Thirty six strange peaks,
Immortals with black top knots.
Morning sun strikes the tree tops,
Here in this sky mountain world.
Chinese people, raise your faces!
For a thousand years cranes come and go.
Far off I spy a firewood gatherer,
Plucking sticks from stone crevices.
-Li Bai “Dawn Vista On Huangshan”
There are some places in the world that just seem to inspire gushing wellsprings of poetry. Metaphors woven together to create tapestries that reveal glimpses of those inner workings that lie just below the surface. Meaning layered upon meaning until everything is saturated and more than the sum of its parts. Huangshan in China’s Anhui region is one of those places.
Mention the Yellow Mountains, and most people’s minds will fill with vidid images. Mine certainly did. I imagined poet-philosophers making slow pilgrimages to contemplate shapes within the rocks. Painters with their wells of deep black ink moving brushes across long scrolls of paper. Majestic views transformed into the iconic. More than 20,000 poems have been written about this place, and we were excited to see the source of such abundant expression.
Bellies filled with bao, jian dui, and bing stuffed with spicy pickled vegetables (a true ‘breakfast of champions’) we began our ascent. The granite staircase extended up and into the distance beyond our view. At that moment I could have been easily led to believe that they continued into infinity- like maybe M.C Escher had drawn up the blueprints.
We made our way from the Jade Screen Station, over Standing Horse Bridge, past Old Person Peak, through Gold Cock Crowing at the Heavenly Gate, past the Welcoming Guest Pine, over Lotus Peak, Turtle Peak, and Ladder on the Clouds. A constant flow of humans went up. A constant flow went down. From above I am sure that we looked like ants. Eager and dedicated to the cause at hand. Step. Step. Stepping up on stone carved more than 1,000 years ago. Over 60,000 of these babies had been etched into the mountains. Our thighs burned. Our calves burned. We paused to look for the shapes within the rocks and trees and valleys that were behind the colourful names. I had become enchanted by these names. They were mysterious. Mystical. Oddly comical. Double Cats Catching the Mice, Monkey Watching the Sea, Immortal Walking on Stilts, Carp’s Backbone, Beginning to Believe Peak… I longed to know their stories.
And then we saw it. The view. That view. Blues upon blues upon blues. It was like an ocean. An ocean in the sky. Soft forms of mountains like rolling waves stretching out toward the horizon. A sharp peak in the distance cut up and out of a cloud pool. A floating island. The hellish stairway- over three hours of perpetual ‘up’ had led to this: breathtaking, heavenly, practically celestial. The poets had been on to something.
The high tower is a hundred feet tall,
From here one’s hand could pluck the stars.
I do not dare to speak in a loud voice,
I fear to disturb the people in heaven.
– Li Bai “Staying the Night at a Mountain Temple”
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
-Li Po “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain”
Getting to (and around) the Yellow Mountains:
Taking the bus from Tunxi to the base of the Yellow Mountains is easy and relatively painless. As mentioned in a previous post, I would definitely recommend using Tunxi as your ‘home base’ unless you plan to do more than one day of hiking, or want to catch one of the famous sunrise views from atop a peak. There are a couple of hotels nestled into the mountain and can be booked through Agoda.com.
From Tunxi bus station:
Take the bus heading to Tangkou/ Huangshan scenic area (gate 8). You don’t need a ticket, you just pay the fare once you are one the bus. 20 RMB/person. The ride takes about an hour, whereupon it will stop in a parking lot that doesn’t really resemble a bus stop.
Follow the flow of humans down the hill, and after a short walk you will find yourself at a more formal looking station with blue National Express busses parked out front along with a ticket booth.
You will have a choice of destinations: Yuping Cableway (west side cable car) Yunggu New Cableway (east side cable car)… or the hot springs. We chose to begin our day of hiking on the western side. (We purchased a great full colour map with all of the magical names on it from the tourism center at the new Tunxi train station when we first rolled into town- if you missed out never fear- there were a few older women selling maps outside of the shuttle bus station)
Bus tickets up to the mountain cost 19 RMB each. It will drop you off near another ticket booth where you can pay your entrance fee to the park- 230 RMB/person- and decide whether or not you want to ride the cable car up to the Jade Screen Station (cable car ticket 80 RMB) or take the complimentary shuttle that will drop you at the trail head.
We hiked in the Yellow Mountains for 1 fabulously epic day- starting on the west side crossing over to the east and taking the cable car down from the eastern station (because it was 5pm and we didn’t want to get stranded in the dark). It took us 7 hours to complete our route. This map was extremely helpful in gauging times between spots.
We hopped the blue National Express bus and headed down the hill from the base of the Yunggu cable car- the first leg on our trip back to Tunxi after our amazing hike. The bus stopped, we got off and… we were not in the parking lot where our journey had begun. We made a loop around the area. Nothing looked familiar. We were in a completely different place with no clue where the connecting bus to Tunxi could possibly be. There was a plethora of private tour busses that all of our fellow hikers were crowding into, leaving us to fend for ourselves.
Nearby we spotted a police officer and approached him with our question: ‘where is the Tunxi bus stop?’ He pointed in two different directions simultaneously. It was a very literal illustration of the word quandary. My heart sank a bit. The sun was beginning to dip low in the sky, and another wander about had turned up no new leads. We approached a young woman sweeping the sidewalk outside of a shop- she spoke a little bit of English and pointed across the street and mentioned something about the bus coming through at 6pm. We crossed the street. No signs, no little pictures of a bus or arrows pointing anywhere. There was, however, another police officer. We asked our question again. He pointed at the sidewalk where we stood. This was were the bus stopped? This random, unmarked patch of asphalt? In an attempt to confirm this information we made a circle gesture where we stood with quizzical looks upon our faces. He nodded.
Then, out of the blue (and right on cue) a young man appeared and- in English- asked us if we were waiting for the bus to Tunxi. In my innocent mind I am think he must be headed our way. A bus passed by and didn’t stop. The guy standing with us acts like he missed the bus, too. He said it looked full. He then types into his phone and show it to us. It reads: NO BUS. Hmmm… It was 5:30… the girl had mentioned something about the bus arriving at 6… had that been the bus coming through early, but full so it decided to pass us by? Would there be another bus? Were we even at a bus stop? It was hard to tell, as pretty much every bus stop that we had visited recently on the outskirts of Tunxi had been unmarked and had felt completely random.
My mind raced. We needed a Plan B. At that moment a taxi pulls up to the curb. Our new ‘friend’ opens the door and speaks to the driver inside, then tells us that the driver will take us to Tunxi for 150 RMB. At a loss, and not wanting to be stranded in Tangkou for the night, we accept. I watch as the driver palms off some cash to our ‘friend’. We had been husseled… I was pretty certain that that cop had been in on it, too. Awesome. Before we even leave the city limits, we stop to pick up another passenger who just happened to be waiting expectantly on a street curb with a large packed duffel bag. ??? What next??? Were we going to end up in Tunxi? At this point anything seemed possible…
We sped off into the night on a narrow and winding back road… the driver took blind corners in the dark without slowing down… he passed trucks and mopeds in the face of oncoming traffic. More then once I felt like we might die. I watched as clusters of whitewashed houses turned to grey in the fading light, their distinct features forever etched into my mind….
*(Moral of the story: make sure you bring some emergency cash with you to the Yellow Mountains!)