The caves are inside a park-like area on the far side of a large suspension bridge. Winding your way up and down a series of steps through the park's trees and bushes dotted with brightly coloured flowers is a welcome relief from the cold, dark interior of each cave. You can also take a stroll along the river or ride a bamboo raft for only 10rmb. Before you cross the bridge there's the opportunity to go for a short horse ride or try your hand at archery too. Visit in the morning though, as the area became more crowded in the afternoon when tour groups returning from a night in the mountains started to arrive.
In my opinion the ancient villages are the real must-see though, as they're such a contrast to Shanghai - even if ancient is sometimes only a euphemism for run-down. In the village I went to, the Ming or Qing style houses (I wasn't sure which), surrounding rice fields and the villagers' old fashioned way of life were all fascinating. Note that despite paying an entry fee, the villages may not be what you'd expect from a tourist spot. The residents seemed to wonder why we were there and stray dogs' mean growls put a few streets off limits. But it made a nice change to see something that hadn't been constructed just for tourism.
Need to know:
The Huangshan Mountains, also known as the Yellow Mountains, are made of granite and lie in the south of Anhui province. Consisting of 72 peaks, the mountains are famous because they represent the typical mountain in Chinese paintings. They're popular with tourists because their peaks are frequently shrouded in mist, so the mountains appear to float on clouds. The sunrise over them and the views from the peaks are some of the best in the country. An entry fee of 200rmb applies but a 50% discount is available for students with IDs. Cable cars cost 65rmb per ride.
Need to go:
The mountains, although a difficult to climb (assuming you take the steps), are a must. There are steps up to the peaks and then more steps as you move from one peak to the next. Be careful as you come down, especially if you have big feet since the steps aren't very wide and there are no handrails in some sections. There are two main routes up, the western steps and the eastern steps. The western steps are much harder and it will take you 6-7 hours to reach the most scenic spots on foot. The Yuping cable car will take you half way, to the Jade Screen Peak. The eastern steps are much quicker, taking only 2-3 hours to get to the top. You can also take the Yungu cable car up. The most famous spots are Beginning to Believe Peak, Refreshing Terrace and the Big Valley of Xihai. The most common route is to go up the eastern steps and down the western steps.
The Huashan Grottoes are strangely engaging. Unlike other caves in China, these are above sea level and were man-made. Located in a park across a river, it's also nice to stroll along the water's edge either side of the park or perhaps to take a bamboo raft along the river. A 70rmb entry fee will give you entry to three caves of varying sizes.
Ancient Villages can be a little run down but most are worth a look. It's nice to imagine how it might once have looked when the Ming and Qing buildings were new. The surrounding countryside is also an interesting titleernative to the city. Xidi and Hongcun villages are the most well known, but there are others too. The entry fees vary (the most expensive are 80rmb) and some need a passport to obtain an entry permit. Students can get a discount.