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Huangshan Climbing
David M on March 9, 2004 02:00 AM

After climbing up and down approximately a billion stone steps, I've just come down from Huangshan. I think the Canadian girl that I met in Xi'an summed up the mountain more concisely than I could: "Go!" This is absolutely one of the most fantastic places I've ever been.

I took a morning hard-seat train from Jingdezhen to Huangshan City (also known as Tunxi, in southern Anhui province). I then shared an hour's cab ride up to Tangkou, at the foot of the mountain. After a day and a half's traveling, I finally began my two-day hike.

The first several kilometers from Tangkou were mostly by road. Purist that I am, I refused the taxis who stopped to try to sell me a ride to the cable car. From the cable car station at the end of the road, the Eastern Steps ascend between two towering peaks. I had ample opportunity to take in the scenery as I rested on the way up -- and what scenery it was! They say that Huangshan is the inspiration for Chinese mountain paintings, and the likeness couldn't be better. Stunning stone crags soar up into the sky, festooned with distinctive pine trees that look like overgrown bonsais. My afternoon depature meant that the only people I met on the notoriously overcrowded trails were Chinese porters carrying heavy loads down the mountain on bamboo poles slung over their shoulders. About halfway up, a giant billboard marred a beautiful waterfall proclaiming that the very spot where Deng Xiaoping had rested in 1979 while climbing the mountain. Other than that, the vistas were nothing but spectacular.

I reached the top as night fell, and the ferociously freezing wind sent me scuttling into the first hotel I saw. I got a bed in an unheated room with the wind howling demonically outside, where I quickly fell asleep. Awakened unpleasantly early by my alarm clock, I pulled on almost every piece of clothing I have (good thing I had my pack after all!) and stumbled outside to watch the sunrise.

When I arrived, the hazy horizon was already glowing pink and orange. Two dozen Chinese tourists joined me, and a great cry went up when the first crimson crescent blazed forth from the clouds. The sun rose quickly, a great, fiery ball, casting its morning light over the phantasmagorical peaks spread out below us. The Chinese scampered about, taking pictures of each other, spending precious little time actually watching the sunrise, before disappearing back to the hotel for breakfast. I lingered a little longer as the sun went from red to blinding yellow and the light crept up the mountainside.

Hoping to get out ahead of the Chinese tour groups, I checked out of the hotel and set off across the mountain's summit, which is really a collection of stone peaks rising from a sea of pine trees. I took in the Soaring Over Stone, which is a massive boulder that seems to have fallen from the sky onto a base from which it is completely separate. I passed through several tour groups, which can be heard from hundreds of meters away like a gaggle of honking geese, following their imprinted flag. Many of the tourists paused to talk to me. If you want a genuine Chinese travel experience, enlist a friend to enact the following stimulating conversation, which I have several times every day.

Friend (playing Chinese local): "Hallo!"
You: "Hello."
Friend: (laughs and giggles)

Now, if you're lucky enough to meet a local who's really on the ball when it comes to English, it goes on.

Friend: "Byebye!"
You: "Bye!"
Friend: (laughs and giggles)

The "descent" down the Western Steps actually involves some spectacular ascents along winding, cliffside staircases with steps so narrow you have to turn your feet sideways to get any purchase. The best is the ascent to the top of Lotus Peak, which at 1864m is the tallest point on Huangshan. At the peak, lovers fasten engraved locks onto the railing the ways American teenagers carve their initials on trees. The dizzying steps down from there are not for the faint-hearted, involving long, steep plunges alongside even longer and even steeper cliffs. The views from here make it well worth the effort, providing some of the most stirring scenery I've ever seen in my life.

About halfway down, just when I thought my trip to Huangshan was winding down, I saw them. Monkeys! A whole group of them! They were about the third of the size of humans, with brown fur and wide faces. Several of them frequented the steps, hoping for handouts. A number of young, including a baby so young it was still clinging to its mother, lingered further away. (They retreated out of sight at the appearance of some noisy tourists.) Delighted by my discovery, I wandered down the stairs, escorted by a monkey, blissfully shutterbugging away. When one of the young ventured too close to me, however, the adults politely informed me that the photo session was over: a group of five or six adults surrounded me and started smacking my legs. I backed up and then, reasserting my size, scattered them with a wave of my arms. Content to leave Mad Mama Monkey alone, I continued on my merry way, thrilled to have seen what I thought I'd missed at Emei Shan.

By the time I neared the bottom, my knees were screaming with every step. Determined to walk out the way I'd come in, I pushed past the taxis and continued on until I finally came to the Yellow Mountain Gate through which I had passed before.

My hike complete, I gratefully had lunch and a nap in a hotel here. Tangkou is a pleasant town, with a river flowing through it and a fantastic view of the mountain. I'll stay here tonight before catching the morning bus to Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, about two hours south of Shanghai. After Huangshan, though, I'm skeptical that even the fabled beauty of West Lake in Hangzhou will impress me as much as this magic mountain.

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