Saturday, 7 August 2010

Changbaishan

Changbaishan 长白山

Changbaishan is one of the ten famous mountains of China, and the volcanic mountain range is located at the border between China and North Korea in Jilin province. The mountain, which translates into 'perpetually white mountain' in English, takes its name after the snow and greyish white volcanic rock which blankets the mountain peaks for most of the year. Changbaishan is considered as a sacred place to the Manchurians, and permission from the imperial court must be sought before one could gain access to the mountain range during the Qing dynasty.

Due to its proximity to the border with North Korea, there is a large concentration of ethnic North Koreans in this region. In order to preserve the culture and the way of life, a special administrative area known as the Changbai Korea Autonomous Region 长白朝鲜自治区 had been created to manage the region.

It takes approximately 4-5hrs to drive from Jingpo Lake to the northern slope of Changbaishan via Dunhua, where we had picked up our local guide. Numerous villages and farmlands dot the landscape besides the highway, which allows us a glimpse into this predominantly agricultural region. The Han Chinese 汉族, Manchurians 满族 and ethnic Koreans 朝鲜族 peacefully coexist, with the only difference being the design of their houses. Ethnic Koreans build their houses with an additional horizontal beam across the top of the house, forming the character "合" when viewed at either end of the house. The houses of Manchurians differ from the Han Chinese by having an additional tall wooden pole at the front of the house.
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We stopped at a small town, Erdaobaihe 二道白河 for dinner before continuing on to our hotel for the night. Erdaobaihe is also the nearest town to Changbaishan, and the town is served by both trains and long distance coaches to other parts of the province.
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It is a local requirement for all shops and buildings to display their signs in both Korean and Chinese, as illustrated by the neon signs for our hotel, Jindalai Hotel 金达来宾馆.
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The hotel is located besides a Siberian Tiger Park 长白山东北虎园, with an interesting sign which is posted besides the entrance. Contrary to popular belief, the fearsome Siberian Tiger is not the king of the forest. Instead, the honour goes to the wild boars which are capable of inflicting serious injury on their foes with their razor sharp tusks as a group. The runner up position is claimed by the black bear, which is considered to be more superior than the tiger due to its excellent stamina.
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Dog meat is a staple food for many ethnic Koreans, although the dogs are now commercially bred and slaughtered before being delivered to eateries. In fact, Manchurians are prohibited from marrying Koreans because they view dogs as sacred animals.
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Changbaishan Northern Gate 长白山北坡门

The bulk of the visitors to Changbaishan begin their visit from the more accessible northern gate. The plaza and the ticketing office are swarmed with both tourists and tour guides alike as they struggle to obtain tickets in time to enter the park when the gates are opened at 8am.
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Ticketing Office. It costs RMB100(~$20.49) for the entrance to the park itself and an additional RMB68 (S$13.95) for the environmentally friendly shuttle bus.
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The first part of the journey involves taking an Ankai environmentally friendly bus (Euro III compliant) from the northern gate at 1,100m to the transit centre at an elevation of approximately 1,750m.
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Changbaishan Tianchi 长白山天池

The second part of the journey entails a ride in a jeep or a Mercedes Benz MB100 van through steep and narrow roads. Throughout the bumpy ascent, the luxuriant vegetation gradually gives way to barren landscapes at higher altitudes. The 20mins journey (RMB80 return, S$16.40) is highly recommended just for the thrill factor alone.
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At an elevation of 2600m, it can be quite cold at the peak due to elevation and the strong frigid winds. The average annual temperature is only -7 degrees Celsius, and reaches a maximum temperature of only 17 degrees Celsius in mid summer. A windbreaker rental truck is spotted doing a very brisk business to visitors who were caught unaware by the sudden drop in temperature. However, it was definitely not as miserably cold as suggested by the expression and the excessive amount of winter wear worn by the partner of the rental shop!
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Tianwen Peak 天文峰 is one of the 16 major peaks of Changbaishan, with an elevation of 2,670m. It is also the most accessible peak to visitors with clearly marked pathways and railings.
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Western fringe of the Changbaishan volcanic mountain range.
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The main attraction at Changbaishan is the Tianchi, or Heaven Lake. Formed after a series of 3 eruptions more than 1,000 years ago, the crater lake also forms a national boundary between China and North Korea. It is said that only 30% of visitors would be able to see the lake in its entirety as it is very prone to fog.
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Summer is the peak season for visiting Changbaishan, thus crowds are to be expected. This is because the peaks (and thus Tianchi) are off limits except for those with a hiking permit from September to late April every year due to heavy snowfall. Most of the tourists are surprisingly not mainland Chinese but Koreans and Hong Kongers instead!
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The Changbaishan Tianchi is the source for the Songhua River 松花江, Yalu River 鸭绿江 and the Tumen River 图们江. The white jagged line to the left of the lake is in North Korean territory.
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Unmelted ice floating in the lake. The volume of snow on the peak had drastically reduced in recent years due to global warming.
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A meteorological station and a souvenir shop are located at the peak as well.
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The downhill journey was exhilarating with the driver trying to race back down to the transit centre as fast as possible. The gradient was not very steep, but the narrow roads made it much more exciting as our small Mercedes MB100 van whipped around the tight bends. Credits to Google Earth & Nokia Ovi Services.
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Hei Feng Kou 黑风口 at an elevation of approximately 2,200m. This mountain pass is regarded as the location where the wind is the strongest in the mountain range. It is said that the winds can be so strong that it is possible for a person to be pinned to the side of the mountain and not being able to move.
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As we descend back towards lower elevations, the barren tundra landscape gradually gives way to grassy fields and shrubs.
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Changbaishan Waterfall 长白山瀑布

