old style cans with throwaway ring pulls.

Eventually it was time to leave, so we retrieved bags, sacrificed lunch in order to snack on the bus to break up that particular journey, and hopped on the bus to somewhere. That somewhere being Antu, a large village based on the edge of the national park, a place with a few scruffy looking hotels, a scattering of shabby looking restaurants but plenty of fruit vendors and kebab stick stands. Getting to the mountain itself would require the services of a taxi driver as it is a good 50km or so drive from the park gates, a money making scam if ever I have seen, and one I would do myself if I were in charge of the park. We held negotiations with a fat man and his pal in our hotel room over a cup of not so great black tea, and got a reasonable price for the hire of their shared taxi the following day. In case you are wandering, the fat man drives their taxi in the day and his pal does the night shift, and while I am on the subject I should let you know that their wives also share the workload in a small dumpling restaurant they own, cushioning themselves a decent living around these parts.

Nightlife was running a little slow, so we knocked over a couple of bottles of the local brew and chewed on some kebab sticks in a ‘hole in the wall’ just down the road. This little restaurant we found was offering meat on a stick or meat on a stick as way of dishes, and the only vegetable alternative they could offer was sticking slices of onion on a stick that they bought from the shop next door at our request. Not bad though. But, not good either!

Morning muffins and cups of the tea for breakfast and jump into the fat man’s taxi bundled up in warm clothing as apparently the mountain is still caked in ice and snow and a bit on the nippy side. The drive out was pleasurable, passing through acres of thick forest as far as the eyes could see and mountains off in the distance slowly getting larger as we approached. The fat man was in joyful mood and clearly enjoys getting out of the village and chatting to his newfound passengers about life where they come from.

We passed through the gates, purchasing tickets for the three of us and the car and drove onwards ignoring the tacky tourist shops selling all manners of junk. As we got closer to the mountain the road turned into a one lane gravel track with huge banks of snow stacked either side, eventually turning into a very narrow path indeed. Luckily traffic was light and we avoided having to do some tricky reverse driving.
At the drop off point was a small gravel car park and a few small vehicles, a wooden hut acting as a rest area for the drivers and a ticket office. Feeling we could trust our driver we even paid him his fee for the day upon his request at this point and off he trundled into the hut to drink tea and gamble for a few hours with old mates. Normally I don’t believe I am so trusting of taxi drivers, but maybe the scenic backdrop of the mountain, refreshing drive and pure air had caught me off guard. We were advised to buy some crampons at the ticket office but decided smugly that we knew best and would not be needing them for this excursion. You can guess the outcome of that wise decision I am sure. 

The first section involved a pleasant stroll through light trees; streams of melt water and over craggy rocks on gently sloping, well-trodden paths. We passes by a 3-sided hut containing a small natural hot spring, which locals had decided to boil eggs in, and then use the novelty value to flog them onto passing tourists. Very clever I thought, but I opted against eggs today and merely snapped a quick photo and chatted briefly to the fat woman who sits there all day everyday. We snapped some more photos of the view over the nature park and of the plunging waterfall up ahead. We had a bit of a drama climbing the first steep section we came to as it was all ice and very slippery indeed, but got passed and proceeded onwards and upwards hoping that would be it for tricky bits. Wrong.

Got closer to the waterfall and it must have been a good 100 meters and some more high, and with all the melting snow from above was crashing down just nicely. Had a rest and an apple break, and got out the sunglasses as it was beginning to get a tad bright now with all this snow around us.

Ticket office number two was passed and we had to buy two more tickets to allow us to go past the waterfall and up to the top, to go find the magic monster dragon thing hiding below the frozen lake. That makes three tickets we had to buy at separate locations, all a bit too much for me it was and so I suggested to the stony-faced woman inside that they could streamline the business by laying off some comrades and just have the one ticket office. I don’t think she got the drift of what as I was getting at, or she simply didn’t care, or both.

