Travel Plan: Wudalianchi
For any true traveller, there comes a time to seek a real adventure. Travelling along the well beaten tracks of Australia’s East coast and the golden triangle is all well and good for many reasons. However there comes a time when the craving for something a little different becomes too strong. There comes a certain satisfaction with undergoing a trip with significant challenges, lack of tourist frame-works and what I like to call hand-holding. To walk the line that few have before, throw yourself into the unknown. This is Wudalianchi.
So, why should we consider this place? What makes this obscure town in the far North East of China worth the trip? It’s because this tiny little town is known as an Encyclopedia of Volcanoes. The name Wudalianchi (5 linking lakes) comes from the succession lakes formed from the areas volcanoes which dammed the near-by river.
This is a place often left out of maps, even on Chinese tourist websites. Its a place only known to the Chinese themselves. Wudalianchi is located in China’s Northern-most province, Heilongjiang, only a stones throw away from the Russian border. This region of China receives so much cross-over from their Russian neighbours that most signs will have a Russian translation. Although Heilongjiang is easily accessible with the major transport-hub of Harbin, travelling further into the province has less infrastructure. Travelling North from Harbin will take an additional 8 hours.
Wudalianchi gets in name from the result of the unbelievable amount of volcanic activity prevalent in this area of the world. Volcanic eruptions from the areas volcanoes resulted in the natural-damming of the local river and formed a succession of 5 lakes. These lakes include the Lotus Lake, Yanshan Mountain Lake, White Dragon Lake, Crane-chirping Lake and Ruyi Lake. Wu-Da-Lian-Chi; “5 big linking lakes”.
Part of the mysteriousness of this region undoubtedly comes from the lack of information and consistency. Its a complete mind-fuck. Its not really explained that “Wudalianchi” is essentially an umbrella term for a huge area (formally known as Dedu County). When most sites talk about “Wudalianchi” they’re referring to Wudalianchi City, where the scenic area with all the attractions, hotels and similar infrastructure are found. When booking a train ticket however, Wudalianchi represents Wudalianchi Zhan (otherwise called Zhanhe) where the train station is found. There’s a distance of about 22 miles between the two.
Due to the area’s obscurity, there are limited options on how to get there. Firstly, you’re going you have to find yourself in Harbin. From here there are two buses available, the first leaving for the Geopark (in Wudalianchi City) from Daowai Passenger Transport Station which leaves at 12pm (100RMB). The second leaves from Nangang Passenger Transport Station (otherwise known as Longyun Station) at 9am, 11:30am and 1:30pm for between 95-117 RMB (depending on departure time). This bus takes you to Wudalianchi Zhan.
The other option is to take the train, which is also particularly cheap. For such an obscure route through the north, the only trains available are the slow ones. Although the distance isn’t relatively that far, the duration of the journey is close to 8 hours to get to the town (Wudalianchi Zhan).
As mentioned previously, Wudalianchi Zhan is still another 30 min + drive away from the scenic area (Wudalianchi City). This means you’ll have to find another form of transport to get there. For this you seemingly have 2 options. There is a public bus that runs between the towns, however there is no information to be found on this. The other option is to pay for a driver. Where to find one? No problem, a mob will be waiting at the station gates to offer you their best prices. Initially researching the trip I was quoted somewhere between 250-300 RMB, however the first price I was given was at 100 RMB.
So what’s the appeal? Pure and simple. Wudalianchi has been described as a living museum and an encyclopedia of volcanoes. The North-East region of China has had a significant amount of historical volcanic activity which has riddled the entire province with fascinating sites to behold. However Wudalianchi is the hot-spot.
The town has a total of fourteen volcanoes that circle the area. Sadly they have long been inactive, the last eruption being over 300 years ago. However evidence of the monstrous power of mother nature still remains in examples of landforms, lava cascades and passages.
