Changbaishan is an incredible mountain range and nature reserve in Jilin Province on the border of North Korea and China. The highlight of Changbaishan is Heavenly Lake, a beautiful lake formed in a volcanic crater at the top of the mountain. For stunning photos and details of Changbaishan, click on this link here Changbaishan Mountain Information
I live in Jilin Province and always wanted to visit Changbaishan and see the Heavenly Lake so last year I took a 3 day tour there. The trip a disaster and you can cringe over the details and supporting pics here Epic Changbaishan Mountain Travel Fail
Still determined to see Heavenly Lake in all its glory, I went back on a two day Changbaishan express tour last weekend. This trip was also a disaster!
Background – The best times to travel to Changbaishan are from June to September so I originally planned to go in August with a friend. My friend pulled out at the last minute so I signed up alone for a two day express tour on the 8-9 of September.
The Tour – The tour was with one of the numerous generic tour companies that keep opening and closing in Changchun. The cost was 380rmb with an extra 120rmb to stay in a double room with a private show and toilet. The itinerary on day 1 was to catch the bus at 5:40am for a 6-7 hour bus trip and eventually arrive at a small town near the west gate of Changbaishan called Songjianghe in the evening. Day two was an early wake up then off to Changbaishan for half a day. The rest of the day was a shopping stop and a drive back to Changchun.
Weather Checks – Checked the weather Wednesday, Thursday and Friday ready to cancel if there was bad weather and Heavenly Lake was not accessible or visible. The Friday afternoon forecast for Sunday was cloud but no rain. Acceptable so the trip was on.
Woke up at the crack of dawn and was on the bus all ready to go at 5:35. A couple of rest breaks and five hours on the road, we arrived at the first stop.
Small hot springs resort – We stopped here at 11:30am for two hours so people could swim in heated swimming pools for 120rmb. It was pouring rain and the pools did not appeal so I sat around getting bored and trying to stay dry (bus was locked). Around 70% of the people on the bus did not go for a swim so this stop was probably one of those deals where the tour company gets a kick back for bringing in customers.
White water rafting – The bus bumped a barrier at a level crossing near the hot water springs so the driver, the tour guide and the level crossing monitor were on their phones for an hour to sort things out. This meant there was no time for white water rafting. Absolutely no loss because the rivers have no rapids and the speed of the current is a slow walk.
Dinner – The high light of the day (and the whole trip) and very good. No activities after dinner so back to the hotel room with the laptop for company.
Breakfast – Up and at the breakfast table at 6:00am. Breakfast was a bowl of plain rice porridge, a small white piece of bread and a few mouthfuls of salted vegetables. Breakfast did not take long to finish and we were on the bus to Changbaishan at 7:00am.
West Gate – We arrived at the West Gate of Changbaishan just before 8am, passed through the gates and caught the eco friendly buses (85rmb up and back) to the top of the mountain. The drive from the gate to the top took 40 minutes.
Weather Update – It had been raining all Saturday and all of that day so there was no chance of seeing Heavenly Lake. The whole mountain was covered in cloud/rain and visibility was limited to several hundred meters and reducing the higher you went.
Climbing the Mountain – The climb to the top of the mountain starts at the bus stop where there is a massive bus park and a two floor shop cum rest center. The climb from the bus park to the top of the mountain which overlooks Heavenly Lake has 1365 steps and you can see the numbers written on the steps as you climb up. The height of the mountain at the top where the trail ends at a viewing platform is 2274 meters.
The climb will only take 20 to 30 minutes and is not very demanding. If you’ve climbed China’s more famous mountains like Huangshan, this climb will be a breeze for you.
The View – What can I say??? There was no view. We could see the faint outline of the nearest peak through the rain/clouds and no view at all of Heavenly Lake that was 80 meters below the viewing platform. On a good day the view would have been incredible with the 16 peaks surrounding you and the panorama of 10 square kilometres of pristine mountain lake spread out in front of you.
A Second Climb – After moping around on the viewing platform forlornly imagining what Heavenly Lake would look like on a good day, I trudged back to the rest center to wait for the bus ride down. The rest center was full of people smoking so I climbed up the mountain again. The view was no better the second time with Heavenly Lake refusing to show itself.
Jinjiang Canyon – On the way back to the west gate there was a stop at the Jinjiang Canyon which is a very deep and narrow valley along the course of the Jinjiang River flowing of Changbaishan. The walk along the edge of the canyon is well set out with impressive views and would be enjoyable in normal conditions after a morning admiring the glory of Heavenly Lake.
Lunch – After exiting the West gate we were each given our lunch as we got on the bus. A bun, a processed meat sausage, a salted egg and a bottle of water. The tour guide warned us at the beginning of the trip that meals were basic and if you did not like them, tough. You could diet. No exaggeration. If you go on a Changbaishan tour, pack munchies in your bag so you don’t go hungry. The price of the tour is low so you are not being ripped off on the food. Just be prepared and bring your own.
Shopping – Every tour to Changbaishan, both the West gate and North gate tours, stops at shops selling local produce on the way back to Changchun. The tour companies get a kick back from the stores and some customers actually buy stuff there. Most people just browse around because they have to get of the bus which is locked during the stop. After the stop over at the hot springs resort the previous day and with rain still drizzling, I was not in the mood to play along so I politely and tactfully declined the offer to get of the bus and was locked in. A win win outcome.
Home – The trip back was uneventful and painless and on arrival in Changchun I said my goodbyes, shouldered my pack and went of in search of a hot meal.
Timing Your Trip – June to September are generally good BUT rain/snow is not unusual. To maximise your chances of seeing the Heavenly Lake, go in July/August.
North Gate Not West Gate – Most of your time will be spent sitting on a bus or stopping off at shops/rafting/swimming pools. No way to avoid this. So you might as well get take the 3 day tour to the North gate and get a full day on the mountain.
Ideally Speak Chinese or Take a Chinese Friend – 99.9% of the people on the tours are Chinese and the whole system is set up for Chinese. During both trips I’ve taken to Changbaishan, I was the only foreigner. If you don’t speak Chinese or go with a Chinese person, you’ll have communication problems and likely to have issues like missing buses and getting lost. If you don’t speak Chinese or have a Chinese friend to go with you, still go but try to buddy up with some one in your group.
Be Prepared – Take plenty of food, and entertainment (a good thick book) for the bus rides and quiet nights in the hotel.
Avoid Toilets – The toilets and the bus rest stops and small restaurants/shops are VERY basic definitely not fun to use. If possible, use the toilets at your hotel or the North/West Gate of Changbaishan.