Our 13-hour train journey had ended only a few hours before. But despite a lack of sleep - and a breakfast of watery gruel that would have left Oliver Twist unable to face the day ahead - we stood at the base of Anhui's Huangshan (Yellow) Mountains feeling appropriately intrepid. According to proverb, after seeing these mist-shrouded peaks "blooming like lotus flowers," in the words of Tang poet Li Bai, we would never need to see another mountain.
We had decided to ascend by the shorter East Steps, saving the West Steps, which present the most impressive views, for our descent.
There is a cable-car service for the faint hearted, but we eschewed any kind of mechanical assistance. Apart from crampons, of course, which fix onto your shoes to improve grip. They are available near the foot of the mountain for about 10 yuan and you can sell them afterwards for 5 yuan.
Although there are good steps even to the top of Lotus Peak (the highest, at about 1,870 metres), they are glazed with slippery ice that definitely makes crampons worthwhile. With them you are less likely to find yourself describing a spectacular arc in the air prior to an ignominious and painful landing.
My Rough Guide describes the East Steps as a three-hour climb. Maybe, if you do not travel burdened with enormous Rough Guides. In fact with our collection of weighty literature (the Collected Letters of Kingsley Amis, at half a ton, took first place) and the inevitable photo-stops and breath-catching, we took about twice that. At this rate we more or less kept pace with the unfortunate porters whose job it is to supply the mountains' hotels with everything from tea to double glazing.
In one of the many smugly tended, overpriced noodle shops we met Bob, a guide as sure-footed as a mountain goat. For the rest of the day he led us around a succession of areas deemed suitably photogenic. These mountains, which have inspired artists for centuries, are truly breathtaking, and you could easily spend five times as long as we did exploring the peaks. Incidentally, it's worth seeing the amusing "monkey gazing eternally at the sea" as well as the more magnificent panoramas.
Your legs will hurt for days, but you won't regret climbing Huangshan Mountains. It's true that sometimes they seem to have been "tamed" to an astonishing extent: the endless steps, themselves a feat of construction, are trodden by busloads of tourists each day, around whom a whole service industry has grown up. At one point we emerged into a clearing to be confronted, incongruously, with a Bank of China. Nevertheless, the beauty of the mountains is far from being compromised. The other sightseers will not distract you as you gaze in awed silence (or perhaps vertiginous terror) at the fairy-tale islands of rock amidst the cloud.
Narrowly missed sunrise
The next morning we got up early, hoping to catch the sunrise. We missed it by minutes and trudged back to our dorm for another hour of sleep. Bob, who never asked for any payment and seemed to have adopted us purely out of kindness, then accompanied us on a surprisingly quick descent.
First, though, four of us, drawing on our last reserves of energy and willpower, made it to the top of Lotus Peak. There we finally escaped other tourists, with the exception of one conveniently present to take the mandatory photo. But the railings are lined with the lovers' padlocks that symbolize the eternal intertwining of hearts; knackered as we were, we had to admit that our feat was by no means unprecedented.
In Tunxi we bid Bob farewell. He passed us on to a restaurant owner who helped us buy our train tickets - this sort of kindness makes travelling in China far easier for foreigners than it might otherwise be. Having said that, unless you are happy spending a day being bounced up and down in a pronouncedly uncomfortable "hard seat", booking sleeper tickets in advance for about 100 yuan ($12) is a good idea.
So long as you don't expect to be able to function on Monday you can just about do Huangshan Mountains in a weekend. If you can spare the time, though, spend a few days in the bamboo cabins or one of the hotels nestling between the peaks. Maybe I'll see you there on my return.