July 22, 2000
So I consulted our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook where I knew I would find the perfect nature getaway. And there it was! Situated right between Wuhan and Nanjing, not too far away from the Yangzi River was Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), revered by the Chinese as the most beautiful of China's five famous Taoist mountains. Once I started reading about the spectacular landscape, with mountain peaks rising above oceans of clouds, which has inspired generations of Chinese poets and artists, I knew that the mountain top was calling my name. "Yang-Yang, Yang-Yang... come climb my hills and breathe my fresh air," the mountains called.
Figuring out how to get myself to those awe-inspiring mountain tops was a little tricky though. Apparently there were no direct trains to Huangshan, so it was time to try a new form of travel in China: nice, comfortable, air-conditioned buses with reclining seats and large windows. In true Chinese fashion, the bus ride was everything I expected it to be and more.
There were large "no smoking" signs all over the bus, but even before we took off, people lit up cigarettes around me. Being the brave, health-conscious, and coughing trekker that I am, I made a big fuss to the driver who was nice enough to remind all the smokers of the no smoking rule and asked them to stop. Well, that worked for about an hour when I noticed that even the bus driver was smoking a cigarette as he drove. Along the way, we picked up tons of random people standing by the side of the road or highway, waving to get a ride.
Each person negotiated a price before getting on the bus, depending on how far he was going and how many bags he had with him. There was one guy who got on carrying two large crates of shrimp. Even the smoking, the smell of shrimp, and the increasingly crowded bus didn't bother me because I was transported in my dreams to my peaceful Huangshan sunrise.
I had it all timed perfectly so that our bus would get us to the base of the mountain in the early afternoon, giving us just enough time to store our bags somewhere and start the hike up in order to spend the night at the top. I had heard that seeing the sunrise from the summit of Huangshan is a beautiful experience. But this is China, where nothing ever works out according to plan. Our bus ride ended up taking 11 hours rather than the scheduled 6 hours. It was funny because at one point, I realized that there was no way we would arrive on time so I tried to find out from the bus driver how late we would be. He assured me that it would just be another hour or so. An hour later, I asked him again if we were there yet and guess what he told me? "Oh, it'll just be another hour or so."
When we did arrive in Tangkou, the small town at the base of Huangshan, it was almost dark, but I still wanted to hike up that night. All the locals laughed at my idea and told us that the mountain is closed at night and there are no lights to light the path up. I was still determined to see the Huangshan sunrise and was willing to get up at whatever crazy hour the gates opened to start our ascent upwards. When my alarm went off at 4:45 the next morning, I couldn't believe that it was time to wake up already.
When we finally did arrive at the main Eastern gate at 5:20 a.m., it wasn't even open yet! We sat around for almost an hour with some other ill-informed Chinese tourists waiting for the gate to open. On the way up, I was shocked to see all the men who were porters carrying huge loads of beer, bottled water, hotel towels, steel beams, and bags of concrete up the steep mountain steps. The porters balanced their heavy loads on a thick bamboo stick carried across their shoulders. They were mostly young, but some as old as fifty. Their system was to hike slowly, but steadily, up as far as their bodies could handle. Then they would place one end of their load down on the ground and prop the other end up using a wooden stick, which allowed them to move out from under the heavy packages and take a brief rest.
Some of the really strong porters hiked up almost as fast as I did. But every single porter looked tired throughout the trip. They were bringing up supplies for construction work along the mountain paths and for the restaurants, hotels, and snack stands at the top of the mountain. An old-timer later explained to me that they use porters instead of the cable car to carry supplies because a cable car seat is worth 40 yuan so the people in charge would rather sell that seat to a tourist rather than put cargo there.
Five hours, three and a half bottles of water, and three bathroom breaks later, I had reached the top of Huangshan, called Bright Summit Peak, which is 1841 meters (6038 feet) high. The light rain stopped just before we reached the main viewing peak. As we looked out from a huge boulder at Bright Summer Peak, the sky was incredibly clear and we could see for miles. And from there, I saw the amazing oceans of clouds swimming in between mountain peaks and the magnificent deep valleys. It really did look just like all the classical Chinese paintings I had seen.
There, before my eyes, were all the essential elements of perfect tranquillity according to Chinese tradition, just as I had been promised. I saw the mountains lined with greenery, soft clouds floating in the air, small pavilions balancing on pointed peaks, stone bridges crossing secluded lakes... and groups of Chinese tourists? I didn't remember any Chinese tourists being in these romantic paintings or poems about Huangshan. Chinese tour groups have now become an unavoidable part of the Huangshan experience. I was apparently not the only person in China looking for to escape the congested cities. Thousands of other Chinese urbanites had come to find peace on the same mountain peak.
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