Too Soon In The Northeast

Looking right at a Siberian Tiger


12-May 2009 to 18-May 2009: So we disembarked to a chorus of "Meiguoren (American)" or "Laowai (Old Foreigner; not exactly a kind thing to say)" by some of the more intoxicated guys also wielding cigarettes. Restraint needed to be exercised so as to not get in a brawl with these guys that were also blowing smoke and hocking loogies everywhere (just like inside the train).

And when we got off the boat, it wasn't clear whether we'd be on another boat tour since we weren't sure if another group would show up and justify a trip with the minimum number of people required.

Needless to say, an already disappointing day was becoming a disaster...






Day 26: A LITTLE BIT OF RUSSIA
We woke up groggy at 5am for a 6am checkout and departure from downtown Shanghai. We made it to the Pudong Airport on the outskirts of Shanghai uneventfully.

Once we got on the plane, we pretty much fell asleep again and eventually landed at Haerbin just before noon.

There, we met our guide Susan. Since we didn't expect many English-speaking tourists up in these parts, we figured our guide probably won't speak much English. But Susan seemed quite good with the language (which totally caught us off guard) so the dialog between us and her was primarily in English.

After checking in and dropping off our luggage in our room just before 12:30pm, we headed out to the outskirts of Haerbin to the Siberian Tiger Park. Nearby, there was a fish restaurant where we had a lunch. And at around 2pm, we were in the park itself.

Tigers looking for chicken dinner Julie really anticipated this visit as tigers were the last mega predators we had yet to see in person. Of course, I knew this was going to be a far cry from the wildlife we had seen on the African Safaris. That's because our pre-trip research warned us that these tigers were in smaller caged areas even though you're still touring in a van kinda safari style.

A tiger that got the chicken When we got to the park and boarded the van, the photo ops were still there with my telephoto lens. But the van driver was in a bit of a hurry and didn't stay very long for photo ops.

Siberian Tigers That was probably because nobody bought cows or goats to feed to the tigers, raising the question of the intentions of this park (whether it's to exploit and put on a show or to breed and rehabilitate tigers for the wild). We had heard that drivers usually take their time if someone buys a cow or goat and feeds them to the tigers. But they drive off hastily if no one pays for them (as was in our case).

Lions mating I couldn't help but feel sorry for these tigers who may be getting fat off free food, but they're probably in no shape to survive the wild. Then again, their habitats are so decimated that perhaps they wouldn't have much of a chance in the wild anyways. And that was too bad. I had even heard that some of these tigers (since their numbers are increasing faster than what the center can afford) may be farmed for Eastern medicine.

Some kind of leopard A liger A white tiger A jaguar

Anyways, we did get our shots, but it somehow all felt manufactured. Even the prison-like atmosphere made it seem like these tigers were actors in Prison Break or something.

After the "safari" part was over, we walked on some pedestrian area where we saw other big cats on display in their caged prisons. Among the cats were a leopard, a pair of cheetahs, a big groaning white tiger, a male and female liger (tiger and lion hybrid), and even a jaguar.

The church of St Sofia, which was a definite remnant of Russia's influence on the area At 3pm, we left the park and headed back into Haerbin City to the Church of St Sofia. We looked forward to seeing how the Russians influenced this part of China and the church was one embodiment of that.

The Church of St Sofia So we spent a few minutes listening to Susan talk about some of the history behind the place as she talked to the black and white photos within the church-converted-museum. It did smell of new paint which I'm sure wasn't good for our lungs, but with all the pollution, asbestos from construction dust, and cigarette smoke, what's a few paint fumes?

Inside the Church of St Sofia The church itself was quite small but tall and was attractive enough to induce several clicks of our cameras. Once we left the church, the nearby fountains in St Sofia Square were dancing to music in a Bellagio-like display.

A square near the Church of St Sofia At around 4:20pm, we left the church and got to Central Avenue, which was a large cobblestone walking street. It was quite happening here, but Susan wanted to show us some of the restaurants we could choose from tonight as we would be on our own.

Central Avenue in Haerbin It was nice of her to orient us like this, and after our little orientation, we knew where we'd be eating tonight - a charming little Russian cafe that served piroshkis as well as Russian bread among other things. When Susan saw us off at the end of our walk, we rested in our room for a bit. Once again, I was fighting a little bit of fatigue. But at least we got up at around 7pm in time for a walk back on Central Ave.

