uangshan: Yellow Mtn


September 14-18, 2000

Chinese flag

Getting Settled at Yellow Mountain

It was after five o’clock when the bus finally started to let off its passengers in Tangkou, the lowest of the developed areas on Huangshan. When we asked if we should get off, one of the driver’s assistants (or bosses, it was never quite clear what their role was) said something about driving us to our hotel. When everyone else got off the bus, it seemed that they wanted to take us to the hotel of their choice not ours. When we told them we had a reservation already, they motioned to us to get off the bus. Gerry, however, remembered that we had been told that we would be dropped off at the long distance bus station near the main gate of the resort, further up the mountain. He explained this to them and when we showed no inclination to get off the bus, they did indeed drive us the kilometer and half or so to the bus station.

At the bus station it took us a while to get a taxi to the hotel, another four kilometers up hill in the Hot Springs area, because the drivers were all asking what seemed a very high price. Eventually one driver decided to take us at our price and within ten minutes or more, we were in the hotel. The place had obviously had better days but the price was right at Y240. The room was small, had no refrigerator and a bathroom that looked a bit the worse for wear. On the positive side, we had green pine trees out of the window, comfortable beds, and plenty of hot water. 

As soon as we had unpacked, we went out for a walk to explore the immediate surroundings of the hotel. We walked up the road towards the east-route cable car for ten minutes until we arrived at what was marked on the map as a waterfall. After much searching we did eventually find a trickle of water running down a huge rock wall. In the wet season, it must be impressive. Other proof of the dry season could be found in the stream that runs through the hot springs area where we were staying. The canyon the stream is in is very deep and rocky and can obviously contain quite a torrent. We wished that we could be around to see it in full flood.

As darkness fell, we walked back to our hotel via some flights of steps we found rather than follow the road. Little did Jan know that such steps were to almost prove her undoing. Back at the hotel, we had a light meal in the hotel restaurant before retiring for the night.

Going Up and Down the Mountain

The next morning we woke up at 7 and managed to have breakfast and leave the room before 8. We easily found a taxi not far from the hotel and rode up to the cable car, feeling a tiny bit guilty that we did not wait for the other taxi driver who would be coming to look for us at 9. At the cable car unfortunately we were confronted by several buses which had recently disgorged their tour groups. After some confusion over buying tickets — you have to buy two — one for entrance to the mountain park, which costs Y80 and one for the cable car, which costs Y50 — we finally got into the line for the cable car and realized that the wait would be at least an hour. For a brief moment, Gerry considered walking up instead of waiting, but wisdom prevailed and we dug out the last remnants of our HK newspapers to keep us occupied while waiting.

We did eventually get to the head of the line and were crammed into a gondola with about 38 other tourists for a quite breathtaking ride to the summit area. Jan says

I must admit to several moments of utter terror when I contemplated the drop beneath and the relative fragility of the cable that carried us. I also noted with some concern the signs of poor maintenance that were evident even on this very high-tech equipment.

Maintenance does seem to be something that the Chinese have not yet mastered. Many are the hotels that we have stayed in that we felt could have been immeasurably improved with just a lick of paint.

When we emerged from the cable car, the mountain was shrouded in mist. It was close to ten o’clock and almost everybody we saw was wearing ponchos, although we weren’t sure whether they were for protection against the rain or the wind, because it did not seem to be raining. We had come prepared for cold and even wet weather and so immediately pulled out our sweaters and raincoats and bundled up. Signposts were a bit hard to find, but because Gerry had been here not so long ago, he remembered enough to get us around with almost no problems.

Jan was a bit perturbed at first to find that we were walking downhill. But as she would see later, the pattern of the morning was lots of ups and downs as we tried to see as many of the famous points of view as possible. When we arrived at our first vantage point, we were still enveloped in a cloud and there was virtually nothing to be seen except a white fog. We both were feeling quite disconsolate, Jan for her bad luck, and Gerry at not being able to show Jan the beautiful views he had seen. Jan wanted to walk on, but Gerry counseled patience for a couple of minutes and lo and behold, as if by magic, the fog started to thin and shapes started to come into focus. In another 30 seconds, the cloud lifted even more and we could make out nearby peaks and then even all the way down to the valley floor. Thankfully, that was almost the last we saw of the fog. The sky was never completely cloud-free, but it was mostly blue and the chill wind became more of a cooling breeze.