Laohei Scenic Area
Of the 14 volcanoes that surround the area, this is one of the biggest and perhaps one of the all-round best. Its also the youngest volcano in China erupting back in 1720. If you’re going to scale any one of these volcanoes, this is the one to choose. The mountain is paved with cut stones from the very lava which spilled out of the mountain itself.
At the top you’ll be greeted with the site of a mighty crater, otherwise known as the “volcanic bomb” from poor translation. The lava paving stones lead you around the entire rim of the volcano. If you’re lucky enough to visit when snow has fallen, you’ll spot certain patches of snow that are steaming. Evidence to the fact that some activity still remains in the area to this day.
Another reason Laohei Mountain must be the best of the lot is because its provides an extraordinary panoramic view of the entire area. A vast expanse of flat land broken by the other worldly fissures blasted through the earth leaving behind monstrous reminders of an extraordinary force which once dominated this area of the world.
The scenic area also includes the more crumbled and alien looking Huoshao Mountain. This is the other volcano that erupted around the same time as Laohei, both resulting in the damming of the near-by river and the forming of the 5 lakes.
Between these two behemoths is evidence of the monstrous power which came from these mountain; the Stone Sea. Once a torrent of gushing lava that coated the entire area with molten rock has since cooled, and left behind a carpet of haphazard stones and boulders of every possible structure and extraordinary natural design.
Some other sites (some of which only really applicable in summer) include the bonsai garden, five-color beach and the garden of grotesque pines.
Entrance fee: 80 RMB
Otherwise known as Warm Lake, its the best opportunity to take a closer look at the lava flow and other evidence of the pwer that lays beneath. A mile or so boardwalk leads you through the lava fields and the various structures formed from it.
In the summer, people are known to swim within the lakes due to the various health properties that it possesses from the various minerals absorbed from the surrounding stones. In winter you wouldn’t have a chance to survive such low temperatures. However certain area of the lake have the unique feature of never freezing. This is due to the volcanic activity that still remains beneath, keeping areas permanently unfrozen.
Entrance fee: 80 RMB
Any seasoned traveller will have seen plenty of temples in their time, myself included. However I can say with certainty this would have to be one of the most fascinating temples I have ever witnessed. A scene directly out of “Crouching Tiger...”.
To begin with, this temple is on a VOLCANO. That itself should be enough. However it’s the truly immaculate beauty and detailed design of this temple which makes it so special. Particularly considering this temple is in the middle of nowhere, in a town which is often left out of maps. For such an awe-inspiring temple to be completely unknown makes the experience all the more special.
The last point that made this temple so significant is what was held within one of the halls within. An unassuming simple golden statue would lead one to believe its a less-than spectacular figure of the Buddha. However photo’s on the wall and a few words from my guide informed me it was the mummified remains of a Buddhist monk sat cast in gold.
The temple also has an incredible statue dedicated to the god of compassion; Guanyin. The enormous statue stands at the top of a long stair-case and overlooks the entire area. The statue is also visible from anywhere in the area.
The temple is also the home of another natural spring, much more immaculately designed compared to the other at Yaoquan Lake. Just like the other, the water is said to possess medical qualities, claiming to make those who drink it immortal.
Entrance fee: Zhongling Temple – 15 RMB, Dragon springs – 20 RMB
Longmen Stone Village
Longmen Stone Village is not really a village. It is a volcanic landscape formed by earthquakes and crustal movement a few hundred thousand years ago. Clusters of huge stones are scattered here. Some take the shape of animals while others look like collapsed city walls and castles. Visitors can imagine this is a stone village isolated from the outside world. The region is a paradise for wild animals, such as black bear, wild boar, roe deer and pheasant.
Entrance fee: 40 RMB
White Dragon Lake
This is a lake with a myth. Legend says a hunter shot a deer that immediately ran into the nearby lake and came out healed before escaping. After witnessing this miracle, the hunter decided to do the same and bathed himself in the water, which resulted in his immortality.
