Arrival in Yanji
We arrived at the Yanji airport around 9pm. Actually, first I want to say something about our experience at the airport in Dalian. As in many developing countries, only fairly wealthy people can afford to take many planes in their life. And things in airports are always slightly more expensive than they would be elsewhere, partly because of the convenience, partly because of the clientele. Well, I tried to buy some light dinner item at a little eatery in the Dalian airport but quickly decided not to when I realized the prices were outrageous. Sinead did get a bowl of noodles or something, but I refused to spend any money at this place. This brings up an interesting point about the huge gap between haves and have-nots in China. This is typical in the developing world, but my understanding is that the government here actually has different plans for the city dwellers versus the rural peasants. I don't really understand how they manage to prevent the movement of country folks to the cities, but there clearly is an official plan to deal with different people in different ways and this seems to spill over into private enterprise. The "peasants" and small business people will do whatever they can to get money from the rich city dwellers. Maybe this is an effective wealth redistribution system, but there is something odd about it.
Anyway, as open as Sinead is about the state of her country and as passioinate as she might be about seeing improvements, I sometimes wonder whether she is infected with a bit of prejudice herself. Before arriving in Yanji, she warned me about how people in the north are kinda "barbaric" and that we had to be careful because they are known to beat and steal for no paricular reason. Now, I have traveled to a lot of rough places, including rural parts of central and southern China, and I have seldom felt I was in much real danger. Sure, the taxi drivers at the airport were a bit aggressive and it could feel a bit intimidating so late at night in a remote place, but as long as you pick a nice one and you negotiate the price up-front, you should be all right. Sinead's fears seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy, though, cuz we had a rather rude guy that night. I could only follow about half of the conversation, so I just smiled a lot. Sinead was trying to negotiate a ride all the way to Baihe, which is the town near the north entrace to Mt. Changhai. Baihe is over 100km away and the driver was quoting some ridiculous price, I guess. Eventually, he did get us to a decent hotel in Yanji, and we went out later for karaoke, so I was happy. A more interesting observation about the villages in this area is the fact that most signs are written in both Mandarin and Korean. Since we are near the border, there are some ethnic Koreans who live around here, but evidently Yanji airport gets a lot of South Korean tourists who fly into see Mt. Changbai.
North Mt. Changbai
Early in the morning, we caught a bus to Baihe, checked into a really friendly and clean hotel and headed out to see the park. Although I have been to some mountains, rivers and other places of natural beauty in China, this was the first one where I felt the full force of the rich-poor divide. First, China has no official national parks, but all the land is publicly owned and the services in the Mt. Changbai area should be accessible to everyone (see VIP Passage->). But anyone who wants to go up to see the crater lake at the peak of this volcanic mountain, has to pay for this super first class bus-to-suv service that whisks you to the top of the mountain to where you only have to hike the last hundred meters. This was the strangest, most sickening ride I have ever paid for. Luckily, I got the front seat, so I was able to grab the "oh-shit" handles, but the passengers in the rear two rows got slammed from one side to the other as the clearly insane drivers skidded the Pajero's tires around every hairpin turn. The thing that was really odd was that not a single person complained about the completely unacceptable driving. So althought we paid a ton for special service, none of the passengers were really being served.
Anyway, the view at the top was nice. Although we arrived around noon, the wind coming over the back side of the mountain was freezing. Also, although morning might have been clear, it was pretty cloudy while we were up at the top. Sinead had been here before, so she insisted that we wait for a better view, because she wanted me to appreciate the beauty of the place. I must admit that I was surprised at the size of the lake inside the crater left by the volcano long ago. Plus, while we waited, Sinead was able to talk to some of the other tourists including a local Korean man whose relatives had come from South Korea to see this mountain which forms part of the border with North Korea. After another harrowing ride down the mountain, we took a shuttle to other parts of the park where we could see a waterfall and take a dip in a hot spring. The men's side of the hot spring had a lot of South Korean tourists who tried to strike-up a conversation with me. The view from the outdoor pool was nice and unlike some of the hot springs I have found in the US, the water here clearly had some minerals which I pretended were good for my skin or lungs or something.
Moving on to another place, we walked along a creekside trail, and an "underground forest." This magic forest was really just a regular forest which you viewed from atop a plateau which made it seem like it was in the basement somehow. I think they need to re-translate the name of that forest, but it was a fun walk out to the edge of the plateau. We were literally the last tourists on the last shuttle heading back to the park entrance. Since we were the last ones coming down from the mountain, there were no taxis available to take us back to town. We wondered around for a while and eventually made it to the parking lot where our morning taxi driver (very helpful, cheery chap) had told us the taxis hang-out. There were no taxis there, but we managed to attract the attention of the two guards who sleep in the shack at the gate to the parking lot. They invited us in for a cigarette while they called a taxi to come up from town. The guard that did all the talking gave us some tips about going to the west entrance or the south entrance and seeing more things. We decided to take a train south from here in the morning and explore other parts of the park.
7 September 2008