Changbaishan is a large series of mountains which run northeast to southwest along the Chinese-Korean border in North East China.
The huge lake, nestled in a volcanic crater at the top of one of the mountains, is one of the major attractions in this wild backwater country deep in North East China. I traveled there by bus in 2004, and it was the scariest and worst bus ride I’ve ever been on.
It also makes for a great travel story, and the haunting and gorgeous scenery of North East China has made this trip an unforgettable one in my mind.
That bus ride into the northern moutains of China was like taking a step back in time.
Imagine lush green rice paddies, farmers tilling the wet soil with water bison, long rows of corn and giant sunflowers. It looked like something straight out of a book. I was astonished to see how unspoiled the land was, especially after being in the dirty cities of North East China.
Farmsteads were small, low, worn down and in desperate need of repair. Flocks of poultry, pigs and other barnyard animals roamed freely on the roads.
There was no electricity and most of the people were dressed in handsewn clothing or second hand clothing. We passed a creek where women were washing their clothes by hand.
Obviously, these people had endured hardships that I couldn’t begin to fathom, yet they looked so at peace. There was none of the hustle-bustle rat-race of city life. Chores weren’t hurried, people took their time and moved slowly through the paces of life. It was enchanting to see and I almost wished to have such a simple existence for myself.
We stopped for a short lunch break in a small village and the news that foreigners were in town must have spread quickly.
As we descended from the bus, people came out of their houses to greet us. Most of them were old people, many with gnarled hands from hard labor. There were little old women with bowed legs and old men hunched forward as if they were still carrying something heavy on their backs.
We were instantly surrounded by curious happy faces. Some people smiled and called out greetings, baring their toothless gums at us. I also saw a few suspicious stares and quite a few wandering hands.
We were brought bowls of boiled pork dumplings, warm beer, and tea eggs. I was a little sad to leave this tiny village. It was the only place where we were treated kindly on our four day adventure to Chang Bai Mountain.
Our bus become more uncomfortable with each hour that passed as we picked up more passengers along the way. The rusty old bus seemed to have some seriously ill shock absorbers.
We spent most of the journey trying to hold ourselves down as the bus climbed and bumped treacherously across bridges and over narrow mountainous roadways.
Twelve hours later, we were bruised and aching and we still had to locate accommodations for the night. We were able to locate and bargain for a cheap hotel room in the small city of Bei He, which is at the base of the mountain.
Although we bargained, we paid an outrageous price for our crappy little room simply because of our white skin. Our room had four dorm style beds with a slab of wood to sleep on with a quilt thrown on top for extra cushioning.
We could barely stand the thought of sleeping there for the night and opted to go for massages to waste some time.
The massages ended up making everything worse as the young Chinese ladies working on us were pounding so hard that we woke up with bruises the next day.
Let me tell you, sleeping that night was not an easy feat after bouncing in a bus for 12 hours and then getting pounded by two Chinese girls for another hour before jumping into a bed made of wood.
We managed to get some shut-eye and woke up early the next morning to meet our guide. Our trip was ill-fated right from the beginning and we knew it.
Nevertheless, we persevered in the hope that things would start to get better. Ha! Nothing is ever easy in China. The first problem we ran into was our guide not having a driver’s license. Of course, we were stopped at the foot of the mountain.
We waited at the side of the road for an hour for the driver’s friend to arrive to take us to the summit.
Our new driver was a maniac and we almost flew off the side of the narrow road several times before arriving at the top of the mountain. When we arrived, he gave us 20 minutes to look around.
The view of Heavenly Lake was incredible and we would have loved more time to explore, but we were on a strict time limit. So we snapped a few pictures and headed resolutely back to our car and driver.
Alas, both had disappeared with all of our gear as we had stupidly left it in the trunk of the car. The day was getting worse. Travel scams abound in China.
We had to wait for another hour before we could secure a ride back down the mountain. When we finally found someone to take us down, we were crammed like sardines in a can.
I couldn’t believe it when the driver stopped to pick up another passenger!
I actually had to sit crossways on my friends laps to make room for the new guy. When we were dropped off, we wandered around dejectedly for a few hours looking for our driver and as luck would have it, we finally found him and he still had our stuff.
We still had some time left, so we decided to take our things and make the hike up the mountain to the volcanic lake. Needless to say, the lake was spectacular and well worth the hike.
The magnificent glass-like surface of this volcanic lake is known as Heavenly Lake.
Our driver actually stuck around this time and he stopped off at a few other scenic spots on the way back to our hotel. To be honest, we weren’t even interested in seeing anything else that day.
We just wanted to go back to our guesthouse and figure out what to do next. Our energetic driver insisted on taking us to four other nearby attractions. We thought he was just being nice after messing up our day so badly.
Boy, were we ever wrong. He was busy racking up a bill of seismic proportions. We politely refused to pay the total bill and offered him what he had originally quoted us with a generous ‘tip’ thrown in for good measure.
He took off in his car and returned an hour later with three friends and threatened to beat the hell out of us if we didn’t pay up. By that time, we were thoroughly disgusted and although we hated to do it, we paid up. There was nothing else we could do.
The next morning, we decided to cut our trip short. We high-tailed it out of there and climbed back on the bus from hell.
The ride back to Changchun was easily the scariest ride I’ve ever been on. As we came down out of the mountains, there was very little road to be seen between us and a long drop into a deep valley.
The roads were marked with piles of sand. Drivers are supposed to stay inside the sand piles but our driver had a death wish. We counted ourselves lucky when he actually hit the middle of the pile. Our faces were glued to the window as we watched the pebbles and dirt from our passage tumble into the depths below.
To top it off, the bus stopped every 15 minutes for anyone who was standing on the side of the road. The driver made a hefty amount of cash by picking up peasants and villagers that were headed into the city for a few days to find work.
Soon, our bus was packed to the brim. People were sitting in the aisles, on the stairs, on each other. One woman was crammed against the front window. About two hours in, a man threw up and it caused a chain reaction. By the time the driver stopped, people had the windows rolled down and were squeezing out the windows to escape the foul air.
We were stopped twice on the way home by the police. Each time, the driver had to pay a fine for overcrowding. He would yell at everyone to get off and they would start walking. As soon as he had dealt with the police, he would drive up the road and pick everyone up again. I have never been more relieved to arrive safely home in my entire life.
Despite our travel mishaps, I would love the opportunity to go back to Changbaishan. I missed out on a great deal because of our misfortune and while it certainly made for an interesting and memorable trip, none of us were able to enjoy it completely.
John and I are returning to China soon, and we plan on returning to Changbaishan after we’ve spent some time getting acquainted with our old friends in Changchun.