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Introducing Chángbái Shān

China’s largest nature reserve, Chángbái Shān (Ever White Mountains; admission Y100, transportation fee Y45; 7am-6pm northern gate, 6am-4pm western gate) covers 210, 000 hectares of dense forest on the eastern edge of Jílín province, straddling the China-North Korea border. Chángbái Shān’s main attraction is Heaven Lake, a dramatic volcanic crater lake at the top of a mountain peak.

Chángbái Shān is popular not only with Chinese visitors but also with South Koreans; the area is known as Mt Paekdu, or Paekdusan, in Korean. North Korea claims that Kim Jong Il was born here (although he’s actually thought to have been born in Khabarovsk, Russia).

At lower elevations, the forests are filled with white birch and Korean pines; above 2000m the landscape turns treeless and windy. Temperatures, too, can plunge from steamy at the reserve entrance to frigid at the summit. No matter how warm it is in the morning, sudden high winds, rain and dramatic drops in temperature are possible by afternoon.

Chángbái Shān has two separate areas: the busy northern slope (běi pō) and the less-explored western slope (xī pō). Heaven Lake is accessible from both sides of the reserve, but the north and west entrances are separated by 100km by road or rail. The main attraction on the western side is the impressive Chángbái Shān Canyon.

In summer, tour buses bring day-trippers to the northern slope to pose for photos in front of the waterfall, gorge on eggs boiled in the natural hot springs, stampede up to Heaven Lake and rush down again. Since Chángbái Shān is a long haul from anywhere, though, it’s worth spending a couple of relaxed days hiking around (just don’t hike alone, and bring food and medical supplies if you venture off the beaten tourist trail).

Visiting Chángbái Shān is expensive. Besides the park admission and transportation fees (which pay for shuttle buses inside the park), there are extra charges for the waterfall (including access to the walking path to Heaven Lake) and for a ride in a 4WD vehicle if you prefer not to hike to Heaven Lake. Expect total fees of Y185 to Y225 per day, not including lodging or transport to and from the park.