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Wu Da Lianchi

Heilong Jiang Province, 340km (210 miles) NW of Harbin

Wu Da Lianchi (Five Linked Lakes) is an utterly strange health retreat wedged between the Greater and Lesser Hinggan (Xing'an) mountains, several hundred miles north of Harbin. The area is named for a series of connected lakes, formed 260 years ago by lava flows from the two youngest of 14 local volcanoes. Wu Da Lianchi is celebrated among Chinese for its pungent natural springs, water from which is rumored to cure everything from gastritis to chronic cardiocerebral angiopathy. The springs are disgusting, but the area's physical oddity is fascinating. Avoid the summer miracle-cure crowd if at all possible.

Essentials

Air-conditioned coaches (5 1/2 hr.; ¥55-¥69; ¥90 for luxury bus) leave the Harbin long-distance bus station (tel. 0451/8283-0117) at 9am and 11:30am stop at the Worker's Sanatorium. Return buses leave from the same spot at 6am, and at 1:30pm during the high season (June-Aug). Brochures with Chinese maps are sold in the Worker's Sanatorium.

Exploring Wu Da Lianchi

Wu Da Lianchi's most impressive sight is not the lakes but the lava fields, collectively dubbed Shi Hai (Sea of Stone), which spread out for miles around the area's two largest volcanoes and look vaguely like charred marshmallow. At the center of this is Laohei Shan (also known as Heilong Shan, or Black Dragon Mountain), tallest of the Wu Da Lianchi volcanoes. An hour-long circumnavigation of the crater's edge, with its twisted birch trees and lichen-covered desolation, provides panoramic views. The Bing Dong (8am-4pm; ¥30), 7km (4 1/3 miles) east of the Worker's Sanatorium, is a system of sub-freezing caves that contains an exhibition of colorful but underwhelming ice lanterns. Avoid going to Nan Quan; it charges ¥20 for drinking the "natural spring water," which has an unpleasant rusty taste.

Private minivans are the only way to see most sights in Wu Da Lianchi. Drivers gather near a large bilingual map of the area opposite the entrance to Nan Quan (South Spring), a 30-minute walk east of the Worker's Sanatorium. Negotiations for a full tour of the area (25km/16 miles) usually start at around ¥150 a car or ¥50 per person. Entrance costs ¥60, including access to the volcano and lava fields.

Where To Stay

Wu Da Lianchi swims with sanatoriums and guesthouses, all offering the same basic accommodations. The most convenient and popular option is the Wu Da Lianchi Worker's Sanatorium (Gongren Liaoyangyuan; tel. 0456/722-1569; fax 0456/722-1814; www.wdgl.com.cn; 350 units), a large complex just east of the central traffic circle. Standard rooms in the main building (¥210) are dark but clean with passable bathrooms. Suites with air-conditioning and 24-hour hot water (¥580-¥880) are in a separate building. Twenty percent discounts are available. At least one building is kept open all year. Each has its own restaurant, although neither serves particularly great 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.