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China Northeast Travel Guide

Liaoning, Jilin & Heilongjiang


Liaoning, Jilin & Heilongjiang

Stretching from Shanhaiguan – the Great Wall’s terminus at the Yellow Sea – to the Siberian borders in the north, the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang cover 309,000 sq miles (800,000 sq km), an area larger than Spain and Portugal. With a population of over 100 million, they offer a variety of landscapes from seaside ports to expanses of uninhabited forests and mountains.

A secluded sandy cove in he Bangchuidao Scenic Area, Dalian
A secluded sandy cove in
the Bangchuidao Scenic Area, Dalian

The region was once part of erstwhile Manchuria, and the lavish palace of the Manchu kings at Shenyang in the heart of Liaoning stands testament to their might. On Liaoning’s balmier southern coast, Dalian features scenic coastal drives and fine, sandy beaches. As the only ice-free port in the area, it was coveted by both Japan and Russia, and occupied continuously by one or the other between 1895 and 1955.

Japan’s imperialist stamp also survives in Jilin’s capital, Changchun, from where China’s last emperor, Pu Yi, ruled the Japanese state of Manchukuo as a mere puppet. In Heilongjiang, the city of Harbin has heavy Russian overtones, clearly evident in its buildings and restaurants, while strong Korean influences color Dandong town, situated along the North Korean border. Also straddling the border is the rugged, spectacular Changbai Shan Reserve, which abounds in lush, jagged peaks and hiking opportunities. Its volcanic lake, Tian Chi, is China’s deepest, rumored to be home to a mysterious aquatic beast.

Other natural attractions include Liaoning’s Bingyu Valley with its towering rock formations, Heilongjiang’s volcanic lakes – Wu Da Lian Chi and Jingpo Hu, and the huge bird sanctuary at Zhalong Nature Reserve, whose marshy expanse supports hundreds of species of birds during the summer breeding season.

Shenyang
Capital of Liaoning province and the largest city in the Northeast, Shenyang may lack the panache of Dalian, but it serves as an important transport and industrial hub at the heart of the province. Of strategic importance in the state of Yan during the Warring States period (475–221 BC), the town was first called Shenyang during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, before rising to prominence as the first Manchu capital in 1625, when it was known as Mukden and was chosen as the setting for the Imperial Palace, a splendid rival to Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Visitors' checklist

  • 440 miles (700 km) NE of Beijing
  • 5,000,000
  • Shenyang Air-port
  • South Train Station or North Train Station
  • South Bus Station, Express Bus Station, CAAC (buses to airport)
  • Bldg 4, 290 Shi Fu Lu 024 2295 8888
Shenyang City Center

Shenyang City Center

  • Imperial Palace 1
  • Mao Statue 2
  • North Pagoda 3
  • North Tomb 5
  • 18 September Museum 4

Imperial Palace

  • 171 Shenyang Lu
  • 024 2484 4192
  • 9am–4:30pm daily
  • interiors
A throng of visitors outside the Dazheng Hall, Imperial Palace
A throng of visitors outside the Dazheng
Hall, Imperial Palace

Second only in scale to the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Imperial Palace, also called Shenyang Gugong, is Shen-yang’s premier historical sight, situated in what was the center of the old city. Its construction began in 1625, during the reign of Nurhachi (1559–1626), leader of the Manchus. In 1644, Manchu troops breached the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan and swarmed into China to establish the Qing dynasty. Serving as the imperial residence of both Nurhachi and his son and heir Abahai, the palace is composed of 300 rooms. While its features reflect a pronounced Manchu and Mongol influence, the palace was obviously an attempt to emulate its Ming counterpart, the Forbidden City, Beijing. The palace divides into three sections. The dominating feature of the central section is the Chongzheng Hall, from where Abahai oversaw political affairs and received envoys from vassal lands and border territories. In the court-yard behind the hall, the Qingning Palace is where the emperor and his concubines resided. The Phoenix Tower, the tallest structure in the imperial grounds can be found here too.

