China // Dongbei //

Changbai Shan Nature Reserve

The Changbai mountains run northeast to southwest along the Chinese–Korean border for more than 1000km. With long, harsh winters and humid summers, this is the only mountain range in east Asia to possess alpine tundra, and its highest peak, Baitou Shan (2744m), is the tallest mountain on the eastern side of the continent. The huge lake, Tian Chi, high in the Changbai mountains, is one of the highlights of Dongbei, as is the surrounding area, the beautiful Changbai Shan Nature Reserve (长白山自然保护区, chángbáishān zìrán bǎohùqū). With jagged peaks emerging from swaths of lush pine forest, this is remote, backwater China, difficult to access even after recent improvements in infrastructure. Heading a little off the tourist track into the wilderness is the way to get the most out of the area, though you need to come well prepared with all-weather gear, whatever the time of year.

Established in 1961, the nature reserve covers more than 800 square kilometres of luxuriant forest, most of which lies 500m to 1100m above sea level. At the base of the range, the land is dense with huge Korean pines, which can grow up to 50m tall, and mixed broadleaf forest. The rare Manchurian fir is also found here. Higher altitudes are home to the Changbai Scotch pine, recognizable by its yellow bark, and the Japanese yew. As the climate becomes colder and damper higher up, the spruces and firs get hardier before giving way to a layer of sub-alpine grassland with colourful alpine plants. Animal species on the reserve include the leopard, lynx, black bear and Siberian tiger, all now protected, though decades of trapping have made them rarities. Notable bird species include the golden-rumped swallow, orioles and the ornamental red crossbill. The area is rich in medicinal plants, too, and has been a focus of research since the eleventh century. The Chinese regard the region as the best place in the country for ginseng and deer antlers, both prized in traditional remedies, and the reserve’s rare lichens have been investigated as a treatment for cancer.

Visitors, mostly domestic tourists, South Koreans and Japanese, come here in great numbers, and a tourist village has grown up on the mountain, with the result that the scenery and atmosphere are somewhat marred by litter, souvenir stalls and hawkers. Not all visitors are here for the landscape – plenty come to search for herbs, and many of the Japanese are here to catch butterflies (to keep) and ants (to eat).

The weather in the region is not kind and can change very suddenly. In summer, torrential rain is common, and at any time of year cloud and mist can make it impossible to see ten metres ahead of you, let alone the grandeur of Tian Chi lake.  Given the climate, the best time to visit is between June and September; at other times, heavy snows can close roads.

The reserve

It is surely only a matter of time before Tian Chi (天池, tīanchí), a dramatic volcanic crater lake 5km across, encircled by angular crags, gushing waterfalls and snow-capped peaks, takes its place alongside Beijing’s Forbidden City and Xi’an’s Terracotta Army as one of China’s must-see wonders. The effort of climbing the thousand or so concrete steps to reach the lake, not to mention all the trouble of getting to the reserve in the first place, is forgotten as you cross the boulder-strewn snow field to what must be one of the most spectacular views anywhere in the world.

Tian Chi is the undisputed jewel of the reserve. Of the other specific sights, Small Tian Chi is almost laughable when compared to its larger sibling, though the Underground Forest (地下森林, dìxià sēnlín) – a tree-filled canyon – is an unexpected wonder.

Despite its remoteness, Changbai Shan averages around 10,000 visitors a day in summer – and as you’re herded from one spot to the next, it’s easy to feel the outdoors experience has been diluted a bit. Getting away from the crowds is the key to a rewarding visit. Head off on your own and you can quickly be swallowed up in the wilderness, but be careful around Tian Chi; the lake straddles the Chinese–North Korean border – if you stray across, you’re subject to arrest and charges of espionage. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao ordered that the line be demarcated, but it isn’t clearly marked on the ground.