Not all famous places are worth the hype. The Terracotta Warriors? Kinda lame in person. The Great Wall? S’okay if you can find a quiet day. Hong Kong’s Star Ferry? Made me seasick.
But there is one place that is more amazing and more majestic then anywhere I’ve ever been in China. Coincidentally it is one of the most famous tourists attractions in China: The fabled Yellow Mountain–called Huang Shan in Chinese. (The following pictures were all taken by me with my iphone.)
It is the grandaddy of all famous mountains and it’s history in China is long and vast. Even its name is steeped in Chinese myth and history. It was named after Huang Di, a mythical, legendary Emperor said to be the father of the Han Chinese. He created pills of immortality on the mountain and ascended to heaven from the peaks.
And I fucking believe it. I can believe anything that has ever happened there because of what it felt like. I’ve been to a lot of places, a lot of mountains in the world, and I will tell you there is something there that no other mountain has. I can’t explain to you what it is exactly, a feeling, a power, a presence that is deep, and strong. I get why, more than any other mountain, Huang Shan has attracted monks, poets, hermits and others to its steep slopes. I get why it has been a place of meditation, of poetic inspiration as well as artistic for thousands of years. It’s natural beauty alone could account for the millions of tourists that flock to it’s peaks every year, but there is more than just beauty to look at. There are things to listen to, whispers from the mountain, there are things to feel. There are thoughts to have, inspiration to be gathered.
And I was “lucky” as southern China was going through a record-breaking deep freeze. The top of Huang Shan was -22C (-7.6F). This is a mountain in southern China. Sure, it’s high, with an elevation of 1,800 meters (6,100 feet) but it’s located in a warmer climate. January temps are usually around freezing, not much below.
But it was minus 22 degrees with a major snowfall which happened the day before I arrived at the base of the mountain. It might sound like a miserable time to climb, and at first, I agreed. You cannot go to the bottom of the mountain directly, but you need to take a shuttle bus to the entrance. The line for the shuttle bus was packed, not because there was a lot of people, but rather because there were no buses. Their engines had frozen and they were trying to start them by pouring boiling hot water over the casing.
The snow also made it a bit hazardous to hike. They have workers that live on the mountain year round to maintain it, but there was feet of snow and miles of trails to clear. The steps were shoveled, but not clear. Each stone step (some built 1,500 years ago) had a little mound of snow on it and without crampons it would be near impossible to walk. Even with crampons there were some very dangerous parts. I slipped once, but luckily I was walking up steps, not down, so I just fell forward instead of falling off a cliff.
So I was a crazy time to go. But you know what? I feel so lucky to get there at that time. It doesn’t snow like this that often, and with very minimal crowds and cold conditions, the mountain felt totally empty. And with clear blue skies, sunshine and snow that wouldn’t melt, I got to see a side of the mountain few do.
With temperatures so cold, stopping and resting wasn’t much of an option. In fact, climbing the mountain was a bit of relief as it was strenuous and tiring and warmed me up. Nothing could help my hands, which I kept balled up in my gloves, but with every step up, I could stay warm enough that the cold didn’t bother me. Until, that is, my eyes became blurry and I realized it was because my eyelashes had frozen.
But it was worth it. The peace, the quiet, the beauty of the mountain, the frozen landscapes in all directions. It was worth it.
I spent the night at the top of the mountain, to be able to watch the sunrise the next day, and wasn’t expecting much. Hotels at the top of mountains are usually dirty, damp, squalid places that basically provide an overpriced bed with overpriced food. So I was very surprised to find that the hotel I booked was gorgeous, with fresh, warm rooms and overpriced, but delicious food.
The next morning I woke in the dark to watch the sunrise. There are some famous spots to go to watch the sunrise but I didn’t want to go. Sunrises are meant to be quiet times, and I selfishly didn’t want to share it with anyone.
I ate some bread I had brought with me (to avoid the $30 breakfast), handed in my room key, and I was back hiking before 7am.
I hiked the western steps that day, but before I could go down, there was a lot more up I had to get to. And it was a lot more beauty as well. Because it was so early the sun hadn’t hit most of the mountain yet. The whole place was in stark contrasting colors, some places bright and yellow from the sun, while others stay shrouded in the blue and white shade colors.
And everyone was so happy. I didn’t come across many people in the first few hours and it was too early for the day hikers to have arrived, so we all had a sense of camaraderie. We had all survived the numbing cold, we had spent the night, we had awoken before sunrise, and we were all loving the quiet and the hush. Everyone I passed gave a big cheery smile and said hello. No one was grumpy, or loud or rude, and besides from constant spitting, no one was being disrespectful. I walked along mostly in a hushed silence listening to the waking birds.
In fact the only people I saw with regularity was the porters. They were quietly climbing and I would slowly overtake them, though I admit I took about as many breaks as they did hiking up and I wasn’t carrying a hundred pounds of stuff. Those guys are fit!
Normally these guys carry everything up the mountain. Sheets, beds, jars of hot sauce, garbage bags. But because of the snow, and the lack of people, the through trails were closed and the gondola was used to bring up halfway up. Then the job of getting the goods to the hotel was left to the porters.
Because I had arrived so early my first day I actually saw the sellers bargaining and packaging the stuff at the bottom of the hill. It was like a makeshift market with scales coming out, and bill of sales being signed.
It’s a strange economy which requires pretty torturous, physical exertion for I’m guessing, a small salary. The hotels are located 2-7km away from the gondola, much less the entire height of the mountain and there is no way any other mode of delivery would work. There are no ramps, no way to pull the stuff around, just hundreds and thousand of stairs. It’s no wonder that a small bowl of soup which usually cost $1 cost $8 on top of the mountain. Also, they have to deal with all the tourists taking pictures of them, talking to them, getting in their way, even asking directions. (As a foreigner in China, I feel ya guys.) Major respect to them.
Anyway, words cannot describe how amazing it was, nor can the pictures do the beauty of the place justice. Huang Shan is known for it’s “cloud sea” which sadly I didn’t get to see (usually the clouds settle below the peaks so from the top you can look out and not see the ground, but just clouds in every direction for miles). It’s so convenient from Xiamen to go there, and someday I might again. But I can’t imagine I would get a better day then the days I went. I would hate to spoil the memory, or expect for and look forward to the quiet peacefulness and go on a day when there are millions of people running around, yelling, throwing garbage and spoiling the peace.
But regardless of the crowds or the timing, I urge anyone who has never been to go. Just go! It is not underrated at all. In fact, despite it being a top tourist destination, I don’t think it’s appreciated enough.