In the western section, the Wensu Pavilion formerly housed one of seven copies of the 36,078-volume Siku Quanshu (Complete Library of the Four Treasures), an encyclopedic collection of Chinese literature compiled in the Qing era, of which only four sets survive. The Dazheng Hall is the central feature of the eastern section, fronted by pillars emblazoned with sinuous dragons. It was here that Shunzhi (Aisin Gioro Fulin) was crowned as the first Qing emperor, before he conquered China in 1644. In front of the hall stand the Ten King Pavilions, once used as offices by the chieftains of the “Eight Banners” – the Manchu system of land and hereditary divisions. The palace has been undergoing extensive restoration and some halls that are usually open may be closed. It achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2004.

Colossal Mao statue
Colossal Mao statue

Mao Statue

  • Zhongshan Square

    Wei Tuo Buddha, North Pagoda   
    Wei Tuo Buddha, North Pagoda

    The statue of Mao Zedong situated in Zhongshan Square in downtown Shenyang stands as a reminder of a vanished era. Mao statues tower over public squares across China, including such far-flung outposts as Lijiang in Yunnan and Kashgar in Xinjiang, but this example is perhaps the most histrionic, depicting Mao’s giant monolithic figure as a superman in an overcoat.

    North Pagoda

  • 27 Beita Jie
  • Summer: 8:30am–5pm, Winter: 9am–4:30pm

    Built in 1643, Bei Ta is the only one of four temples and pagodas situated on the city boundaries in a decent state of repair. The surviving features of the original pagoda are the Great Hall and Falun Temple.

    18 September Museum

    • 46 Wanghua Nanjie
    • Summer: 8:30am–5pm, Winter: 9am–4:30pm

    The Jiuyiba Lishi Bowuguan com-memorates the occupation of Shenyang on Sept-ember 18, 1931, by Japanese troops. Its exhibits make up the most comprehensive chronicle of the Japanese aggression in Manchuria. Like other museums with a similar theme, some of the displays can be rather gruesome.

    Mythical animal, North Tomb
    Mythical animal,
    North Tomb
    North Tomb’s ornate west wall and gateway
    North Tomb’s ornate west wall and gateway

    North Tomb

  • 12 Taishan Lu, Beiling Gongyuan, North Shenyang
  • 7am–6pm daily
  • interiors

    The huge Beiling Park houses the tomb of Abahai (1592–1643), the son of Nurhachi, and his wife, Empress Borjijit. One of the largest and best-preserved of China’s imperial mausoleums, the North Tomb (Bei Ling) was built in 1643, the year of the emperor’s death. The layout of the complex is typical of imperial Chinese tombs, and is accessed through Zhenghong Gate to the south. Of the pavilions lying on either side of the gate, the easternmost pavilion was used as a dressing room for visiting emperors, while the westernmost was the site for sacrificing animals. A spirit way (shendao), lined with animal statues, leads to the Hall of Eminent Favor (Ling’en Dian). Right behind the hall lie the tree-covered imperial burial mounds, formally called Zhao Ling (the Luminous Tomb), and an exquisite dragon screen.

    East Tomb

    • 3 miles (5 km) E of Shenyang
    • 8am–4pm daily
    • interiors

    The impressive East Tomb (Dong Ling), the final resting place of Nurhachi and his wife Yehenala, was completed in 1651. Arranged attractively on the slopes of Mount Tianzhu near the Hun River, the three-storied tomb has a flight of 108 steps leading to its main gate. The number 108 is sacred to the Chinese; in the Daoist celestial order, 108 represents the 36 stars of heaven and the 72 stars of hell. The number is also sacred to Buddhists, reflected in the 108 beads on Buddhist rosaries and the number of luohan in certain Buddhist sects.

    Jinzhou

    • 125 miles (200 km) SW of Shenyang

    An industrial city on the eastern shores of the Liaoning Gulf, Jinzhou is visited mainly for its storehouse of Jurassic period fossils, of which more than 300 are housed in the private Wenya Museum (Bowuguan). Set up by the amateur collector Du Wenya, this unremarkable three-story building stands on Heping Lu although there is talk of relocating it in the near future. The star attraction is a specimen of dushi kongzi niao (Confuciusornis dui hou), a winged, avian dinosaur with feathered features, that was unearthed in 1998 in western Liaoning, a region rich in dinosaur remains. Other exhibits include another dinosaur with bird-like features known as Sinosauropteryx, a 120-million-year-old and 29-ft (9-m) fossilized tree, and fossilized dinosaur eggs from the Jurassic period. Jutting out of Jinzhou Bay, 21 miles (34 km) south of town, is Bijia Shan (Pen-holder Mount). It is connect-ed to the mainland by an isthmus that emerges from the sea at low tide. The island’s peaks – which resemble a Chinese pen rest – support several Buddhist temples and offer magnificent views over the bay. Visitors who wish to walk to Bijia Shan along the isthmus should check the timings of low-tide before planning a trip. An alternative way of reaching the island is by taking a fishing boat.

