Heading to Huangshan

With a 12-day consecutive stint of work finished for the NPC, CPPCC sessions, I found myself with a welcome week holiday. You don’t come this far across the world to while away the time in a Beijing high-rise apartment. Having said that, I’ve spent my share of leisurely days perched on the sofa watching pirate DVDs in underwear with cheap, cold Tsingtao beers.

Anyway, I set myself a mission: East China. I had no idea where I wanted to go other than to start at Anhui Province’s fabled Huangshan (黄山), translated as yellow mountain. After that, I had no idea how I would get back via whatever route to Beijing.

I enjoy traveling solo. Certainly, there are times when you’re atop a mountain summit watching the sun set or sitting down eating local chow when you wish you had your better half or a mate, but there’s an unbridaled freedom that comes with buying a train ticket and not knowing where you will sleep or who you will meet when it’s time to get off.

About 11am I set off from Beijing South Station bound for Tunxi, the nearest station to Huangshan. The next 20-odd hours were spent on a hard sleeper in a berth of six bunks. China train travel is glorious, not merely because of the fact that there is so much to pass through in such a vast country. Cities populated in the millions warrant a mere dot on the map, but in each of these cities are farmers, school children, families, and a rich myriad of people making up China’s diverse demographics. In Australia, you can drive hundreds of kilometers without so much as seeing a soul. If you’re lucky on a roadtrip outback, you might spot a mob of kangaroos or the odd lone semitrailer on an otherwise desolate highway.

The China train food pyramid can be broken into four groups. Resting at the top is instant noodles. Most trains have a reliable fountain of boiling water situated in carriages, allowing for a bland if not reliable meal. Next in the pyramid are vegetables. It’s not uncommon to see people chomping into tomatoes like apples, or women gnawing into cucumbers. The latter is especially practical, given the high content of water. Sliding down comes animal parts, most notably chicken feet. The girl aside from my bunk pulled out a giant chicken foot from her rucksack about two hours’ into the trip. This was a sight. The foot itself was huge. It must have earlier belonged to a fowl standing at least three feet high. Finally, the last staple are sunflower seeds better known as guazi (瓜子儿 in the Beijing dialect). I had a solid Tupperware full dutifully prepared by the girlfriend beforehand to keep me tied over for the trip.

The train pulled into Tunxi in the early morning hours after the day it left Beijing. I boarded a bus bound to Huangshan from the station (about an hour and a half). It was a weekday, but nevertheless people still packed on the bus bound for the sacred mountain.

The town we arrived at was Tangkou. It was unremarkable, save for being the base town of the mountain. It was here I met a diminutive, yet remarkable man. He was Mr. Hu. I read about him in the Lonely Planet book. He had a common stature among south Chinese people; short, tanned with big round chestnut eyes. But uncommonly, he spoke near-perfect English. He and his wife ran a restaurant-inn in Tangkou and he had quite the international reputation.

I got in the car with him and two other tourists, namely Nicolas from France and his Japanese girlfriend Sachiko. Both were charming, friendly people and we would later climb Huangshan together. Mr. Hu handed me a weathered exercise book filled page-to-page with testimonials in a dozen different languages showering him in praise as an honest, friendly person to know in Tangkou. It was a well-deserved reputation.

LOCK IT IN: Padlocks engraved with lovers' names.

Nicolas, Sachiko and myself leisurely set off to conquer Huangshan just after lunch. It was a gruelling, though stunningly beautiful climb. Jutting granite peaks struck out at impressive angles. Cherry blossoms bloomed against a backdrop of waterfalls and turquoise-blue lakes. Bridges crossing the mountain’s streams were brandished with padlocks, each inscribed with lovers’ names to represent their unity.

STEEP STAIRS: It's a long way to the summit.

The climb itself was 7.5 kilometers. We ascended via the east. It was steep going the entire way to the summit, but what countless and breathtaking views. The air was clean and crisp. Squirrels darted through the scrub on the sound of a crunched leaf. Bird calls echoed in the vast, rural skyline only interrupted by the “huh-hoh-huh-hoh” of rhythmic shanties chanted by porters laden with shoulder poles carrying up everything from gas bottles to fresh laundry to the summit’s hotels.

Along the way we met some a group of young Shanghairen. They all worked together and were on a company trip. Chinese descending the mountain would pass with murmurs of laowai (老外) or “foreigner”, but more memorable was the old man who greeted me with wai guo peng you(外国朋友) or “foreign friend”.

About three hours into the climb the temperature dropped sharply. Snow and ice caked the worn granite stairs, making for tricky navigating. But the view from White Goose Peak (白鹅峰) was well worth the ache to the knees and calves.

At the summit, I checked into the cheapest accommodation I could find. I met some Chinese backpackers who had space in a tent and we camped out on a basketball court that looked strangely out of place, but made for a scenic game of hoops. The night was cold, but it was better than paying exorbitant rates at shonky hotels whose claim to fame was, surprisingly, billeting the likes of China’s former leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.

PEAK VIEW: On the summit.

Just shy of 6:00am I was out of bed and made the brisk walk to “Beginning to Believe Point”. Despite it’s cheesy name, it was nothing short of stunning. It provided a better understanding of why the mountain was such a hub for inspiration to poets and artists centuries before the surge of tourism post-1990s.

SHOULDERING THE LOAD: Porters have a tough gig.

Needless to say, the climb down was much easier.

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