For a short three hours this was my best hike. Ever.
If you’ve ever seen classical images of pine-clad Chinese mountains shrouded in mist, you’re probably thinking of this place. It was some of the most jaw-dropping mountain scenery I’ve ever seen -- and I’ve seen my share of mountains living in Western Canada.
Sadly this was also one of the last clear photos I took at Huangshan. My window of opportunity lasted exactly 3 hours 9 minutes, before heavy fog rolled in and took away everyone’s chances.
That morning we diligently woke up at Hongcun at 05:30, took the 06:40 bus to Huangshan Mountain, left our large baggage at the Bus Station and took the Yungusi cable car up the back side of the mountain. It was already shrouded in heavy fog from mid-mountain up as we arrived, and the visibility was barely 200m as we made the hour-long hike from the cable car station to our hotel at Paiyunlou. After checking in and shedding unnecessary weight off our back, we started our descent into the West Sea Canyon.
The West Sea Canyon was in fact one of the reasons we picked China for our vacation this year. This landscape within is widely rumored to be most impressive in Huangshan, if not all of China. The time was 11:15 when we started to enter the canyon on the Paiyunlou side. All of a sudden a few rays of the sun shone through, and the heavy curtain was miraculously lifted from the front of our eyes in a matter of minutes. The entire canyon was now visible, right down to the bottom of this impossibly steep valley.
With every movement of the rising streams of misty air the landscape kept shrouding and revealing itself, and with every few steps the viewing angle changed enough to offer a different perspective of the jagged peaks and the pine trees clinging fearlessly to the vertical cliffs. Every hiker stopped in their tracks for photos, or simply to exhale. Any short 50m walk would easily take 10 minutes.
At the time of our visit the National Park was building its funicular at the bottom of the canyon, meaning that the bottommost section of the canyon, from the bottom of the Second Ring road on the north side to the Buxian Bridge on the south side, was closed for constructions. For us it meant that we could only hike down as far as the Second Ring, before climbing all the way back up to Paiyunlou.
While the trail's condition and cleanliness was among the best I've seen in China, or any country for that matter, the terrain itself presented a moderate challenge halfway between Paiyunlou and the First Ring. The elevation dropped abruptly with flights after flights of long winding stairs wrapped around the cliff side. The time was already 12:45 by the time we reached the First Ring.
The further we descended down the mysterious valley, the more intimately beautiful the landscape became until everything resembled scenes out of traditional Chinese ink paintings. Most astounding was how the indigenous Huangshan Pine carved out its niche from the most inconceivable of places, often growing straight out of seemingly bare vertical crags.
Equally impressive was the way the footpath was impossibly constructed, suspending in mid-air by a cantilever system of horizontal beams driven into sheer granite cliffs. Tourist pamphlets would never divulge, but these trails were constructed at the great cost of human lives, and no responsible hiker should take these heart-stopping views for granted.
As we reached the top of the Second Ring road it was time to make the decision of taking the left or right branch down. Our map showed a down-arrow on the left branch with the word Zhuangguan (Spectacular), and so we followed ...
And it was way too Zhuangguan for us … the ridiculously steep stairs became a 60-plus-degree drop, and the only thing that would prevent us from free-falling 500m to our deaths were the thigh-height railings. My wife had enough of this craziness, and we decided to meet up again at the top of the Second Ring. With the utmost degree of caution I would venture down to the bottom, and she would have to call for help should I not return.
The Chinese map didn’t lie -- it truly was some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere. By the time I went down the Second Ring it was already 13:06, nearly 2 hours since we started out from Paiyunlou.
As soon as I made it past the section that turned back my wife, the slope returned to a more reasonable slope ... if you consider 45-degree reasonable that is. I still had to be careful as scores of hikers are known to fall to gruesome deaths every year, though no official numbers ever get published.
At 13:15, exactly 2 hours from the start, I finally reached the very bottom of the Second Ring, the end point of my hike down the canyon on this day. It was probably the slowest 2.5 km of downhill hiking I've ever done, and I only had my camera to blame.
The only path to bottom was locked as expected, less than 100m in elevation from the very floor of the canyon. I quickly took a couple of pictures before hurrying back up the thigh-burning climb. I certainly didn't want my wife to think I was missing!
By 13:27 I puffed my way back to the top of Second Ring and rejoined my wife, who was just finished with helping a bunch of elderly Taiwanese hikers with her trusty map. The rest of the hike was a pure cardio and stair-climbing workout. Ominously thick clouds rolled in as we made our way up and the temperature dropped noticeably, condensing the air into an increasingly dense fog again. By the time we reached Paiyunlou again at 14:30, we couldn't even see our hotel from 100m away. This spelled the end of sightseeing for every visitor, and we had no choice but retreating to our hotel room for the rest of the day.
Just when we thought the weather couldn’t get any worse the next day, it did. We woke up at 05:30 and climbed to the top of Danxia (Purple Cloud) Peak for the sunrise, only to be stymied again by a horrid visibility of about 20 m! The heavy fog and drizzles would persist for the rest of our morning on Huangshan, forcing our attention to the dangerously slippery trail in the absence of any visible scenery. Even against the flow of a standing queue of domestic tourists at the narrow and infamously precarious 100-Step-Scaling-Ladder, the expected 3.5 hour-long hike from Paiyunlou Hotel to the Yuping Cable Car took us only 2.5 hours to complete in the absence of any picture-taking.
