Conquering the Koguryo

Ji’an, Jilin Province, China

I know what Murong Huang’s soldiers felt when they sacked the Wandu Mountain City in 342 A.D. I’ve felt the pain of the mountain roads and the savored the taste of victory. Or at least, I savored the taste of free entry.

Wandu: The once capital of the Korean Koguryo Kingdom. Born in 37 B.C., the Koguryo survived some seven centuries of war before an allied force of China’s Tang Dynasty and the rival Korean kingdom Silla destroyed it at Pyongyang in 667 C.E. The Koguryo capital Wandu was founded in 3 A.D. along the riverbanks and mountain slopes that surround the contemporary Chinese city of Ji’an on the North Korean border. By the fourth century, the Koguryo dominated much of the Korean peninsula and northeastern China and were well-known for their skills in both arts – gilded jewelry and sculptures, and especially its dancing culture – and warfare. But it was in that century that the Chinese commander Murong Huang attacked the fortress city through the mountains from both the north and the south, captured it, and burned it to the ground. The fleeing Koguryo left their ruined city to the wild.

When I set off from Ji’an – perhaps the most beautiful city in China with its streams, parks, clean streets, polite populace, and river views of North Korea – for the few-kilometers walk up to the Wandu site, I did not intend to follow in Murong Huang’s footsteps. The path I’d mapped took me out of the mountain-hemmed city, along the river, and through a picturesque village that gave way to an idyllic countryside of farmhouses and cornfields in which birds flitted and chirped and insects chittered in the thick vegetation.

The path soon turned up a small valley carved by a creek. The creek, home to countless frogs both dull and bright, gurgled over rocks as it slipped out of the near-vertical, tree shrouded mountains above. At first, the path cut clearly through the bushes, an easy hike up the gully. I giggled as I walked, glorying in the sunlight and the water and the trees. Soon, though, the going got steeper and the way got murkier. In the trees above the narrow valley, I heard the ominous clanging of bells.

My steps, and my breath, quickened. Cows. I hate cows. I fear cows.

I climbed over a ramshackle wooden fence just as the path disappeared. My giggling stopped and smile drooped. I began to worry that I’d gone the wrong way.  But the bells still followed.

And then, there ahead around a bend, four bovine monsters lay in the grass. Beyond them, too, stood a bull, his nose ring tied to a horn by a series of menacing. makeshift rusty metal links. He eyed me and stomped the ground. But the bells behind me still hadn’t stopped. As I stood, petrified, the clanking grew closer, and at last, another handful of cows trundled out of the trees and blocked my escape.

There was but one possible path forward. Walking in the middle of the stream, I could wind past the cows, keeping a few spans between us. I started forward speaking softly and slowly waving my hands. The laying cows watched me and chewed the grass, swatting at swarms of midges and mosquitoes with their ears  and tossing their heads. I should’ve paid more attention to the swarms – a prophecy of things to come – but I had eyes for only the bull. He’d lowered his head and turned to follow me as I edged around. He snorted and stomped. When I pulled parallel with him, he came for me.

I took off up the creek, stumbling over rocks, not daring to look back. I tripped, picked myself up, and kept running. Locusts and frogs bounded out of my path, plunking off of my bare legs and hips. Suddenly something squirmed under my foot. I glanced down to see a snake writhing half under my shoe and half under the rocks, seemingly stuck between trying to flee and trying to lash out at its tormentor. I skipped to the side, kept running up the ever-steepening hill and reminded myself to pay more attention to the path under my feet; I had no idea what kinds of animals lived in this forest.

Soon, I could only hear the blood pounding in my ears and my ragged breath. I’d left the bull, and those horrible bells, behind. The bull and the bells, but not the bugs. I staggered to a halt to catch my breath, and as my bodily sounds faded, the buzzing closed in. Hundreds of insects swarmed my head and naked shoulders.  No time to breathe, I started running again. The swarm pursued.

Before long, the valley came to an end. The only choice was up — on all fours. I slipped and slid on broken rocks covered by a skin of dead leaves. Whenever I tried to tack horizontal, I found myself trapped by thorned and stinging plants which shredded my calves and forearms. When the Koguryo climbed these hills, they’d used spiked boots to keep their balance. I did not have those. For every meter I crawled up the slope, grabbing rotten tree limbs for balance, I slid half as far back down. Bulbous gray spiders skittered in every direction and bouncing grasshoppers crackled in rage and terror. The swarm did not relent.

A lovely walk in the woods had turned into my personal Apocalypse Now.

Finally, a rocky outcropping rose out of the mountain top in front of me. Like some kind of harried, gasping seal, I dragged my slippery body over the top and lay heaving for a moment on the stone path on the top. Then the swarm found me, again, and I took off along the path, skating on the phlemy, mossy stones and galloping up and down stairs. Through gaps in the trees I could see Ji’an down the valley, and there, up the river, the sand-colored burial mounds I’d been trying to reach.

