Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve written. To be honest, since coming back from China, I’ve just been getting back into my regular rhythms and haven’t had much time to sit down and write. Hopefully that will happen again soon, although my parents will be coming to visit next week (yay!) so I think the next piece will still be a few weeks out. But in the meantime, I thought I would just quickly post something I wrote on the plane ride back, you know, just in case any of you ever wanted to DIY your trip to Huangshan and needed some travel advice 🙂
China is an ever evolving landscape of urban jungle. With all the new development projects to construct more efficient roadways and shinier high-rises, one would be hard-pressed to find a China that hearkens back to the nostalgic scenes depicted in the traditional water-and-ink paintings. Yet, that is exactly what I set out to find in my five-day expedition to one of China’s most famous mountains: 黄山 (Huangshan）.
Known as the backdrop for multiple scenes from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, as well as the main focal point of many Chinese paintings, Huangshan is best known for its peculiarly-shaped granite peaks, Huangshan pine trees unique to the mountain and its views of the clouds from above. The views are thus divided into multiple “seas” such as North, South and Sky Sea, in reference to the clouds resembling a sea.
The views then comprise multiple peaks, each with names that describe the shape of the peak such as “Monkey watching the Sea”, or those that have narratives behind them, such as “Beginning to Believe Peak”, named after a man who did not believe the tales of Huangshan’s beauty until he encountered this peak.
Our train dropped us off at 黄山北站 (Huangshan North), and a bus from the Huangshan Passenger Transport Hub (a 5 min walk to the right of the train station exit) took us to 汤口 (Tangkou) for a mere CNY 20. The bus departed every hour from 9:00 to 19:00 and reached its destination 泰西换乘中心 (Taixi Station) in 50 min.
Being unfamiliar with this tiny village town, I was very grateful for our hotel 零伍幺柒客栈 (Zero Five One 7 Boutique Hotel) that picked us up from the station and drove us to our cosy lodging, nestled at the foot of sloping hills. One among a line of traditional Huizhou-style houses bordering the river that ran through the town, the hotel fit perfectly into the peaceful and bucolic town. Yet, the insides were renovated and we were greeted with friendly, English-speaking staff.
Tim, one of the staff, promptly whipped out a map, drawing thick circles with his black marker around the vistas we had to stop at on our way up to the mountain.
“And for breakfast tomorrow, we have a Chinese option of porridge with 馒头 (mantou), pumpkin, corn and traditional dumpling, or the Western option of toast with scrambled eggs and bacon, oatmeal and banana.”
I turned to Leah and raised my eyebrows. Not bad for an isolated, sleepy town.
After our scrumptious breakfast at 7 in the morning, we got off to an early start after picking up some snacks for the hike at a nearby convenience store. The buses to the mountain departed from 东岭换乘中心 (DongLing Station), a 10 min walk from our hotel. So, for CNY 19, we rode the bus from 东岭 to 云谷寺 (Yungu Si), one of the main entrances to the mountain.
From 云谷寺, we had the option of either hiking up the mountain (free), or taking a cable car for CNY 65. The hike itself would take 3 hours, and though on a dry, summer day, it would be a good workout, the carved stone steps were much too slippery with the winter dampness.
The entrance tickets were CNY 150 each, the price during the off-season (December to February), and they were valid for 2 days of hiking. I was grateful we went during the off-season, as even though much of the views were covered by fog and the temperatures were close to freezing, the mountain was not swarmed with tourists as it normally is during the summer months.
Once up on the mountain, the path was well-marked with many signs along the way and we simply followed the route Tim had traced for us. We started with 始信峰 (Beginning to Believe Peak), and 猴子观海 (Monkey Watching the Sea), before making the steep ascent to 光明顶 (Brightness Peak).
Brightness Peak is one of the most popular spots to watch sunrises and sunsets; many book a night at one of the hotels perched up on the mountains just so they can get a glimpse of one of these breathtaking sunrises.
Although we did not stay a night there, we did stop by the 白云宾馆 (BaiYun Hotel) to hide from the cold, where we served free hot ginger tea. What a delight. The best views of the mountain we got were during our hike up 百步云梯 (Hundred Steps to the Clouds) before rounding around to the cable car station on the Western Side, 玉屏站 (YuPing Station).
All in all, it was a rewarding hike of 4 hours among the silent majesty of Huangshan. We relaxed the following day with a trip to the hot springs located at the base of Purple Peak, a 5 min bus ride from 汤口 (Tangkou). The hotel got us discounted tickets for CNY 158, and we spent the day bathing in the hot pools filled with various flavours: rice soup, wormwood, red wine, each purporting their own healing qualities.
Our trip to Huangshan would not be complete without a stop by one of the immortalized villages that populate its vicinity. Established in the Ming and Qing dynasties, 宏村 (Hongcun) is a prototype of an ancient Chinese village with 140 well preserved ancient dwelling houses and narrow alleyways that permeate the locale. It is famous for its complex water system, created by villagers in the Song Dynasty for household use, field irrigation and fire prevention.
Tradition has named it the village shaped like a water buffalo. To the east is Leigang mountain, which forms the head of the buffalo. Its two iconic trees the horns, the dwelling houses the body, the bridges the feet, the South Lake the stomach and the intricate waterways the intestines. A giant, sleeping 1000-year water buffalo.
It was a 45 min bus ride from 泰西换乘中心 (Taixi Station) to 宏村 (Hongcun), where we bought entrance tickets (that came with baggage storage) of CNY 104 each. We were first met with the iconic view of 南湖 (South Lake), a serene body of water surrounded by weeping willows, that had a steep bridge over water leading into the village. We then winded our way through the maze of alleys and waterways, past souvenir and tea shops, guesthouses and restaurants hidden in the nooks and crannies of this charming relic of a village.
At the end of our two hour exploration, we found shelter in a little restaurant just outside of the main village. I ordered my favorite 手抓饼, a crispy, layered pancake stuffed with your meat of choice and flavoured with sauces ranging from hot sauce to ketchup to a mayonnaise-based “salad sauce”. A Chinese Subway of sorts.
“How long are you here for?” The restaurant owner looked up from his cutting board of chopped meat, making light conversation with us.
“Just a few days,” I replied, between mouthfuls of pancake, “You?”
“I’ve been here years. Used to live in Guangdong, but now I like how quiet it is here. The city is too noisy, you know?” He tossed one of the pieces of chopped meat to the dirty-brown mutt who had been eyeing the meat. The mutt snapped it up immediately, before settling back down at the man’s feet.
I nodded in agreement, thinking of the China of old I had captured in snapshots over the past few days, and grateful that I had the chance to witness first-hand this China before it too bowed to the relentless force of urbanization. This would be my proof, that those paintings were not just legends – and that the charm and natural beauty of ancient China was very much still alive.