And from first to last, the views were spectacular. Views were not unobstructed like on Taishan, but rather at every turn was another magnificent vista of sheer peaks and heart-stoppingly deep canyons. We climbed out onto most of the viewing platforms, but in one or two cases, we both stayed far back from the edge compared to the other tourists because we found it too precarious. Jan now understood what Gerry had said and described after his visit: She had admired his photographs and he said they didn’t reveal a quarter of what was there; the photos can’t give you the feeling of depth, of misty fading away, and of awe and fear of falling over the sheer drop from which you take the photo.

Around 12:30, Gerry started to try and hurry up our progress as he began to be concerned that we would not have time to walk down. His fears seemed exaggeraed to Jan, but he assured her that they had a long way to go before they could even start the downward trail. Soon after we came to one of the few maps and the only one we found with any distances marked. There we learned that we had about 4.5 km (9 Chinese li) to go to get to what would be our highest point, Bright Cloud Peak. Our route would take us via the famous “Rock that Flew from Afar” (Fei Lai Si) which would cost us a couple of ups and downs. But Jan felt very strong and off we went. After many more puffs than either of us expected we were there. It is quite an impressive view, with even more sheer drops than we had yet seen that morning. Jan was very impressed by the view from Fei Lai Si and amused to learn that it played a role in the TV series of Dream of Red Mansions.

From there to Bright Cloud Peak, our highest point, was relatively easy. But by the time we got to there it was after 1:30, meaning our schedule was still tight, according to Gerry. The wind on top made it feel a little chilly so having stripped off her warm clothes while struggling up, Jan put on her fleece again. Here we stopped for a last bite of fruit and chocolate before starting down. At least that was what Jan expected. First Gerry pointed out a pass across the valley and explained that while we would go down, we would also have to come up again to get over that pass, which though high was visibly below Bright Cloud Peak. That was not too discouraging, so off we went and conquered the pass.

As we came over the pass, Jan noticed a long, long staircase on the opposite side of the valley we were now in and said, jokingly, “We don’t have to climb that do we?”, only to be told yes, we do. In December when Gerry first saw it he was alone and said to himself that he could never go through with it; the path was too sheer. But he did, having little alternative but to go miles around some other unknown way. It is so hard to describe for you the path that you have to follow to come down off this mountain. Almost every bit of the trail is steps and you can often see the steps as they wind down a sheer cliff face, around a point, and then up an equally sheer cliff face on the other side. Our immediate goal, according to Gerry, was the upper cable car station, which we would have to reach by four o’clock if we were to have a chance of getting down by dark. And to get to the cable car we had to once again drop into a valley only to climb out of it almost immediately. Each time, of course, we lost a little height, but nothing like the amount we were climbing.

At this point,we came to Gerry’s favorite spot on the trail. The trail split and we followed the right fork that took us down into quite a steep gulley. Down and down it went as if was heading into the bowels of the earth. But when it emerged we were perched on yet another cliff face but in view of our goal the cable car. It was getting very close to four o’clock by now and the climbing up was taking its toll particularly on Jan’s general stamina. Still, she comforted herself with the thought (erroneous of course) that once the cable car passed the worst was over.

We reached the cable car valley, but did not take the steps down to the station, instead we climbed up again to get over another ridge near Lotus Peak and attack the final descent. At last, thought Jan, the end of all this messing about. Well yes, but what followed was what turned out to be one long, endless, unforgiving, relentless staircase that went down, down, down and down. In the upper reaches, Jan was always in front as Gerry, always nervous about heights, took extra care on these steep stairs with no rail and always with a sheer drop on one side if not two. One of his problems was that his boots were to big for the narrow steps; a misplaced boot meant that the heel would get caught as the boot was raised and balance would be lost. This happened numerous times and lead to slow-but-steady behavior by Gerry.