I slipped, scampered, and stumbled, all while swatting at my head, just trying to outrun the bugs for another half hour or so – up and down and up and down and then down, down, down, until suddenly the trees opened up, and there I was, surrounded by crumbled city gates in an open field. A pink-shirted tour group turned away from an ancient watchtower to point at me and shout.

I walked among the Wandu Mountain City ruins for the next couple of hours, marveling at the engineering of the mountain fastness. As I looked at a map of the former Koguryo capital, it at last dawned on me: like Murong Huang more than a millennium before, I’d assaulted the ancient city walls from behind, then run along them and at last breached the city.

Murong Huang had sacked a city. I’d snuck into a UNESCO World Heritage Site without a ticket. Feats, one and both.

Later in Ji’an a grilled corn hawker would tell me I was the second white foreigner he’d seen in two years. The security guards at the Wandu ticket check gaped at me as I walked out the exit, covered in leaves, mud, and blood.

I like to think the Wandu guards 1600 years ago had similar looks on their faces.


Toward Heaven

Changbai Mountain, Jilin Province, China

I didn’t notice all the upturned heads until I settled into my seat. As the bus doors closed, I glanced up and saw the eyes of everyone around me flicking nervously toward Heaven. Like any good primate, mine did too.

Yellow jackets. Dozens of them smacked against the ceiling above. And the windows around. My eyes flicked back down to the faces of the people whose eyes were flicking. Their eyes flicked up and around and mine followed. No one said anything. My world quickly shrank to silent flicking eyes and the little electric pop of wings and carapaces bouncing against the walls. Everyone so often, someone would slap at their hair in a cautious panic.

At last, the engine fired to life, and I was glad I at least couldn’t hear the bugs anymore, even if I still see all the crawling, jerking eyes.

But the bus growled onto the road, and slowly the insects disappeared, maybe into the air conditioner. Nobody seemed to care at all where they had gone.

It takes two bus trips to get to the western slope of Changbai Mountain in China’s Jilin Province, the volcanic peak jutting up out of the dense forests that surround Songjianghe Village – or these days, Songjianghe construction site: “Where everything is half finished and the restaurants never open!” The first bus, the one with the wasps, chugs past the half built resorts of the future as it pulls out of a faux Alpish ski village that developers must hope will one day transform into a real one. It rolls past toll booths, peeling police stations, and dilapidated villages, as it follows the muddy Songjiang River, swollen with the summer rains and the last of the snow melt from Heaven Lake in the crater at the top of Changbai. The water feeds the lush grasses and fir trees that give way to painted meadows just after the transfer to the second bus. This second one is the more harrowing of the two, even without the bugs, as camel caravans of the green-sided beasts sprint their way above the trees and charge past each other on the curves of the twisted road that leads them to the top.

From there, its 1,400 steps dodging selfie takers and breathless Korean tour groups to get the rim of China’s largest, deepest, and highest crater lake – a multi-hued blue broth in a bowl of lichen and stone outcroppings at 2,744 meters in elevation. I ran those steps, and it was good that I did. I got about five minutes of mostly unobstructed view of the basin, half of which belongs to North Korea, before the wind smothered the view in clouds.

Heaven Lake

Heaven Lake




I’d be warned about the finicky nature of both the weather on Changbai, which means eternal white, as well Heaven Lake’s very own prehistoric lake monster.

I saw the weather but not the lake monster. I’ll blame the weather for that one.

First Bus, Last Bus

January 31, 2017 – Ya’an, Sichuan Province

I have a need to be on the first bus of the day.

It doesn’t matter whether I need to be or not. Something about missing it fills me with anxiety and despair.

I try hard to hide it. I try to listen to my travelling companions. I try not to stare at them. I try not to pace or rush or sigh. I’m better than I used to be.

I still need to be on the first bus.

That’s why we rose in the predawn dark to catch a quick cab to the long distance bus station where The Swede and I would catch a bus the two hours to Ya’an (雅安), then a minibus an hour up the mountains to the Bifengxia (碧峰峡) gorge and Panda Research Base.

The Chengdu cabs had other plans.

We stood at the intersection just behind the bridge and waited. We walked to the next intersection and waited. We walked to the subway stop and waited. And waited. I started to panic. We decided to take the subway, despite having to transfer twice to go five total stops to reach the bus station.

The first bus was at 7 a.m. It was already 6:45. The subway trip took 30 minutes. I despaired.

I was wrong. The first bus was 7:30. Fifteen minutes to spare. Still time to eat breakfast, which I’d promised we’d have time to do. I rejoiced.

It was still Spring Festival. The bus station Dico’s Chicken, with its instant coffee machine, was closed. I despaired.

The convenience store with canned coffee, crackers, and a Snickers bar was open, though, and so was a tiny noodle joint with dirty pots, lots of steam, and delicious sour and spicy rice flour noodles (suanlafen 酸辣粉). It might not be breakfast, but it was something. I rejoiced.

And we still made the bus with a minute to spare, though my noodles got a dirty look from the bus driver.

Sleeping on the bus.

