Jilin is one of three provinces that make up China’s northeast. It lies just below Heilongjiang and borders North Korea to the south and Russia to the east. Its total population reaches only 27 million, making the entire province smaller in inhabitants than the city of Shanghai. While much of the province gets little love from international tourists, Jilin is packed with gems both hidden and conspicuous and is a wonderful place to experience a hotpot of cultures, from Korean to Mongolian and everything in between.
Changchun is the provincial capital and largest city in Jilin. Established during the Qing dynasty, it is one of China’s newest cities and served as the capital of the Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. History buffs hoping to understand more about this unique time in Changchun’s history can visit the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, the former home of Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of China and figurehead of the Manchukuo state. The palace has since been transformed into a museum.
The other top spot to visit in Changchun is Jingyuetan National Forest Park. The name Jingyuetan means “Clear Moon Pool,” named as such for its water’s sparkling emerald color. The park itself is huge and includes ski slopes, a manmade beach, the namesake pool, former Manchukuo government buildings, Northern Putuo Temple, ancient tombs and Stone Sheep and Stone Tiger Mountain. Yes, it’s not hard to spend a whole week exploring everything this park has to offer.
Surrounded in part by the Songhua River, Jilin City offers quite a contrast to Changchun’s newness. In fact, Manchu residents were living in the city long before China was unified in 221 B.C.E.
The best time to visit is the dead of winter when the warmth from the river meets the dry Siberian winds, causing crystals to form on the trees. This phenomenon has been dubbed the Ice Rimmed Trees of Jilin and constitutes one of four natural wonders of China. To see the trees in all their icy glory, it is best to visit when the weather is below 20 degrees Celsius and before 7 a.m.
If you’re going to Jilin, chances are you already know about the Changbai Mountains. This mountain range that serves as the land border between China and North Korea is popular for a reason. Steeped in mythical history and abounding with natural beauty, the Changbai Mountains are the only way to peek into North Korea without going to the DMZ. And at the center of it all lies Heaven Lake, a crater-formed lake at the top of volcanic Paektu Mountain, directly on the two countries’ borders. North Korean legend has it that Kim Jong-il was born on the mountain near the lake. And speaking of monsters, Heaven Lake has its own Loch Ness-style creatures, first captured on video in 2007.
Goguryeo Ancient Sites is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains archaeological remnants of the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.C.E. – 668 C.E.). Among the remains are 40 tombs and three fortress cities.
While Heaven Lake gets all the love from tourists, it is not the only lake worth visiting in Jilin Province. Chagan Lake, located in Songyuan City, is the one of 10 top freshwater lakes in China and the only lake in the world that preserves the oldest Mongolian fishing method. Every December and January, Chagan Lake holds a festival to honor the winter fishing tradition, but similar ice-fishing can be seen all winter on the lake. The lake holds the Guinness World Record for largest fish yield in a single net, a record which it first broke in 2006 and beat again in 2009.
Jilin cuisine fits into the larger Dongbei, or northeast, style that starts in Beijing and spreads upward. Many of the dishes are extremely hearty, with potatoes and wheat being staples in most. Popular dishes include steamed dumplings, pickled vegetables, twice cooked pork and di san xian, a stir fried dish consisting of potatoes, green peppers and eggplant. Dongbei is a cuisine favored by foreigners, due to its mild and approachable flavors.