But as time went on and four o’clock became five, we finally left the sheer cliffs behind and dropped into the forest. At this point, Gerry became more confident and Jan started to feel her legs turn to jelly. Her main hope at this point was that eventually the steepness of the terrain would ease some and with it the relentlessness of this staircase would be broken by the odd flat spot. It was not to be. Five o’clock became five thirty and still no end in sight. At this point Jan started to get worried. Her muscles had less and less responsiveness making it hard sometimes to keep her balance. Again, if you have not experienced it, you can’t understand what it means to put your foot forward on a downward step and only hope and pray that as you transfer your weight to it that ankle or calf won’t give way and send you tumbling a long way.

Now, instead of being in front she started lagging behind. Finally she told Gerry she was really worried about not getting down as she was afraid her muscles would just collapse under her soon. At that, Gerry offered to carry her day pack but assured her that he was very confident that they would make it down. Looking down into the valley, still so remote, Jan found it hard to believe him. But relieved of the weight of her pack she found it a little easier for a while and so struggled on. Down and down, step by difficult step.

Since leaving the cable car station behind we had been passed by lots of groups of workers from the mountain running down the steps with no apparent effort. They invariably asked if we needed help carrying our packs. We always said no, of course, but Jan started to worry that maybe she would have to be carried as five thirty passed.

Then suddenly, we heard noises and around a corner came across the first building we had seen for quite a while. There Jan was given the chance to be carried in a sedan chair by one of the many porters on the mountain. Pride made us refuse (cost too,but it really is reasonable in absolute terms and also given the burden they bear). But the porters also had information — they told us that it was five li to the exit, or 2.5 km. Just knowing that the distance was finite, gave Jan a bit more impetus and enabled her, perhaps foolishly, to refuse the offer of the sedan chair and struggle gamely on.

By now she was craving rests every five minutes or so to rest those weary muscles. But every time she stopped, it seemed harder to get going again. What to do?

As six o’clock approached and daylight in the forest was fading away, we were taking one more rest on a bench when we were passed by the only group of tourists to do so. They were four Chinese men in their thirties who seemed, to Jan’s disappointment, to ignore her friendly “Ni hao?”. Muttering about their lack of courtesy, she got up from the bench and struggled on. Five or so minutes later, she saw the men ahead walk up some steps and disappear around a corner. “Oh no!”,she groaned. “After all this, I don’t think I can take having to climb up any more.” Gerry encouraged her gently as she shuffled (she was past walking) along to where the climb began. And there she saw the magic Chinese character “Chu” that meant Exit. We had reached the exit from the mountain park and presumably the site of some kind of transportation. And there she was pleased to note that the ‘discourteous’ tourists announced with seeming kindness the news that we had arrived: “Dao La!” It was 6:15 pm.

The Final Challenge

Well, not quite. From the exit, we had to walk down fifty or so more steps to reach the side wall of a temple and then walk down, skirting the temple wall, to the front courtyard of the temple, walk around the temple pond and across the bridge to the parking lot, where indeed there were three or four of the minibuses that serve as taxis around here. So finally she had made it. We were still 1.5 km from our hotel via steps and 4.5 by road, but except for the purposes of bargaining, Jan could hardly have walked under her own steam.

The taxis started asking us for Y70 RMB for the ride down to our hotel. We probably could have brought them down to Y10, but were satisfied when they agreed to take us for Y20. Jan’s agony was almost over. It remained to negotiate the stairs to our room,and the stairs to the restaurant. All of which was accomplished with very little grace, but with good cheer.

Conqueror’s Lament

For the next two days, we both suffered the consequences of our walk down Huangshan, but Jan was in worse shape than Gerry. We expected the next day to be pretty bad and so did nothing more strenous than walking around the Hot Springs Area. We didn’t leave our room until almost noon, then wandered around until we came upon a nice garden on the opposite side of the river. There just happened to be a picnic table and four chairs placed strategically under a shade tree. The table belonged to a nearby restaurant so we claimed it and spent a very pleasant two hours there enjoying a very pleasant lunch in the sunshine.

