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Changbai Shan

Jilin Province, 565km (350 miles) E of Jilin City

Changbai Shan (Long White Mountain) is the mythical source of Manchurian and Korean culture, the center of the 200,000-hectare (494,000-acre) Changbai Shan Nature Preserve, the tallest peak in Dongbei, and the region's most impressive attraction. The main reason to visit is Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake), a pristine, 2-million-year-old fog-enshrouded lake set deep in the crater at the top of the mountain. Roughly 13km (8 miles) in circumference, it straddles the Chinese-North Korean border and is the source of the Songhua River. Below the lake, the mountain is home to a truly impressive range of flora -- over 80 tree and 300 medicinal plant species, including ginseng, Korean pine, and the rare Chang Bai larch. The Jinjiang Canyon, a 70km-long (43-mile) valley, over 200m (656 ft.) wide and 160m (525 ft.) deep formed from molten lava situated in the dense forest, is another must-see sight of the mountain. The valley offers a magnificent landscape as the lava formed different fascinating shapes after years of wind erosion, rain invasion, freezing, and thawing.

The mountain was considered forbidden territory throughout most of the Qing dynasty, and Han Chinese who wandered into the area, usually in search of ginseng, were sometimes beaten to death with sticks. Extreme as it sounds, visitors today might find themselves wishing for a similar policy to protect the mountain from new hordes of trash-shedding Chinese and South Korean tourists. The mountain's UNESCO World Natural Reserve status has done little to this end and, moreover, seems to be the justification for supplementary admission fees, capitalizing on every single scenic spot on the mountain. By the time you get there, it is more than likely that there will be additional fees to enter spots that were previously included in the general admission price.

Snow makes routes impassable from early October to late May, but this turns the western slope into an extensive and pleasant skiing spot. In summer the weather is maddeningly unpredictable (bring a raincoat). To see the lake, the best time to visit is from July to September, when the weather clears somewhat and the lake is most likely to be visible. Unfortunately, September is also when an army of South Koreans flood the area, taking up hotel rooms as far west as Jilin City and driving up prices.

The Northern Approach

One of only two routes open to foreigners (the others enter or venture too close to North Korea), this is the most convenient and scenic way to tackle the mountain. It is possible to see Tian Chi and return to Erdao Bai He in a single day using this approach, but it's worthwhile to spend at least 2 days here.

Essentials

Getting There -- The route begins at Erdao Bai He (Bai He for short), a small town 25km (16 miles) north of the mountain, named for a river that flows down from Tian Chi. The best way to reach Bai He from the north or west is through Yanji; during peak season, which starts around mid-June, a tourist express leaves Yanji's long-distance bus station at 5:30am and goes directly to the mountain gate. The 3-hour trip costs ¥55 one-way; ¥110 same-day round-trip including lunch. Or you can catch one of several Bai He-bound buses (191km/118 miles; 4 hr.; ¥32) that leave from the Yanji railway station. From the south, the easiest approach is by train via Tonghua (two daily; 5 1/2 hr.; ¥103), Jilin (one daily; 16 hr. 40 min.; ¥125) or Shenyang (one daily; 13 1/2 hr.; ¥103).

Admission at the main gate costs ¥100 for adults and ¥50 for students and children. Tour bus (¥68) at daozhankou takes you around the park and to a parking lot in front of the hot springs just below Tian Chi.

Tours -- Many travel agents in Jilin offer a 3-day Changbai Shan tour for ¥500 to ¥650. The tours are certainly reasonably priced but they don't leave much time to enjoy anything but the lake. In Yanji, CITS, Jixi Jie 4, south of the intersection with Xin Gongyuan Lu (tel. 0433/272-0022) offers a 1-day tour for ¥300, which includes lunch and all fees for the mountain during weekends. Note: It's extremely difficult to beat the CITS price if you are a solo traveler and want to return to Yanji the same day.

