Huang Shan - In The Footsteps of Emperors

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April 12th 2007
Published: April 12th 2007
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Once you have climbed Yellow Mountain, under heaven there is no other mountain.

So the saying goes, but it's a lot more eloquent in Chinese as it only takes 8 syllables to convey the meaning. Emperors have graced its lofty peaks and marvelled at the unusual scenery, composing poems to express their appreciation. It's pretty high up on the Chinese 'do before you die' list. Not that Huang Shan (Huang means 'yellow' and Shan means 'mountain') is the only worthy mountain in the world, but it's probably one of the most accessible to everyone - well-maintained paths, stairs and, for the less mobile or more lazy, cable cars. The Chinese don't do nature unless the way is paved.

Huang Shan takes 2 days, 1 to go up and the next to come back down. I should say hobble down, but more on that later. We set out in the minibus early in the morning, I fell asleep for most of the way while Jessica nursed a pot noodle next to me. I seem to remember that it was a very foggy morning. Visibility was down to a worrying 0. I woke up to find ourselves at a carpark full of uniformed coaches parked near a ticket office. Things have changed at Huang Shan and it's not just the ticket price.

Before, anyone arriving without a tour group would have to bargain the minibus prices down to something resembling reasonable. Now, the prices are fixed to certain destinations and some destinations are not even available (so why put them on the timetable?). One of the trailheads for the ascent has changed, making it a little shorter, but still longer than the alternative route. Being marginally masochistic, I selected this slightly longer, but more scenic way up. We boarded a bus leaving almost immediately.

Our comfy bus ride was all too short. We were deposited at the entrance gate where we had to buy tickets... Y200!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This had better count towards my karma points or something! Students get half-price, so the huge crowds gathered at the ticket office were all busy searching for their student id cards. Of course these strapping youth all spent the other Y100 on the cable-car rides up the mountain... After wading my way to the ticket booth, I exchanged 4 pink notes (Y100 notes are pink) for 2 flimsy tickets with a rough sketch map on the back, clearly no expense has been spared.

It seems the majority of people use the cable cars - the way up on foot is not clearly marked. We took a guess and guessed correctly, heading up the stairs to begin our ascent. The well built and seemingly well maintained concrete path wound its way up the hillside under a canopy of trees. The way was thankfully shady, because it didn't take long for the sweat to start and the fleeces to come off. We soon found ourselves in good company as fellow determined hikers huffed and puffed their way up. There are numerous little patios budding off the paths with benches to rest those weary legs. Added to these little facilities were regular stalls selling snacks - noodles, biscuits, crisps, cucumbers and tomatoes. The latter are surprisingly popular being packed with water and something to fill the stomach. Jessica became something of a celebrity, being one of only a handful of foreigners on the mountain. Chinese tourists queued to take pictures with her and asked a handful of polite questions. Some also commented on our climbing ability, putting our strength down to the availability of beef in the West. Of course it has nothing to do with

Did I ever mention I was scared of heights? A good view DOWN on either side...
the hours put in at the gym... What they also miss is our selection of footwear - hiking boots. The shoes on some peoples' feet were more suited to a night out. What were they thinking?

As we wound our way higher and higher, the trees sometimes gave way to open sky and rocks. Huang Shan is famous for its greenery clinging to, or emerging from, barren stone. A quarter way up, it was just like a regular mountain - green mounds. We met some tired people coming down the mountain, they must have stayed overnight. That would be us the next day. A little diversion from the main path led to a look out that gave a better idea of how far we had come and how much further we had to go. The look out is one example of what Huang Shan is famous for - bits of rock that stick out oddly. Apparently the mountain is dotted with them and they are given names to indicate what they look like or not - 'Frog Peak', 'Cock Peak', 'Beginning to Believe Peak' (eh?), 'Stone Figure Peak' etc.

We had booked our accomodation on the mountain back at the hostel in Tunxi. It's located in a part of Huang Shan called 'Xi Hai' - the Western Sea - referring to the sea of clouds that people also come to see here. We had no hope of seeing those famed seas of cloud as the day was clear and sunny providing views all the way to the horizon. Cloud or no cloud, our 'hotel' (Y120 for a bed in a 6bed dorm! But apparently it has heating which the slightly cheaper, but still outrageously overpriced option lacks. Thank heavens for small favours.) was buried deep in the heart of the circuit at the summit. I assumed we had a quite climb ahead of us, but I had no idea how much climbing was involved.

Are We There Yet?

