Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is probably the most famous mountain in China. It is a revered holy mountain and has thousands of visitors every year. 8 years ago, with a friend of mine, I climbed the second most famous mountain, Taishan, and generally enjoyed the experience. The previous time I went to China (2004) I wanted to climb Huangshan but was hampered by a cold and the cold.

Being based in Shanghai, which neighbours the province Huangshan is in, this was a golden opportunity to go. But as negotiations over our travel itinerary developed, it seemed it was getting less and less likely. The negotiations themselves were very tricky. Xin's parents had opinions about where we should and shouldn't go - and generally trashed all the places I wanted to go. Xin was reticent about where she'd like to go. In the end, the plan was to be pretty conservative: go to a commercial town Yiwu, then onto the lake town of Hangzhou and then onto Xin's father's hometown of Huzhou. I didn't want to go to Yiwu - Xin's mother had decided that she wanted to go, and hence wanted to go with us. Xin, who'd just gotten a cold, didn't mind as that would be the more restful option and she could buy stuff. So I conceded it.

We went to buy tickets to Yiwu but on route Xin piped up. I could go to Huangshan (my ideal) alone while Xin and her mother go to Yiwu and then we meet back in Hangzhou. The plan was perfect, except for recent forecasts saying Huangshan was going to be in the clouds. I was still weighing it up when we were waiting for tickets and then as Xin's mum went to the front of the queue, I decided. I was to be going to Huangshan in 24 hours' time on a night train.

The next day we went shopping for tramping food (not easy in China) and I started to pack. That evening, I got all sorts of lectures. Chinese parents are very anxious about the young going off alone. There are lots of stories about what could happen to a solo-traveller (I for the most part think they are overstated but can't really know). Her mum told me to basically lie to anyone who asked me where I was from. Saying you were teaching in Shanghai was the best lie because people would know that you know the country, customs and prices etc. and they are less likely to take advantage of you. If you said you were a tourist, that exposes you immediately. I was sceptical about this but went along with it. I packed my huge backpack and prepared to leave, but in my haste when moving around the house I slipped on a rug slamming my knee into the wooden floor. I got up and went to the kitchen to get something cold to RICE it with. What an omen!

Anyway an hour later I was getting onto the train. The sleeper carriage is something I'm now very familiar with. There are three beds bunked up on each of each partition, the bottom, middle and top. If you were on the bottom, your bed became the sitting spot for everyone during the day. If you were on the top, you'd get too hot and it was more difficult to get in and out. I managed to get the optimal middle bunk.

I was overdressed though; the train was warmly air-conditioned. My bag was huge and took up most of the bed space. And I was trying to sleep on a bumpy train which I've never been good at. Somehow I got some sleep during the night and about 6 am got up and sat around eating breakfast.

The older gentleman on the bottom bunk came around and we started to chat. He was a native to Huangshan who sold paintings in Shanghai and Beijing. Being Chinese, he asked a lot of questions about my background. I fed him the line suggested by Xin's mum. Then another chap came over. He looked about my age and said that he was going to climb Huangshan too that day. He hadn't managed to sleep at all that night apparently. He too asked me extensively about my background:

'Are you a student?'
'No, I work in Shanghai.'
'Oh, where?'
'In a language school.'
'Where in Shanghai?' He was Shanghainese.
'On Minsheng road.' This was a road near where I was staying so it came to mind quickly.
'Oh, I live around there. Which school? Is it the school on the second floor above the Bank of China?' Screw! I am a terrible (and unlucky) liar. I made some more stuff up but while talking, soon found I had already contradicted some things I had said to the first chap. I think the older chap realised it.

Once the younger chap went back to his partition, I chatted a bit more with the older chap and found that the area had a few kinds of tea I should be buying. The train was almost in the city nearest Huangshan and I arranged some transport to the mount while still on the train. After disembarking I went to minibus and found the same young chap who I had lied to poorly on the train. He was asking everyone what their plans were. Most were going up the next day and they were climbing but taking the cable car. He and I were the only people actually climbing it so we pretty much decided to walk together.