Inside the charming Russian cafe in Haerbin The first order of business was to go to the Russian Cafe and have a go at piroshkys as well as other things where we hoped to try some Russian fare to mix it up after having almost all Chinese food up to this point (which we were tired of).

Statue on the riverfront at the end of Central Ave And after our delicious dinner at the Russian Cafe, we continued walking towards the riverfront at the end of the promenade. There, we saw a lot of commotion as well as a live performance on some stage underneath red lanterns.

Candlelight vigil for Sichuan earthquake victims There were pockets of people surrounding lit candles.

And upon making out a few Chinese words and some of the signs, it dawned on us that all this commotion was commemorating the lives lost in the May 12th Sichuan earthquake exactly a year ago.

It was indeed kind of moving yet I'm sure many of these people personally know some of those who lost their lives in places like Wenchuan, which was the hardest hit. Perhaps it was some nationalism on display here mourning for countryfolk? Whatever the case, it was quite a scene here and one that couldn't be forgotten let alone ignore.



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Day 27: LAST TRAIN RIDE IN CHINA
We pretty much spent much of the morning having breakfast and then doing nothing until 11am when we met up with Susan and the driver.

Morning at Haerbin as seen from our hotel room First order of business was to have a quite light lunch at the Eastern Dumpling King where Susan made some suggestions and we pretty much took up on those suggestions getting three dishes.

She did break the bad news that the Diaoshuilou Waterfall near Jingpo Hu (which we're supposed to see tomorrow) is probably not going to have water. That was a royal bummer since it was one of the major reasons for coming all the way out this way in the first place.

In fact, she said it had been at least 10 years or so since the falls last flowed reliably. Apparently, the water was either dammed or diverted or both so now the falls is essentially nonexistent. Damn!

After the quick lunch, we boarded the train to Mudanjiang at 1:15pm. Julie and I weren't looking forward to this train ride since our Guilin to Nanning ride was a bit cramped and pushy. And with our large luggages, it wasn't going to be easy especially if space was lacking.

And sure enough when we boarded, we could see the sitting space was even smaller than the arrangement of the Guilin-Nanning line. Exacerbating the complication was that we had to figure out how to lug 20kg each of luggage into the upper shelves above the seats. Fortunately for us, the luggages sat pretty reliably up there so I didn't have to use up any aisle space during the trip.

Unfortunately, people were crowding and being pushy, which certainly made it hard to move across the aisle to tend to our luggage issues let alone trying to just move. Definitely this wasn't the sleeper train that Susan envisioned (though we were already skeptical of her optimism to begin with).

Thank goodness this was going to be our last train ride in China (knock on wood). Too bad this was going to be yet another 5 hour endurance test.

It was a good call by Julie to fork over the extra yuan for VIP waiting lounge and first dibs on boarding. If we were in the crowd, I couldn't imagine how much more difficult it would've been. Even still, I learned from previous experiences and made some elbow room of my own to at least get somewhere other than backwards.

When the train started moving, we did have an interesting conversation with a guy sitting across from us. Apparently, he either managed, owned, or worked in a bunch of factories near the Shanghai and Ningbo area as well as other coastal areas with heavy investment from the government.

We talked about various comparisons about how expensive it is to buy a car in the States versus China, Health Insurance comparisons between the two countries, financial crisis effects in both countries, and even salaries and cost of living, etc.

It was a far cry from the gossiping with the girls on the Guilin-Nanning line that really made the whole 5 hour ride fun and go fast. But at least in this case, we passed the first hour of the train ride a little bit while being further enlightened about life in China as told from another local. However, it was all in Chinese of course so I'm sure some things got lost in translation, but the guy did slow down for us and try to explain things in more digestible elementary Mandarin.

But then he was summoned to play cards and that was the end of that. The rest of the time was spent reading Lonely Planet China (Julie) and Japan (me). We were still enduring indoor cigarette smoke from people needing to get their fix. Meanwhile, there were others who had to hock loogies and spit on the floor inside. With these cramped quarters, this sucked!

Most of the scenery outside (whenever we got a chance to catch a glimpse) was primarily rolling farmlands interspersed with a surprising amount of forest. I wondered how much of these forests will be standing in the future. But in any case, that was kind of reassuring that there are still some forests in the Northeast of China.

Mercifully, the train ride ended at 6:10pm. Once again, I had to insist and be pushy myself in order to both get our luggages down from the upper shelf and then to fit through the crowd and get out of the train with the luggages.

