Shanghai with its Pearl Tower and early 20th century European architecture; Suzhou with its gardens, canals, and gondolas; and Hangzhou with its tea plantations and tourist resort surrounding West Lake were all close enough for me to visit during a week’s holiday in May of 2008.
I was teaching English in Xián, Shaanxi province when I decided to take some time off. I booked a train and hostels. In Shanghai, I went up the Pearl Tower and saw a galaxy of city lights stretching below. I visited the botanical gardens. And a short walk from West Lake, I saw small fish swimming in the clear water of the ancient Dragon Well, which gives Long Jin Cha, “Dragon Well Tea,” its famous name.
While in Suzhou, I visited the silk museum where I bought a silk jacket, visited the Humble Administrator’s Garden, and enjoyed an afternoon under the shadow of a tall pavilion while I sat sipping tea by the side of a turtle and goldfish filled pool.
From Suzhou, I caught the train back to work in Xián. As the train passed a mountainous landscape, a fellow passenger pointed out Huang Shan, “Yellow Mountain,” on the map that I had spread out on my bunk. The tall young man spoke with only a trace of accent; he had recently graduated from university and he told me: “You must visit Huang Shan. It is the most beautiful mountain in China. People say if you haven’t seen the other mountains of China, see Huang Shan. Once you have seen Huang Shan, no need to see the other mountains.” As I stared out the window at the mist-enveloped scene, I vowed I would return to climb it.
In the summer of 2012, I was leaving China to return to Canada and I wasn’t sure when I would visit China again. I decided to take a train ride and visit Huang Shan first. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring granite peaks, and in 2007 received more than 15 million visitors. I booked my ticket, caught the train from Zibo, and passed countless cities and villages. The further south I travelled, the more rice paddies I saw. On the train the sleeping berths consisted of two sets of triple bunk beds, all with pillows, mats, and white duvets. There were safety bars on the upper bunks. On many a train in China I had spent more than 12 hours sitting up, so these sleeping berths were a luxury. I became excited as I crossed the mighty Yang Tze and saw huge freighters through the bridge girders. I arrived in the late afternoon. Hawkers and hotel reps worked the square outside the train station, and I tried to brush off the young woman who insisted that she could take me to the best hotel in Huang Shan City. I hoofed it to the nearest low-star hotel I could see, with my guitar, my pack, and the hotel hustler clinging to me. It happened to be the hotel she represented.
I booked my room and went back to the train station square without pack, guitar, or hotel rep and found a seat on a short wall to watch people, mostly women, dancing. In every city of China, dancers use the city squares or even large parking lots to practice, led by a few who knew the steps. These women were using a USB flash drive plugged into an amplifier for music. The Spanish music and swirling dresses didn’t seem out of place, but they would start and stop repeatedly while working out this particular routine for some future performance. Soon I went back to my hotel to sleep after gathering information on which bus to catch the next day.
The next morning, after dining on instant noodles and oranges, I caught the first of two buses to Tang Kou Bridge. Once there, I walked four kilometres to East Huang Shan, the village where I had booked my hostel. The hostel was almost empty and after my long walk I only wanted to shower and rest.
East Huang Shan village was next to a farm. I had noticed a large old brick farmhouse and later discovered that the area beside the village was a farm where intellectuals had been sent to work during the cultural revolution. Rice paddies, tea plantations, and all manner of vegetables and gourds were abundant at the farm. However, the village was not bustling with commerce and several store fronts were empty; businesses had been closed including a bus station/hotel complex. Restaurants were in short supply, although every second shop sold an assortment of teas. Back at the hostel a clerk informed me of the bus schedule and the next morning I boarded the bus outside the door and was on my way to the mountain.
