At 2500m, Mt Changbai (“Ever-White”) which lies on the Chinese-North Korean border is the tallest in the Korean Peninsula. The mountain, in particular, the crater lake called Tian Ci (or Heavenly Lake) at its summit, is also the mythological birthplace of the Manchu, Korean and other peoples of the region.
The Manchus, founders of the Qing Dynasty (China’s last dynasty), believe that their first leader was descended from a baby born from a fairy who, after bathing in Tian Ci with her two fairy sisters, got pregnant when she swallowed a fruit dropped onto her pile of clothing by a sacred bird which flew past. Sounds like a fantastical tale told by an overly imaginative girl who got pregnant outside of wedlock...I pondered for moments over how you can swallow a fruit by accident while putting on a dress, assuming you believe that one can get pregnant after swallowing such a fruit.
The Koreans, not to be outdone by the Manchus, believe that their first king was the result of a union between a demigod hunter-hero and a female-bear, who met in a cave near Tian Ci and fell in love at first sight. So much for bestiality and love for animals. Modern day North Koreans do not blink their eyes when official biography says that their Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was born at Mt Paektu (the Korean name for Mt Changbai, which means “White Head”) while their first president and the leader’s father, Kim Il Sung, was fighting a guerrilla war against Japanese invaders in the vicinity. Two rainbows appeared at the instance of Kim junior’s birth and eagles and hundreds of birds flew across the crater lake to celebrate the arrival of the nation’s savior. Soviet records showed that Kim junior was actually born in a hospital in the Russian city of Kharbarovsk, when Kim senior was a pathetic refugee being trained by the Soviets as a potential leader to be installed once the Japanese lost the WWII.
It might be spring time in most of China and the provincial capital Changchun where I began my journey was baking at 29’C; but Mt Changbai, true to its name, is capped by a coat of snow and ice. Together with thousands of mainly domestic Chinese tourists, I made my way to the summit first by a taxi from Erdao Baihe (the base camp) to the National Park entrance, then driven to a mid-point carpark by a so-called eco-bus and then by a jeep. (I still cannot figure out why it is known as eco-bus or specifically in Chinese “environment protection bus”, when it is no less polluting from any other bus elsewhere in China. Maybe they claim the privilege of charging more when they proclaim it “eco”).
Up at the top, we gawked at the magnificent crater lake, mostly frozen on the surface. Unfortunately, it was not a pleasant experience: the howling winds were threatening to bite off my exposed fingers and ears, or even to blow one entirely off into the abyss. The path was slippery and was in many areas covered with snow and ice. The tourists – I’m afraid I have to say the mainly domestic ones – were pushing for chances for extensive photo snaps and screaming at the top of their voices to intimidate one another. I gave up after a while and rushed to a heated souvenir cum restaurant complex to ensure my ears were still intact. Then off I descended to tick off the lesser sights, such as a smaller Tian Ci and assorted waterfalls and ponds.
I had wanted to stay 2 days in the area, including visiting the mountain from the western slopes as well. However, I am not encouraged by the cold climate and slippery slopes, and of the potential damage to my kneecap and slightly sprained ankle. The harsh weather and gloomy skies have instead persuaded me to depart tomorrow for Ji’an, capital of the ancient Kogoryo empire and UNESCO World Heritage Site. More from me in the days to come!