    Wenya Museum

    • 33–13 Erduan, Heping Lu
    • 0416 212 2145
    • 8:30am–5pm daily

    Bijia Shan

    • 8:30am–5pm daily

    Dandong

    • 172 miles (277 km) SE of Shenyang
    • 7,500,000
    • 20 Shiwei Lu, 0415 213 7493

    Presided over by a statue of Mao Zedong in the heart of town, Dandong is located along the Yalu Jiang (Yalu River) in the eastern part of Liaoning province. It would have been little more than an obscure outpost, ignored by travelers, if it were not for its proximity to North Korea. Today, the largest border town in China, Dandong has an unmistakable Korean stamp, from the shaokao (barbecue) dishes, to the signs in hangul (the Korean script), and the Korean shops and souvenirs.

    Within reach of Dandong are several other interesting sights, and the town acts as a useful launch pad to Changbai Shan and the stunning mountain lake of Tian Chi. Dandong’s trademark sight is the Yalu Jiang Duan Qiao (Yalu River Bridge) that reaches out into the river alongside the bridge connecting China with North Korea – this railway line runs all the way from Beijing to Pyongyang. The steel bridge ends halfway along its full span, the remainder having been dismantled by the Koreans. The surviving half in Chinese territory bears the scars of combat, having been strafed in 1950 by US fighter planes during the Korean War. The ruin serves as a monument to the Kang Mei Yuan Chao Zhanzheng (War to Resist US Aggression & Aid Korea), as the Chinese refer to their part in the conflict. Boats and speedboats offer cruises along the Yalu River, for visitors who want to get within two or three feet of the hermit kingdom. It is permitted to take photographs of North Korea, though there are few photogenic features – just factories, civilians, and Stalinist housing. Those who wish to learn more about China’s contribution to the Korean War can visit the Museum to Commemorate Aiding Korea & Resisting America, with a plethora of exhibits on the war. Even though the captions are almost exclusively in Chinese, the nationalistic refrain is clearly evident.

    Located 31 miles (50 km) northwest of town, the 2,760-ft (840-m) Fenghuang Shan (Phoenix Emperor Mountain) is associated with Daoist mythology. It supports a crop of temples and caves, besides offering some excellent hiking trails. A good time to visit is during the temple fair (miaohui), held every April. The Hushan Great Wall, a little-visited and restored vestige of the Great Wall, is located 20 km (12 miles) northeast of Dandong, near Jiuliancheng town, overlooking the Yalu River and the North Korean border. This section of the wall, dating from the reign of the Ming Wanli emperor, is its easternmost point. In 2003, the Great Wall Museum opened at the site, displaying relics associated with the defensive barrier. Since the North Korean border is not always clearly marked, hiking around this area is inadvisable, in case visitors inadvertently cross over into North Korea.

    Yalu Jiang Duan Qiao

    • 0415 212 2145
    • daily
    A traffic policewoman on duty
    A traffic policewoman on duty

    Fenghuang Shan

  • Fengchen City
  • daily

    A traffic policewoman on duty
    Dramatic karst hills rising up from the river,
    Bingyu Valley

    Bingyu Valley

  • 149 miles (240 km) NE of Dalian
  • from Dalian to Zhuanghe, then bus
  • from Dalian to Zhuanghe, then bus to Bingyu Fengjingqu

    A picturesque river valley, Bingyu Gou lies sprawled across 42 sq miles (110 sq km). It offers long riverside walks and hikes in fabulous trekking terrain overlooked by jagged peaks, karst rock formations, temples, and cliffs hollowed out by numerous caves. Opportunities for climbing, fishing, and rafting are also available. The valley can be reached via the town of Zhuanghe, northeast of Dalian. Accommodations are available for those who wish to stay overnight. It is best to avoid the holiday periods as well as weekends during summer, when the valley receives crowds of visitors.