Changbaishan Waterfall is a 68m tall waterfall located at the northern side of Tianchi, or Heaven Lake. This waterfall is also the only outlet to the lake and provides the source for three of the northeast region's longest rivers.

Changbaishan Waterfall bus terminal. The environmentally friendly buses from the Northern Gate terminate at this location, and visitors would have to contend with a gentle 1km long uphill climb to reach the base of the waterfall.
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The water from the Tian Chi exits through a small river known as Chengchua River where it flows for over 1,200m before experiencing a sudden drop over a ledge to form the Changbaishan watefall.
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The water from Tian Chi is considered sacred to the Koreans, who would sometimes take containers with them to fill with the water from the lake.
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At an altitude of about 2,100m, the Changbaishan Waterfall is also the highest volcanic waterfall in the world. The falls are best viewed in mid-summer when the flow is the greatest. Despite the frigid Siberian winters, the falls do not get frozen over due to surrounding geothermal activity.
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Julong hot spring is also located near the base of the waterfalls, and visitors can experience a soak in the warm waters for a fee. The temperature of the hot spring typically ranges from 60 degrees Celsius to over 80 degrees Celsius.
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One can also sample eggs and sausages cooked in the hot spring waters. Due to the temperature of the water, the egg yolk is fully cooked and hard while the egg white is still soft!
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Little Tianchi 小天池

China is infamous for the standards of the toilets in the country, and those in the Changbaishan are no exception to the norm due to the remoteness of the region. This washroom was deliberately located off the beaten path for a good reason, as it might well be a more pleasant experience to settle one's business in the surrounding bushes instead.
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Little Tianchi is nowhere as spectacular as its larger and more scenic namesake, as it appears as just a normal pond. The pond is fed by a small waterfall and has no visible outlets, yet the water level mysteriously remains constant throughout the year.
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Green Lake 绿渊潭

In a view reminiscent of the clear emerald green lakes of Jiuzhaigou, the green lake takes its name after its unusually clear waters which are fed by a pair of 26m tall waterfalls. The lake is surrounded by a species of trees known as Erman's birch, or betula ermanii. Indigenous to Siberia, Korea and Japan, its pulp is used by the Japanese to make paper which is renowed for its extraordinary smoothness.
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A tree demonstrates its amazing survivability even though its trunk had nearly been split into two!
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Underground Forest 地下森林

The final attraction for our visit is the underground forest, which is prized for its biodiversity within the virgin forests. Even to this day,new species of flora and fauna continue to be discovered by scientists.
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The underground forest is named due to a number of geographic faults within the heavily forested area, thus some parts of the forest appear to be sunken in with respect to higher ground.
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Dongqing Service Area 东庆服务区

After a quick lunch at our hotel, we backtracked towards Dunhua to settle in for the night. We made a shopping stop at the Dongqing Service Area, where we were given an introduction to the different specialties of the region.

Changbaishan is synonomous with ginseng, which grows best at high elevations. Ginseng is generally divided into three different grades according to the method which they are grown. The highest grade of ginseng 野山参 are found naturally in the wild, and command an extremely high price due to its rarity. The bulk of the better quality ginseng sold in the market today are known as 移山参, where they are first grown in farms before they are transplanted to mature and grow in the mountains. The lowest grade of ginseng are also commonly known as 'carrot ginseng 萝卜参', and as they are grown in large quantities in farms with fertilizers, they have little medicinal value.
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In addition, Sika deer 梅花鹿 are also reared and the males are harvested for their antlers 鹿茸, which are then cut into small slices to be packaged for sale. It is said to boost one's stamina and vitality.
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The female Sika deer are harvested for their foetus, which are then processed into essence. It is worthwhile to note that one is liable to be fined if one is caught possessing such items in Singapore. This is because Singapore is a signatory of CITES, which prohibits the trade of products derived from endangered species such as the Sika Deer.
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A retired Shenyang J-6B fighter is parked in the service area, and charges RMB5 (~S$1.03) per photo. However, tour groups are exempted from the fee and I made use of the opportunity to get some photos of this classic aircraft while the other tour group members are busy shopping for ginseng and other products.
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The J-6B is a locally produced version of the MiG-19 fighter, and is used as an interceptor role by the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). It is designed with an extremely short lifespan of only 100hours before extensive maintenance has to be performed on the aircraft.
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Dunhua City 敦化市

Dunhua is a city in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region 延边朝鲜自治区, and was formerly known as Junggyeong when the city was the capital of the Korean kingdom of Balhae 渤海 in the 8th century.