On the platform, we got acquainted with a guy named Yang He. He spoke mostly Chinese to us but did intersperse some of his sentences with a few English phrases.

But that's ok. I'd like to think our Chinese improved and this was nothing new to us.

This guide did know that we liked waterfalls, but he too talked about how the Diaoshuilou Waterfall won't have water. He said its flow was blocked since the 1980s.

Boy I love how you learn about these things after you've booked the trip (note the sarcasm), but there wasn't this kind of information available at the time. I guess this was shaping up to be yet another expensive disappointment...

Anyways, que sera sera (whatever will be will be in Spanish) and we'll just look forward and not back. And so continues our Northeast (Dongbei) section of our China trip...



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Day 28: A DISAPPOINTING DAY
At 6am, we got up to our alarms. Actually, we were semi-awake since 4am because it was already bright at the time. I recalled Susan in Haerbin saying that sunrise was at around 3:30am and sunset was around 8pm.

I think this strange sunrise time was probably due to a combination of China (being about the same landmass as the US) being all in one time zone and the Heilongjiang Province being pretty far north.

Anyways, after our breakfast, we left the hotel and were on our way out of town at 7:45am.

This day was turning out to be a pretty sunny and warm day. There were hardly any clouds in the sky at all and the Siberian breeze seemed to have calmed down a bit since yesterday.

During the drive, Yang He was keeping a dialog going with me learning a little more about us. Even the driver was getting involved in the dialog a bit (probably because he found out that we can kind of hold our own in Mandarin Chinese).

At 9:25am, we arrived at the Jingpo Hu (Mirror Lake). This place seemed like more of a recreation spot than a scenic spot as this lake seemed to be surrounded by some hotels and motor boats.

Boats lined up at the Jingo Hu We really couldn't see why the lake was named after a mirror since the lake was rippling. Experience has taught us that places with the best reflections are usually around swamps or places where water is fairly shallow but not prone to perturbations. This was clearly not the case at this lake.

When we found out that there wasn't enough people to justify a boat ride this early in the morning, we continued onwards to the Diaoshuilou Waterfall.

The dry Diaoshuilou Waterfall But since we suspected that the falls would be disappointing, it wasn't like we were excited to see it.

The only part of the falls that had water And sure enough, when we got to the falls, we could see an impressively wide U-shaped volcanic wall that was bone dry except for a small trickling portion at the very bottom of the center of the falls.

Clearly this falls could be impressive if it were flowing normally, but the environmental interference (i.e. hydroelectric dam and reservoir way upstream) pretty much killed off this falls since the 1980s. Now, you have to time your visit for the rainy season in mid- to late Summer and the falls diminishes until it's gone around the October or later timeframe.

The u-shaped brink of the dry falls This was probably the most dramatic example of how badly mistimed our trip to China was. And as a result, this was the most disappointing waterfall we'd seen yet. Indeed, this was probably turning out to be an expensive mistake as it wasn't easy getting here. After all, we had to endure an uncomfortable 5-hour train ride, lots of extra days added to the trip, and who knows what other expenses to support the driver, vehicle, and guides.

The local cliff diver Anyways, at around 10am, we were relegated to entertaining ourselves by watching some guy cliff dive off the top of the falls into the plunge pool below. Pretty sad.

Looking downstream from the dry Diaoshuilou Waterfall I guess he does this twice a day at 10am and 2pm. It's said that he even does the dive when the falls are actually flowing!

Anyways, at 10:35am, we returned to Jingpo Hu. Apparently, now there was supposed to be enough people to warrant a boat ride in the lake. On the way over, one of the local guides who rode in the car with us learned that we were overseas Chinese. And because of that, he got a little political lecturing us about why China should be united and with it should go Taiwan.

Now Julie and I are neutral about this, but after reading the history of how Chiang Kaishek and the Nationalist Party fled China for Taiwan after the civil war with Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) taking the gold reserves with them, I can see the Chinese side of this debate. On the other hand, the censorship and lack of freedom of thought is something I'm sure many Taiwanese may find hard to swallow. We figured Taiwan may end up going the way of Hong Kong being a Special Autonomous Region (SAR) where they can still go about their own business but they ultimately belong to China.

Anyways, we boarded one of the docked boats when it was apparent a group would join us (thus meeting the required number of people to justify a trip).