    Giant football, Labor Park
    Giant football, Labor Park

    Dalian
    Sparkling with self-assurance and confidence, Dalian is Northeast China’s most dynamic and attractive city. It is famed throughout China for its top-notch hotels, progressive economy, modern and European-style architecture, football team, and cleanliness. The city resembles Shanghai in its port setting, cosmopolitanism, Special Economic Zone status, and history of foreign control, but has the added attraction of a coastline dotted with scenic beaches and lawns. Located at the southernmost point of Northeast China near the tip of the Liaodong peninsula, Dalian enjoys sea breezes and a warmer winter than other parts of the region.

    Visitors' checklist

    • 180 miles (300 km) S of Shenyang
    • 3,400,000
    • Dalian Airport
    • Dalian Bus Station, CAAC (buses to airport), Heishijiao Bus Station
    • from Yantai & Weihai
    • Locust Flower Festival (Spring)
    • 145 Zhongshan Lu, Xiangzhou Hotel 0411 836 91165
    • www.citdsl.net
    Dalian City Center

    Dalian City Center

    Colonial architecture and modern highrises around Zhongshan Square
    Colonial architecture and modern highrises
    around Zhongshan Square
    • Bangchuidao Scenic Area 6
    • Donghai Park 5
    • Fujiazhuang Scenic Area 8
    • Labor Park 3
    • Renmin Square 4
    • Sun Asia Ocean World 9
    • Tianjin Jie 2
    • Tiger Beach Scenic Area 7
    • Zhongshan Square 1
    Statue of a rowing team in midstroke, Xinghai Square
    Statue of a rowing team in midstroke,
    Xinghai Square

    Exploring Dalian
    The city of Dalian has few temples or monuments of note, but most visitors come for its beaches, seafood, shopping, and striking modernity. Serving as a dazzling hub from which major streets radiate, Zhongshan Square (Zhongshan Guangchang) is laid out with lawns and encircled by a ring of colonial buildings dating from the Russian and Japanese eras. At night, locals gather here to dance and listen to music, and to watch the occasional cultural performances that are held. The most interesting buildings along the square’s periphery are the Dalian Hotel (Dalian Binguan) at No. 4 to the south, and the Bank of China (Zhongguo Yinhang) on the northern rim at No. 9.

    Dalian’s main shopping area is Tianjin Jie, a pedestrianized stretch of shops northwest of Zhongshan Square. Beneath Shengli Square to the west is a huge underground shopping center, while the Friendship Store lies farther east on Renmin Lu.

    Dotting Dalian are several tree-lined streets and spacious parks. Southwest of Zhongshan Square is Labor Park (Laodong Gongyuan), with its hallmark giant football at the center. It is known for hosting the Locust Flower Festival each spring. Farther southwest is Dalian’s other main square, Renmin Square. Formerly known as Stalin Square, it was originally overlooked by a large statue of a Russian soldier, that now stands in nearby Lushun. The square is pleasantly laid out with grass and is lit at night.

    A cruise liner docked near Xinghai Square
    A cruise liner docked near Xinghai Square

    Dalian is famous for its beaches and these can easily be reached by bus or taxi. In the northeast of the Dalian peninsula, just off Binhai Lu near the Eighteen Bends, is the scenic Donghai Park. Covering 1,112 acres (450 ha), this seaside park has a 3,937-ft (1,200-m) long coastline. It was founded to celebrate Dalian’s centennial anniversary, and has striking statues of oversized sea-creatures, including a giant octopus and a shark. There are fine sea views, and the water is clean though rather cold until mid-July for swimming. The pebble beach is popular with visitors, who often bring tents and beach towels and spend the whole day here.