Sleeping on the bus.

The ride was uneventful and we pulled into Ya’an a little under two hours later with no idea of where to go next. My guidebook said simply to walk out of the bus station and find the minibuses.

The front of the bus station had been ripped out for construction, making that difficult.

This is often the way things when trying to get somewhere small. Take the big bus to a big bus station, then wander around outside the bus station – but never exactly in it – for a while until you find some vans or minibuses or something that looks like a van or a minibus. Get jammed into the back by some guy that seems like he’s trying to hustle you, hand over some cash, wait 40 minutes next to a farmer with a duck in a bag, then finally get going. Assume that the bus-van thing will take you to the place you want to go while craning your neck in every direction hoping for some kind of sign that you are, indeed, going the right way.

You usually are. I am still unclear, though, as to whether any of the vans or minibuses anywhere in China are private or public transportation. It is one of the many mysteries of the East.

In this case, we did find the pack of minibuses, and we did take one of them after handing some cash being jammed in the back with a farmer, and we did crane our necks while we wove up a mountain road into the Sichuan highlands. After about an hour, we arrived at the Bifengxia Panda Research Base.

The Sichuan highlands surround the Panda Base entrance.

The Sichuan highlands surround the Panda Base entrance.

Bifengxia, which means Green Peak Gorge, was the second Giant Panda breeding center in China, opening in 2004 in order to spread the Panda population out to avoid catastrophe in the case of disease or other disaster. That paid off in 2008 when the Sichuan earthquake damaged the original Wolong center and some of the pandas had to be evacuated.

Aside from the animals themselves, though, the area also features some fantastic natural scenery, as you climb out of the gorge at about 3,000 feet elevation up on to a plateau at nearly 6,500 feet.

The ticket window was crowded, not only with tourists but with all sorts of cutesy plastic pandas, as well video screens trying to get you to pay extra to visit the zoo, where you could feed tigers and bears through a bus window. We skipped that, as well as most of the line. There were about 10 windows open but everybody was crowded around eight of them.

People in China often assume that if a line is long, its the one you’re supposed to be in. Then they try to cut to the front of it. We just chose the short line instead.

The entrance gate is at once side of the gorge, and the panda base is at the other side. Visitors can either take the bus around or they can take a giant elevator down into the gorge and walk to the base. Having seen pandas before, we’d mostly come for the walk so down the 50-story elevator we went.

The gorge path wends along next to a river, reduced in dry-season February to little more than a trickle. The bruise-colored walls and spires rise on both sides, and greenery creeps its way up from the river to the gorge rims. At first, small waterfalls splatter down the overgrown slopes where ferns drip their own tiny waterfalls onto the concrete path. At one point early in the trail, the walker with decent eyesight can spy a handful of central China’s mysterious hanging coffins, nailed to the side of the cliff almost two thousand years ago.

But as the path continues on past markers explaining the area’s mythos, which is rooted in the very Chinese creation myths themselves, it starts to climb up past roaring waterfalls shaped like falling dragons, past placid pools of water where goddesses are said to have bathed, and across flatted stones and raised bridges where ancient monsters were vanquished. Platforms provide a rest from the stairs and opportunities to buy boiled eggs, liberally spiced fried potatoes (it’s Sichuan, after all), water, soda, or beer.

At last the trail winds out of the gorge and up onto the plateau, through a small collection of hotels, noodle stands, cafeterias, and tea orchards and into the panda base.


The panda base was a panda base. There are pandas. They live in pretty big pens. They don’t do much except eat bamboo and scratch themselves on trees, except for one panda who, agitated by something, would make a strange, breathy chirping sound, then run up to his “house,” cartwheel upside down on the wall, then urinate it.

Another highlight would of course be the cubs. We happened upon them by accident after following a footpath across one of the parks ridge lines, then running into a crowd of people peer over a wall looking down onto a long slope. There, just below the wall, were a pair of yearlings, wrestling and chewing on each other.

I counted only one person that threw anything at them.

Down the hill another crowd gathered around another panda cub, this one high up in a tree and way out on a flimsy branch, asleep. As he woke and started to move, the branches started to crack around him. For one breathless moment, he lost his footing, slipping up to his front armpits, back legs kicking the 20 meters of air below as more sticks crashed and broke on the ground. I could hardly watch.

At last he pulled himself up and in what seemed to me to be a controlled panic, scrambled back to the trunk and back down to the ground, fast.

The third highlight was the Panda trashcan.

We finished up our panda touring and took a series of buses back down to Ya’an and its under-construction bus station. We had enough time before our bus left to grab a quick dinner at a street-side restaurant, then set off for Chengdu.

We made it about 15 minutes outside of town when the bus broke down. Then all of us – a pair of monks, a few chain smokers and at least one Chinese guy and one Swedish woman who desperately wanted to find a bathroom and eventually just had to stumble down the hill into a bamboo grove – milled around outside in the light of the dying sun waiting for something about our situation to change.

We got the first bus to Ya’an. And the last one back.