I couldn’t help feeling somewhat bittersweet as we descended by cable car from what would likely be our once-in-a-lifetime visit to Huangshan. The weather was crappy; the trails were packed to the edges with rowdy domestic tour groups; and I ended with 3 hours’ worth of photos out of 26 hours on the mountain.
But those 3 hours also presented the most magical and breathtaking mountain scenery I have ever seen, and I would never trade these 3 hours for 2 sunny, fogless days in retrospect. Yes it would be a nice secondary bonus to witness a completely cloudless panorama, but that’s not what Huangshan is most famous for. I’ve already seen the best of Huangshan, the moment that thin, misty white veil started to rise out of the West Sea Canyon’s valley floor.
Hotel Review: PAIYUNLOU (Huangshan)
Address: Xihai Scenic Area, Huangshan, Anhui
Price: RMB 790
Website/Map: Check prices from Agoda or Ctrip, whichever is cheaper at the time
Directions: The easiest approach to the hotel involves taking the Yungusi Cable Car up and follow the signs towards Xihai (West Sea). You'll first pass the Beihai Hotel, then the Xihai Hotel, and finally reaching Paiyunlou in about an hour's hike.
This was by far the most expensive hotel of our entire trip. The price of RMB 790 (CAD$125) was actually considered a bargain considering foreigners are always charged RMB 100 to 200 extra per room, depending on where you book. In comparison the average price of the rest of our stays cost RMB 260 (CAD$41), and the hotels at the foot of Huangshan probably averaged around RMB 200 -- this tells you how lucrative the hotel monopoly is at the mountain top, and why the management company is profitable enough to be traded on Chinese stock exchanges.
But if you’re planning to hike both the West Sea Canyon and the front and back sides of the mountain top like we did, you probably have no choice but to take a deep breath and prepare to be gouged. The only options cheaper would involve renting tents (RMB 200) from the hotel in warmer seasons, or crashing into dorm-style bunk beds (RMB 120 per bed) in rowdy 16-people rooms. We were actually very happy with our 3-star room -- very clean, quiet and comfortable -- except for its attempt to charge another RMB 25 for the usage of a set of toothbrush and toiletries. Good thing we came prepared.
Booking a room was only the start of the price-gouging. Charging RMB 80 each way for the cable car was at least acceptable, but a further RMB 19 for the 20-minute shuttle bus between the cable car station and the gate was getting ridiculous. Every item for sale at the mountain top was at least two to three times the price at the bottom, but that’s somewhat justifiable after seeing how porters climbed all the way from the bottom carrying 96 kg (yes, I counted … 48 bottles of 2 litre Pepsi) on their scrawny shoulders.
Dinner at the hotel was overpriced and mediocre in taste. We watched our wallet and ordered some of the cheaper dishes -- an appetizer of Marinated Duck (Jiangya) for RMB 40, Red Braised Eggplants (Hongshao Qiezi) for RMB 50, and a casserole of Tofu with Three Delicacies (Sanxian Doufubao) for a whopping RMB 80 -- with hardly any meat, and still ended up paying around RMB 180. I estimated that the same dishes at the bottom of the mountain would only cost about RMB 80, but then I remembered the porters.
Bill for Two Persons
|Marinated Duck||RMB 40|
|Red Braised Eggplants||RMB 50|
|Tofu with Three Delicacies||RMB 80|
|Rice x 2||RMB 10|
|TOTAL||RMB 180 (CAD$28.6)|
At least we didn’t need to spend extra on breakfast the next day. We followed the advice of Chinese travelers and brought a backpack full of snack food, bottles of juice, a small bottle of rice wine, and these two bowls of Jinmailang "premium" instant noodles that came with a whole marinated egg inside. Dropping in some pre-packaged braised chicken gizzards (I know it sounds dodgy, but the locals bought them by the kilogram and they turned out quite tasty) into the soup and it became the warmest breakfast for a cold morning on a 1700 m mountain top.
By 12:00 we came down the mountain and found a decent and reasonably priced lunch spot, just outside the bus station on the next side street to the right.
It was the restaurant with NO NAME, seriously. We did asked the owner’s wife and she did try to tell us the story ... in her local Huangshan dialect which was entirely unintelligible to me. I did get the impression that they ran into some sort of bureaucracy trouble with the local officials and had to tear down the original name they chose.
Our eyes lit up when we saw the words Tujidan (free-range eggs) on the menu, after our wonderful experience with scrambled eggs at Hongcun. The eggs here weren’t quite as incredibly flavorful as those we had previously, but the eggs did taste of a mildly free-range quality and were still tastier than the Canadian eggs that I typically get at home. And since I didn’t know if I’ll ever set foot in Anhui Province for a taste of these farm-raised eggs again in my lifetime, I actually ordered two dishes of scrambled eggs, the pictured dish with Wood Ear Mushrooms (Muer), and another with Chinese leek flowers.
Bill for Two Persons
|Scrambled Eggs with Wood Ear Mushrooms||RMB 22|
|Scrambled Eggs with Chinese Leak Flowers||RMB 26|
|Stir-Fried Spinach||RMB 16|
|Rice x 2||RMB 4|
|Plate Set x 2||RMB 4|
|TOTAL||RMB 72 (CAD$11.4)|
This was the end of our adventure in the landlocked, rural villages and towns of Jiangxi and Anhui, and the start of our next adventure in the sleepy waterside towns and glitzy metropolises of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. At 14:15 we took a 3.5-hour bus ride back into the realm of bright city lights, to the picturesque West Lake and congested traffic of Hangzhou. We would spend our next 8 nights adapting to the tradition of waterfront-living synonymous with historic Eastern China.