Contrary to my expectations, it turns out Huangshan isn't just about its famous mountains. I discovered you can spend a day climbing the mountains and a day descending them, but there's also a day or two's worth of sightseeing in the surrounding area. The main attractions are the Huashan Grottoes and the ancient villages and if you stay in Tunxi, which we did, you'll be about half an hour to an hour away from both.
But you're probably only reading this to hear about the mountains, so I'll get on and tell you about them first. Personally, I didn't fall in love with them, but that doesn't mean they're not beautiful or worth visiting. Let me explain.
Most people climb up the eastern and come down the western steps, because the western side is steeper so it takes longer to reach the more scenic peaks. But we got put on the wrong bus and ended up at the bottom of the western steps rather than eastern ones, as we'd intended. The western steps certainly are more difficult and it also seems a high proportion of the people coming down them feel it necessary to remark to those going up just how much further they have to go. Thanks.
As we ascended it wasn't too crowded, which was good: 'excuse me' isn't a phrase the Chinese seem happy using, even when there's a steep path, a fifty foot drop beside you and no rails to hang on to. I'd enjoyed the relatively peaceful climb so I got a shock when we reached the peak. There were so many people it was like stepping in to a beehive. You could barely move, let alone get to the side to see the view.
So we took the cable car off the mountain and I felt a sense of relief at having escaped. I liked the western steps cable car too; it was exciting because you're suspended above the mountain for about twenty minutes as you go down and watching the ground moving below you feel a bit like you're flying.
The second time I went to Huangshan, things went much more smoothly, give or take the rain which led to us queuing for two hours to get the cable car up to the eastern steps. However, once we reached the top, the terrain was much easier and the views were vastly improved because the eastern cable car takes you higher than the western one. There were the low clouds you see in pictures and more scenic spots from which to look out over the jagged, pine tree-clad mountains. Wandering away from the main peaks we found a few rarely explored paths too.
Getting up to see the sunrise over the mountains is also an experience 100% worth having. The hotels supply you with big waterproof jackets (one size fits all, apparently) and little signs in the lobby let you know what time to expect the sun. Leave your hotel at least half an hour before though, depending on where you want to see it rise, or you'll arrive to find all the best spots have been taken and everyone else is clamouring to balance precariously on other rocks.
So that's the mountain bit. The Huashan Grottoes were surprisingly different - and that's coming from someone who's seen their fair share of Chinese caves. They're unique because unlike most caves, which are formed by water erosion, these ones are man-made. This gives them an air of mystery, as no one knows why they were created or where they put 200,000 cubic metres of rock removed to form them is now. Inside, the caves are like giant stone rooms and you can still see the chisel marks on the 'walls' and 'ceilings.' I'd never seen anything like it.