After Beijing and the daytrip to visit the Great Wall we flew south to Tunxi, which is effectively the service town for the epic Huangshan (‘Yellow Mountain’) with its striking granite peaks, pine trees, and amusingly mistranslated signs.
We were met by Philip, the guide from the local travel company we'd organised the next few days with – it looked slightly too complicated to do on our own especially since I wanted to go to Hongcun after the mountain, and he was a good guide so we were pretty happy we'd done it this way.
We slept overnight in Tunxi then drove up to the mountain in the morning.
I have to kinda stop here and explain that nothing in China is anything like anything in New Zealand. In New Zealand a mountain is a thing that mountaineers climb up wearing a bunch of gear and carrying tents and for half the mountains you can't even drive up to the base, you park in the carpark partway inside the national park and start tramping (hiking) from there.
In China, as far as I can tell, the entire country is developed. Anything that you want to go to, so do a hell of a lot of any other people, and it is a heavily-prepared tourism site.
So when you get to Huangshan, you drive onto the start of it by one of several roads, and then you take one of several very busy cable-cars to go up to the peaks.
We waited in the queue for the cable-car while it drizzled, hoping that it would clear enough to get decent views when we got up there. Cloud and rain (or snow) is standard on Huangshan all year around. The queue was only an hour and a half or so which is pretty short by China standards.
The cable car ride is relatively long and pretty cool – you soar up quickly between steep past cliffs and granite spires.
When you get there, there are walkways, shops, and hotels (though more on them in a minute), a lot of people – a bunch of signs trying to get the people to behave. The clear winner for amusing mistranslation was one of the first we saw – “To leave with the memory, please leave behind your virtue”.
We walked down and across to get to our hotel, which was the best-recommended of the several up the mountain. They look like regular hotels, but thanks to their remote location are expensive, a bit shabby, and at times uncomfortable.
We stayed at the Behei Hotel which is the flashest of the hotels up there, and the most expensive place we stayed in China. But since absolutely everything for the hotel has to be carried up – apparently by hand, not cable car, which is believable (we saw a mattress halfway up one of the long walkways and porters carrying large bundles) – that expense doesn't buy you a great time.
The food was lukewarm, the beds rock hard – they had full-size mattresses but inexplicably, these have a plank of plywood-thickness wood immediately under their surface, making them as hard as not having any mattress at all and so more like a hard shelf than a bed. I slept very little that night, and we didn't even attempt to dispense with our virtue as the signs suggested.
Officially, the main reason that people stay the night is that they want to get up and see the famous sunrise from the peaks the next morning – though this is in fact a terrible bet as the weather conditions mean you can't see it three quarters of the time. (Our guide had translated the weather forecast scrolling on the sign outside the hotel, which gave the chance of sunrise viewing as poor, and I chose to stay in bed and continue struggling to rest on my double shelf while the others got up to crowd onto the viewing platform before 6am.)
I suspect that the real reason we tourists stay on the mountain is that the cable cars stop operating suspiciously early – around 16:30. So given the long queue to get up there, that doesn't leave much time for walking around on a day-trip. And there is a lot of crowded walkway to cover if you want to see all the sights.
So many stay, and the options are basically: expensive mediocre hotel; fairly expensive bad hotel; or cheap awful hostel. Or, you can hire one of the tents that is pitched on the concrete court outside the hotel. Keen? I wasn't.
They did though have a somewhat famous artist doing beautiful watercolors in the lobby (to dry the works in the humid air he was using a hairdryer). When we arrived at the hotel there was already on the wall what can only be described as a watercolor mugshot of Luther wearing a hoodie, possibly meditating on the ground, possibly being cooked on some oven-stones. I viewed it as a clear and direct warning to him to practice the civilised behaviors the sign mentioned (you can tell they weren't talking to me because my beard is a lighter color).
So anyway, the accommodation aside, the mountain is amazing. We went out for walks around two of the mountain paths – that afternoon after checking in to the hotel, and the next morning before we went down.
The paths are nothing like a trail in NZ. It's not just that they are concreted and have handrails. They are mostly attached to the side of sheer cliffs and in many cases are suspended tens of metres above the next deflection from the vertical wall and a hundred or more above anything horizontal enough to walk on. I would not have wanted to be one of the guys that built them.
They go up and down continually as they wrap around the mountain and in some places it is very steep (at times hard going on your knees – a walking stick is not a bad idea).
The views are stunning, with massive vertical spikes and jagged ridges, smooth vertical cliffs, and slowly eroded promontories of ancient rock. There's a surprising amount of vegetation growing on it, largely conifers such as pines.
The vistas as you look down the valleys to the hills disappearing in the humid haze are excellent.
You can see how this scenery inspired the “Hallelujah Mountain” landscape in Avatar after the crew were sent to visit it (James Cameron was quoted as saying “All we had to do was simply recreate Huangshan Mountain in outer space”).
So, that's Huangshan. Poor hotels but amazing views. Maybe one day they'll extend the cable-car hours…
After we got down from the mountain we drove to Hongcun, a very scenic village nearby, before we took the sleepr train to our last stop on the mainland, Shanghai.