When the boat was ready to go and we were joined by a large, unruly Chinese group (turned out to be the same people we saw on the train), the polluting engine was going, and then it stopped.

Then Yang He told Julie and I that there were too many people on the boat and that we had to get off.

"That's just great," said Julie. "We were the first to get on and we're the ones that were booted off."

So we disembarked to a chorus of "Meiguoren (American)" or "Laowai (Old Foreigner; not exactly a kind thing to say)" by some of the more intoxicated guys also wielding cigarettes. Restraint needed to be exercised so as to not get in a brawl with these guys that were also blowing smoke and hocking loogies everywhere (just like inside the train).

And when we got off the boat, it wasn't clear whether we'd be on another boat tour since we weren't sure if another group would show up and justify a trip with the minimum number of people required.

Needless to say, an already disappointing day was becoming a disaster.

But when 11am rolled around, a large group of Taiwanese people prompted us to board an even larger boat with more room to move around.

On the Jingpo Hu Fortunately, this tour occurred. And even better yet, this group didn't smoke and exhibited a little more civilized behavior. I guess in this case, our little mishap worked out in our favor after all (though I was perfectly cool with not even doing the lake tour since there didn't seem to be anything special about it).

On the Jingpo Hu So even though nothing really prompted camera clicks (much to the dismay of Yang He who kind of suspected the scenery here probably didn't match up to the Southern Chinese counterparts), it was a pretty relaxing boat ride and one that was more about the ambience and less about the scenery.

After the tour, we had a lunch, and by 1:20pm, we left Jingpo Hu.

It wasn't until around 3pm when we arrived in the town of Dunhua. However, it appeared that both our driver and our guide didn't know this town very well. We were also a little annoyed with the driver smoking in the car while driving (though I'm sure he didn't think he was subjecting us to second-hand smoke).

In any case, it turned out that our driver and guide had trouble finding our local guide for Dunhua and Changbai Shan. But eventually, she found us and boarded the car. In fact, once we were in front of the hotel, the new guide (who was named Susan) would take over from here while Yang He and the driver were headed back to Mudanjiang.

Finally at 3:30pm, we checked into our hotel.

We relaxed for a bit before we headed back out to meet Susan at the lobby at 6pm for some local Manchu dinner consisting of some dumplings as well as tripe (intestines; not our favorite) and some vegetables.

The happening public square in Dunhua After the dinner, Susan walked with us to the People's Square in town. There, we were treated to a wide public square area filled with young kids roller skating, young adults playing hackey-sack or badminton, a large group of women doing some kind of line dancing, and a pair of groups of other elder women doing traditional Northeast Dances I guess you can't find outside the region. In a way, this was a similar scene to what we saw back in Leshan but on a somewhat smaller scale. Still, to see such a bustling scene of people having a good time together in a public square was something I reckon was distinctly Chinese and kind of charming and cool in a way.

During our time with Susan, we learned that she was actually descended from one of the Chinese ethnic minorities. I guess the Yuan (Mongolian) and Qing (Manchu) Dynasties were the only non-Han dynasties. We also learned that Susan knew how to read and speak Korean which was quite cool (not that we know any, but we know lots of peers back at home who do).

And so ended a disappointing day in terms of waterfalling, but another educational one in terms of culture and history. And like days prior on this trip, we're clearly seeing that China has no shortage of history and it's lived and breathed in everyday life in distinctly different ways across its various regions.



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Day 29: WHEN HEAVEN FREEZES OVER
We left Dunhua at 8am. But unlike yesterday, I noticed some high clouds rolling in. Thus, I suspected the weather will deteriorate as the day progresses. I hope I'm wrong...

As we headed out of town, Susan noticed some of the rice fields and ginseng-growing canopies and explained some things to us about them. A memorable thing about the rice was that apparently Emperor Puyi of the Qing Dynasty (i.e. the Last Emperor) used to eat the rice grown here. Thus, sometimes the rice from this area was known as the "Emperor's Rice."

She also mentioned that you could tell from the shapes of the roof of some of the buildings which ones belong to Han Chinese and which ones belong to ethnic minorities.

While the driver (who I guess was a former cop or something) was busy whizzing by slower cars and consistently going over 100km/h, we managed to fall asleep when we got to a part where there was lots of construction on the roads. I guess the tossing and turning motion of the van kind of was like a massage and lulled us to sleep.

