A Tiny Town Called Aershan

Written by Nov 6, 2006 06:11
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I really wish I had been brave enough...

There are some moments that I really wish I had been brave enough to catch on camera. When my bus stopped in the middle of the Inner Mongolian grasslands where there was nothing taller than a blade of grass in every direction, the row of unselfconscious male passengers peeing and smoking was quite a sight. I will certainly never forget it.

I was heading South West from Hailaer to a tiny town called Aershan.

Last winter I had planned to visit Aershan, but I never made it. I have been regretting it ever since and so it was with pleasure that I sat, bus-bound, listening to the inescapable kung-fu movie and admiring the eternity of flat green grass outside the window.

This was a journey I had waited 8 months to fulfil.

I might have blinked and missed Aershan...

If the bus had not stopped I might have blinked and missed Aershan. When I got off there were no taxi drivers or rickshaws to greet me, indeed, the entire town is walkable in about 30 minutes. I heaved on my rucksack and prepared to look for somewhere to stay – not difficult as there’s only one road.

Aershan is home to just 10,000 people, and in China that really does justify a “just”. In reality it feels more like 100 people and it comes as a shock that the streets are quiet: unwalked by feet and undriven by traffic. The jumble of buildings that line the main street are a strange architectural mishmash with turrets, towers and grand balconies in enough pastel shades to rival the wildflower-covered hills surrounding them. Behind the main street are a row of the more familiar mini high-rise apartments and also the humble single-storied dwellings usually home to farmers, but here filled with woodcutters and bicycle repairers. I’m told Aershan comes alive in the winter as a skiing and hot spring resort; although the only evidence of this lay in the occasional run-down chairlifts that strode up the hills.

Finding a place to stay proved a little more difficult than I had imagined. At first I was directed by a local to an alpine-style lodge at the foot of a green velvet hill. The place was deserted and the girls jumped to attention when I walked in. I asked them for their cheapest room and they told me it was 100RMB. I asked if I could have a look and was most impressed with the neat twin room and asked if I could stay for 2 nights. They agreed and began processing the paperwork, whereby the young girl asked me for a deposit of 1000RMB. I was shocked and it turned out that I had (substantially!!) misheard the price of the room, it was 400RMB not 100RMB a night. Feeling very embarrassed I tried without success to haggle the deserted hotel down to a more reasonable fare before giving up, apologising and leaving.

Another 3 hotels, small and also seemingly with few customers, refused to drop their prices lower than 200RMB. Eventually, as the street and hotels were fast running out, I found a place willing to house me for 150RMB a night. For this I got my own 3-bed room, a shower just across the hall and breakfast.

I was able to observe the entire town...

It was around 3pm when I wandered back out into Aershan Town to have a look around and the population seemed to have increased exponentially. Not only that, but people were filling up every shop to capacity and I could barely get through the doors, let alone get served. I soon discovered the reason for this in the huge tour buses swamping the tiny bus station car park. Fortunately for me the tourists weren’t here to climb the hill and so I left them in search of less frantic climes.

The hill, which appears to have no name, is an easy 15-minute climb through a carpet of fireworks, or so the rich windswept wildflowers seemed to me. The view from the top of the hill was much better than the climb might suggest and I was able to observe the entire town like a square with the smooth green curves of the hills beyond.

A forest of pines began at the top of the hill and marched upwards as far as I could see and in a clearing I saw a herd of white sheep grazing. I was curious and went to take a look, surprising the old shepherdess from her nap. For a moment I thought I might be back in England, with the forests and hills and the sheep frolicking like clouds.

I descended the far side of the hill and came across a temple, unexpected and brightly coloured. The flags fluttered strongly in the breeze and a man was just closing the doors; his wife, below, was yelling something about dinner!

I took my cue from them and decided to head back to my hotel for some food. Speaking with the owners over dinner it transpired that my idea to take a bus to the National Park had one fatal flaw, there was no way of getting back. Buses run to the park, it seems, but not from it. A taxi ride back would cost me 100RMB.

The owner suggested I rent a car for the day, and handily recommended her friend for 250RMB for the day. This seemed a little expensive to me and I managed to get them to agree to 200RMB for the whole day. He would arrive at 7.30am the next morning.

Getting to Aershan National Park

Having my own car and driver is always a little disconcerting. At the beginning it is strange, but once I start to speak Chinese it breaks the ice and this beautiful morning would be no exception. The driver encouraged me to sing along to some of the Chinese songs on his tape and we flew along the quiet country lanes with their hedges so high it was impossible to see beyond the next bend.

Inevitably, we met another car, travelling equally fast and neither driver seemed willing to slow down or pull in. The result was a minor squealing of brakes, applied at the last minute when each realised the other was not going to slow down, following by a loud thwack as the wing mirrors collided. The other driver carried on, un-phased, and my driver merely stopped, fiddled with the mirror, and continued as if nothing had happened.

An hour and a half later, under the wide grin of the sunshine, we arrived at a park that seemed to be under construction. It may well be the middle of summer, but the roads were being resurfaced and the sound of heavy machinery and the smell of tarmac filled the air. It wasn’t the tranquil National Park I had been expecting.

