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Travel: Tonghua the Ginseng Kingdom

Misty valleys, pine-swathed hills and crisp air make for an invigorating getaway in China's overlooked north


I could taste the difference the moment we stepped off the plane. A light breeze blew cool, fresh air over my face, air that smelt of decomposing leaves and hunks of moss. While you’d barely notice the tip from summer into fall on Beijing’s sweating streets, in Jilin the turn of the season is distinct and unmissable. It’s brisk. I appreciatively pull on a sweater for the first time in six months.



Tonghua wouldn’t be the first place to spring to mind for an invigorating getaway. When announcing my travel plans I was generally met with a raised eyebrow and the question “Why?” The prefecture-level industrial city, known for pharmaceuticals, steel, and sweet, sticky wine, is nothing special, however, the mountainous topography surrounding Tonghua is breathtaking, and, amazingly for a country whose population is on the wrong side of a billion, all but empty.



Swathes of pines coat the hillsides and golden stretches of wheat blanket the valleys. In the morning, dew glitters across the fields and on the tiles that top the spattering of simple farmhouses. Fog rolls in, shrouding the peaks and snaking through the dells.



I’m here courtesy of the Tonghua Tourism Board, packed into a minibus bristling with camera equipment and accompanied by five other Foreign Friends ready to smile for a selfie at any given moment.



We check in to Tonghua Zhenguo Health and Fitness Valley, where a hotel sits grandly on the shore of a vast lake amongst 10km of pine-clad grounds. After the obligatory group photo, we are let loose to explore. Strolling through the valley I feel like Moses parting the green sea as dozens of crickets spring wildly out of my way in all directions—quite often blindly into their interloper. A striped snake slithers off ahead of me. Squirrels eye me cheekily. At sunset, the swallows nesting in the leaves of the hotel return en mass, flitting up to feed their demanding chicks before heading off to catch more of the plentiful insects.




The trees surrounding the lake are reflected with clarity in the still water. Then, all of a sudden, fish begin breaking the surface, even leaping entirely out of the water. The faint echo of piped Chinese folk songs that plague the resort seem in time with the lake's sudden eruption into motion, as if the fish were dancing to the pink hum of sunset.




At night, I throw open the wide windows so the cacophony of cicadas can float in on the sharp fall air. I raid the spare bed (the joys of traveling solo) for a second duvet and cocoon myself in the delicious warmth that only comes from contrast with real, unmanufactured cold.



A whopping 50 percent of the entire world’s ginseng comes from Jilin Province, and we are eagerly shown the source of supplements lining the shelves of Western health stores. In the woods surrounding the hotel, where cabins look out over the calm waters and the trees are broken only by a distant pagoda, our guide points out a ginseng tree—or rénshēn, as it’s known in Chinese. The tree is so named as it looks like the Chinese character for man, the two trunks growing separately from the earth before conjoining into one. We pile back onto our bus and head to a ginseng market, where bargain-price ginseng is piled up on fresh moss and we taste fresh honeycomb, hacked straight from within a tree trunk.



It’s not all worthy goodness here though—Tonghua is also an ancient producer of baijiu. While lining ourselves up for another celebratory group photo, I notice the unmistakable sweet and sour smell of fermenting alcohol. A tour around the damp brewery reveals massive wooden vats, made of Qing dynasty Korean pine slats, which imbue the alcohol with a fruity flavor. We head down a trap door to a promised “wine sea.” At first the low-ceilinged, dimly lit room feels like an unremarkable and uninhabitable basement, but when our guide lifts a square from the floor, we look down into a huge vat of brewing baijiu. He grabs a wooden bowl and scoops the fiery alcohol into wine glasses for us to drink.



While the valleys of Tonghua County are imbued with an irresistible charm, for true rugged beauty, the national parks (including the largest in China) are unmissable. A long and winding drive, taking us down ever thinner and higher roads, past roaming chickens, cages of dried corn and piles of wood prepared for the harsh winter, eventually opens up to the welcoming golden dragons adorning Beijifeng Scenic Spot’s gate.



An entire sheep, cleaved in two and flame-licked, sits proudly at the center of an excessive welcome feast. We pull it apart with our hands, breaking ribs and peeling skin, at home in the depths of this temperate forest and under a glossy full moon.



The next day, we set out even further into the forest, facing a steep trail to the park's peak. The view is worth the hike. Clear slices of sunshine cross the wild countryside and gentle mountains, and it's hard to believe that we area mere hour's flight away from the concrete capital. The invigorating pastoral landscape transports me a million miles from Beijing, or even China, that is, until we are called from the view to arrange ourselves for one last group photo.




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