Before we knew it, we had an early lunch at 10:30am in the town not far from the entrance to Changbai (Everwhite) Mountain. Unfortunately, it was barely three hours removed from our breakfast so we weren't really hungry. Plus, lots of dishes were served so we had no prayer of finishing the food.

I felt bad that lots of food was left behind. I sure hope it doesn't go to waste (but I somehow doubt it).

Next, we drove further up the mountain until the van could no longer get past the park entrance as private vehicles weren't allowed further. Since Susan was quite known in these parts, she was actually able to get the driver to go a little bit further so we wouldn't have to lug our luggage as far.

The entrance to Changbai Shan Anyhow, past the entrance gate, we had to get onto a public tour bus. There wasn't a whole lot of space to put our luggage, but we did manage to find some space without compromising seats. Unfortunately, it was somewhat full and some guy sitting behind me thought it was ok to cough open-mouthed and hock loogies in the direction of the back of my neck.

No wonder why my cough (and now stuffy nose) hasn't improved these past two weeks!

At 12:15pm, the bus dropped us off in front of the Changbai Shan Hotel (it was actually an area with a few buildings where other shuttles further into Changbai Mountain can be taken). There, we lugged our luggage down some steps and right into the lobby of the hotel where we checked in.

Susan asked some of the other tour guides whether Heaven Lake was visible (since the weather down here was no indication of what's going on up there). And when one of them said you could see the lake, we decided to seize the moment and go for the lake today.

So about a half hour later, we came back out of the hotel dressed in thicker layers and waterproof pants. Even though the weather was fine down where we were at, we knew that this doesn't necessarily mean the weather is fine up at the summit.

The road leading up to Tianchi - Heaven Lake Anyways, once we boarded one of the public SUVs, the driver aggressively drove up the 83 or so switchbacks leading to the summit of Changbai Shan. The driver seemed supremely confident in the traction of his tires because he was attacking every turn at some 60km/h or more with the tires screeching on every turn.

Partial look at the frozen Heaven Lake I got nervous when the pavement/cobblestone road was wet with melting snow or ice because at that rate, it's easy to flip over or slide off the road and into the cliffs below.

Volcanic peaks fringing Heaven Lake Since I was sitting in the front seat, I could see other drivers were doing the same thing. I guess when you have to drive this road all day long, you look for ways to entertain yourself (even at the expense of safety, I reckon).

Fortunately, the roller coaster ended at the top of Changbai Shan and we disembarked unscathed.

The frozen Heaven Lake At that point, we walked over to the edge of the crater where we could see Heaven Lake (Tianchi) down below. But it was too bad that the lake was frozen and the views were a little hazy from the clouds swirling around us.

More of the frozen Tianchi Still, we did get to see the lake (frozen or not) with the surrounding cliffs, which was something we're sure is purely the luck of the draw. But like the rest of this trip it seems, Spring is a pretty lousy time of year to visit China and we were probably better off coming in September or October (as June through August was said to be rainy here even though the lake should be thawed by then).

Sounded awfully familiar since everywhere in the country (no matter if you're in the tropics or the temperate areas), late Summer into early Autumn was the best time to see China period. It's hard not to wish we had figured that out before we made bookings.

Looking back down at the car park area atop Changbai Shan There were other tour groups up here. Unfortunately, some clowns thought it was a good idea to yell at the top of their lungs and make themselves heard. Again, it was another display of lack of common courtesy and lack of respect for Nature. Having gone through about a month of this behavior, I'm guessing we're getting to our limit of tolerance on the China portion of the trip. We were really looking forward to getting to the Japan portion of the trip hoping for a little more civility.

At 2:10pm, we were coming down from the lake. At least the drive down this time wasn't as crazy as on the way up though this driver did allow the tires to screech on the turns sometimes.

On the roads on Changbai Shan And with the weather noticeably threatening to get worse, we decided to try for the Changbai Waterfall since we're not sure what the weather will be like tomorrow.

On the road leading to Changbai Waterfall So we headed up another big bus which took us to a car park area. From there, we walked a short distance up a pavement before reaching the official trail to the waterfall.

On the shuttle bus to the falls We could actually see the falls even during the bus ride, and it was flowing fairly well.

But it started to rain as we got onto the trail and we knew time was running out.

View from the start of the walk to Changbai Waterfall After getting past some colorful hot springs (called Julong Pool), we headed into what was called the VIP path.