Seeing the Lake

To view the lake, you will have to climb an incredible number of paved stairs (¥25). More enjoyable is the 2-hour hike, which follows a smaller road up a narrow valley, crosses a bridge, then climbs past the 68m (223-ft.) Changbai Shan waterfall to the north shore (bei po) of the lake. Rock slides sometimes block the trail, in which case you may be able to seek out a freelance guide (¥100 per person) to show you an alternate route. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Once you arrive, search out Mr. Song, an ex-reporter and photographer who lives by the lake and likes to tell tales of the mythical Tian Chi monster (guaiwu) over harsh glasses of Chinese moonshine.

Other Sights

Changbai Shan is home to a number of volcanic hot springs, the largest of which seeps steaming out of the rock south of the waterfall. Water from the springs commonly reaches 80°C (180°F); vendors sell eggs boiled in the springs (¥10 for four). The Wenquan Yu, in a small white building that's a 10-minute walk below the waterfall (on the left side as you descend), charges ¥80 for a pleasant soak in its hot-spring baths. Also on the mountain, 4km (2 1/2 miles) below the daozhankou, is the truly magical Dixia Senlin (Underground Forest) (includes the Heavenly Pool [Xiao Tian Chi]), a lush forest that becomes progressively more alien as it descends, with the Erdao Bai He 60m (200 ft.) below the mountain stratum (bring bug spray). In Bai He itself, between the railway station and the rest of town, is Meiren Song Senlin (Sylvan Pine Forest; 6am-6pm; ¥8), with a stunning forestry of sylvan pines (meiren song), a rare species that grow only on the northern slope of Changbai Shan between 650m and 1,600m (2,100-5,200 ft.).

Where to Stay & Dine

Rooms in most hotels are outfitted with kang -- heated brick platform beds, favored by Koreans and Manchus, either raised or sunk into the floor and covered with quilts. A group of families have set up small guesthouses next to the railway station in Bai He, where it is possible to sleep on a kang and enjoy home cooking for as little as ¥50.

If you prefer a mattress, Bai He's largest and nicest hotel is the Xinda Binguan (tel. 0433/572-0111; fax 0433/572-0555; 116 units), on the east side of Baishan Dajie just south of the Meiren Song Senlin. Simple but spacious and clean rooms with slightly dirty bathrooms cost ¥380. The Fubai Binguan (tel. 0433/571-8372; www.cbstianchi.com/fb-about.asp; 68 units), inside the Bai He Forestry Bureau complex south of the railway station, has clean guest rooms with small but tidy bathrooms for ¥220 to ¥220, as well as beds for ¥50.

If you plan to spend more than a day at Changbai Shan, it makes sense to pay the extra money and stay on the mountain. The Athlete's Village, at the daozhankou (Yundongyuan Cun; tel. 0433/574-6008; fax 0433/574-6055; 59 units), offers basic but comfortable rooms with TVs and small, clean bathrooms in a ski-lodge setting for ¥560. A 15-minute walk up the road, in a large, traditional Korean-style building, is the Chang Bai Shan International Hotel (Chang Bai Shan Guoji Binguan; tel. 0433/574-6004; fax 0433/574-6002; 42 units), which offers relatively luxurious standard rooms with plush beds and clean marble bathrooms (¥700; AE, DC, MC, V). Next door, the impeccable Chang Bai Shan Daewoo (Chang Bai Shan Dayu Fandian; tel. 0433/574-6011; fax 0433/574-6012; 59 units) offers a choice of bed or water-heated kang (¥960; AE, DC, MC, V).

All of the hotels mentioned above serve overpriced but adequate food. Restaurants in town are mostly dives, but they are significantly cheaper and serve comparable fare. The best meal (also the most expensive) can be found at the Chang Bai Shan Daewoo.

The Western Approach

This route has been more developed over the last couple of years and has a more subtle beauty. The starting point is the dusty village of Songjiang He, 40km (25 miles) west of Changbai Shan, connected by a newly paved road to a saddle of rock overlooking Tian Chi on the border with North Korea. The chief attractions here are the Jinjiang Grand Canyon, the plant life, which changes gradually from ghostly forests of birch at the lower elevations to vivid fields of wildflowers and grassy tundra just below the lake, and the newly open ski park. The flowers at the Alpine Garden and Iris Garden are at their most vibrant in early June. This path also offers a wonderful panorama of the Changbai Shan mountain range.