    Barber attending to a customer
    Barber attending to a customer

    Farther south along the coastal Binhai Lu, the Bangchuidao Scenic Area (Bangchuidao Jingqu) has the best beaches on China’s east coast, once reserved for party officials and now open to all. Binhai Lu makes for a marvelous walk with fantastic views over the cliffs across the Yellow Sea. The next stop is the more touristy Tiger Beach Scenic Area (Laohutan Jingqu), which sports an amusement park and an aquarium. Several miles farther west, the Fujiazhuang Scenic Area (Fujiazhuang Jingqu) is also rather boisterous and crowded, and farther still is the Xinghai Beach Scenic Area, housing the immensely popular Sun Asia Ocean World. This aquarium has a 381-ft (116-m) long underwater tunnel and several tanks filled with sea-life that attract children in droves. Just off the coast, Xinghai Square was built to commemorate the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

    Donghai Park

    • Binhai Lu
    • 8am–5pmdaily

    Bangchuidao Scenic Area

    • daily

    Sun Asia Ocean World

    • 9am–5pm daily

    Environs:
    Lying 22 miles (35 km) southwest of Dalian, Lushun enjoys an excellent strategic position, its harbor benefiting from the perennial ice-free waters. Known as Port Arthur, it was the chief naval base for the Chinese Beiyang fleet from the mid-19th century, and was seized by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). Returned to China soon after, the port fell to the Russians in 1897, who developed the base for their Pacific fleet, but Japan wrested Lushun back in 1905, forfeiting it only at the end of World War II. Among the surviving Russian architecture is the Railway Station, built in 1898 as the terminus of the South Manchuria Railway. The Japanese-Russian Prison, which incarcerated Russian, Japanese, and Chinese prisoners, also has a gory torture room and gallows. Tours take in the compound and photographs on display. North of the bay and near the station, Baiyu Hill is topped with rows of cannons and a tower, plus great views.

    Visitors must check with the Public Security Bureau just off Zhongshan Square for permission to visit, since Lushun is a closed military zone.

    Japanese-Russian Prison

    • 139 Xiangyong Jie
    • daily
    Living quarters at the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, Changchun
    Living quarters at the Puppet Emperor’s
    Palace, Changchun

    Changchun

  • 185 miles (300 km) NE of Shenyang
  • 2,200,000
  • Xiangtan Airport
  • to Dalian, Shanghai & Tianjin
  • Room 701, Guoji Dasha, Xi’an Da Lu, 0431 8851 20001

    The sprawling modern capital of Jilin province is cheerfully known as “Eternal Spring” despite its brutal winter. The city was badly damaged at the end of World War II, which ended its ignominious phase as the capital of the Japanese-controlled state of Manchukuo, when it was known as Hsin-Ching. Industrialized after the war, Changchun today has emerged as an attractive, green city in China’s northeastern “rustbelt,” famed for its car production.

    Official buildings at the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, Changchun
    Official buildings at the Puppet Emperor’s
    Palace, Changchun

    Changchun’s only major sight of interest is the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, the residence of the “Last Emperor,” Pu Yi, whom the Japanese installed as the Emperor of Manchukuo. Located in the city’s northeast, the palace, with its period furnishings and old photographs, serves as an apt epitaph to the tragic folly of Pu Yi’s life. The palace lacks the majesty of the Forbidden City, and instead is suggestive of the sanctuary of an exiled monarch. Recent renovations have, however, restored much of its former grandeur. It is now a fascinating museum of artifacts relating to the 13 powerless years that Pu Yi spent here. Scenes from Bertolucci’s 1987 epic film The Last Emperor were filmed here. Other period buildings include the Manchukuo State Council Building on Xinmin Dajie in the southeast of town, a further relic of the Japanese occupation. Open to the public, the building is a government structure that features a brass Otis elevator that once ferried Pu Yi aloft.

    In the northeast corner of People’s Square on the main street of Renmin Dajie stands Banruo Temple, an active Buddhist temple dating to 1921. Inside the main hall is a statue of Sakyamuni with attendant arhat. Changchun is also famous for its cinematic output and the city’s film studio can be visited, although it is only really of interest to specialist film buffs.

