For any true traveller, there comes a time when there’s a desire to seek a real adventure. Following the well-beaten track is good for many different reasons. However, there comes a need to find a unique experience, one that’s off-route, into the unknown. With that comes difficulties; such as getting to the destination, the lack of tourism frameworks and all-round complexity to make the trip possible. Even more difficult to make it successful. This was Wudalianchi, my first true independent adventure. Months of research about this place produced very little information. Even China’s own tourism websites completely neglected to mention this town, and its rarely indicated on a map. So why would I want to go there? What’s there to see? The reason was quite simple. Known as a museum and encyclopaedia of volcanoes, a geologist’s heaven. Surrounding this tiny little ghost town are FOURTEEN volcanoes. These volcanoes over their millions of years of development flowed out into the surrounding area, resulting in a natural damming of the river which ran through the area. This damming formed a succession of lakes, which is where the town’s name originates from; Wu-Da-Lian-Chi: “5 big linking lakes”.
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The journey started from Harbin on a 7-hour train further north into increasingly barren landscapes. Complete vast emptiness purified by the untouched snow that coated the area. Located not too far from the Russian border, comparisons with Siberia would be completely acceptable. The vast emptiness was occasionally broken up by a random train station and the very little development that surrounded it.
I stepped off the train into -26°C weather; without doubt the coldest I had ever experienced. The first task was to get to my accommodation, which was still another 30 minutes away from the station. Due to the area’s smallness and anonymity, there was no public transport into town, so I’d have to find a driver. Luckily as soon as I stepped off the train there was an eager group of men whose eyes lit-up at the site of my backpack. The first man approached and offered me 100 yuan; he’s my man. We drove through the picturesque emptiness through an almost straight road passing an endless leafless snow covered forest. Through the occasional gap in the tree line would be the view of the volcanoes that surround the region, as well as passing a few spectacular rock formations formed from the lava flow. From here we began breaking the language barrier. I knew much more Chinese than he knew English, as his vocabulary extended to “Ok”, “Good” and “Let’s go”. He couldn’t find the accommodation from the address, and a call to the “hotel” explained it was in a completely different part of town. Not that it particularly was a town. Clearly this place has a very specific industry for tourism, as the “main street” is just hotels, restaurants and such tourist-aimed needs. They’ve realised how much of a potential gold-mine they have and so developed a new section of the town almost 3 miles away. A major source of development with enormous monster sized hotels and tower blocks…but no people. Its been built in anticipation for the influx which hasn’t come yet. Additionally with the weather, the entire area was completely abandoned, a ghost town. Reminiscent of “The Shining”. So eventually my driver found my accommodation, and it wasn’t a hotel. I should have known as it was labelled as a “homestay” and very cheap at 50 yuan. It was literally a room within an apartment in one of the empty tower blocks. It was made evidently clear that I wouldn’t be staying here alone as I explored the apartment and walked in on an old woman tucked up in bed in one of the other rooms. As I said, very much “The Shining”. My biggest concern was my room was a considerable distance away from the scenic area compared to where I thought it would be. It would take maybe an hour to walk there, in sub-zero temperatures. My driver informed me that I’d probably need to charter a car i.e. hire him as my driver. I wasn’t happy with the idea as it wasn’t an expense I had anticipated, and I wouldn’t need it if the accommodation was where I thought it was. He gave me a price of 300 yuan a day, I didn’t have much of a choice. But as time would tell, this was a very good decision. No time to lose! I dropped my bags off in my room and my driver headed to our first attraction. This was Touchi Lake. This lake was surrounded by a boulder field which covers most of the region. This was all caused by the lava flow from the surrounding volcanoes which seeped over the entire area. It eventually cooled and resulted in the extraordinary shaped boulders that blanket the surroundings. This particular attraction also had something special about it, which was a little unceremonial at first glance. It was simply a rubber pipe with water gushing out of it. However, this spring has considerable significance, as the Chinese consider this water as significant as the Vichy of France and the Caucasus of Russia. Much like how Volvic advertises itself, this water seeped through the volcanic rock, absorbing all the minerals and nutrients on its way. It also comes with