Mission: Yellow Mountain
May 30, 2013 § 4 Comments
Travel is always a series of obstacles, that ultimately result in pleasant experiences once the hurdles are (hopefully) surpassed. We particularly like the achievable challenges that make our quests just within reach, yet push our comfort zone by roughing it, doing something out of the norm, or by avoiding getting gouged with high prices. Visiting one of China’s most famous mountain ranges became our first such major challenge of the trip.
This was not one of those times going off the beaten path though; in fact Huangshan (黄 – “Yellow”; 山 – “Mountain”) has been a site of inspiration for poems and scrolls of Chinese artwork for centuries (poems are found from as early as the 7th century). It’s stunning 36 peaks reach almost 6,000 feet, are frequently covered in a “sea” of misty clouds, and are named with their own dramatic and whimsical titles. Once we heard of its splendor and decided to go, a series of tasks awaited us in our efforts to ‘conquer’ the mountain.
Obstacle #1: Travel during a Chinese holiday.
China’s large population, sizable middle class with means to travel, concentration of major hot spots, and nation-wide holiday breaks make travel during said holidays a nightmare, or so we had heard. After enough times hearing the refrain‘…as long as you don’t travel during holiday time…’ we chose to go against our spontaneous decide-upon-arrival style by planning in advance.
About a week before the holiday we tried to calculate where we would be in 6 days, making decisions about interim towns sight unseen which is normally antithetical to our long term travel philosophy. We mapped out a route, began booking transport and accommodation ahead where possible, and braced ourselves for the crowds.
Obstacle #2: Book a hotel room with little no to common language.
We decided spending the night at the top of the mountain would factor into our plans for the holiday. We knew reserving ahead was a must but the 5 or so hotels on the mountain were not listed on our trusty accommodation site, hostelworld. We had phone number listings, so we tried calling places in our guidebook and muddling our way through the phrasebook, asking in Chinese ‘Do you speak English?’. The responses ranged from “No” in English to “No” in Mandarin and finally “Try website” in English – the webpage which of course was in Mandarin only. The google translation did not provide us with enough confidence to enter our credit card information in order to reserve a room
Luckily our current hostel staff was kind enough to assist with translation, using our cell with local SIM card to call ahead, but alas it was after 8pm and we could not make any bookings at that time. Joe poked around the internet and the lonelyplanet thorntree forums, discovering that the Chinese travel aggregator site, ctrip, made an excellent option with little markup. We crossed our fingers and hoped the reservation was valid, and that our understanding of where to go was accurate.
Obstacle #3: Brave the endless flights of stairs.
The physicality of the climb should not be understated. While many Chinese tourists embarked on the ‘hike’ in the 80 degree weather wearing suits, sweaters, and appropriate footwear such as high heels, we struggled even in our spiffy REI outdoor gear. Chinese hiking and outings into the parks so far have consisted of completely paved walkways and stairs. Paving may ease the burden, but picture endless flights of stairs (wikipedia estimates upwards of 60,000 steps in the entire area). It was reminiscent of the Inca Trail, however not quite as large in size of the individual steps and more in quantity. We completed the hike up in just about 2 hours but this was not without significant huffing and puffing.
We particularly rushed to pass and steer clear of large groups of domestic tourists following their fearless leaders who proudly waved the tourist group flag and assertively made use of their portable loudspeakers. Even once we reached the ‘top’, there were more trails providing hours more of potential sightseeing (and associated effort). We were drawn to explore for a few more hours and continued to hike up and down very steep passages that were frequently occupied by many other tourists. The density of people made the height more terrifying; I kept wondering what I would do if I accidentally bumped someone off the mountain. Of course throughout all of this the hardworking porters slog up each flight carrying what we estimated to be up to 100lbs of goods supported by a bamboo stick. I think the route could benefit from some regulation similar to Inca Trail in which maximum weights / minimum wages protect the porters. Given there was the option of the cable car up and down, I’m also not sure the economics at play such that it was viable to have porters carry up the goods rather than have them transported. Probably a living example proving the abundance of labor in such a populous country.
