Changbaishan National Nature Reserve
Changbaishan National Nature Reserve (长白山自然保护区) is in Jilin province.
Covering a total area of 2000 square km, Changbaishan National Reserve is, as a large natural flora and fauna nature reserve, part of the UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Program. The Chonji Lake (Tainchi Lake), mountains, hot springs (not for bathing), and waterfalls are among the six local natural wonders. The mountains, covered with pristine forests, make an excellent tourist destination.
Tianchi Lake is 13 km in circumference but cannot be walked around as the far side is in North Korea.
Mount Paektu (Changbaishan) has two separate areas - the northern slope and the western slope with the respective north and west entrances separated by 100km.
For most visitors hiking within the Park other than on the prescribed tourist routes is not an option. Only park vehicles are permitted inside the park and from the North Gate to the first point of interest is 12km. The only route is the concrete roadway with no pedestrian options. Specialist walkers will need to organise a guide and be properly equipped. The border to North Korea is not clearly marked!
In Korean mythology it is where the Son of God descended to earth and established the first Korean city of Asadal, "morning land", hence the English phrase "land of the morning calm", itself originating from "Joseon", the Chinese translation of Asadal. The Manchus tell a similar tale, except this descendant of God established the state of Manju (Manchu), a reference to Manjusri, a Bodhisattva. It's uncertain if the stories are referring to the same person or even the same mountain, as the Korean version predates the founding of the state of Manchu and despite Manchus claiming kinship with Koreans, it was not a sentiment that was reciprocated. In any case as the mythical birthplace of the Manchu state, the mountain was off limits to Han Chinese settlers for most of Qing China's history, unintentionally making it a nature reserve. After the annexation of Korea in 1910 by Imperial Japan, the mountain was associated with Korean independence fighters who made it as a base of operations throughout the Japanese occupation. Utilizing its history and symbolism among the Korean psyche, North Korea's Kim Jong-il would appropriate the mountain's mythology, claiming the mountain as his birthplace as well; this is in spite of the evidence of him being born in the North Korean logging camp "Vyatskoye" (Вя́тское), northeast of Khabarovsk Krai.
In 1962, the mountain was "split" and given to China by North Korea in a border agreement, which to this day remains highly controversial in South Korea. South Korea does not acknowledge the agreement. Indeed, well of aware of a previous united Korea's (Joseon and especially Goryeo) border disputes and military excursions aimed reclaiming lost Goguryeo territory which stretched to parts of modern day Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang province, China preemptively launches the Northeast Project in 2002, a government-backed history revisionist initiative that reduces Goguryeo from an independent state to a local ethic minority government à la the Jurchens of the Later Jin dynasty, as a means to nullify Korea's claims.
Changbaishan (Eternally White Mountain) is the tallest peak in Dongbei (Northeast China). It is a dormant volcano, the last eruption was in 1702, with a lake in the crater named Tianchi Lake which is the source of the Songhua River. The last eruption was in 1702 A.D.
Flora and fauna
Below the lake in the crater, the mountain offers a very large selection of flora, such as the rare Changbai larch. The total count of the different species within the Nature Reserve is an impressive 80 trees and over 300 medicinal plant species.
Changbaishan has a temperate continental climate, characterized by long and cold winter, cool, short and changeable summer, windy spring and autumn foggy, with an annual average temperature at -7 °C to 3 °C. Under the impact of vertical changes of mountainous terrain, there are four landscape belts from the foot to the top of the mountain, from Temperate Zone to Frigid Zone, which is rare in the world.
From early October to late May, access into the park is very difficult due to the amount of snow that falls. Early September seems to be one of the better times to visit and a whole lot of South Koreans agree. Finding available accommodation around this time can be difficult.
Access into the Nature Reserve is mainly through Baihe bus or train stations. From Baihe, buses travel to Changbaishan to northern (main) park gate. Once inside the Park you must switch to a Park eco-bus. The entrance fee is 125 rmb and the eco-bus a further 85rmb. The first eco-bus goes to a major switching station where you can change to another bus for the top of the main route or pay an extra 80rmb to go to the peak up a 10km winding road, weather permitting. The summit can be cold and windy at any time of the year but if you are unprepared there are jackets for hire.
The main eco-bus should be taken to the top and then you come down one beauty spot at the time: the only problem is that there are no signs in any language about which bus is going where so you have to keep asking. On the buses is a schematic map showing the stages. Note: when you come to two small lakes one 'silver', one 'green' walk to the silver first as the bus leaves from the 'Green'.
An alternate access is via Songjiang He, a village 40 km west of the Nature Reserve. The western approach offers more beauty with forests of trees gradually changing to meadows and flowers (in spring and early summer).
The main town providing accommodation is Erdao. Arriving by train or bus at Baihe, you are likely to be met by touts offering accommodation and who will take you for free to Erdao. The youth hostel though is in Baihe and is named Chang-Bai-Shan Woodland Hostel (with hyphens). Double bed rooms in Erdao can be had off-season from 80 rmb. The touts/hotelliers will normally also arrange a group bus (about 35 rmb) to take you to the North Gate and collect you at the end of the day (typically 7am to 4pm). Note that some of these will first go into the Volcanic Forest area where there are two additional small parks with a total fee of 100rmb. They are worth seeing but if the price is an issue, you can stay on the bus or walk around outside.
If you arrive at Baihe early in the morning (ie before about 9am) you could take a taxi to the North Gate and then back again at 4pm (closing time) and be able to catch a train out (eg to Shenyang at 0046).
An alternative approach is to book a tour through CITS in Jilin or Changchun.
There is now high speed rail from Changchun to Dunhua City, a trip that lasts barely 100mins and costs just 80.5RMB per person in 2nd class seats. Hiring a private car for a return trip from Dunhua City costs 600RMB, and is approximately 3 hour per direction. This can be done via searching on the Chinese ecommerce site Taobao with keywords such as "Dunhua Changbaishan" (in Chinese of course).
Park admission and transportation fee have to be paid as soon as you enter the park. If you sleep in one of the hotels inside the park (near Northgate) (when operating) you pay only once for entry and the eco-bus regardless of how long you stay.
Cars are prohibited in the parks. Shuttle buses bring the tourists from the north/west gate to the different sightseeing spots in the park and run frequently. Ask for the operating times of the buses and the opening hours of the park! (approx. Westgate 7AM-4PM, Northgate 7AM-6PM)
From Northern Gate to Western Gate - approx. 100km, 2 hours. From Waterfall to the Canyon- approx. 4 hours.
Typical Itinerary for the northern slope:
Honey and Ginseng
There are few shops inside the park especially during low season (September-June)so you might want to take your own food and drink for the trip.
During high season you can buy small snacks (e.g. boiled eggs cooked in the hot spring water) and drinks inside the park and at the gates - prices are a bit high. There are no restaurants inside the park.
Northern Slope: There are hotels inside the Park near the Northgate but it is unclear when they operate, or if at all, so unless you can book in advance, it's probably best to exclude this option
In Songjianghe you can find inexpensive and midrange lodging (arround 40 minutes from Songjianghe to the Westgate ).
Camping is forbidden in the park.
The Tian Chi lake is split between China and North Korea. The park rangers seek to preven people walking off the main trails BUT if you do decide to try a little hiking, Do Not Wander Into North Korea!, there are few markers!!!!