NORTH­ERN EX­PO­SURE

A huge ice cave and an idyl­lic alpine meadow are among the less-known plea­sures of vis­it­ing Shanxi prov­ince, but don’t ex­pect a 5-star ex­pe­ri­ence just yet. Chen Liang re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFETRAVEL -

Many county-level scenic spots in the coun­try, es­pe­cially those in North China, share a sim­i­lar prob­lem — poor ex­ploita­tion of tourism. Symp­toms in­clude ex­ag­ger­ated names, over­priced ad­mis­sions and ac­com­mo­da­tions, limited but ex­pen­sive ser­vices, ugly build­ings and few con­sid­er­a­tions for in­di­vid­ual vis­i­tors.

They di­min­ish the trav­el­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ence and have spoiled many gen­uine ex­cel­lent nat­u­ral at­trac­tions.

So when a friend in­vited me to his home­town, a re­mote county in Shanxi prov­ince, to visit Wan­nian (“Ten Thou­sand Years”) Ice Cave and an alpine meadow on a lo­cally fa­mous moun­tain, I hes­i­tated.

I don’t like the name; it sounds like a gim­mick. But my friend, who was born and grew up there, says th­ese are true nat­u­ral won­ders and worth a visit.

His home­town, Ningwu, is only three hours’ drive from Taiyuan, the cap­i­tal of Shanxi, where I was on busi­ness re­cently. So I went with him for a two-day ex­cur­sion, with­out much ex­pec­ta­tion.

We have our din­ner at a restau­rant over­look­ing a lake, which is one of the Ningwu Tianchi (“Heav­enly Lake”). The lake is clean and peace­ful. At about 2,000 me­ters above sea level, the breeze from the lake is cool even at the height of sum­mer.

Around the lake, how­ever, trees are small, the slopes are gen­tle, and the restau­rant build­ing and yurts around it are ce­ment and tacky.

To be hon­est, the scenery is medi­ocre — noth­ing to com­pare with the other two fa­mous “heav­enly lakes”, in Xin­jiang au­ton­o­mous re­gion and Jilin prov­ince. But the fish caught here is fresh and de­li­cious.

The lakes are about 20 km from the county town. Af­ter din­ner, we drive about half an hour to Dongzhai town­ship and check into a ho­tel near the en­trance of Mount Luya National For­est Park.

The next morn­ing, I find our ho­tel to be part of a recre­ational area that is still un­der con­struc­tion. At this mo­ment, it is a lit­tle noisy and dirty.

The gate of the for­est park is newly com­pleted and quite big. The good thing: There is no ad­mis­sion fee yet.

The road wind­ing into the for­est park is in ex­cel­lent con­di­tion.

And it is cer­tainly a sur­prise to find ma­ture sec­ondary conif­er­ous forests, with tall spruce and pine trees, in an area near the Loess Plateau and in the prov­ince known for its rich re­sources of coal.

With the forests, ev­ery­thing be­comes pleas­ant. The river is clear, flow­ers are blos­som­ing, birds are chirp­ing and the air is re­fresh­ing.

Af­ter a half-hour drive, we ar­rive at Wan­nian Ice Cave. The ad­mis­sion is 120 yuan ($20) per per­son, which is not sur­pris­ing but dis­ap­point­ing. So is the LED screen, with the Chi­nese name of the cave, on top of a slip­pery ce­ment tun­nel that leads down to the en­trance at the bot­tom of a sheer cliff.

A cir­cuit with wooden steps leads vis­i­tors to ex­plore the ice cave. It’s like walk­ing into a re­frig­er­a­tor — you feel the icy cold­ness even be­fore you see the ice.

Yes, there is ice, a lot of it. On walls, on steps, on rail­ings, hang­ing down from the ceil­ing like swords, and grow­ing up from the ground like bam­boo shoots.

The steps wind down to the cave, which has three lev­els open to vis­i­tors, and then up, into the world made of ice flow­ers, ice sta­lac­tites and sta­lag­mites.

Bathed in light of dif­fer­ent hues, they turn the cave into a col­or­ful won­der­land.

Later my friend tells me that the cave has a his­tory of more than 3 mil­lion years. It is one of the largest ice caves found in the coun­try.

While the ice cave is hid­den in a val­ley of the Guan­cen Moun­tains, the Malun Grass­land is on one of the moun­tain­tops.

Driv­ing 27 km from the park en­trance and up to about 2,400 me­ters above sea level, we reach the end of the road and see booths sell­ing snacks and drink­ing wa­ter. Sneak­ers are for rent — prob­a­bly be­cause too many vis­i­tors wear high-heeled shoes to the site and then re­al­ize they will need to climb.

Af­ter a half-hour hike, trees are sud­denly gone and a broad alpine meadow spreads across the top of the slope and stretches into the hori­zon.

The 400 hectares be­fore us are cov­ered with a lush growth of green grass. Dozens of horses graze at their ease. In this sea­son, var­i­ous kinds of alpine flow­ers are in bloom. Pip­its and rosefinches are breed­ing on the grass­land.

At the top of the meadow, I see Mount Luya ris­ing in front of me, across a broad val­ley.

With more than 200 rock peaks and ris­ing 2,739 me­ters above sea level, Mount Luya is the sum­mit of the Guan­cen Moun­tains and the ma­jor at­trac­tion in the for­est park.

It will take a hardy hiker four hours to scale the sum­mit and back to the meadow.

We don’t have much time, but we sit in the meadow for a while and en­joy the spec­tac­u­lar panoramic views.

On the way back, I start think­ing it’s a shame that such a nice area has no lodg­ing, no shut­tle buses and no bike rental. That’s the re­al­ity of trav­el­ing in many parts of North China, but it also means there are not big crowds of tourists with you. Con­tact the writer at chen­liang@chi­nadaily.com.cn. Sun Ruisheng con­trib­uted to the story. There are reg­u­lar buses be­tween Taiyuan and Ningwu county town, and be­tween the county town and Dongzhai town­ship. You can hire a mini­van to ex­plore the scenic spots within Mount Luya National For­est Park, for about 150 yuan ($24) a day. The ad­mis­sion for Wan­nian Ice Cave is 120 yuan per per­son; Hang­ing Vil­lage is 40 yuan; and Malun Grass­land and Mount Luya is 100 yuan. For more in­for­ma­tion on the Mount Luya National For­est Park, call 03504785-316.

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