Obstacle #4: Fit 9 people into 6 beds.
Hotel prices at the summit of Huangshan, particularly on a holiday, were out of our normal budget range, so we decided to forgo our own room in favor of bunking in shared dorms. Upon arrival (and successful check in using our ctrip reservation) we were greeted with smaller than average hotel rooms, crammed with 3 sets of spartan-like bunk beds and containing one bathroom. The rooms were gender separated and we thought to ourselves that we would each have 5 roommates.
Joe napped, resting from the hike up the mountain, and awoke to no less than 8 other males settling into his room. The catch was 3 of them were young boys around 10 or younger, meaning they didn’t ‘count’ as full adults towards occupancy. Kasey also had a ‘bonus’ roomie. Our 2 rooms were actually occupied by a set of 5 families traveling together, men & sons with Joe, wives & daughters with Kasey. When bedtime came, the 3 boys/1 girl used our two next door rooms as an extended playground and ran back and forth shrieking with delight. It wasn’t too bad to be that crowded as it was just one night, and practicing English with the 1 man and couple of kids who knew select phrases was entertaining. We both took the opportunity to shower at night before the bathroom was too wet, and settled in with our ear plugs. Unfortunately for Joe, a couple of his roommates had special snoring styles that were more like elephants sneezing or bad opera singers warming up and it was a very short night for him.
Obstacle #5: Buy bootleg noodles.
We heard food prices would be high on the mountain so we packed snacks, but planned to eat at least one meal at the top. The norm seemed to be purchasing one of the ubiquitous cup noodles at a 4x markup (bus stations usually sell them for less than $1, while on the mountaintop they were almost $4). Inside one store near our hotel we searched the aisles but did not find them. When we asked the store employee we got sideways glances as she checked the expression of her coworker before dropping into a whisper “Yes have. Come back later, someone is in store”. There was an innocuous looking employee in the back so we returned 15 minutes later. The whispering employee headed behind the counter to quickly stuff 2 bowls into sacks. We still are not sure what happened, but the noodles seemed fine to us and that had been the going rate when we checked around. We were pretty proud of ourselves for figuring out the black market ‘rules’ for buying cup noodles.
Obstacle #6: Secure sunrise and sunset spots.
Besides wandering around the paths at the top of the mountain, every traveler we spoke with – foreign and Chinese – provided us with their opinion on best sunrise and sunset locations. It seemed like ‘the’ thing to do so we dutifully compared notes to select our ideal destinations and proceeded to our chosen sunset spot at Purple Cloud Peak. There were already a few small groups of people gathered to stake out seats on nearby rocks when we arrived about an hour before sunset. Groups continued to trickle in until there were very few spaces left on our chosen set of rocks. Normally I associate sunset and sunrise viewing with idyllic isolated places in the world where you can ponder life’s big questions. This was not one of those places. It is a funny phenomenon that EVERYONE goes to watch sunset at a select few spots, so you end up with great views but you share the almost romantic moment with hundreds of your new tourist friends.
The next morning for sunrise, we heeded the advice of other travelers who told us a 4:45am wake up was too late for the 6:00am sunrise. After a short night we headed out of our dorms just after 4am and were the FIRST people to the coveted Stone Monkey Watching the Sea spot. Great Success!! Within minutes 20-30 people had joined us, and by sunrise we were 2 of 100 or so people concentrated on a small outcropping of rocks facing east. We did not have one of the famed misty mornings for viewing beds of clouds enshrouding peaks, but nonetheless we enjoyed a beautiful clear sunrise and our quiet moment at the front of the crowds.
And of course, after we successfully completed our set of challenges, the final obstacle was to narrow our 400 photos down to a more manageable album size (~60) for sharing with you here.
Hopefully the themes of the excursion come through as you view the pictures, simply put into 3 words as steep, crowded, and majestic.