Su and I were back from a short trip to Northeast China the highlight of which was a climb up Changbaishan (CBS) to see the Heaven Lake. Tianchi in Chinese literally refers to a pond in heaven, and is translated in English to various versions and known by different names in Korean and Manchu. It is a volcanic crater lake on top of CBS and is situated on the border between China and North Korea, roughly evenly divided between the countries. It is recognized as the highest volcanic lake in the world by the Shanghai office of the Guinness World Records. Geologically, the lake was created in one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history which occurred in late AD 946 which is probably why it was also known as the Millennium Eruption, which had resulted in a brief period of significant climate change in North East China.

Notwithstanding the romantic stories and legends associated with the lake and the mountain, the extremely diverse and unique flora and fauna which inhabit the areas and the breathtaking scenic landscape and signature photos and videos that await any amateur photographer, no tour operators can see it fit to market a Hong Kong to CBS only tour, convinced that such tours would not be viable. We have thus signed on this eight-day trip, which comprises two days flying to Shenyang and back – Day One and Day Eight; two days – Day Two and Day Seven – touring Shenyang old and new sites, and including a three-and-a-half-hour rail trip on highspeed train from CBS to Shenyang; two days – Day Three and Day Four – making our way to CBS by bus through Dandong and Ji An and visiting the mandatory tourist spots in between; and finally two days – Day Five and Day Six – ascending the Mountain from the western and the northern faces respectively.

There wasn’t much to talk or write about the outbound and the return flights. We travelled economy class, of course, and both flights were rather crowded and noisy, with plenty of children, many of whom, as Su had observed in her blogs, spoke rather fluent English.  We met the Tour Leader Jeffrey Chan at CLK Airport, who introduced us in Shenyang to the local guide Wang who preferred to be addressed as Xiao Zhong and our local driver Chang. 

Let me start with Day Seven which featured the trip by highspeed train from CBS back to Shenyang. Changbaishan is a modern train station with its highspeed section only opened towards the end of 2021 and is the terminus for a regular highspeed service running between CBS and Beijing, with the first service operating at 8:20am, which is the one we took. Our destination Shenyang Bei is the third stop, after Jilin and Changchun. The train kept the top speed below 350 kph and was spot on with the departure and arrival times. To cover the same journey by bus would have taken at least 13 hours under normal traffic conditions, which our bus driver Chang who had been following us from the airport tried after dropping us at the train station, but who was severely delayed because of the heavy rainstorm which began from mid-day that day, so that in the end, he couldn’t take us to the Shenyang airport on Day Eight. This highspeed link could potentially create a market for CBS enthusiasts who are only interested in the Mountain and the Lake and who could afford the costs to save time on the road. It is fast, safe and reliable. The only problem is that one would do better travelling light with a smaller bag. As it happened, we got off the train in light rain and walked onto a waiting bus which took us to lunch at a restaurant adjourning a white wine (mao-tai) factory followed by a visit to the museum featuring the history, art and culture of wine making.

As to sightseeing, we visited the Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum, also known as Mukden Palace, construction for which began in 1625 by Nurhaci who lived there, as did his successor. The palace became a regional palace for most of the Qing dynasty, was converted into a museum in 1955 and included in 2004 in the UNESCO World Heritage List. After the visit and lunch, we were bused to Dandong in a 3.5 hours trip. Now, Northeast China is a vast region covering nearly 800,000 square kilometers with a population of just under 99 million. It comprises three provinces, namely Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, and was home to the most powerful industries in China during the great wars and occupied by Japan for those reasons until the end of WW II. Travelling between cities in the region takes time, particularly when roads were under repairs or construction. We noticed that the authorizes have been splashing concretes around and building extensive and modern highway networks in the region, which would no doubt reduce travelling time and make future visits more comfortable. During our travels, the local guide, sometimes aided by colleagues in certain visits, tried hard to enrich our knowledge of the cities we passed through and of the region, including what they have been and are still best known for. As our main agenda were the CBS and the Lake, I would be brief on the other spots we had been taken to, including the retired Dandong missile-carrying warship which was in service from January 1985 through May 2021, or 36 years; the Yalu River which China and North Korea share; Ji An City and some more UNESCO sites.