its own myth, of a hunter who shot a deer that ran into the nearby lake and came out healed. The hunter decided to do the same and drink the water, which resulted in his immortality. Therefore, this spring is also considered to have therapeutic benefits, with more than 40 elements beneficial to the body and even hair. As a result, every visitor crowded around the water source with cups and even jerry-cans to fill. Unfortunately, as I didn’t have a cup at hand, I had to go au naturel and stick my head beneath it to consume the very gritty and not so delicious water. The second was a series of lakes, one of which was Wenpo Lake, one of those formed from the lava damming. There were reminders of the still remaining volcanic activity at certain points along the lakes, where the water was completely unfrozen. Despite the arctic conditions, they’d remain permanently unfrozen. The third and final attraction of the day was a temple. I’ve been to my fair share of temples across a number of countries, however Zhongling temple would have to be a top contender as one of the most fascinating temples I have ever visited, for a number of reasons. The first and most mind-blowing of which was this temple was ON a volcano! The second was the immaculate design of the entire temple. This included an enormous statue of Guanyin, the goddess of compassion which stood at the edge of the volcano overlooking the entire area. It was at the top of a large stair-case which me and my driver scaled, and where he later got on his knees and prayed. The third point which made the occasion so special came from the broken language between me and my driver (now unofficial tour guide). As he dutifully paid respect to each hall and building, he pointed inside the last hall to the very simple looking statue sitting within. I took notice of how unspectacular and how plain it was compared to the others. However a few broken words and indicating to the photographs on the wall indicated this wasn’t a statue, it was the mummified body of a monk, sat inside cast in gold. All of this coupled with the fact that this simply extraordinary temple is located in the middle of nowhere, somewhere travellers don’t know about or never heard of. The exclusivity of this made the experience all the more special.
The weather was fucking unbearable. Never before have I experienced such extreme temperatures as this. Two pairs of gloves were not enough to keep my hands from freezing solid, genuine searing pain. Made even harder on occasions when needing to do something fiddly, such as opening zips or changing batteries. Which is another very important point. The temperatures were SO extreme that every piece of tech I had failed. Camera batteries that were fully charged the night before would die instantly. My phone had no chance of working, even while it was currently being charged. Both of these issues made appreciating and enjoying the experience at the time a bit difficult, as the only thought I had at the time was I might very well die if I don’t get out of this cold. To the point where even now, a full day after leaving Wudalianchi my hands still ache from the cold.
The day began at 8 am in -30°C, and I had little time left before I caught one of the few trains that pass through Wudalianchi. We began with the highlight volcano of the area, Laohei Mountain. This is the youngest volcano of the area, having erupted more than 300 years ago. This along with the nearby Huoshan volcano resulted in the damming of the 5 lakes, and the surrounding lava fields that surround the region. Me and my faithful guide walked through the picturesque fairy-tale snow covered forest up the mountain to the enormous crater. From here we were also provided with a panoramic view of the area and all its nearby volcanoes. Here’s where my guide also gave me an all Chinese audio guide to what I could see. With a few hours to spare he gave a quick run past a lake and an ghost like souvenir shop. The store had an incredible display of local products and trinkets designed from several kinds of stones resulting from the volcanoes. He also took me to lunch (to the amusement of the locals) in classic Chinese hot-pot fashion.
So initially I was a little frustrated with the fact I had to pay for a driver, considering I anticipated this adventure to cost next to nothing. However, in hind-site it was essential. Particularly due to the time of year. For one thing, I never would have been able to visit all the places I did if I didn’t have a driver. I didn’t have the time to waste, and neither could I physically handle walking for hours in -30° weather. Neither was there any public transport at that time. The second is the driver ended up being an unofficial tour guide. He knew all the must-see area’s and dutifully took me around to see everything, regardless of communication issues and truly had my best interest at heart. Another lucky coincidence is that for a 3-day period during the holiday period, there were no entrance fees to any of the attractions. Each would of cost around 100 yuan each, meaning I would have to spent almost 500 yuan on these sites at any other time of year. Next stop, Mudanjiang and Jingpo Lake