The sheltered walkway to the Changbai Waterfall It was basically a well-developed trail with stairs covered with a transparent glass or plastic canopy. I thought this was a bit overboard, but Susan explained that this was the Winter path and I was starting to see why this was necessary if this was to be a year-round destination.

The VIP Path Once we exited the VIP path, we could see the waterfall, which currently assumed a triple-segmented form. It was too bad a snow pile kind of blocked the lower sections of this 68m tall waterfall.

It also looked like there was a trail that could take you even closer to the falls, but with the weather suddenly becoming a downpour, we retreated and decided to try this place again tomorrow.

Shelter from the rain but not from indoor cigarette smoke Once inside the VIP path, we could see the rain got heavier and there was even hail. Accompanying the downpour were flashes of lightning and loud rolls of thunder. With us being at pretty high elevation, we knew it wasn't safe being up here at this time. So we hastily made our way to a wooden shack at the start of the trail.

Once we got inside thinking we'd get some relief from the unrelenting rain, we soon realized that it wasn't the rain we should be worried about. It was the everpresent indoor cigarette smoke! Damn!

Nasty weather looking in direction of Changbai Waterfall Anyways, we weaved our way to a window, opened it (despite some of the hail pelting us) and tried hard to breathe as clean air as possible.

Mercifully, the rain did let up and we walked back to one of the awaiting shuttle buses further down the paved path. And by 3:55pm, we were back at the hotel.

There, Susan explained to us that Heaven Lake meant a lot to Koreans (especially South Koreans). In fact, before 1996, she said hardly any Chinese came to these parts. Some Koreans even came up here with empty bottles intent on taking some of Heaven Lake's waters and bringing it back home.

They would reach the shores of the lake by a path constructed by Koreans that went past the waterfall. But now that path is closed so sometimes they'd take the water from the waterfall itself since its source was Heaven Lake anyways.

And so ended a day in which we seized the moment and saw Heaven Lake when we did. I knew that with mountains, you can't count on the weather being a certain way the next day. So when there's an opportunity, you seize it! And that we did!

Tomorrow, we have a full day up here. Hopefully, we'll have a more relaxed trip to the waterfall as well as a little journey into the Underground Forest...



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Day 30: A PEACEFUL DAY
We had breakfast at 7am with Susan at the hotel restaurant. We had a good time socializing with her, but the everpresent smell of gas permeated through this hotel and it was especially bad in the dining hall.

Back at the trailhead for the Changbai Waterfall By around 8:20am, we boarded one of the shuttle buses to go for the waterfall again. But it wasn't until 15 minutes later when we left since no one else showed up and they preferred to have a minimum number of passengers before leaving.

Context of the walk to Changbai Waterfall It wasn't long before we were walking up the familiar paved path to its end, and then going around the Julong Pool on the way to that covered VIP path.

The colorful Julong Pool It was amazingly quiet this morning and we took our time walking the path and taking photos. The colors from the algae growing in the runoff from the thermal springs definitely added a bit more color to the otherwise brownish landscape.

Looking downstream over Julong Pool By 9:15am, we were at the end of the trail. Once again, we got to glimpse the impressive Changbai Shan Waterfall except we didn't have rain and hail to contend with. Plus, no tour groups were around so it was a pleasant experience all around.

Looking downstream towards the trailhead near the Changbai Waterfall Indeed, it was the way we thought how Nature should be. After all, we'd been contending with so many noisy and rude Chinese tour groups at every place in the country that we had completely forgotten what it was like when we were truly back to Nature more or less.

The partially snow-covered falls Susan tried to get us to go past the barricade closer to the waterfall, but one of the locals vehemently denied us from getting any closer. But we couldn't fault Susan for trying. Actually, the conversation in Mandarin between the local and Susan went something like this.

"They [Julie and I] are part of a waterfall research group," said Susan.

Julie squats by the stream downstream of the falls "If that's the case, then how tall is the waterfall? Do they know what kind of rocks are over there?" said the local, obviously not buying whatever Susan said. That drew chuckles from Julie and myself.

Another distant look at the Changbai Waterfall We eventually convinced Susan that it's not worth the trouble even though she really tried. But it wasn't a big deal. That snow pile blocking the lower portions of the falls would probably obstruct the views even more had we gone closer.

View of more brownish steep cliffs near the Changbai Waterfall With the peace and quiet, we were able to notice that there were walls erected above the waterfall. Susan said that was built by South Koreans, and it used to be one of the paths to get you to the shores of Heaven Lake. But due to safety reasons, this path was closed indefinitely since 2007.