    Puppet Emperor’s Palace

    • 5 Guangfu Lu
    • 8:30am–4:40pm
    • www.wmhg.com.cn
    Pu Yi (1905–1967), China’s “Last Emperor”
    Pu Yi (1905–1967), China’s “Last Emperor”

    The Last Emperor
    Aisin Gioro or Pu Yi ascended the Qing throne at the age of three in 1908 after the death of his uncle, the Guangxu emperor. His brief reign as the Xuantong emperor was brought to an end on February 12, 1912, when he abdicated the throne in the Forbidden City to make way for the new Republican government. The powerless Pu Yi continued to live in the palace until 1924, before furtively escaping to live in the Japanese concession in Tianjin. He was later installed as the Japanese puppet emperor of Manchukuo, residing in his palace in Changchun. At the end of World War II, he was arrested and handed over to the Chinese Communists, who imprisoned him in 1950. In 1959, Mao granted him amnesty. Pu Yi never returned to the Forbidden City, and he died of cancer, childless and anonymous, in 1967, after working for seven years as a gardener at the Beijing Botanical Gardens.

    The delicate frost that covers Jilin’s trees each year
    The delicate frost that covers Jilin’s trees
    each year

    Jilin

  • 60 miles (100 km) E of Changchun
  • 2,000,000
  • to Shanghai Dalian, Tianjin
  • 2288 Chongqing Lu, 0432 244 3451

    Known as Kirin during the Japanese occupation between 1931 and 1945, the city of Jilin is a little-visited industrial settlement on either side of the Songhua or Sungari River. Like many other cities in the northeast, Jilin has a short history and was a small village until the 17th century when it was fortified. It was heavily industrialized during the Japanese occupation, when the huge hydro-electric power station at Fengman on the Songhua River was constructed. The station generates one of Jilin’s major winter attractions – shugua or needle-like white frost which covers the branches of the riverside pine and willow trees. As warm water from the power station flows into the Songhua, its temperature rises and it remains unfrozen. Evaporating water droplets from the river condense along the branches of trees and freeze, producing a sparkling display of ice-rimmed branches, resembling fragile pieces of coral. As with Harbin, winter is the main tourist season, and Jilin also stages an ice festival from January to the end of February.

    Pleasant walks along paths, and past shrines and pavilions are possible in hilly Beishan Park in the west of town. The park has an array of Daoist and Buddhist temples that are worth investigating, including the Guandi Temple (Guandi Miao), the Three King Temple (Sanwang Miao), and the Jade Emperor’s Temple (Yuhuang Ge), with a gaggle of fortune tellers in front.

    Locals are proud of the city’s attractive Catholic Church, built by the French in the early 19th century. It rises up west of Jilin’s main bridge on Songjiang Lu, the road along the north bank of the river. Vandalized during the Cultural Revolution, the church became the city’s emblem after it reopened in 1980. East of the church is the Confucius Temple (Wen Miao), dedicated to the great sage. Candidates of the imperial civil service examinations came here to pray for his help and blessings. The sedate temple provides an escape from Jilin’s modern face.

    In the south of the city, the Meteorite Shower Museum houses a scattering of rock fragments that rained down around Jilin in 1976, including a vast specimen weighing nearly two tons (1,770 kg).

    Catholic Church, Jilin
    Catholic Church, Jilin

    Beishan Park

  • daily

    Catholic Church

    Statues at the scholars’ altar, Confucius Temple, Jilin
    Statues at the scholars’ altar, Confucius
    Temple, Jilin

  • 3 Songjiang Lu
  • daily during service hours only

    Confucius Temple

  • 2 Nanchang Lu
  • daily

    Environs:
    Not far from Jilin, Zhuque Shan (Rosefinch Mountain) has earned a reputation for its ski slopes. Formerly known for its temples and hiking opportunities, it now offers two slopes for sledding and skiing. Its restaurant, which stands on a heated platform, provides panoramic views over the hills.

    About 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Jilin is the picturesque Songhua Lake (Songhua Hu), covering a vast and panoramic area surrounded by peaks. It provides an excellent getaway from town, offering hiking and boating in a huge forested park setting. Every winter, an expensive, state-of-the-art ski resort operates on the slopes around the lake, attracting crowds of cross-country fans. At the lake’s southern end is the Fengman Dam, the site of the city’s hydro-electric power station. Due to the river’s annual flooding, four sluice gates are opened to keep Jilin from being submerged.