We stayed overnight at the Jinmao Hotel 金茂大酒店 in the city before continuing on our journey towards Jilin and Changchun the next day.
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Sculpture in the park which was located next to our hotel. As with many other Chinese cities, many elderly folks head out to practise taiji and wushun in the early hours of the morning.
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The city's strong Korean roots are evident in the many street and directional signs, which must carry the Korean characters alongside the Chinese characters.
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In addition to the public bus system, many locals also get around the city on trishaws.
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Sunday is a very busy day in the northeast chinese cities as it is a local tradition that wedddings are held on the day. In comparison to Singapore, the wedding banquet is normally held in the late morning for newly wed couples, as a dinner banquet is reseved for marriage anniversaries instead. Couples who are celebrating their second marriage would normally settle for a late lunch or a tea reception instead. In addition, the harsh winters in the region would usually mean that a wedding in summer is very much preferable instead.
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Previous Post: Mudanjiang Jingpo Lake

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Mudanjiang Jingpo Lake

Mudanjiang City 牡丹江市

Mudanjiang is the third largest city in Heilongjiang province, and can be accessed via a 4.5hr drive using the newly built Harbin-Mudanjiang Expressway (哈牡高速). The city gained importance as a gateway city to the nearby Russian border city of Suifenhe and the Jingpo Lake scenic area. The city takes its name after the Mudan River 牡丹江 (which eventually feeds into the Songhua River) that flows through the south of city.

We stayed at the Hawaii International Hotel, which is one of the finer 5 star establishments in this predominantly industrial city.
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The tour coach which had carried us for nearly 2,000km throughout our 9 days journey across the 3 northeastern provinces. Though well over 10 years old, this King Long XMQ6892GC1 is immaculately maintained by her hardworking coach captain, who never failed to clean and mop his bus at least an hour before we set off each morning. It was also the very first time I had encountered a tour coach driver in China who wears a tie along with a buttoned shirt!
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An old Changjiang 长江 bus working service 3. It seems that missing or crudely fashioned radiator grilles are all the rage among public transport operators in this region!
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This popular Yutong model had also been specially modified to accomodate a front engine arrangement instead (note the grilles on the front mask which is absent on the default rear engine arrangement). In addition, the exit had also been shifted to a new position after the rear axle to improve passenger flow within the bus.
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C05045 on svc 201 has a banner which advocates safe and sustainable development. Despite the name of the operator, this service is neither exclusive to female passengers nor solely operated by female drivers! Dongfeng Yangzijiang 东风扬子江 is also one of the less common bus manufacturers in China.
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Jingpo Lake Scenic Area 镜泊湖风景区

Jingpo Lake is the largest barrier lake in China, and was formed when a series of volcanic eruptions created a blockage across the Mudan River. Located 350metres above sea level, the 90.3 square kilometeres lake has an average depth of 40m.

Entrance to the Jingpo Lake scenic area. The park was granted the status of a world geopark in September 2006 by UNESCO in recognition of its unique geological features.
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As a protected area, coaches and other private vehicles are not allowed into the reserve. A fleet of predominantly Iveco minibuses and specialist vehicles are used to ferry visitors to the different attractions in the park.
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En route to the ferry pier for the lake cruise.
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The lake area is home to more than 40 different varieties of fish.
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Ferries deployed for the lake cruise. The cruises run at fixed 45 minutes interval, but as it is the common practice at many other tourist attractions in China, the operators will try to load the ferry to its maximum permitted capacity before setting off.
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A traditional Buddhist temple which is dedicated to the medicine Buddha 药师佛.
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Jingpo Lake is surrounded by the Wandashan 完达山 mountain range.
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The clean air and scenic surroundings in the lake area are renowned for their therapeutic effect. Many of China's large government agencies and corporations own sprawling rehabilitation centres in this region to serve as a retreat for their staff. In order to maintain its exclusivity (and probably isolation), it is only accessible by boat.
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In a bid to limit the environmental impact from tourism, the local government had initiated a ban on new developments in the area. In addition, developers would also have to secure a permit before they are allowed to carry out major works on their existing properties. As demand far outstrips supply, the hotels do not cater to visitors during summer as the rooms had all been leased on a long term basis.
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Diaoshuilou Waterfall 吊水楼瀑布

Diaoshuilou Waterfall is located on the northern fringes of Jingpo Lake and is the largest waterfall in northern China. The waterfall has a drop of 12m and an average width of 40m. The waterfall freezes over in winter.
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The waterfall can reach up to a maximum breath of over 200m during the rainy season in late July - August.
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Diaoshuilou waterfall is also the largest basalt waterfall in the world which is formed due to the caving-in of a gas hole as a result of the volcanic activity in the region.
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The semi-circular waterfall is also popular with stuntmen who sometimes seek to jump down from the waterfall.
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A solitary male deer resting near the waterfall.
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