Turning now to the ascend to the Mountain. On Day Five, we left the hotel at 8am and embarked on a three-hour bus trip to the CBS Visitors Centre, where we changed to a local bus for a 56 km trip into the Mountain. The driver chatted with his colleague all the way through stretches of scenic roads with not much changes in gradients, so we could live with that. There are evidences that the corporation which runs and manages the Mountain had plans to build resorts near the car parks at the entrance, but probably due to the pandemic, most were in various stages of completion or had been abandoned. In any case, the company is about to be listed and go public. After about an hour, we arrived at another car park with lines of mini-buses each taking about 25 passengers. We were herded into one of them and the mini-buses began to race up the Mountain through narrow and winding roads, albeit well-paved, often up steep gradients. The scenes changed fast and the mountain tops could be seen clearly. The line of min-buses going up and down the slopes is in itself a spectacle and does stay on the mind. The full journey took about 20 minutes when we were all asked to take some rather spartan food in a dormitory styled canteen, before we began the assault up the western slope. I did not register the altitude from which we began walking up the 1,420 steps up to the top where the Lake is at 2,470 m. We started out at 1:45pm and our Tour Leader Jeffrey asked us to reassemble near the canteen at 4:30pm, which would give us plenty of time. The ascend was easy in the first one-third and every five steps or so are marked with numbers. It was a very warm and sunny day and the skill levels are not too onerous. The sceneries are great and the air fresh and crispy. Su took pictures with her camera all the way. She had advised me beforehand to carry the phone and plenty of warm clothes instead. She had also loaded most of the photos in an album to which you can access from the following link under the title of Chang Bai Shan, if you have the patience and stamina to have read thus far –

In the end, we reached the top to join Jeffrey, Xiao Zhong and most and actually all the other six couples of our tour, as we congratulated each other for the luck and our stamina. The Lake was in full sight and we took so many pictures with each other, helped by Jeffrey who is tall and has long arms. My first black warm shirt was completely soaked. I changed to a white T-shirt and lay the wet one on the concrete floor to dry. Everyone was in such a joyous and somewhat ecstatic mood; for we had been warned beforehand that the Lake could only be sighted on average 60 days every year, with most sightings in the winter when access to the top would be closed. We then began the descend in small batches, so that by 4:15pm everyone had returned base, as I changed to a third shirt. Just as I thought that we would go for dinner or back to the hotel, Jeffrey told us that there was another site to cover – the Jianjiang Grand Canyon which is a work of Nature the park management discovered accidentally in the late 80s and which was rather interesting but which required the legs to walk nearly another 2 km, resulting in a rather late dinner.

We assaulted from the Northern slope on Day Six. It involved much less walking, but as much staying on buses, big and small. Once again, we started off at 8:30am, changed to the local buses at 9am for a one-hour journey which would have taken us to the car park for min-buses uphill, except that Jeffrey decided that we would do the bubbling volcanic pools first and taste the eggs soft-boiled from the waters therein. There was some logistic confusion resulting in some delays but an earlier lunch, before we were taken back to board the mini-buses which are smaller than those we used the day before, each taking 8 to 10 passengers. As we ascended the long and winding road, we saw fogs and cloud formations blocking the top. On reaching the top, we were advised to take Route B rather than Route A. It was a short walk. The sun was blocked most of the time and we barely saw the Lake at the vantage point at 2,670 m. Once again, we took pictures and congratulated each other that we were able to sight the Lake from both the Western and Northern faces on two consecutive days, which were to be regarded as tremendous achievements and indeed was the first for Jeffrey since he last saw the Lake from the Western face in 2014.

Before I signed off, let me share with you the little we had found out in the eight days on the rest of the group members. There were seven couples including us with none having met the others beforehand. For logistical reason, we were split into two groups for meals, one with four couples and the other with three. All the men were in their 70s or late 60s. We were in the four-couple group. And the other three were: The Lee’s, with Mr Lee having retired from the Police for over ten years, but who were called out to help during the Covid pandemic, and Mrs. Lee who is a wine lover and was not shy about it and who happily take the whisky we brought along and bought a small bottle of white wine at lunch before we visited the museum; The Lau’s, with Mr Lau having worked long years for Eriksson and Mrs. Lau being the youngest member who just turned 60; and The Chow’s with Mr Chow at 77 would easily be the eldest in the group and Mrs. Chow being a seasoned traveler who had seen a lot of the world. On the other table were: The Ng’s who identified themselves as David and Anita, with David now operating a few local accounting firms and whose daughters are both Accountants and his wife who has some strong fashion sense; The Lo’s who were vegetarians and very much into volunteerism; and the Cheung’s who apparently loath to socialize, but who appear to be keen hikers. I didn’t collect any contact address from any of them and I doubt whether we would meet again. It seems that all six couples have been married for rather long and have always enjoyed travelling.

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