    Zhuque Shan

    • Taxi from Jilin train station
    • daily
    • Ski gear available

    Songhua Lake

    • No. 338 from Jilin to Fengman. then taxi to ski resorts
    Korean minorities in ethnic dress
    Korean minorities in ethnic dress

    Changbai Shan
    Listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Changbai Shan (Ever-White Mountains) is the largest of China’s nature reserves at 760 sq miles (1,965 sq km) with a rich abundance of fauna and flora. Thick belts of deciduous and coniferous forest harbor important medicinal plants like ginseng, and endangered animals like the Siberian (or Manchurian) Tiger, while above the treeline lies the only alpine tundra in East Asia. The highlight of any visit to Changbai Shan is Tian Chi (Heaven’s Lake), a glittering volcanic crater that straddles the mountainous border with North Korea. This is China at its wildest and most spectacular, with opportunities for hiking amid dramatic scenery, although the area is only open to exploration during summer and early autumn.

    Visitors' checklist

  • 16 miles (25 km) S of Baihe; 350 miles (560 km) E of Jilin
  • 0432 243 5683
  • or to Baihe, then bus or taxi
  • Jun–Sep (snowbound the rest of the year). Last bus back to Baihe 4pm

    • from Jilin (CITS)
    Changbai Shan

    Tian Chi – Heaven’s Lake
    The volcano last erupted in 1702, wiping out most of the surrounding forest. The deep waters of Tian Chi (China’s deepest lake) are said to harbor an aquatic beast similar to the Loch Ness Monster.

    Hot springs near Tian Chi
    Many springs reach temperatures of over 176° F (80° C) – hot enough for local hawkers to boil eggs and for visitors to take therapeutic dips in steamy pools.

    Trekking opportunities
    Even at peak periods, it is easy to enjoy and explore the wilderness and beauty of Changbai Shan at leisure – however, do not stray into North Korea.

    Changbai Waterfall
    Tian Chi releases huge quantities of water (the mountains are capped with snow between October and June) creating the dramatic 225-ft (68-m) high waterfall near the volcanic crater.

    White birch
    Despite heavy deforestation, there are still healthy numbers of over 80 species of tree such as these white birch.

    Climbing Changbai Shan
    Due to heavy snowfall, Changbai Shan is only open to trekking from June to October. Although a tempting 8 miles (13 km) in circumference, Tian Chi cannot be circumnavigated as it overlaps with North Korea. Prepare for unpredictable weather conditions as it can get very cold (and carry plenty of food and water.) The more sedentary can hire a 4-wheel-drive taxi all the way to the main peak. Visitors can overnight in one of the hotels on Changbai Shan or in tents on the lake shore. Tours are easy to find and usually include two nights in a hotel.

    The root and leaves of the ginseng plant
    The root and leaves of the ginseng plant

    Ginseng
    The root of the ginseng (Panax ginseng) plant has been valued in China for thousands of years for its healing and rejuvenating properties. Native to Korea and Northeast China, ginseng is a slow-growing herbaceous perennial that is widely farmed (although wild specimens are most highly prized). Ginseng from Northeast China is especially esteemed and was once protected under imperial edict to prevent overharvesting. Its efficacy does not develop until the plant is around six years of age. Premium quality wild ginseng is very expensive costing between US$150–450 per gram. However, buyer beware; the market is awash with fake produce.

    Star sights

    • Changbai Waterfall
    • Tianchi – Heaven’s Lake
    Medicinal berries of the Huaqiu tree
    Medicinal berries of
    the Huaqiu tree

    River Border Minorities
    Although the majority of the population in Heilongjiang is Han Chinese, the River Border is home to several minorities, including the Oroqen, Hezhen, and Ewenki. Traditionally these nomadic peoples eke out a living in this inhospitable environment. They rely on animal furs for clothes and local plants for medicines, and, when on the move, even construct tents out of birch bark. The Oroqen are hunters, descended from Khitan nomads. They speak an Altaic language and are noted for their shaman and animistic customs and rituals. Numbering a few thousand, the Hezhen are one of China’s least populous tribes but their skill at fishing is legendary. The Ewenki supplement their fishing and hunting mainly through breeding reindeer. For all these peoples, however, this way of life is slowly dying out: hunting has been banned in some of the mountain reserves, forcing the nomads to settle down as farmers, while others have left for the cities in search of an easier life.


