The bus ride is sunny and calm. Mel and I laugh at a family with their two sons - chubby boys with buzzcuts and little voices that rise in effortless laughter. The route takes us deep into the countryside and then over a mountain pass. Fields and orchards look the same anywhere, and with the olive-tinged trees I think I easily could be in the European countryside. But then I see the faded red paint buildings, the shiny corrugated roofs, and those solar water heaters, and I know better. We have a brief snafu when the bus stops for 10 minutes, and Mel and I go to buy ice cream.. the bus almost leaves without us and we chase it until it stops to let us back on. We are dignified travelers, the two of us!
When we arrive, the bus conductor that I've been talking to arranges a room for us, and finds us a driver. The prices are reasonable, and so we go. Our taxi leaves Bai He at 12:30, the driver going out of his way to make us comfortable, and chats with me (I translate for Mel) as we drive up through the nature reserve. Changbaishan is a 2100 km^2 reserve - China's largest - nestled tight against the border with North Korea. It seems totally pristine, and in fact visitors are closely herded onto paved roads for a few specific attractions, and are not allowed to trek or explore on your own. While dense forests coat its lower slopes, above 2000 m (6500 ft) you have a subalpine ecosystem with only grasses and forbs.
On the way up, our guide takes us to a crevasse spiked with rock formations, and a set of springs called "Ice Water." I allow myself to be cajoled into drinking some of the water, thinking that I am stupid and will pay for it later, but it is sweet and I don't get sick after all. We pay our respects to the mountain gods at a small temple, and continue on our way.
Changbaishan has a large entrance gate, from which you board a shuttle bus that takes you up to a transport hub. From there, we paid another fee to take the four wheel drive vehicles up to Tian Che (Heaven Lake). The ride is harrowing - the driver pushes through hairpin turns, blasting Russian techno and sliding us into each other like little marbles. When we arrive, we are at 7200 feet. Lungs huffing, we climb up a steep grey slope and the lake appears before us. We startle, like birds at a fountain's first spray, for the lake's clear beauty is completely unexpected.
This crater lake is in fact the caldera of a volcano, called Baekdu by the Koreans, was caused by an eruption long ago. It is still winter here, and the lake is still iced over, the edges barely beginning to thaw, the center riddled with cracks. It is the surface of the moon, a salt-flat breaking, a galaxy arising from the deep, a mottled egg, mold spots, airplane window crystals... All around, barren bronze slopes fall down to the water, except where grey patchy snow still clings.
And there are swallows, keening as they dip overhead. It is so deep and quiet, it draws us in. Mel and I stay until our fingers go numb.
We have another rip-roaring ride back down. Our shuttlemates this time are automotive engineering students from Jilin University in Changchun. Their English is quite good, and they tell us they learned it all from watching American movies and "Friends."
We stay too long, and have little time for anything else, so we go to the hot springs and eat the most delicious soft-boiled eggs I've ever had. The eggs are cooked at exactly 80 degrees C in the mineral water of the hot spring. Then we catch the very last bus down, thinking that we'll have to come back another time to see the waterfall, and little Heaven Lake, and the Dell forest. I sit back and watch the trees pass, the setting sun flickers like confetti on the tree trunks, and I feel myself at peace. Liu, our driver, chats with us about college funding, social security and the cultural repercussions of the one-child policy. Later, he shows us wild ducks on the river, finds us a restaurant and even orders for us. We think we get ripped off when we finally have to pay; but the food was very good. Plus, at 40 yuan (USD$6) for the night's room, we can afford a nicer dinner.
At night in the square below our lodging, there is music playing. The bus driver is there, too. He has two sons my age, traders, and we chat for a while about life in Hunchun. He makes the 6.5 hour trip from Hunchun to Bai He every other day, and is hoping to save up enough to buy his own bus. At the end of our conversation he says, "This is the longest conversation I've ever had with a foreigner." This is the best part of traveling - to speak with open curiosity and optimism in the willingness of both to just see what each other is like. I let down my usual traveler's suspicions, and every time I do, I feel like the creaky old machine that I am is finally being refurbished.
We leave BaiHe at 6:20 am the next morning, having spent just over 18 hours there. I want my kids to learn Chinese, if only so they can come to places like this and have the trust of the people. The ride back is slow. Dogs sprawl on the roadside, warm and lazy. The family and their sons get back on the bus, and one of them is eating sunflowers seeds, one at a time out of little neat fingers. Crops in the sunshine too, rice field reflecting sky, and I think seeing them grow is one of the best ways to mark time. The bus is overcrowded, but at a rest stop the extras get off, and shortly after we're pulled over and a policeman steps out, counting heads. I still haven't figured out what is lawful and what isn't.
At the end, the bus stops at the conductor's house and I have a sweaty two mile walk back. As I near the WCS house, my dad calls. In fact, my whole family and relatives are celebrating my grandfather's birthday. One by one they get on the phone. Aren't I supposed to be the one honoring my grandfather? Instead, they honor me, and I think I might die from happiness.