I climbed the mountain

A visit to Nanjing and Huangshan (Yellow Mountain).

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For a week after my fortnight of work in Nanjing, I planned to head south to pay a visit to the mountains that have inspired poets and painters for hundreds of years.


A sheer-sided island of granite peaks in an otherwise undulating rural landscape, Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), is one of the top 10 tourist destinations in China.  It is said of the peaks that “once you have climbed Huangshan you will never need to climb another mountain”, such is its beauty.  With names such as ‘Celestial Capital Peak’, ‘Jade Screen Temple’ and ‘A Thread of Sky’ and nearly 80 peaks around 1600 – 1800 metres high, there would be a lot of things to see and plenty of walking between them.
On the afternoon bus out of Nanjing, we streamed out onto the highway. I managed to switch off the fear-centre in my brain as the driver deftly overtook trucks that were already overtaking buses. I tried to relax (Ommmmm) as he dropped his wheels onto the opposite shoulder of the road in the face of an oncoming log truck which was already overtaking a tricyclist with a load of faggots. There were even a couple of occasions when other passengers went quiet during one such manoeuvre and someone let out a low whistle on cue with the honk of the oncoming truck as we pulled in just between vehicles. Toilet stops were at petrol stations. I’m still not used to the squat toilets. I was also surprised by the number of toll gates on the highways – I counted at least six.Night fell and I had no idea where I was or what to do when I got there – not from lack of planning but from darkness and poor phone communication. Mr Hu, the guy in Tangkou I had read about on the internet, had asked me to call him when I was 45 minutes away. I tried calling half a dozen times only to find out his number was permanently engaged. We hadn’t actually organised a meeting time or place and he was my only source of information and accommodation. One review of the 4 star hotel in Tangkou said it would be better to stay at home than stay at the hotel (!) so I was looking forward to sleeping in a reasonable bed at Mr Hu’s place.
Along the route, the bus stopped to let people off at small intersections, toll gates, roundabouts and side streets until only half the passengers remained. We finally came to a halt where everyone got off and I stepped down to hear: “Fred”. I guess I didn’t exactly blend in with my fellow travelers. I was the only non-Chinese on the bus carrying a big blue backpack, a camera bag and a dumb-cluck expression which shouted: “is this the end of the line?” I slipped the ever-ready phrase book back into my pocket and shook hands with the diminutive Mr. Hu . “Ni hao, ni hao” I said with some relief.
Back at Mr Hu’s place – a small shop-front restaurant in a hillside street with some small rooms hanging off it – I settled in, ordered some dinner, started a conversation with an English couple and ended the evening with a plan to share a driver to Xidi and Hongcun villages with them the next day. The night was cold, the heater didn’t work, the shower was tepid in the morning but other than that – hey what can you expect for ten bucks?

Sunday dawned damp with drizzle. I wanted to go up the mountain on the less busy weekdays so a day at the 11th Century villages would be atmospheric and relaxing and allow me time to book two nights’ accommodation on top. I HAD thought of camping on the hilltop but thought better of it – a good decision in retrospect. In retrospect, I also wished I knew the phrase for “please drive more slowly” when Mr. Hu’s namesake (a cousin?) took us to Hongcun. The road views were scenic and the English couple and I would all have liked to have stopped to take some photos. (Yes – we should have probably used international sign language but he obviously thought the destination was more important than the journey).
We spent the day at Hongcun and Xidi – UNESCO registered locations in 1999 along with Huangshan. Hongcun is a small farming village whose buildings and watercourses are in the shape of an ox when viewed from above. Apparently streams called the “ancient tap water project” flow through every household and it is where some of Ang Lee’s movie “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (Wo hu cang long) was shot in 2000. Xidi has preserved almost two hundred ancient folk houses which were built in the Ming and Qing Dynasties a thousand years ago. Thankfully the November weather was mild and damp rather than cold and wet so the day was spent wandering the streets taking pictures. Both these villages are a magnet for pen and ink drawing art students who sit patiently on their little camp stools, sketching while people gaze over their shoulders and make remarks. The ox and its owner still walk the pathways to the fields. The villagers still wash their clothes in the streams and play chequers in the lanes – their lives must be wholly interrupted in the full-blown tourist seasons.
Monday morning was “pack up and get ready for the uphill walk” time since I had elected to use the steps rather than the cable car to reach the tops – typical! So with my backpack, camera gear and pot noodles I negotiated to share a taxi with a couple of Chinese tourists from the bus station in Tangkou to the cable car station at the bottom of the Eastern Steps, paid the entrance fee (half price is 100 yuan on a student card) and started up the steps. I didn’t see the macaque monkeys or much of the bamboo forest but I did appreciate the extensive work that had gone into the creation of the pathway with its little rubbish bins, viewpoints, concrete handrails and seats along the way. I soon came across the porters carrying their sagging cantilevered loads up the steps, bamboo poles across their shoulders and with packages of up to 80 kilograms each. I respected their right of way and moved well to the side of the trail as they approached if I had stopped to take a picture. It is still surprising to think that transporting goods by manual labour is cheaper than taking the cable car.