Afterwards we explored further and discovered the Tao Yuan Hotel and its restaurant which served a buffet breakfast. Then we walked along a riverside walk until we found a very pleasant warm rock to sit on by a rather nice deep swimming hole. As usually happens when we set ourselves down somewhere to read, someone spotted us and came over to find out what these strange foreigners were all about. This time, it was a young man from the restaurant across the river from us. He first asked if we wanted to eat in his restaurant, but we declined. Then he sat down next to Jan and started trying to converse. It was pretty hard going, but he was patient and most of the time meaning was somehow conveyed and he learned the basics: where we were from, how long we were in Huangshan, whether we had climbed the mountain, and what we did for a living.

By this time it was late afternoon and the warm sunshine had given way to a cool breeze. Jan had already been wearing her fleece for a while when we decided to walk back to the hotel. We decided to cross the stream to the young man’s restaurant and for that needed to climb down from our rock to the large flat rock below it that formed a dam for the pool. With the young man’s help we made it safely and walked on down the trail to our hotel and to a quiet evening of photo processing and diary writing.

The next day Jan’s legs felt worse if anything. We started off the day by partaking of the buffet breakfast at the Tao Yuan Hotel. We got there less than half an hour before the buffet closed but found lots of good hot dumplings still, boiled eggs, and bread and jam. We sat there for an hour or so and then walked downstairs to the gift shop where Jan bought two small bone figures and Gerry bought a souvenir carving of Huangshan. 

From there we went back to our hotel to drop off our souvenirs and then set out to try and unkink our muscles a bit by walking up the valley to the cable car. Although it was hard at first, eventually we got into a bit of a rhythm and after only about 30 minutes found ourselves in the temple courtyard where we ended up after our walk down from Huangshan. On the way up we met lots of people coming down. Some had come all the way, but most had just come from the cable car station. One of the men we passed offered first Gerry then Jan his walking stick. It was the end of the holiday for him, obviously, and the cheap stick was not worth carrying home. At Gerry’s urging, Jan accepted it. It might help compensate for some of her muscle pains and being shorter it was closer to the right height for her.

We found a seat in the shade to sit and watch the world go by for 15 minutes, when down from the mountain came three Germans. Out of curiosity we asked how long it had taken them to come down. They said that they had left their hotel around seven, had climbed Lotus Peak and then walked down the same path we had used. It was now 12:30, so they had taken five hours or so. They were headed for the Tao Yuan Hotel and were a bit surprised when we told them it was less than half an hour away. Their “guide” had told them it would take eight or nine hours to walk down the mountain. The two men were engineers working for BASF in Pudong, Shanghai. The women was the daughter of one of the men, here on a vist from Germany.

We said goodbye to them and walked past the temple to the entrance gate for the cable car. It was only a couple of minutes further up the hill on the opposite side of the temple from the mountain path. From there we retraced our steps and walked back down the steps toward the hot springs area, stopping at the restaurant where the young man from yesterday worked. We got there as the last of the lunch time crowd was finishing and had a very quiet lunch of fish and cabbage washed down with shandies.

After we had finished our lunch we crossed the stream to our favorite rock and sat there reading for the next hour. Jan left first to go back to the hotel and wash up. We met up an hour or so later on the covered walkway along the river. While sitting there we were passed by an old Chinese guy and three younger Chinese. We smiled and said hello and the older guy asked where we were from. When we said New Jersey,he almost shouted with pleasure: “That’s my home too!” He was a retired professor from Temple University in Philadelphia and lived in Cherry Hill, NJ. One of his companions, a woman, was carrying a large Nikon camera and asked, via translation from her NJ friend, if she could take Gerry’s picture --she is a professional photographer. Several pictures later, she promised to send us copies so Gerry gave them his business card and a HK address.

Then it was time for us to go back to the hotel and start packing.

Not yet written - 2008