Earlier this month Matt and I left the city for a long weekend in Huángshān ( 黄山) – a mountainous area to the West of Shanghai. If you’ve never visited China I imagine you’re thinking ‘nope, never heard of it’. Well neither had we, but it boasts the #9 spot on the Lonely Planet list of 25 Top China Highlights – shortly after The Bund at #7 and ‘China Cuisine’ at #8 – so we figured it was worth taking a look…
From our carriage of the high speed bullet train we watched muddy brown fields, part-constructed and part-demolished houses, acres of wasteland and the odd lake or river blur by at 250km/h under a grey and gloomy sky.
Four and a half hours later we arrived at Huángshān Station and met up with our tour guide Ellen and driver Mr Zhang, who bundled us off for a quick bowl of broth in a local restaurant, which seemed to double up as the living space for three generations of one family – grandmother was wrapped in a blanket in the corner and young children were playing with mum and dad at the large, round tables, all wearing heavy down jackets in lieu of any central heating system.
12 months ago I might have raised an eyebrow to Matt to say ‘really?, here?!’, but one thing our China travels have taught us is not to judge a book by the cover, as the most delicious food can magically appear in minutes from the most basic looking of places. Even if you can’t always take your coat off!
As we planned to spend the night at one of the mountain-top hotels, Ellen politely advised us to pack our rucksacks with essentials only and leave our excess luggage at the restaurant (Fast-forward a few hours and we would find out why!). The cable car was a short walk from the restaurant, so after lunch we said goodbye to My Zhang and set off on foot.
Creeping up the mountain we got our first glimpse of the infamous granite peaks which are the subject of many a traditional Chinese ink painting and attract millions of visitors each year from across mainland China. The entire landscape was covered in a layer of white following a heavy snowfall the previous day and the sky was clear and blue – a sight for sore eyes. Figuratively and literally. Sometimes Shanghai smog can actually make your eyes sore!
My dad is a climber and mountaineer, so we spent plenty an alpine holiday where our route to the top by cable car was the most appropriate (or only) mode of transport. I’ve grown used to them, though am always a bit unsettled when being dangled from a creaky metal rope in a creaky metal box. It’s a good job the scenery was so distracting!
At the summit we were met with the most spectacular view of the legendary Huángshān pine trees covered in snow. I managed to snap all of two photos before my the batteries in my camera and phone refused to cooperate under such arctic conditions and went to sleep – it really was very cold (brrrrr).
It didn’t take long for us to start appreciating Ellen’s insistence that we leave our suitcases behind… even with crampons strapped to our walking boots, maintaining balance on the ice-covered stone steps was a challenge and we had a two hour hike ahead of us before we reached our hotel!
We were booked to stay in the XiHai Hotel, which is one of a handful perched on the top of the mountain. Inaccessible by road, they rely on local porters to bring supplies and clean laundry on foot; an incredible feat. With a heavy cargo tied to each end of a bamboo pole balanced on their shoulders, and wearing plimsoles on their feet, the porters slowly and surely pick their way up and down the same stone steps that I’d struggled to navigate carrying a small rucksack. Every few meters they will take a short rest, propping the pole onto a second, vertical bamboo stick which is made to measure, ensuring they never need to put the load down on the floor. I’m pretty sure this would be illegal in the UK – but it does put the Chinese emphasis on formal education into some sort of perspective; if jobs like this are the alternative.
Now, scroll back up to that picture of the hotel, then remember that the hotels have no access by road. The only way to transport items up the mountain is by cable car and by foot. Then consider – ‘How did the hotel get there then?’
We asked this of our guide, apparently they were built by hand, with all the materials brought up manually over a period of several years. The Xihai was a very passable 4* hotel, complete with large sculptures and marble floors. They definitely hadn’t cut corners by building it out of polystyrene bricks and balsa wood! A remarkable feat.
If you stay overnight on the mountain it’s tradition to get up before the crack of dawn and trek to one of the Eastern peaks to watch the North Sea (北海) sunrise, so on 10th February at 5.30am Matt and I donned the down-filled, tangerine coloured overcoats hanging in the wardrobe for this exact purpose, strapped our crampons to our boots and set off into the darkness at a brisk pace.
Ellen had recommended ‘Beginning-to-Believe Peak’ (1683m) for a great view of the sunrise at this time of year so we attempted to make our way there using the intermittent signposts but as with all the best laid plans… we ended up somewhere else altogether. We stopped (breathless and feeling a bit sick after climbing hundreds of steps before breakfast), at a spot where a keen bunch of phototographers (some sporting tangerine coats) had already set up their professional-looking kit.
The sky got gradually lighter and then we heard a cheer from a few of our fellow early-risers who had climbed a few feet higher than where we were stood; moments later the sun rose in the distance followed by more cheers! Someone had brought a radio and started playing chinese music, as people shuffled from one spot to another trying to get a good view and trying to keep warm.
It’s funny that the serene-looking photos below (snapped quickly before returning my icy hands to the warmth of my pockets) belie the hustle and bustle of Chinese tourists all wanting to capture the same shot; and for all the anticipation of watching the sunrise you can’t really look directly at the sun! – but even so it was an exceptional experience.
Moreover, it was exactly 5 years to the day since Matt and I had bonded over a love of whisky in Vodka Revs, Liverpool, so while everyone else had their camera’s pointed at the sun we turned ours rounds and took a 5th anniversary selfie!
Later than morning we met with Ellen for a tour the Beihai scenic area, which included Writing Brush Peak, Lion Peak, Refreshing Terrace, and Begin-to-Believe Peak and West Sea Canyon. Red lanterns hung from the trees, in celebration of the 15th day of the first Chinese Lunar month which traditionally ends the Chinese New Year period.
The area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990 and at any point in time a number of the peaks will be closed to tourists to encourage preservation.
Huángshān translates literally as Yellow (黄 Huáng) Mountain (山 shān), a name given to the mountain by imperial decree in 747AD in honor of Huang Di – the Yellow Emperor and mythical ancestor of the Han Chinese – who is said to have spent time alone on top of the mountain where he ascended to heaven and became a supernatural being.
When Matt and I mentioned to our colleagues that we planned to visit Huangshan in early February, many of them advised us against it and said that the best time to visit would be autumn when the weather would be kinder, but I’m so glad we didn’t listen! I think we were incredibly lucky to see the mountain covered in snow – it was an absolute winter wonderland and my photos don’t even begin to do it justice.
Later that afternoon we headed back down to Huangshan Town, to explore Tunxi Old Street and visit Changkan Village. Blog update coming soon!