The only other western looking person on the mountainside was also walking up the steps and naturally we got to talking. Dan is a man my age who was a missionary in Taiwan for two years for the Latter Day Saints. His Mandarin Chinese is impeccable and he can not only quote Chinese poetry but sing Chinese songs and play Chinese chequers. He had been travelling independently for five weeks and was on his last week before going home. Long story short, we hooked up for the next three days, shared the same shabby bunkrooms, watched the same sunrises, walked the same valleys and rocky outcrops, slept in the same breakfast room, shared food, stories, padlocks and jokes. The steps up were quite enticing. Up each flight there was a new corner or bend in the pathway. Around each bend there was a slightly different perspective on the views over the valleys, precipitous hillsides and rocky outcrops. Dan would chat with the porters and have a laugh and I was surprised to see that often they were not taken aback that a Westerner could speak their language so well. The day was a beautiful autumn day with a warm sun in the sky and a cooling chill in the air and we were soon at the top of the cable car line (the White Goose Peak) with little stress.
It was at this point I explained to Dan that the tradition amongst lovers is to bring a padlock with both yours and your loved one’s name on it up to the summit, attach it lovingly to one of the safety chains and lovingly throw away the keys. This indicates the permanency of the relationship. As it happened, I had bought a padlock in Nanjing but had since found a bigger solid colourful standout one in a local hardware store so the first I gave to Dan. I think his wife was suitably impressed at his romantic streak.
I had asked Mr. Hu to book my first night at the Beihai Hotel (north Hotel) which is only a short walk from the cable car terminus through pine trees, informative signposts (‘A deciduous dungarunga, which is epichorial in China… the fruits are sweet and editable and can be used as the material of brewery’) and pathways going in every direction. Approaching the Hotel, with the dramatic valley view behind the building, it seemed a five star location to stay in. Neither of us were expecting such a grand venue for the room rate I had paid – and we were right to be sceptical! Dan negotiated a similar rate and we were shown through the hotel, past the selection of shops, up the back steps, round by the karaoke room, through the swinging doors, past the laundry and out to the back bunkrooms. The windows were open and by now the air had become quite cold. Each room had bunk beds for about 20 people so we laid claim to a bed each before the other guests arrived. As I already knew, there were no showers and the hot water for our pot noodles came from a Thermos behind the counter. We sat at the back of the Beihai Hotel where the music was pumping in the karaoke room but no-one was there. Dan says the karaoke room manager was exercising the new speakers with very loud music so they would perform well next week at the 45th anniversary of the opening of the hotel. The manager and his two female staff danced in the light of the Madonna video. We spent the rest of the evening teaching the shop-assistants English pronunciations, learning humorous Chinese phrases and playing chequers in the lobby and only came back to the bunk room when they started to turn the lights off. We couldn’t find the bunkroom light switch so I pulled the neon tube out for the night.

A Huangshan sunrise is notoriously beautiful. We had scouted out a good vantage point the night before so we stood at the Dawn Pavilion watching the blades of light slash through the granite pinnacles through Beginning to Believe Peak and down the valley. Any viewpoint will be busy at sunrise and this small viewing area became quite crowded as people pushed to get to the front. The weather was not in the mood for creating a sea of cloud below the peaks but the morning was lovely anyway. Breakfast was a splurge on a buffet in the five star part of the hotel. I guess they are quite familiar with grotty laowai (‘round-eye’) Westerners taking five platefuls of food to the table nearest the spectacular view and coming back for more. Today we would need all our energy to get to the Xihai Hotel (which we discovered was only about 10 minutes away despite what the maps would have you believe) and then out to the Fairy Walking Bridge reached only by walking up and down trails a mountain goat would think twice about and a Empire State step-runner would dream about.
We walked on paths that were glued to the side of vertical mountains, through tunnels built by dwarves, down steps hewn from the granite, along paths under repair by men with metal rods, concrete and chisels, past viewpoints with sheer drops, up the middle of a gully between two peaks, between sheer rockfaces a couple of feet apart, past chains with more hundreds of padlocks on them and more informative signposts (‘Within the Xihai Canyon on the north side of the bridge are many wall-like ridge and box-shaped crests, as well as numerous grotesque rocks’), over tiny concrete bridges, holding onto a few kilometres of hand-carved and sculpted monkey-inspired handrails and eventually out to the bridge which spans the gap between two big granite pinnacles and floats over a steep gully. And back the same way. The light, the views and the trail was just as interesting coming back and we had been, once again, lucky with the weather. The cleaning staff in their green vests, the guards in their uniforms and the track-fixers must curse the walk to work in the morning. They were all dotted along the trail wherever we went.
For those who don’t like to walk any distance in mountainous areas, don’t come here. The only flat spots in the mountains are the floors of buildings, the occasional tunnel and the basketball courts at the hotels. But if you like distant views with layer upon layer of blue hills to the horizon, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, sheer granite cliffs with pine trees clinging to them, and feeling like you have seen the inspiration for generations of poets and painters then Huangshan is for you. There are 3 cable cars in different parts of the mountains. The Yungu “telpher” (the name Europeans give to cable cars) runs from the eastern base of the mountains (where the trail of steps starts) and rises to the White Goose station. The southern telpher runs from Mercy Light Temple to Jade Screen Hotel which then still requires quite some distance of steep steps to the Xihai and Beihai Hotels. The northern (Taiping) cable car takes much longer to access if you have come from the Tunxi or Tangkou direction, and starts near Emerald Pool short of the Songgu An monastery. The top stop is near the Paiyunlou Hotel.
The final day was as much of an epic trip as the others, descending into valleys, walking up more than 1000 steps to the granitic summit of the next peak and finally schmoozing down hundreds of steps and sweeping paths to the base of the mountain in the dark. Some parts of the trail were so narrow between rock faces and so steep down steps that I had to carry my pack in front of me and guess (!) where my feet were going next. Taxis at the bottom in the dark indicated that many people leave it late to get off the mountain.

But what a place. I’d love to go back and see it in winter! Maybe I will!