The lake is also home to the other spring which is equally revered as a source of amazing therapeutic benefits with more than 40 elements beneficial to the body and even hair. To the locals, its in the same league as the Vichy of France and the Caucuses of Russia. Much like how Volvic advertises itself, the water has seeped through miles of volcanic rock, absorbing all the nutrients as it passes. Despite tasting less than refreshing, the gritty water will be used to fill empty bottles and enitre jerry-cans by local tourists that take them all the back to their homes across China.
There are other attractions worth your time scattered across the area. Between City and Zhan, there are also some hidden treats, which include the Underground Ice Cave River (80 RMB) where you’ll find a permanently frozen river running through. Also on the way you’ll get a glimpse of the sea of lava with the roadside view of the Stone Pond. Within the town there will also be a small museum dedicated to the fascination of the area (10 RMB)
Things to Consider
When to Visit
Very VERY important to consider in this case, because there are two options, summer or winter.
For example I travelled during Spring Festival in the heart of winter. First and foremost the temperatures were fucking extreme, hitting a personal record low of -30. If you’ve never experienced temperatures like this before, let me assure you its not a pleasant experience, particularly with a lack of ski-level clothes.
Another equally enormous problem came from the desire for those amazing photo op’s. The temperatures are so low, any and every battery-powered item is going to shut down INSTANTLY. Not an exaggeration. Fully charged camera batteries exposed to the environment for less than 15 minutes go “dead”, as they’re simply too cold to function. Your phone won’t even turn on.
Its important to remember that in the summer heat, all these locations are a gloriously beautiful trek away from each other, nowhere near possible in winter. However, with that comes an amazingly unique blanket of pure heaven which arguably makes the entire region that much more beautiful.
Is It Worth Visiting?
If you have a limited time in China, is it worth the time and effort? Its always the consideration for a trip of this magnitude.
In my personal opinion, if you intend on visiting Harbin, Wudalianchi can’t be missed out. Despite the 16 hour round trip, it’s a completely unique experience, not only for China but anywhere else in the world. Where else are you going to be able to stand on a volcano and point out 13 others that surround you? For anyone who has any interest in such things, this is a must-see destination. The exclusivity makes it that much more appealing.
Where Should I Stay?
As the train takes 8 hours to get from Harbin to Wudalianchi, and only passes 3 times a day, staying at least 1 night is mandatory. So where do you stay? Being a very obscure place, the travellers beloved hostels can’t be found. However as the city is a popular destination for Chinese and even Russian tourists, there are plenty of accommodation options for hotels in varying price ranges and quality. Information on the hotels will be pretty vague but can be found on sites such as Trivago and Trip.com. Once your there its best to simply ask your driver from Wudalianchi Zhan to find the hotel.
However, just to make it even more confusing, the hotel could be in one of two different parts of town. There is another newly developed part of town, strangely 2 miles away from it. Its clearly a brand new development as this place holds the tower blocks, big hotels, schools and such. However a complete lack of people. Its been built in anticipation for an influx of people which hasn’t arrived, so for now its appears to be a ghost town.
Good news for budget travellers, accommodation starts at around 50 RMB. For this price though you’re likely to find yourself in a home-stay; essentially renting a room in an apartment.
Should I Get a Driver?
As a reluctant budget travel, usually I’d say no. In the summer sun and with a hotel smack bang in the middle of the scenic area (also where all the development is found) then there’s no real need. If you find yourself staying in the ghost town (as I did), prepare to walk back to the scenic area roughly 2 miles. There is also a bus which runs in the town, but who knows when that actually functions or where it goes, that information isn’t anywhere to be found.
In my situation, it was Spring Festival, -30° and I arrived at 12pm with a single day to explore and hit all the highlight points before my train the next afternoon. In my case, a driver was practically essential. He also turned into an incredible helpful guide. Most of these drivers have experience in this field, of guiding unknowledgeable tourists around the area. The cost of which was 300 yuan a day.
Bonus tip; if you happen to find yourself in Wudalianchi during Spring Festival (more specifically from the 3rd to 5th of Feb) then there are no entrance fee’s to any of the attractions, saving you a couple of hundred.