Saturday, July 31, 2010

It Really IsDifficult To Get To Changbaishan

Usually, my posts about our travels around China serve to reveal humiliating details about how we turn simple excursions into misadventures, due to our lackings in Chinese language, culture, and transportation. Today, there will indeed be a lot of that, but the deeper story here is that we actually were trying to make it to a very remote location, a place that is taxing to get to even for fluent Mandarins.

I'll begin with the debacle...

I read somewhere that there are regular buses that go from Yanji (the town that is our home base for exploring Yanbian) to the Changbaishan area. Changbaishan, I should say, is the tallest peak in all of northeastern China and one of the most pristine, with a crater lake at the top and waterfalls and forests dotting its slopes.

The first moral of the story is not to believe everything you read in tour guides. Leaving our hotel, we wandered over to the Yanji train station (which is where long-distance buses come and go from). We spied a bus with the following characters displayed in the front window...白山. The characters say "Baishan" and they are very close to "Changbaishan." (Just lacking the first syllable.)

We quickly jumped on board, only to find out that there were no more seats left. Since there was no way that we wanted to stand for a several hour bus ride (even though we've done the same thing on trains), we just as quickly jumped off.

Seeing no other buses that seemed to be going our way, we wandered into the room where you buy bus tickets. Now that might seem to be a strange order of events, to get on a bus first and then go to where tickets are sold. But, in reality, that's the way things work here, as every bus has an ayi, a middle-aged woman who goes and buys tickets for passengers on board.

Anyways, upon entering the station, I asked where we could find a bus heading to Changbaishan. "There are no buses to Changbaishan here," came the reply. Wandering around confused, I stumbled upon a map of the area and, much to my surprise, discovered that Baishan is actually the name of a town that isn't anywhere close to Changbaishan. Good thing we got off that bus, or else we would have been in for an eight-hour bus ride in the wrong direction!

At this point, feeling a bit frustrated and stupid, we decided to walk back to the hotel and see if we could elicit some help from the folks at the front desk. As always, it was sharp-eyed Desi who then saved the day. Entering the hotel lobby, Desi noticed the Chinese characters for Changbaishan (长白山) on the wall and quickly discovered that behind the hotel's gift shop was (surprise, surprise!) a small travel agency. (See the accompanying photo...Good eye, Desi!).

Now, of course, we don't like dealing with agents, but we figured that we didn't have much choice at the moment. So we sat down and negotiated out a two-day itinerary. The agency would provide us with a driver to and from Changbaishan. The agency would also book a room for us on the mountain. Beyond that, we would be on our own. Not a bad compromise.

So it was into a comfy mini-van (yes, mini-van!) that we jumped a few minutes later. (Isn't it amazing how there was a man with a car who was able to show up at the hotel in a matter of minutes, ready for duty?) And, yes, Changbaishan was not an easy place to get to, as it wasn't until nearly four hours later that we finally arrived. (More on the drive itself later...)

And what was one of the first places we passed by in our hired car as we pulled away from the hotel? Of course, it was a different long-distance bus station, one with all kinds of big signs advertising routes to Changbaishan...



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