Essentials

Getting There -- Since the Changbai Shan Airport, 18km (11 miles) from the western slope entrance, started operating in 2008, the mountain has become increasingly more accessible. The 40-minute flights connecting to Changchun (daily except Wed) cost ¥580 one-way; daily flights to Beijing take 1 hr. 40 min. and cost ¥980. There is also a daily flight from Yanji. Discount is available. Book tickets with China Southern Airline (tel. 8620/95539; www.cs-air.com), Hainan Airlines (tel. 8620/950718; http://hnair.travelsky.com), or Air China (tel. 4008/986999; www.airchina.com.cn).

Another way to get to Songjiang He is by bus from Changchun (5:30am; 9 hr.; ¥42) or Jilin (1pm; 14 hr.; ¥116); or by train from Tonghua (6:30am; 5 hr.; ¥12 hard seat). The long-distance bus station, in a blue speckled building with a red-tile roof, is a 20-minute walk south of the railway station on Zhan Qian Jie, the city's main thoroughfare. Taxi is the only way to go to the entrance of the mountain from the railway or long-distance bus station. It takes about 30 minute and costs ¥50.

Tours -- The Songjiang He Forestry Company (tel. 0439/631-8461), with a travel office inside the Songjiang He Binguan, is the only organization officially allowed to run tours of the western slope. The 2-day tour costs ¥440 and includes admission and lunch, but no English is spoken. If you can speak Mandarin, it's much cheaper to hire a private car; drivers will approach you at the railway station. A reasonable price range is ¥150 to ¥250.

Exploring the Mountain

The Xi Po Shan Men (West Slope Mountain Gate), located 44km (27 miles) west of Tian Chi, is open from 6:30am to 4:30pm; admission is ¥100. Tour buses (¥68 per person) travel from the gate to the different sights below Tian Chi. To go to Jinjiang Canyon, a 1km-deep valley formed from molten lava, change buses at the transportation service center. One of the best times to visit the mountain is mid-July, when the birch forests and fields of wildflowers flourish. The tour bus drive ends at a steep set of stairs that leads to Tian Chi and the No. 5 border stone, which marks the beginning of North Korea. Birds and Chinese tourists cross the border at will, but soldiers stationed by the stone keep foreigners from doing the same. There is a 3-hour round-trip hike from here to Baiyun Feng, the highest point (2,691m/8,826 ft.); it's the second peak to the left as you face the lake.

Hiking West to North

Development of the western approach has made it possible to hike around Tian Chi and see both sides of the lake in 2 days, provided you have a tent, warm clothes, and plenty of food and water. The hike from the west shore  along the ridge past Baiyun Feng to the waterfall on the north shore takes roughly 6 hours. Once you reach the waterfall, you can hike down to the hot spring, camp, and catch a ride to Bai He the next morning. Buses back to Songjiang He (3 hr.; ¥13) leave from the long-distance bus station on Baishan Dajie at 2pm.

Warning: The path is rocky and the weather unpredictable -- for experienced hikers only.

Where to Stay & Dine

The best lodging in the western slope area is the well-equipped resort hotel, Days Hotel Landscape Resort (Changbai Shan Lanjing Daisi Jiudian; tel. 0439/633-7999; fax 0439/633-7888; www.ljdsh.cn; 112 units), adjacent the western slope gate. The environment-friendly log resort uses solar power to heat the water and provides spacious and soothing rooms (¥620-¥840). It also has a handful of rooms with kangs. Bathrooms have shower only but are spotless. Outside the resort, is an 800-m (2,625 ft.) wooden trail into the forest where you can enjoy a pleasant walk after breakfast. In Songjiang He, the dark Songjiang He Binguan (tel. 0439/631-3601; fax 0439/631-8820; 90 units), on Gongyi Dajie, across the Senlin Huodong Zhongxin is the only proper hotel. Partially refurbished rooms with acceptable bathrooms cost ¥240, but this can be bargained below ¥200 even in the high season. The hotel serves tasty Chinese food.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.