Some people boiling eggs in the thermal springs at the Changbai Waterfall As we headed back to the shuttle bus area, we made a quick stop near the trailhead at some shack with a hot pool full of eggs and other edibles. Apparently, they were boiling food in the hot springs. We knew it was totally a gimmick since it doesn't make the food taste any better, but in any case, it was nice conversing with those locals (even if they tried to get us to buy some).

Julie and Susan walking towards Little Heaven Lake At 10:05am we were back at the bus stand and were waiting for this one to take us further down the road.

It was a good thing we came as early as we did because now the unruly tour groups started to show up (after their own little roller coaster ride up to the summit of Changbai Shan earlier in the morning).

On the shores of Little Heaven Lake Shortly thereafter, we arrived at a rather obscure stop. There, we saw an Irish couple that we also happened to see up at the summit of Changbai Shan yesterday. You notice these things because apparently Caucasians (at least the non-Russian kind) are quite rare in these parts.

Some shrine by Little Heaven Lake We took a little stroll amongst the leafless conifer forest before getting to Little Heaven Lake. It had a bit of reflections as well as some kind of shrine facing it. This shrine was honoring the Medicine King (supposedly the guy who wrote the first medical book in history).

The surprising Green Deep Pool Waterfall We then caught another bus to the Landscape Restaurant where there was another stop. From there, we walked towards the Green Deep Pool. But what was surprising about this pool was that there was a pretty legitimate double-barreled waterfall spilling into the emerald green pool.

Another look at the Green Deep Pool Waterfall We could see some fish swimming in the pool. Susan said these fish came from Heaven Lake, and they're the same fish that North Korea's Kim Jung Il's father placed into Heaven Lake some time ago.

More top down profile view of the Green Deep Pool Waterfall Some time was spent here taking whatever photos we could although the conifer trees tended to obstruct most of the views so there was never really any truly clean view of it except for perhaps on the steps leading to the top of the falls.

A fish swimming in the Green Deep Pool At a little after 11:30am, we had lunch at the Landscape Restaurant. Actually, that restaurant was basically an old basketball gymnasium. You could see the lines on the floor beneath the tables.

We were done eating an hour later. By then, a really large group showed up and accompanying them were the annoying cigarette smokers. So we hastily left and caught the next bus over to the Underground Forest trailhead.

Once we got off the bus, there were a few more people around joining us, but the walk was still pretty quiet and peaceful for the most part.

Julie and Susan walking on a boardwalk towards the Underground Forest The walk was fairly long but flat as it was almost completely on a wooden boardwalk.

At the end of the trail was the so-called Underground Forest. The quirky thing about this place was that an earthquake caused this area to crack and spread apart in a fissure. At first the fissure area didn't have trees but over time, trees grew and also the river changed course and cut through this area as well.

The waterfall spilling into the Underground Forest The geology was interesting, but what really got our attention was that there was another surprise waterfall at the head of this Underground Forest.

Looking into the Underground Forest Unfortunately, from the bridge over the narrow slot above that surprise waterfall, we could see some thoughtless tourists had littered with the evidence of plastic bottles and wrappers in the slot itself!

Looking down at the waterfall spilling into the Underground Forest China seriously needs to both enforce the rules and educate the public about littering (among other things like indoor smoking, spitting, public urination, no queueing, leaving the trail, noise pollution, etc.) since this wasn't the first time we saw this.

After getting our fill of this place (along with a scattering of Chinese people from another tour group), we walked over to the Dongtian Waterfall (where dong="hole" not "Winter").

Some tiny cascades just downstream of the Dongtian Waterfall And sure enough, this waterfall was basically one that fell within the confines of a slot canyon and eventually leaves through a tiny natural bridge at its other end. It was kind of reminiscent of the Chasm on the Cleddau River near Milford Sound in New Zealand.

The Dongtian Waterfall While this particular waterfall may not be all that photogenic compared to others, it was indeed a waterfall in our book.

By 1:45pm, we left the Dongtian Pubu and proceeded to walk back up the many stairs to the trailhead. And by 2:40pm, we were back in our room (and that familiar gas smell).

The Dongtian Waterfall Indeed, today felt like it was a good day. After all, we got two bonus waterfalls, plenty of peace and quiet (again, almost forgetting what hiking in Nature was like), and it didn't rain despite the threatening skies.

