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The Sacred White Mountain on the China-DPRK Border

Formed by violent volcanic eruptions, the precipitous and mystical Mount Changbai continues to intrigue the curious and the brave

Standing on top of Mount Changbai (长白山) with a temperature of minus 20 to 30 degrees Celsius on a clear, sunny day in early winter, lucky visitors won’t even notice the cold. Instead, they are distracted as a breathtaking view unfolds before them: a vast mirror-like blue lake stretching for three to four kilometers, set in a giant crown of sixteen grayish-white peaks.

Straddled between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), Mount Changbai is the tallest peak both in Northeast China and on the Korean Peninsula. Beneath the peaceful scenery is a powerful volcano lying dormant. The crater lake, Tianchi (天池), or “Heaven Lake,” was the result of a particularly destructive eruption that blew off the top of the volcano’s cone. After cooling down, the crater accumulated precipitation. Together with underground water supplies, this formed China’s deepest lake with an average depth of 204 meters.

The name “Changbai” means “ever-white” in Chinese, which was inspired by the mountain’s appearance. Winter on the mountain is long and cold, with snowfall as early as late September. The snow doesn’t thaw until mid-June at its peaks, which are over 2,500 meters high. The pumice, a type of light-colored volcanic rock prevalent on the mountain, also has helped it to earn its name. Changbai is both the name of the main peak, and the mountain range it is part of, which extends for over 1,300 kilometers through China’s northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning.

The frozen peaks of Mount Changbai in winter

The frozen peaks of Mount Changbai in winter (VCG)

Mount Changbai has erupted several times in the recent past, most notably the “Millennium Eruption” that took place in the tenth century. It is regarded by scientists as one of the largest eruptions of the Common Era, yet many details of the event remain unknown. Of the few historical accounts, a Japanese temple chronicle described “white ash falling like snow” on one November evening in 946. Together with other analysis, researchers were able to pinpoint the eruption date to the very year. Despite its magnitude, the eruption didn’t seem to have serious effects on southern areas (hence the lack of historical records in central China and the Korean Peninsula), which made it even more intriguing for scientists. The precise environmental impact of this event is still being studied.

Mount Changbai has been worshiped by dwellers in the area for centuries. Around the fifth century, an ancient ethnic group called the Wuji lived near Mount Changbai, which they referred to as “Tutaishan” (shan means “mountain” in Chinese). According to the Book of Wei, historical records of the Northern Wei dynasty (386 – 534), the local Wuji people prohibited defecation on the mountain. They also believed that the wild beasts on the mountain would never hurt humans, and those who ventured onto Tutaishan often returned with ample wild produce.

The name “Changbai” was adopted around the tenth century by the Khitans and the Jurchens living in the area. After the Jurchens founded the Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234), Mount Changbai was worshiped as a god and protector of the kingdom. The Jin emperors gave Changbai several titles over the years, from “king” to “Magnificent Holy Emperor,” and constructed temples of worship. One such temple built in 1193 was recently excavated: the Baomacheng Site (宝马城遗址) in Antu county, located 50 kilometers north of Mount Changbai.

In more recent history, both the Manchu people, the successors of the Jurchens and founders of the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911), and ethnic Koreans regard Mount Changbai as their “Holy Mountain” and have countless legends inspired by it. While Mount Tai in Shandong province has been an object of imperial worship in ancient China since the time of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor in the third century BCE, Qing emperors held their hometown mountain in higher regard. The Kangxi Emperor even argued that Mount Tai was an extension of Changbai, despite the great distance and the Bohai Harbor lying between the two peaks.

Dawn at the Mojie Scenic Area in the foothills of Mount Changbai, a destination known for its fairyland-like winter scenery

Dawn at the Mojie Scenic Area in the foothills of Mount Changbai, a destination known for its fairyland-like winter scenery (VCG)

Despite historical references and imperial attention, the actual geography, natural environment, and especially the high-altitude meant areas of Mount Changbai remained unknown to the outside world. It was not only because the mountain was designated a forbidden zone for over 200 years by the Qing court; its steep climb, varied landscape, thick woods, wild beasts, lingering mist, and harsh weather all hindered explorers from taking a clear and full look at the mysterious mountain.

In 1908, near the end of the Qing dynasty, the situation was finally changed by a low-ranking official. Liu Jianfeng (刘建封), a 43-year-old substitute magistrate from a local county, became the first person to carry out a full-scale scientific expedition and survey of Mount Changbai. He was the first person to identify the origins of the Songhua (松花江), Yalu (鸭绿江), and Tumen rivers (图们江). In his three expeditions, he investigated the summit and major ranges, and recorded his findings in two books and one photo album, which remain important references today.

Changbai still offers countless mysteries and surprises as its contemporary exploration continues. In 1987, after a huge storm, a team of forestry staff went to the mountain to inspect the damage. Instead, they stumbled upon a giant canyon, characterized by spiky black rocks on its almost vertical cliffs, and a rapid stream running through the bottom. The giant mountain crack stretches for 70 kilometers, varying from 300 meters to just a few meters wide, and is 150 meters deep—all formed by volcanic activities and water erosion. Named the Jinjiang Canyon (锦江大峡谷), it had never appeared in any previous records—a brand new discovery hidden deep in the woods.

Travelers ride snowmobiles into the mountains

Travelers ride snowmobiles into the mountains (VCG)

More recently, in 2004, a lava tunnel that may have been created during the Millennium Eruption was identified by the local earthquake administration. While crawling through a small opening only 70 centimeters wide, explorers were led into a spacious section in which the volcanic rocks had kept their original lava-flow shape. Experts believe the site to be an important artifact of Changbai’s unique natural history, and decided to close off the area as a protected zone.

For everyday visitors, there are plenty of sites where they can enjoy Changbai’s fiery and icy charm. The winter scenery of Mount Changbai is best appreciated from its northern slope (the southern slope is closed in winter) due to its safer road conditions. Buses and utility vehicles can transport tourists right to the summit. Changbai in winter is a wonderland with snow as thick as 2 meters, frozen waterfalls, hot springs with rising steam, and silver frost-covered tree branches.

For ski lovers, especially seasoned skiers who want to boldly venture into Changbai’s winter wonderland, the Changbaishan International Natural Snow Skiing Park (长白山国际天然滑雪公园) on its western slope is not to be missed. Open from December to April, the park is China’s only naturally occuring ski area. There are no fences or ski lifts in the park; skiers have to take snowmobiles to the summit. From there, visitors will be treated with magnificent views of mountain ranges, various routes to ski on, and plentiful high-quality snow.


Excerpt taken from Jilin: Land of Mystery, TWOC’s new guide to China’s northeastern province. Available now in our store!

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Liu Jue is the co-managing editor of The World of Chinese Magazine. She has a Master of Arts in Communication from Middle Tennessee State University, and a Bachelor of Arts from Minzu University. She has been working for TWOC since 2012. She is interested in covering history, traditional culture, and Chinese language.

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