The halfway temple is not actually half way up the mountain. See the Huang Shan map.I knew this but it didn't bode well for the rest of the way as we were pretty sweaty by this time. Another series of steep steps later and the real halfway point was just about visible, perched high up on another peak. The summit was now in sight, but still a long way off. We could also see the path snaking its way first up, then along, then through the rock. The scene now opened up to reveal the stark beauty of Huang Shan with smooth, sand-coloured peaks reaching for the heavens. Flanking these peaks are boulders of the same rock. From every crevice sprang branches, some bare, some leafy-green. The trees that cling impossibly to the rocks bend and twist like bonsai so that it feels like I'm walking through a Chinese artificial scene - those in the big pots made with bonsai, rocks, moss and the odd porcelain fisherman.

The Welcoming Pine stop, the true halfway point of the ascent, appeared to be a steep climb away. Straight up a rock face. We took another detour at this point to follow the steepest path on Huang Shan leading to Celestial Peak. We met some Tibetan tourists (they can afford to come all this way?) on their way down. They were in full traditional dress which must weigh quite a bit, but what's the puny altitude of Huang Shan (at just over 2000m above sea level) to the headache-inducing heights of Tibet? They seemed to be having a good day as they toddled along smiling as they went. We had a sit down before heading up to Celestial Peak then took to the stairs. Steep and narrow was the way and when the stairs stopped we were faced with walking across a railed boulder, with glorious views DOWN on both sides of the railings... and I'm scared of heights. I wobbled my way across, twice. Only one way up and down. At the summit of this peak, we were treated to sweeping views to the horizon on one side and the reminder of the climb still to be done on the other side. We got snap happy and rested a little before descending. At the base of Celestial Peak, we sat down for a bowl of nutritious pot noodles. The vendor was shouting to the masses to

Replenish your energy and top up your vitamins with a bowl of delicious noodles!


Up the other side towards the Welcoming Pine, we climbed through huge crevices in the rock to emerge at tourist hell. The Welcoming Pine is actually a tree that looks like several other trees on Huang Shan, but has the distinction of being on all the advertising associated with this mountain. Hence every Chinese tourists' desperate need for a photo at this particular pine. We squeezed through the crowds and left the Pavilion area as quickly as possible. What a horrendous welcome!

More glorious scenery greeted us as we entered the main circuit paths of the mountain, but also more crowds. A tiny proportion of that famous 1.3 billion had turned out for the day, but even if only 1% were there, that's still 13million people. This mountain was never meant to hold that many bodies! At every opportunity, I queried staff about the location of 'Xihai' and was told 'over that way' each time. They make it sound like it's just over the next hill or pass, but that was not the case. Up, down, across, repeat endlessly. Yes, it was scenic, but my knees will hate me for eternity.

The little maps along the way do not show the entire Huang Shan circuit, only the next bit. So, bit by misleading bit, we finally caught a glimpse of a dam, a blue roofed building and a hole where the reservoir should be. Those were the signs we were waiting to see - the blue roofed building was our hostel. There's no relief like that of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel!

Is She Ill?

We finally found the hotel. Up in the dorm, there were 7 beds, not 6 and it was crowded. The room was cold too. Jessica went straight to bed, bundled into her duvet, which didn't do much against the cold. The heater didn't do much either, but hot water helped a little. When the other tourists arrived, the room was really full. They were all on a group tour and had joined from various different cities. All Chinese women who were puzzled at Jessica's state - they wondered if she was feeling ill. No, just exhausted.

The group of women who joined us were a noisy bunch, but they were rather nice. When Jessica woke up and was hungry, one lady offered her food as the shop was way overpriced. However, their noisiness was less than welcome when they slapped on the lights at 3 am and began buzzing their way around the room and out the door for the sunrise hike. We passed on that one. My legs would barely agree to climb down from the bunkbed. We put off our exit until later in the morning.

Step By Step

After a dull, but hot breakfast of pot noodles and milk tea (a new found treat of mine - Xiang Piao Piao milk tea with jelly cubes) we took to the stairs again. All the way down this time. I didn't bother to count the number of steps... I was too busy trying to keep my legs from buckling! Ow. The ache. The agony. But I had done it. I had ascended Huang Shan. The relatively leisurely descent allowed for a few photo stops (more famous scenes!) and people watching. Cheering the climbers and the porters - who carry all the stuff (building materials, drinks, food etc) up and down (rubbish) on wooden poles. Some bigger stuff has to be carried by a team of heave-ho ers! Why don't they just use the cable cars during the night? Would that make too much sense?

Limping to the finish line and the bus that would take us to the exit, I mentally ticked the 'Huang Shan' box in my head. Phew.


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