As a matter of fact, our Changbai Shan experience (despite our suboptimal timing and sights) felt as close to how a Nature escape should be compared to the rest of our excursions throughout China. Now admittedly, that's not saying much since so much of China's nature is overexploited and artificial. But the fact that you still have bears and tigers running around in the forest at night (even though we didn't witness them) is kind of reassuring and further supports the notion that indeed this place might be as Naturesque as China gets.

Susan did mention that Changbai Shan was mostly spared because the earliest emperor of the Qing Dynasty was believed to have come from here and thus this place was for the most part off limits.

I don't know if it's a shame that only this place could be allowed to be wild (again I have to qualify that statement with more or less because of all the roads and VIP paths here), but perhaps it's indicative of just how overpopulated China is.

Now for some rest, especially for myself since I'm still unable to shake off this cold that I acquired over 2 weeks ago (when we were in Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong at the end of April).



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Day 31: UNSHAKABLE
We awoke to rainy weather at our gassy-smelling Changbai Shan hotel. My cold symptoms remained and seemed to be the same as they were yesterday. Not good.

We had another locals' breakfast at the hotel with Susan. Since she noticed that the service at this hotel was lacking, she was sarcastically joking with the manager that she was "great." But the manager smiled also and seemed to take it in stride.

After breakfast, we lugged our luggage onto a smaller shuttle bus taking us for a few minutes to the gate. It was kind of raining a little harder down here and the guard wouldn't let our driver through the gate (since Susan wasn't with him this time) so we had to walk some 5 minutes in the rain. That ended up wetting things a bit, but nothing was totally soaked.

So by 8:30am, we embarked on a supposed 4-hour drive to Yanji, which was a Chinese city of some 400,000 people not far from the North Korea border.

I had expected to have a little bit of a nap to try to shake off this cold that seemed to have gotten worse in the last few days. It had been about 2.5 weeks since I had come down with a cough back in Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong (seemed like ages ago). I thought it was getting better while we were in Shanghai and even Ha'erbin, but with the sudden increase in symptoms with a stuffy noise and even a little bit of a temperature, I started to suspect that I must've caught another virus while still fighting off the one I caught awhile ago.

There could've been a whole host of things that I could point to from the stuffy 5-hour train ride where some people thought it was OK to smoke and spit inside the train. Or all the cigarette smoke in both the elevators and hotel rooms in the hotels in both Ha'erbin and Dunhua (though this was nothing new). Or some guy sitting behind me coughing without covering his mouth as we were riding a shuttle bus into the Changbai Shan area.

All told, it was clear that this virus (or series of viruses) seemed to be unshakable so long as we were traveling in China (where hygiene and manners seem to be deeply lacking).

It better not be the H1N1 Virus since our symptoms were completely caught while in China when we arrived well before the outbreak reported in Mexico.

By 11:30am, we arrived in a rainy Yanji City. We went to some Korean BBQ place, which was a welcome change after some 30 straight days of Chinese food (though we did have a little Russian food in Ha'erbin).

I don't think the food was quite as good as Julie had expected (the galbi was a bit tough) considering it's authentic, but it was a nice change of pace. Besides, the Bi Bim Bapp (mixed rice bowl) was pretty good.

By around 1pm, we checked into our Yanji Hotel. There, we just chilled out and rested. I certainly needed it, but Julie complained that she started coming down with symptoms and she wasn't happy.

A few hours later, Susan called the room and told us that someone was going to deliver dinner to us at 6pm. And sure enough, we got a full dinner of rice, eggplants, and kung pao chicken. She really didn't have to do this.

Wow, Susan's the best!



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Day 32: LEAVING FOR THE LAST LEG
We had an early 8:40am departure for Beijing. The morning was sunny and a little bit of fog was over the river just a stone's throw from our room.

So after our breakfast, we met up with Susan (who was now dressed in different clothes since she was able to spend the night at home) and were quickly escorted to the airport.

Once at the airport, we went through all the formalities with boarding passes, checked luggage, etc.

And when it came time to get through the security, that was when we had to bid a fond farewell to Susan. She had been such a great guide these past few days despite some communication problems. But we could tell she genuinely tried to pick up more English as we conversed while we tried to have her help us with our Chinese.

Anyways, our hands were full of carry-ons, though I could sense it was a moment where we easily could've exchanged warm hugs. At least we have each others' emails and hopefully we'll be looking for each other on the internet...




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