Wild China: Yanbian

Koreans first fled across the border to Yanbian, a seldom-visited area of greener-than-green hills and fertile fields nestled in the northeastern corner of Jilin Province, after the first of several severe famines struck the Korean peninsula in 1869.

Subsequent diasporas in the 20th century, the result of continued food shortages and a pair of brutal Japanese occupations, turned the area into what many now call the Third Korea. Now officially called the Yanbian Chaoxian (Korean) Autonomous Prefecture, it is home to the largest population of ethnic Koreans outside the peninsula itself.

Many parts of Yanbian have only recently been opened to tourists, and even those areas that have been open for years see few Westerners. Facilities are minimal and English almost nonexistent. But people adventurous enough to travel here can enjoy one of Dongbei's most peacefully stunning landscapes -- a sublime combination of Scotland and Japan -- and interact with one of China's only truly bicultural societies.

The capital of Yanbian is Yanji, a rapidly developing city where all of the street signs, and most of the residents, are bilingual. Bland and somewhat rigid, its chief value is as a base for journeys to the surrounding countryside, Changbai Shan, and the North Korean border.

A late-afternoon bus ride through the Yanbian countryside, as sunlight glitters on fields of rice and warms the upturned roofs of Korean huts, is one of the most exquisite experiences available in the Northeast during July. The best excuse to take such a ride is Fangchuan, a tiny town at the end of a needle-thin strip of Chinese territory between North Korea and Russia, and China's preeminent border-viewing spot. A view from the tower here (¥20) provides vistas of Russia, North Korea and, on a clear day, the northern edge of Japan. You can first take a bus from Yanji to Hunchun (1 1/2 hr.; ¥25). In Hunchun, you have two choices: public transportation or taxi. A taxi will save you a lot of hassle; a round-trip ride from Hunchun to Fangchuan costs ¥100 to ¥120. You can have the driver wait for you while you sightsee. Have the driver wait outside the ticketing area or pay an additional ¥10 to take the car all the way to the tower. Otherwise, once you arrive in Hunchun, take a mini-bus (¥1) to Hunchun's Zhonghe Shichang, where you can take a minibus (¥10 one-way) to the border's edge. It will only drop you off about 3km (2 miles) from the viewing tower in Fangchuan. Be certain to ask about the availability of return buses to Hunchun, as schedules are virtually nonexistent and service is largely determined by whether or not there are enough passengers to fill a bus.

Warning: North Koreans continue to flow into Yanbian, but without official permission. Though identity checks aren't as strict as they used to be, it is always a good idea to carry your passport with you at all times.

Getting There -- Trains connect Yanji to Beijing (12:29pm; 23 hr.; ¥363), Changchun (four daily; 9 1/2 hr.; ¥93), and Shenyang (3:19pm; 15 hr.; ¥131. The railway station (Yanji Zhan) is to the south, at the end of Zhan Qian Jie; the ticket office is open from 4:30am to 10:30pm. Buses to Changbai Shan and towns in the countryside leave from the Dongbeiya Keyun Zhan (on Chang Bai Lu, northeast of railway station); the ticket office is open from 5am to 4:30pm. Buses also leave from the railway station parking lot. Flights to Beijing (two to three daily; ¥1,130), Shenyang (one daily; ¥740), Shanghai (Mon and Fri; ¥1,760), and Seoul (one daily, except Tues; ¥2,510) depart from a small airport 6km (3 3/4 miles) west of the railway station; a taxi ride there costs ¥10. Taxis do not use meters; rides are either ¥5 or ¥10, depending on distance. Negotiate the price before you get in. Purchase flight tickets at the CAAC ticket office (tel. 0433/291-5555; 8am-9pm) inside the Xiangyu Dajiudian above the Yanxin Bridge, north of the railway station.

Where to Stay & Dine -- Yanji's most convenient hotel is the Dazhou Hotel, Tie Bei Lu 439 (tel. 0433/619-5555; fax 0433/619-5999), across the railway station. The four-star hotel opened in late 2005, has clean and spacious units (¥320-¥420) standard room), with competent service. The joint-venture Yanbian International Hotel (Yanbian Dayu Fandian), Youyi Lu 118, Juzi Jie intersection (tel. 0433/250-9999; fax 0433/250-6999), is Yanji's largest and most luxurious hotel, overlooking the Bu'er Hatong River. The small but tasteful rooms cost ¥480 and come with breakfast. Home Inn (Rujia), 2 blocks south of the train station, offers clean and minimally decorated budget rooms (Changbaishan Lu 2562; tel. 0433/280-5599; fax 0432/290-6899; ¥218). Yanji's food specialty is the authentic Korean cuisine. A favorite dish is lengmian (cold noodles), semitranslucent wheat noodles served in a cold broth with various toppings such as pickled cabbage, beef, pine nuts, and Korean chili paste garnished with an apple slice. Both Jindalai Fandian, Hailan Lu 42, at Xinhua Jie (tel. 0433/252-8590) and Mozhate Kuaicandian, Hailan Lu 29 (tel. 0433/253-8198) serve great and good-value Korean food and the best lengmian in town. The former offers less of a third-grade cafeteria ambience, while the latter has a more comfortable setting and serves tasty tofu hot soup (doufutang) and grilled fish. Both restaurants are open from 10am to 10pm. The Gouwu Guangchang shopping area has a couple of KFC outlets.

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.