Wow – the national park was really amazing, and as a picture is worth at least a thousand words, I’m not going to attempt to describe it in detail here but rather post some photos and panoramas on my gallery soon. It was so nice and relaxing to be able to sit by the side of the great lake, looking over to North Korea and talk with each other, and meditate on God more deeply – such great times of fellowship; thanks guys!
Anyway, we arrived at about 3pm on the 24th after our 6 or 7 hour train journey. We had some good chats to random people on the train who spoke a little bit of English. There were some students travelling with us, going back to visit their families for a week or two before restarting university elsewhere in China, and they tended to speak quite good English. We also had some fun ‘conversations’ with some Chinese people who wanted to teach us Chinese, but unfortunately we didn’t really know enough Chinese for the purpose, and they knew no English. Many people outside the major cities find white people fascinating because they are seen so seldom. Even as you walk through a town (particularly Tonghua), you can feel the eyes of the multitude upon you and often-times people come up and want to see how much Chinese you really understand. I’ve even had grown men come up to me and stroke my arm and leg hair because no Chinese people have these. It gets quite strange sometimes…
The first person we met when we got off the train at Baihe was a guy called Cao, who was just about the only person there who spoke much English – praise God. It turns out that his family are pretty much the ones in charge of the tourist trade in Baihe and Changbai Shan. We tried to get train tickets for the return journey (I want to go to Tonghua and the others will go to Shenyang and then on to Xi’an to meet up with other people travelling afterwards), however because Baihe is quite a small station (currently being built), they are unable to issue tickets more than a day in advance. Cao was of course interested in having us stay in town and commute to the park each day, however it is only slightly more expensive to live in the park and not pay the entrance fee (150 Yuan = £10) each day, so we chose that option in the end. We stayed in a rather run-down youth hostel place, which, it turned out, gave us free entry into a Korean-style (i.e. naked) hot-spring place for baths. Although it was quite a dump, it was the cheapest place in the park for us to stay (100Yuan (£7) /person/night), the next cheapest was about seven times the price, almost into English hotel prices! That evening, we planned the next day and then went to sleep at about 9pm because we were so tired!
On the 25th, we all went to the Heavenly Lake (Tianche), going past an amazing waterfall and stunning views of the forests stretching to the horizon, and mountains stretching far up into the sky (the highest point in the park is about 2600m, and the air is noticeably thinner than at ground-level, although very fresh and crisp, especially compared to Beijing air). We wandered up onto some of the taller mountains surrounding the lake and spent most of the day sitting there admiring God’s creation. Again that evening, we were so tired we all fell asleep before 10pm.
The next day, Peter was sick several times in the night and spent the day in bed. The four of us went to the ‘underground forest’ (a forest which is in a valley, carved out by the river which runs from the Heavenly Lake), and then went to see some of the less impressive waterfalls (less impressive than the big waterfall; by themselves they would be very impressive elsewhere). I started to feel a bit queasy that morning, and by midday I was pretty faint. Nonetheless, we had to head back into Baihe and so we left the park at about 3:30 and headed back to the town (a journey of about 45 minutes by taxi). We got a youth hostel room at Cao’s hotel (5 people in one room for 70 Yuan (£5.50)) before I started to be sick, and then spent the evening there. We tried to buy train tickets so that I could get back to Tonghua and the others could get to Shenyang, which is a story in itself…
As I’ve mentioned before, trains in China usually have a sleeper section; most trains only have ‘hard sleeper’ (i.e. triple-decker, about 50 people in one carriage) and ‘hard seat’ (like normal British second class trains, but sometimes overcrowded and smelly, especially on 10-hour train journeys). Because China is so corrupt and the rich are so greedy for more gain, only about 10% of these hard sleeper tickets make it to sale to the general public at train stations. The rest, it turns out, are dealt with shadily through travel agents and railway employees, eager to make some mark-up from the demand. Despite knowing some of this, even I had not realised the extent to which the Chinese railways were corrupt before we tried to buy these tickets to Shenyang.
The four people going to Shenyang (about 14 hours by train from Baihe) were naturally eager to have hard-sleepers, which do not cost that much at the train station (about 100 Yuan (£7)). Cao’s brother said that he was able to acquire us those tickets (plus 10 Yuan (70p) per person in mark-up), despite them not being on sale at the ticket-office. We agreed to this and he said he would come to find us at midnight and give us the tickets. At about 9 O’clock, he came to our hotel room and tried to get money from us for the tickets. After about 30 minutes of talking to him in our broken Chinese and his broken English, we worked out that he did not actually have the tickets himself but rather wanted the money to go and buy them. We gave the money to him (the mark-up now doubled) as long as he would allow one of us to go with him to see the tickets, assuming he would simply purchase them from one of the numerous travel agents. He said he wanted me to go with him, and as my strength had returned a bit and I’d stopped throwing up, I agreed. We went out towards the railway station in the pitch-black night with the rain pouring down (yep; the weather was quite English…) but then walked past it and into the car-park which was even darker. At the entrance to one of the hotels overlooking the car-park, he met another man who had obviously stood there for a little while and had been smoking quite a lot. Nods where exchanged, and then they walked a little further, hopping a fence to get into the station and, crossing the railway tracks on foot we entered into one of the stationary trains. We were greeted by two Chinese ladies who worked on the train, one seemed to be the accounts manager and the other the train manager. They took us to one of the smoke-filled hard seat carriages and proceeded to haggle for about an hour with the second man (seemingly a ticket-broker to travel agents) over the price of the tickets. Eventually, a number was arrived at and the broker bought about 20 hard sleeper tickets, all the ones which were left on the train. I don’t know how much of the money which he paid actually went to the railway company, and how much to the ladies pockets, but I’d guess it was about half-half; I had always wondered how the people who worked on the trains had such nice watches given they probably weren’t paid very much.
Leaving the train and crossing the tracks once more, we went to a different hotel where three travel agents were already sitting, cigarettes in hand, waiting for the broker to arrive with the tickets. It turns out that they wanted about twice the number of tickets than the broker had managed to get from the train staff, and so there was quite heated debate between the travel agents as to who would get which tickets. In the end, because I was there in person and taller than any of the travel agents (stature seems to hold quite a lot of sway in China), I managed to get 4 sleeper tickets, rather than the two that the broker initially offered. In the meantime, the others had purchased 5 hard-seat tickets from Baihe to Tonghua in the event that we weren’t able to get the tickets to Shenyang, and so when I left to go to Tonghua that evening I had a row all to myself which meant I was able to lie down and get a bit more sleep than if I had just had a normal hard seat for the journey.
This morning, I arrived in Tonghua and have now spent the day in bed trying to recover from this sickness. I (rather remarkably) managed to find a travel agent here who can get hard sleeper tickets to Beijing, so tomorrow I’ll be getting an overnight train to Beijing and staying there for the remainder of my time in China.