Changbaishan Mountain, extending in Antu and Fusong Counties of Northeast China's Jilin Province, is a border mountain between China and North Korea. Inactive volcanoes, crystal-clear lakes and looming trees –the unspoiled natural beauty of Changbai Shan rewards the intrepid travelers who make their way out to this northern diamond.
For nature buffs, Changbai Shan is a piece of heaven, and it certainly lives up to its name, which means "Ever-White Mountain." Budding nature scientists will be in a proverbial paradise as they explore the explosion of animal, insect and plant life on this dormant volcano, which is also China's largest nature reserve. This 210,000ha of dense virgin forest lies on the border of China's Jilin Province and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Created in 1961, the nature reserve is home to one of the most diverse mountain-forest ecosystems in Asia. Evergreen species like Korean pines and Japanese yews share the slopes with Mongolian oaks, dwarf birch and other deciduous trees.
The variation in plant and animal life is due to the changing altitudes. From the foot of the mountain to 1,000m re mixed coniferous and broad-leaved trees. Hardy and valuable coniferous trees like dragon spruce and fir can be found from 1,000m to 1,800m. Above 2,000m, only lichen survives. Within this treasure trove thrives over 300 medicinal plants such as the winter daphne and wild ginseng.
Changbai Shan Nature Reserve, designated by UNESCO as a nature reserve in 1979, is a vital wildlife zone. Though predators such as Siberian tigers, leopards, lynx, and brown bears prowl the forests, there's no reason to shun the mountain. The lucky hiker might even catch a glimpse of elusive animals such as the shy deer, gorals, wild pigs, otters and dozens of other mammal species. Rare, endangered birds like hazel grouse, black storks, mandarin ducks and oriental storks also abound.
Sitting pretty atop Changbai Shan is the stunning Lake of Heaven. This feather on Changbai Shan's cap was formed centuries ago by volcanic eruptions. Over time, water filled the vent and eventually formed an oval lake about 13km in circumference and 200mto 300mdeep. 16 mountain peaks surround the Lake of Heaven like sentries guarding the watery gates of heaven. No birds, animals or flora distract one from its tranquil beauty. The highest peak, White Cloud Peak, soars some 2,744m above sea level. When the fair skies fill with fluffy clouds, their reflection in the crystal-clear water, framed by jagged peaks, makes a heavenly composition.
Rough hiking trails aside, there are guaranteed views of babbling brooks, waterfalls and thermal springs. Just beside the Lake of Heaven is Changbai Lake, also known as Little Lake of Heaven. Water from the Lake of Heaven careens into a roaring waterfall more than 60mhigh, nourishing the Yalu and Songhua rivers, two of northeast China's most important rivers.
Naturally, Changbai Shan has its fair share of fables. One myth is about the origins of the Manchu ethnic group, who are said to have sprung from the waters of the Lake of Heaven. Three celestial maidens visited the lake for a quick, albeit chilly dip. A magic magpie dropped an enchanted berry and one of the heavenly ladies picked it up, and when she ate the berry, she became pregnant. The baby boy she bore founded the warrior Manchu dynasty.
From1677, this region was considered by the Manchu as their sacred homeland. No one was allowed to enter and log trees for over 200 years. Today, Manchus share the intoxicating Changbai Shan region with a large ethnic Korean population. By dress, the latter are indistinguishable from their Manchu counterparts, but they still retain some of their traditional practices and festivals. Friendly and hospitable, most ethnic Korean locals live north and northeast of Erdao Baihe Town in the area known as the Korean Autonomous Prefecture.
Traipsing through Changbai Shan's wilderness can be adventurous or tame, but first get oriented. If your objective is the famous Lake of Heaven, the safest route is via the Northern Pass from Erdao Baihe, a small town some 20km south of the nature reserve's southern entrance. You can also head to the lake via Tianchi Passage. This route is also relatively safe – the other routes occasionally have rockslides. Alternatively, you can hop onto a jeep at the Athlete's Village parking lot.
Day trippers can hop onto a jeep and arrive without breaking a sweat at the 2,670m high Tianwen Peak, otherwise known as Main Peak. From the parking lot near Main Peak Road, there's another 4km to go before you hear the roar of the stunning Changbai Waterfall. If you're game for a bit of trekking, the path to the Main Peak is a brief 15 minute hike from the left of the parking lot. There are 13 spectacular geysers around Changbai Waterfall.
If you are feeling slightly more adventurous, once you reach the waterfall, look around for a steep path that brings you to the top of the waterfall. If you follow this path for about an hour, you eventually reach Lake of Heaven. Getting off the main access road is not a good idea, unless you are an experienced hiker. The narrow, difficult 3km trail pointing downwards heads to the Underground Forest.
Hiking enthusiasts will enjoy a rockier version of Changbai Shan. Look out for a trail that branches off the road heading to Changbai Waterfall. This hour-long trail will take you through lush greenery towards Black Wind Pass, where it can get extremely windy. The pavilion here offers fantastic views of the gushing Changbai Waterfall. Several hot springs bubble at 60°C to 80°C at the bottom of the pass. Choose a spot where people are not busy boiling eggs, and take a soothing bath – these hot springs are reputed to have healing properties. Re-energized, you may be able to reach Main Peak in 3 hours.
That was just appetizer; now for the main course. The first leg of a tough hike entails scaling past a perilous gorge onto a grassy slope – continue trudging up this slope for at least 2 hours. Once past Main Peak, look out for Huagai Peak, just 2 hours from the DPRK border. Once you've reached this peak, then you've already navigated a quarter of the circumference of the Lake of Heaven. Take time to admire the geological treasures peculiar to Changbai Shan. In winter, skiing is an option on Changbai Shan.
If you follow a tiny trail off the main road, near the parking lot, you arrive at Little Lake of Heaven. Pushing on, you hit the awe-inspiring Dragon Gate Peak and after a challenging ascent, White Cloud Peak. Beyond this Peak is the Western Pass. The ascending hike between Little Lake of Heaven and White Cloud Peak takes about 6 hours, and it takes half that time to descend. Between Little Lake of Heaven and Western Pass is 10 hours of upward trekking, and 8 hours of descent.
If you visit via the Western Pass, you get to see the Changbai Shan Gorge, which is a frightful 10m deep valley formed from molten lava. Look carefully around you. Along this path is a tree that is in fact three different tree-species entwined as one. Pass the end of the 10km road is a flight of gravelly stairs that offers a panoramic view of the pass. An easy hour-long route leads you down to the Lake of Heaven. Just beneath the pass begins a strenuous trek to White Cloud Peak and Southern Pass.
Having refreshments by a glade after a long hard climb.
Chancing upon adventurous souls –very few, along the trails and sharing our travel stories.
Admiring our own sweaty faces in the mirror-like waters of Lake of Heaven.