The next part was markedly steeper, very much so in fact and required steady concentration to avoid an embarrassing or painful slump. A good twenty minute slow climb and we arrived at the entrance to a concrete tunnel, a dimly lit, damp and cold uninviting place that reminded me somewhat of the scene from ‘Lord of the Rings’ where the Fellowship party have no choice but to enter the dreaded mines and pass through to the other side. Luckily for us there were no raging mutated soldiers or fire breathing dragons inside that Gandalf and his buddies had to face, still it was very, very icy underfoot. The tunnel had long, sloping, winding slopes and outrageously steep steps that went on and upwards in the gloom. I have to admit being a little unnerved by this as there were no handrails for support and we were walking completely on ice all the time in a corridor with no natural light. Damn I wish we had rented them crampons now was all I could think of as we struggled onwards. We met a few climbers coming down steadily in their crampons, and looked at them enviously and nervously because we realized that what goes up must come down. I swear that a certified idiot had designed this passageway to the top, and he should be shot for being so stupid, or at least tortured a little.

Perspiring heavily we finally reached natural light again and the end of the tunnel, onto the rim of the top of the mountain where we could see the waterfall now below us, it is quite a climb and quite a view. After all that concentration we had a bit of a rest taking in the views before continuing on upwards on a gently sloping valley path.

Eventually we reached the top lake and found a crop of rocks to sit ourselves down on and have a bit of a picnic with the things we had brought with us. We were surrounded on three sides with the spiky crater rim stretching out upwards into the sky, and on the other side a valley containing a small stream that we had just walked up.
There were very few other people up here at this late morning time and so it was very peaceful indeed, a great place to sit and relax a while. The darkish white snow-covered frozen lake, gray rocks surrounding and glaringly bright blue sky made for some interesting contrasting colours acting as a backdrop to us filling our bellies and taking in the sun. Once on the top here, there was not too much to do aside from lazing in the sun and taking in the scenery, patiently waiting for the dragon monster to come crashing up through the frozen lake and spit fire balls at us. A few people began strolling out onto the ice deciding that it was safe enough to do so, getting half way across and stopping to take photos where they believed the border to be. On the basis that we couldn’t find a reason not to follow their example we trotted out and did the very same thing, enjoying a new angle on the crater from the center of the lake.

Oh how tempting it was to continue onwards across the lake and touch the other side of the crater on the North Korean side, just to say you had done it and got one over the authorities. But we chose the sensible and responsible option that grown adults should make and trotted back to the Chinese side, deciding that better safe than sorry was the order of the day.

Set off back down the valley we had come up enjoying the view out across the national park until we reached the dreaded tunnel we had to again enter. We really had no alternative as there is only one way up and down, so we gathered our concentration and settled into the painfully slow and careful descent in the dull cold pathway. We passed a few other folk going upwards who seemed equally non-impressed as we did with the situation, and eventually reached the end and came back into the light. We relaxed again and continued back down the rest of the way in a much more pleasant fashion, enjoying the wary muscle feeling of completing some good exercise.

A few tour busses had arrived now and it seemed that the afternoon would be much busier on the mountain than our morning had been. We were relieved to find our driver and car in the place it should be and hopped into the back seats for a rest and snooze session while he drove us back into town. Thanked our driver for getting us back safely and settled into our hotel room to drink some tea and agree that it had been a worthwhile trip to come and climb the mountain, something we would recommend to others. Although we did not see that pesky dragon monster thing at any time on the trip, and as ‘seeing is believing’, I have chosen to believe it does not exist. Make up your own mind when you go there.

Getting back to Harbin as efficiently and safely as possible was the next task. Ideally there would be a sleeper train with spare beds leaving that very evening that would transport us conveniently home. No such luck alas, no trains that could help us at all from here, all that was available was a nasty sleeper bus and I refuse to take them out of fear. We opted to take the next days’ early morning bus to another town in hope of getting a train from there, leaving us free to hit the town that night. We indeed hit the town by way of an outstanding Korean Banfan and a bottle of the local cheap beer, before hitting the sack early as after dinner entertainment was sadly lacking.

The journey back home turned out to be a simple bus ride and train ride home, which although took a long time was fairly uneventful so I’ll end this tale here. 

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