    The Oroqen are expert hunters who even make clothes from the animals that they kill for food. Subsidies are now enticing some of them to settle down as farmers. The Oroqen’s traditional hunting grounds have suffered from encroachment by industry as well as general deforestation and finally by China’s newfound enthusiasm for wildlife preserves that have closed off large areas of the wilderness from hunting.
    The Oroqen are expert hunters who even make clothes from the animals that they kill for food. Subsidies are now enticing some of them to settle down as farmers. The Oroqen’s traditional hunting grounds have suffered from encroachment by industry as well as general deforestation and finally by China’s newfound enthusiasm for wildlife preserves that have closed off large areas of the wilderness from hunting.

    The Hezhen are legendary for their fish-skin shirts, trousers and even shoes. The dried skins of carp, pike and salmon are stitched together to make waterproof items that are highly prized. Ewenki tents traditionally have a frame made out of birch poles that are covered with birch bark in summer and with animal skins in winter. Practical feng shui means that the entrance is usually south-facing to avoid the wind from the north. The Ewenki are dependant on reindeer which are well adapted to survive in the cold climate. However this nomadic and traditional way of life is slowly disappearing.
    The Hezhen are legendary for their fish-skin shirts, trousers and even shoes. The dried skins of carp, pike and salmon are stitched together to make waterproof items that are highly prized. Ewenki tents traditionally have a frame made out of birch poles that are covered with birch bark in summer and with animal skins in winter. Practical feng shui means that the entrance is usually south-facing to avoid the wind from the north. The Ewenki are dependant on reindeer which are well adapted to survive in the cold climate. However this nomadic and traditional way of life is slowly disappearing.


        Coiled shell of an ammonite
    Coiled shell of an ammonite

    Fossils of Northeast China
    China has long been an excellent hunting ground for fossil collectors. Over 130 million years ago much of northern China was volcanic, richly forested and teeming with life. As the volcanoes erupted they covered the land with dust, hot ash, and mud, and for many years fossils of all kinds have been uncovered, from simple, shellfish-like ammonites through to complete skeletons of large dinosaurs. More recently, the area of northeast China has captured the imagination because of the discovery of at least five feathered species of dinosaurs. The feathers were not only used for flight, but also for insulation and perhaps decoration. Such has been the excitement – and indeed money – generated by these discoveries that fossils have become big business in the area. Locals are discovering and illegally selling what they find, and even going so far as to create fake fossils that have fooled the scientists.

    Paleontology has become a booming business in China and placed the country at the heart of important debates about evolution. Therefore the government has been keen to sponsor further research and museums. This Dicynodont was a plant-eating reptile the size of a pig, with two large front teeth – its name means “two dog teeth.” One of the most common dinosaur fossils, it has been found all over the world. 
Dragonfly fossils like this reveal even the delicate tracery of the insect’s wings. This amazing detail was retained thanks to a thin dusting of fine volcanic ash that was followed by a thick layer of mud, preventing oxidation and rapid decay. Dinosaur eggs are classified by size and shell type because it is difficult to tell what species they were laid by. Some are very similar to birds’ eggs, further strengthening the theory that birds descended from a specific group of dinosaurs. Microraptor gui was a four-winged creature – its legs were feathered too – that glided from tree to tree. The outline of the feathers can clearly be seen, and some think that it might represent an intermediate stage between dinosaurs and birds.
    Paleontology has become a booming business in China and placed the country at the heart of important debates about evolution. Therefore the government has been keen to sponsor further research and museums. This Dicynodont was a plant-eating reptile the size of a pig, with two large front teeth – its name means “two dog teeth.” One of the most common dinosaur fossils, it has been found all over the world. Dragonfly fossils like this reveal even the delicate tracery of the insect’s wings. This amazing detail was retained thanks to a thin dusting of fine volcanic ash that was followed by a thick layer of mud, preventing oxidation and rapid decay. Dinosaur eggs are classified by size and shell type because it is difficult to tell what species they were laid by. Some are very similar to birds’ eggs, further strengthening the theory that birds descended from a specific group of dinosaurs. Microraptor gui was a four-winged creature – its legs were feathered too – that glided from tree to tree. The outline of the feathers can clearly be seen, and some think that it might represent an intermediate stage between dinosaurs and birds.

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