Heavenly Lake (天池)

It seems that a crater lake or sky pond (formed by a volcanic eruption) translates into Chinese as Heavenly Lake. At 1322m above sea level this is the third highest Heavenly Lake in China. It is a short and steep climb up a considerable number of steps that are flanked with pine trees.

Arriving at the lake I disturbed a group of birds that took flight like a barrage of silver bullets. The lake is not especially high or large, but has its own characterful beauty. The water was mirror still and dragonflies danced and fought in a snapping of wings and the reeds form a pale yellow fringe around the placid blue bowl.

Having descended, I walked amongst the market stalls that had sprung up. They were selling a diverse selection of dried materials including mushrooms, flower teas, fish and ants! I asked the woman what the ants were for but sadly, I couldn’t understand her reply…

Three Pond Gorge (三谭峡)

The concrete paths to line the route of the gorge were under construction when I arrived. As such it was possible only to walk a few hundred meters before the path petered out into the wooden post framework it would eventually cover. I was happy to skip the paths and wander alongside the framework and deep into the woodlands.

Though I saw no sign of the 3 ponds that constitute the name of the gorge, the sparkling waters of the river I walked along were clean and swift, sliding over stones and around boulders. The woodland was a peaceful mixture of pale-skinned birches and deep green pines and the sunlight dropped through like golden rain, puddling in bright pools.

Beyond the paths, I was completely alone to admire and wander. I have heard it said that the Westerner’s desire to travel alone is often interpreted as arrogance. I hope not. Fanciful it may be, but I prefer to imagine myself as the old Chinese poets did, free in the wilderness to seek out and meditate and be inspired.

Shitang Forest (石塘林)

It was a long drive to the Shitang forest, during which the scenery of the park changed considerably. The grass and woodlands became scarce and the ground gave itself over to nothing but volcanic rocks that looked sharp and crunchy. Mossy plants grew in lush clumps at the edge of the road and wild raspberries pitted themselves against the blackened stones.

The Shitang Forest area was in the midst of this volcanic moonscape. Also under construction, the real entrance was boarded up and so I followed others across the brittle rocks and onto the new boardwalk. This was also still being built and the planks weren’t nailed down and many were still covered in their plastic sheeting.

The area is 10,000 years old, which adds a certain gravity to the sparcity of the scenery. The odd pine tree gleamed like a neon strip against the blackness of the rocks and the water that had formed in the pools was so clear it was almost invisible. The rocks really do conjure up shapes not unlike twisted corpses, hence the Chinese name of the area.

Azalea Lake (杜鹃湖)

A further 20 minutes into the park and we reached the final destination of the day. A lake so large that the breeze was able to kick up waves that gently rock the water lilies like babies in a deep blue blanket. To reach the lake it was necessary to walk through a forest of pines that were half-dead and half-alive: a mixture of sticks and trees. Dragonflies flew above the path like bombers and below the ground jumped with grasshoppers.

A small blue boat puffed out smoke and chugged in the distance, its red roof made it seem almost as if it were a house floating out there. Behind the lake the hills were crammed with innumerable trees that stacked up and over until they met the sky. The black lava rocks ran up to the edge of the lake making a sharp colour contrast against the rich blue waters. I felt a deadness about this rock that butted up against the movement and life of the lake.

I curled up feeling warm and sleepy...

Having come well over an hours drive into the park and with over an hour on the homeward journey it was time to turn back. I asked my driver if he was tired but he shook his head. He’d had plenty of time to sleep whilst I was out exploring.

On the way home it rained short and suddenly from a cloudless blue sky and I was instantly reminded of England again.

By the time we reached Aershan it was late afternoon. The clouds had been amassing, slowly and thickly and the first deep growl of thunder rolled across the sky. Not long after this, the rain arrived in force hammering at the windows and spilling along the guttering. The day had turned to gloominess itself and I curled up feeling warm and sleepy to watch the storm thrashing the evening sky. I thought absently of a time long, long ago, perhaps on a night like this, when vocanoes created Aershan's landscapes...

Information (August 2006)

[Note that in English, Aershan is sometimes also written as Arxan.]

Getting There

From: Hailaer (海拉尔) to Aershan (阿尔山)
By: Bus
Cost: 67RMB
Time: 6.30am depart Hailaer, 12 noon arrive Aershan

Getting Back

From: Aershan to Baicheng (白城)
By: Bus
Cost: 60.50RMB
Time: 1.30pm depart Aershan, 8pm arrive Baicheng

English: Inner Mongolia, Aershan National Forest Park
Chinese: 内蒙古阿尔山国家森林公园
Pinyin: nei4 meng2 gu3 a1 er3 shan1 guo2 jia1 sen1 lin2 gong1 yuan2

Entrance Fee: 125RMB
The main park sites are those mentioned in this article that I visited but it is huge and I think there are many possibilities to explore if you can stay in the park itself.

Car & Driver Hire: 200RMB (7.30am – 3.30pm)

Aershan Accommodation

As the only hotel I could find below 200RMB a night, I think this place deserves a mention.

Aershan Tianyuan Hotel (天源宾馆)
Tel: 0482-7124222 or 2256158
Mob: 13947487280

150RMB a night including breakfast for a clean room with TV.
A shower and toilet across the hall.

**There is also a museum in Aershan. It is dedicated to the nearby hot springs, but I did not get chance to go around it.**

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