We stopped inside Huang Shan Park in a large parking lot next to Mercy Light Temple. I started up the stone and cement steps which scaled the mountain. I’d climbed many mountains in China so I brought my day pack and a dragon handle bamboo cane, the crook having the shape of a dragon head and tail. The mountain rose steeply and the evergreen-covered slopes were slashed by bare rock cliffs. Each peak had a name: Eyebrow Peak, Fairy Capital Peak, Immortal Peak, Immortal Overturns the Desk Peak, Bookcase Peak, Pagoda Peak, Flying Dragon Peak, and many more. I pushed and pulled upward and across, using cane, hand-rails, and my legs, which groaned in protest. I passed and walked with hundreds of other tourists who, like me, wanted to breathe the fresh air and see the mountain sights. This was a mountain for the sake of landscape viewing and was not studded with temples, as many of the famous mountains in other parts of China are. Pine trees were bent by the wind. Chains directed us through pathways that could be blocked should the weather turn bad.
I climbed straight to the top of the 1864 metre Lotus Peak, at times clinging to the steel post and chain railings. I drank my water and relaxed among 20 or so people at the top of a tiny rocky promontory as cameras flashed and fingers formed the peace sign to go with a smile and a sense of accomplishment. In China, it seems that half of the photos feature people giving the peace sign. I could see the plate marking the altitude of Lotus peak and felt the dampness of the cloud cover. I sat down and someone graciously offered to take my picture. I walked carefully down and felt the friendship of my fellow mountaineers; yet, among everyone, I was still alone.
As I travelled down from Lotus Peak, I kept passing a group of young women who would then pass me as I rested. We soon began a conversation. The three had gone to university together and were working at Wu Hu by the Yang Tze River close to the railroad. They worked for an NGO on local environmental issues. We continued on our way across the peaks and although I had planned on booking a room in the Beihai (North Sea) Hotel, I went with my new friends to the Xihai (West Sea) Hotel instead. I was able to find a dorm room and after another meal of noodles, I went to sleep with arrangements made to view the rising sun.
I got up early and we climbed above the hotel to a promontory that I thought would give us a good view of the rising sun. It had begun to rain a bit, so we hurried and cheered as the sun made a red streak in the sky.
We didn’t see the full sunrise as the clouds wept and sent us back to our hotel. The girls decided to go back to sleep but I decided to walk along a path following the mountain. I walked until I came to a man-made pond full of goldfish and sat under an overhang out of the rain and rested while watching the fish swim lazily. I continued my walk and came to a bifurcation; one path led straight down. I took the high pathway that soon entered a large natural cave. It was a through cut showing bare buff and yellow rock. At one point a slash of sky appeared 25 feet above me. When I exited the cave, there was a stone and cement pathway that went down and down and down—a little too steep for me at this time of the morning. I headed back and when I arrived at the divide, one of my friends from the hotel was there, dressed in a yellow plastic raincoat. She told me that the other girls were still sleeping so we took the path down and were surrounded by evergreens and rock. We finally came to the very steep stone pathway that I had decided not to climb down earlier in the morning. We walked through the cave, clapping and shouting to hear the echoes.
When we arrived back at our hotel the other two girls were up, so we all put on raincoats and headed into the blustery rainy morning. The wind was howling above us as we walked on paths through the pine trees. Every time we encountered a viewing station, we would fold up our umbrellas since the viewing platforms were on rocky promontories that were exposed to the driving wind and rain.
We took in the Stone Drum Peak, the Lion Peak, and the Monkey Watching the Sea Peak. The girls began singing in the wind and rain. They turned the downpour and storming clouds into a heart-lifting backdrop for happiness.
We made our way towards the larger Beihai Hotel. We bought some corn on the cob and some bread from a kiosk just outside the hotel. We entered the lobby with other mountain tourists to get warm and eat our little breakfast. After half an hour, we left the hotel and made our farewells as our plans diverged.
I walked down the east side of the mountain and, as I made my way, the rain began to ease off and the sun peaked from behind the clouds. I was getting tired and my legs were giving in, but the east side was less challenging and my trip was pleasant with the memories of friendship.