Huangshan: Climbing steeply, mountain torment

The Huangshan mountains are the kind of mountains you imagine when thinking about China: craggy, covered in pines growing at odd angles out of the rock, shrouded in mist and peppered with bamboo on the lower slopes. To get there we stayed in the nearby town of Tunxi which has one old street where the tourists and hawkers gather to exchange money for goods. Near the old gate a Chinese orchestra was playing, which to my ears sounded pretty average, but perhaps it’s an acquired taste. It could be that with so much other great art to focus on music got left behind, sort of like cooking has in Cuba. Still, the old folk in the orchestra looked like they were enjoying themselves.

At the hotel in Tunxi we tried testing the great firewall of China. I typed in Tiannamen Square and got the wikipedia page. Egged on by Sarah I typed in Free Tibet and Google returned results, but then everything went weird and a screen came up asking for our room number and password. Now maybe this was just the standard hotel website login form kicking in, or maybe it was something more sinister. We never got to the bottom of it, preferring to creep ourselves out with the idea that we were being monitored and actively blocked.

We ate at an absurdly popular restaurant, quite a big two-storey place with a golden carp filled pool separating the food eating area from the food selecting area. The ordering system was so convoluted it’s amazing we got anywhere in this place. We were handed a sheet of paper and pencil on entry and directed to a large area in front of the kitchen where samples of all their dishes were laid out for selection, the idea being that you wander around and mark on your paper what you would like to order. Sarah did this, presuming that she was putting it all in the correct columns under the Mandarin headings. It was elbows out time as we bustled around the old ladies. It was definitely not the most serene ordering process and we were ruffled by the time we sat down in the waiting area for a table to become free. We had been assigned a number in Chinese but had no idea what this would sound like when the maitre de announced it. Sarah asked the people around us how the number was pronounced but it sounded like a different answer each time. As there was only one other foreigner in the place we were pretty sure the staff would figure it out and sure enough we were seated and enjoyed great food at the usual cheap price.

We got a bus out to Huangshan and walked up from the entrance. When I say walked up, I’m talking about the concrete stairs which cover the mountain completely, including going right up to the high peaks.  It is ludicrously steep.

What they call Huangshan mountain is actually a series of peaks that you spend all day climbing up and down through the thick forest, thankfully cooler in the altitude than lower down. This was not a good day for me to start coming down with the flu. Someone described Huangshan as like being on a stairmaster all day that you get off every 20 minutes and say “Wow…look at that view!”. The views are incredible.

As we struggled uphill the crowds increased when we got to the dumping point for the chair lift. Our smug feeling at having walked up wore off fast as we elbowed our way through the crowds once again. It got to the point where we were caught in a people jam as we waited for the crowds to squeeze through a narrow uphill section.

When at last we made it to the hotel after what felt like to me the hardest days walking of the year, our pain wasn’t quite over. There are no roads to the upper levels of Huangshan so everything has to be carried up by porters with calf muscles as big as melons. This inflates prices so that an ordinary hotel room costs $300. We sucked it up and had booked a bed in the much cheaper dorm rooms instead. Dorm rooms are never pleasant and despite a promising start with quite tidy rooms, the beds turned out to be a fraction too short and had mattresses that were harder than wood. Sarah and I were split up into different rooms because of our gender. I lucked out with just one other room mate and Sarah was looking to be in a similarly lucky position, but after we ate dinner and came back to the rooms Sarah found a family camped in hers who proceeded to watch TV at full volume while they ate their noodles. The male members of the family came and left frequently, often ringing the very loud doorbell which I could even hear in my room through ear plugs, and without fail slamming the door as hard as humanly possible. Then there was the yelling in the corridor which was piercing. I don’t know if these people were the Chinese equivalent of yokels but they seemed to have no comprehension that other people might be trying to sleep. They even reached over Sarah while she was in bed to charge their electronic devices. This all might have been bearable if Sarah wasn’t planning to get up at 4.30am to look at the sunrise, a famous activity in mountainous regions of Asia. I had already subjected myself to this in Taiwan some years ago and was busy looking after a fever, so I just had a fitful sleep until 4.30 rolled around and all the local tourists started yelling at each other in the corridors again and banging doors.

While Sarah went to take photos of the completely fogged in scenery, which was beautiful in a different way, I lay in bed mentally preparing myself to walk down the mountain at least as far as the closest cable car station a few hours away. Thankfully the fever broke long enough for me to have some instant noodles and the booty Sarah stole from the buffet breakfast. It was atmospheric walking through the mist but we were thankful we had experienced such a clear day yesterday to capture the scenery. I struggled down to the cable car which was a spectacular ride to the bottom of the mountain, then we got the bus back to Tunxi and a bicycle rickshaw back to the hostel where I collapsed for the next few days, very capably and kindly looked after by nurse Low. The receptionist at the hotel was apparently very keen for me to visit the hospital and get some salt water injected into my veins. I passed on that offer, preferring to lie very still and sweat a lot.

Nurse Low took a day off one day to take a short trip to Hongcan, a lovely little village full of artists painting pictures of it. Nearby is the bamboo forest where they filmed the famous scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sarah didn’t do martial arts at the top of bamboo but she did ride on the flying fox through the forest, while it was raining. And she was the only customer. That’s just the kind of girl she is. For some reason at the bottom of the flying fox there is a haunted house, which of course Sarah had to subject herself to as well. After all that she found herself in a car park in the middle of nowhere with no obvious way to get home, but the ladies at the ticket booth organised some kind of unoffical taxi which got her home, bless them.

My boring illness eased a little and we got a bus to Hangzhou where the famous West Lake resides. I planted myself at the restaurant of a hostel for the afternoon and tried to hang in there while Sarah rode a bike around the lake, which from the photos looks quite nice.

When it came time to leave we once again found ourselves standing in the rain on the corner of the street trying in vain to hail a taxi to take us to the train station. The one taxi that pulled over indicated that we should get a bicycle rickshaw, so short was the distance. Eventually we paid over the odds once again for an amateur taxi ride to the station and another walk through the rain to get inside. It’s lucky we were heading home because travelling had officially become a pain in the ass. Once back in Shanghai we bought some Chinese sweets to share with family and friends (which it turns out were very odd) and got on the plane to Sinapore to meet my sister and family who were stopping over on their way to France for a holiday.

1 comment to Huangshan: Climbing steeply, mountain torment

  • richard

    I too spent ages standing in the rain in Hangzhou trying to hail one of the many empty cabs. I think they don’t like getting their back seats wet.

    China has a good expression that’s well illustrated by your pics: 人山人海。It means “People mountain, people sea”. Looks like you experienced it…

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>