We were lucky. We got to see Huangshan’s magnificence despite her capricious nature. She was in a playful mood, generously eager to show off all her clothes. From grey dense fog and drizzle to the dawn’s mauve sea of clouds to clear blue skies and then ethereally misty puffy clouds that dropped us right in the middle of an ink painting. Huangshan is jaw-droppingly beautiful in all weather. She truly deserves all the accolades showered on her by poets and painters and travelers ancient and contemporary.
We left Hongcun early on the first bus out to the Huangshan Scenic Area. The most popular access point to the mountain was the town of Tangkou, a strip of neonlit restaurants, hotels and a bus hub to other Chinese cities and towns. We had booked a hotel room for the next night and they allowed us to store our luggage there. We just took a daypack with a change of clothes for our night up on the mountain. We also stocked up on instant noodles and bottled water since we knew that prices were likely to be high up on the mountain. Luckily since this was low season, we did not have to contend with crowds and long queues at the cable car to bring us to the top of the mountain.
It was overcast and we were riding the cable car into cloud and mist. I was dismayed at the soggy weather. The drizzle and the mist meant that visibility was poor. Only with the help of signposts did we manage to find our way to our hotel – the Huangshan Shilin Hotel. The hotel was on the pricey side but we chose it for its proximity to the location where the best views of the sunrise were. The room was tiny and the food was expensive but since it was foggy and rainy out, and each hotel up there basically had a captive audience with equally pricey food, it didn’t make sense to venture out looking for alternative restaurants and eateries. The mist gave the mountain a mysterious and slightly ghostly feel which thrilled me – a great place to unleash your imagination.
We got up at dawn the next day. 4.30am to be precise. The hotel supplied thick padded jackets for those who were game to catch the sunrise. Even at 5am, the sunrise viewpoints were all packed with the selfie stick brigade. The paths were packed with people and we were lucky to have come early enough to at least find a spot where we could see the sunrise without too many heads popping up to block the view. With so many people jostling to catch the best views, it was not the romantic contemplative moment sunrises are described to be. More market-like in atmosphere and volume, the place was more packed with Chinese tourists than foreigners, and with that came the pushing, shoving, shrill loud voices. Several were willing to risk life and limb by clambering over boulders or propped up by trees precariously near the edge.
Despite the chatter, there was a hushed silence as the sun made its appearance, followed by a collective sigh of ‘wow’ as the cameras clicked and selfie sticks waved excitedly.
Truly it was thrilling, so breath-taking to see the sun emerging over the sea of clouds. And instead of a placid soft seascape of white puffs, these clouds were rolling and churning and flowing over each other, creating a sense of movement more a tsunami than a calm sea.
After breakfast, we commenced our hike. By 8.30am, the skies had cleared and the weather transformed into clear blue skies and a pleasant breeze with low clouds drifting in and out of the landscape.
We followed a westward path from the hotel. Once past the ‘Cloud Dispelling Pavilion’ (you can see it in the upper left of the photograph), we followed the path down, past the first ring and the second ring all the way down to the monorail. The route circles the rim of the canyon and that’s where we saw the most breathtaking scenery. Stray clouds amid the shards and spindles of rock with the famous Huangshan pines that find their footing on the most impossible of outcrops and crevices. The clouds, the pines, the rocks all combine to show off Huangshan at its classical best.
The path led downwards to the valley. While they are made of stone and concrete, the balustrades are low, barely hip level and with the crowd sometimes sharing the narrow stairways with a two-way traffic flow, things can get a little scary – what more with the gorgeous scenery and numerous photo opps distracting me. Generally though, although it was crowded at some points, we never felt overwhelmed by the crowd. And on the stairs, everyone focused on just getting up or down, step by step. There was no hurrying or pushing.
The paths are linked by stone bridges, terraces and stairs. The thought of walking all that way was at first, quite daunting. But I was glad I did. To be honest, it did not feel hard – probably because the scenery was beautiful and I was just focusing on getting a good shot and then moving on to catch up.
Once at the bottom of the canyon, we queued briefly for the new monorail to whisk us back up to the plateau where we continued to walk all the way back to the Yungusi cable car station.
The porters never failed to amaze me. Many times along the route, we were passed by these strong men carrying very heavy loads – building materials like concrete, vegetables, rice, drinks, supplies, laundry, suitcases etc. On occasion, you could see them balancing someone on a sedan chair! They get my respect and admiration for making the journey so many kilometres uphill and downhill everyday bearing such loads.
We had started walking at 8.30am and by 4.30pm had arrived back at ground level at Tangkou in time for dinner. The next day we were in pain with every step we took, our knees and thigh muscles sore from the exertion and the tension of managing thousands of steps downhill. Despite the pain, I can safely say Huangshan was worth every painful step. I’ll leave you with a quick slide show of some classic Huangshan scenes.
Getting to Huangshan:
We took the first bus from Hongcun in the morning at 7.40am. The ride took about an hour and cost RMB15 per person. Once it arrived at the big bus station in Tangkou, we bought our tickets for the entrance fee to the park (RMB230 per person) and for the bus to bring us to the cablecar station. The ride to the cablecar station was not long, about 20min to half an hour. Once there, we bought tickets for the cablecar at RMB80 per person. Luckily there was no queue.
While Huangshan is doable in a single day, it’s better to pace yourself by spending the night up on the mountain. In this way, you hedge your bets a little in terms of the weather and you also get a chance to duel with the selfie sticks for the best sunrise viewing spots on the mountain.
Our hotel in Tangkou was a very good base. The Cheng Jin Hotel at Tangkou is inexpensive, comfortable, clean, with very friendly and helpful staff. Best of all, it’s near the big main bus station which houses the departure points for Huangshan cable car and the inter-city buses.