By Duncan Gordon
The wind at the summit of Changbaishan (长白山) was like a sandstorm. The gusts were blowing across mythical Tianchi Lake, picking up flakes of ice and snow that were cutting into our frozen cheeks and lips. A friend made the mistake of removing his hand from its glove to take a photo. Within ten seconds it was throbbing with pain. We lasted about five minutes huddling against the wind whipping up off the famous lake before seeking shelter in the tourist centre.
Bringing my numb hands back to life by clasping a polystyrene coffee cup I asked the fuwuyuan what the temperature is outside. 30 degrees below zero. Celsius. It felt even colder.
Changbaishan straddles the border between Jilin province and North Korea. Known as Paektu Mountain in Korea, the peak is the highest in the Changbai mountain range, at 2,744 metres. The volcano’s caldera lake, Tianchi (Heaven Lake), was formed in a huge explosion just over 1000 years ago. Both Korean nations consider the mountain to be their nation’s spiritual home and North Korea claim it to be the birthplace of former leader Kim Jong-il. It was first officially recorded in China in the Classic of Mountains and Seas in the 4th Century BC, even before China’s first emperor had united the country.
The journey to reach this famous mountain felt like a pilgrimage. After a half-day bus journey along country roads we reached the last point of access for private vehicles. We were herded through the ticket gates along with some brave families who also decided to visit this peak at the coldest time of northeast China’s bitter winter. Everyone piled on board shuttle buses and we gently began to climb uphill on a road cut in almost a straight line through the pine forest. Some of the passengers gazed out the windows into the dense trees, hoping (rather than expecting) to spot the elusive Siberian tigers that live in these forests. They don’t make an appearance. Up ahead, the peak of Changbaishan looms over the forest.
Thirty minutes later we have to disembark the shuttle buses. They can go no further. We switch to rugged-looking SUVs. Six people to a vehicle. This time the road is not straight. As we climb the mountain we are thrown from window to window on each hairpin bend. Some of the corners are perched on top of sheer drops but the driver doesn’t seem to notice. He’s done it a thousand times before and trusts his own judgment enough to take the bends at speed. We’re not so relaxed. Nevertheless, the stunning views across the frozen Jilin wilderness are helpful distractions.
Approaching the summit, the snow was piled high by the road and was being swept across it in the vicious gusts of wind lashing the mountain. Suddenly an SUV would appear out of the white air hurtling down the mountain, full of other terrified tourists. Eventually, with knuckles white from holding onto whatever was in arm’s reach, we reached the summit.
Our five minutes looking into North Korea over Tianchi Lake were short but unforgettable. Visiting Chanbaishan is a unique experience in China’s special northeast.