The minibus dropped us off at another transport hub. It is a weird aspect of travelling in China that they make some of the tourist sites missions to get to. The remaining road to travel to get to the main gate of the mountain was the sole right of one transport company to use, so you need to change vehicles to get to the main gate. It is possible to just walk up from the transport hub to the main gate, but the walk is lacklustre and it would take over an hour. So we waited at the hum for the next bus (which cost about 5 dollars for a ten minute ride). At the hub I walked past a small group and heard the usual whispered word 'Laowai! Laowai!' (foreigner). I rotated my head The Exorcist-style with my teeth frozen in a smile. I got a laugh or two.

After the proper trip up to the gate, it was already 12 noon and we started our ascent. We chatted most of the way up when we had breath to talk with. I came clean on my background and he said he was 41 years old (he didn't look older than me!). He worked for a Dutch chemical company and was a born and bred Shanghainese. He had already climbed Huangshan once a year before but wanted to climb it again when he heard that it had snowed on top. Last time he ascended in two and a half hours but had to come down the same day because it was in peak season and all the mountain top accommodation had been booked.

The mountain itself was shrouded in thick fog and the temperature was about 5 degrees, but we were always too hot. The path up to the summit was a long stairway that just kept going up and the energy required to keep going up it meant you'd be toasty after around the first minute.

Not many people were taking the walking route it seemed. The most common were the porters. They'd be carrying ridiculously heavy amounts of things from the nearest town to the top of the mountain, getting about 4 cents per kilogram of items transported. This is much cheaper for the hotels than using the cable car to bring things up. Labour is still very cheap in most of China.

We did bump into a group of three young Shanghainese who were going to pitch a tent at the top of the mountain! My jaw dropped because in New Zealand, you don't find that many people willing to do that in winter on a cold mountain and more significantly they were Chinese. It is good to hear that some of that adventuring spirit is here.

After a little more that two hours we got to the top. The view around the mountain was compromised by the fog but the snow and ice were spectacular. The sights that make the mountain famous are the crags and shapes of rocks and the trees on top. We couldn't see much of them but what we could see was amazing. It would be wonderful to see it in spring or autumn.

My companion had booked accommodation and had bargained for a cheaper price. I hadn't had the foresight to book at all. But once we found his accommodation, he slipped into negotiation and got me the same rate as him! It was 80 yuan (NZ$15) for a night in a dorm. All the others in our room had to pay the standard 120 yuan.

At night, it was tough to sleep as there were some snorers in full cry and also, paradoxically, it was too hot. We got up early in order to have a 5% chance of seeing the sunrise from the best outlook, but as time went on it became obvious we weren't going to be lucky. But in going to the site, we went the highest accessible point. We passed the freezing level on the way up so there was a lot of surface ice and it was a little perilous. They employed people to break the ice and sweep it out of the way but they can only go so fast. The tour groups with their loud speakers were also up there and it took some time to out-manoeuvre them.

There are plenty of routes down the mountain and we took the longest. My friend was starting to have some difficulties and was sorely tempted by the cable car down but resisted with the hopes of going down on foot and then soaking in a hot spring. On the way down we were apprehended by a large monkey bearing its teeth. My friend instinctively threw some lollies in pockets to the ground, which the monkey accepted eating them wrapping and all. This was a signal for the rest of the band to suddenly appear and charge towards us to get more food! My friend panicked and while being berated by some of other walkers for feeding the wildlife, quickly grabbed the whole bag of lollies, threw it some distance and made a hasty departure. They weren't the only wild animals to be seen. I saw lots of squirrels and interesting birds too.

We finally got down to the bottom around 1pm and parted companies once back in the nearby city. It is because of him that I have any photos of the visit. I didn't have a camera and he had a swish camera/phone/PDA. I'll publish those in time.

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