Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
I had not mentally prepared myself for my weekend at Huangshan. I had not mentally prepared myself for the physical hike or the beauty that I would witness at the top. Against every single recommendation from guide books and many seasoned travelers, Puff and I decided that two fit young wai guo ren like ourselves would easily be able to conquer the 12 mile stair climb up Huangshan. We were also warned about the crowds touring Huangshan in the summertime. They reported that sometimes crowds were so dense that they needed to wait as long as two minutes before taking another step.
Puff and I embarked on our hike at approximately 10 am Saturday afternoon. While the bus station to the mountain was packed with people, all in tours clad in similar hats and shirts, there was (almost) an eerie silence at the western steps up the mountain. The crowds had miraculously vanished, and it was just me, puff, a couple of sherpas, and a family of germans heading up the western steps from the very bottom of the mountain.
I’d like to say that the chinese competitive edge hasn’t rubbed off Puff and I too much. but for the first half of the climb, we pretty much sprinted up the mountain, allegedly trying to “beat the germans” (like America hasn’t done that before). Besides brief periods of me singing the refrain of “Ain’t no mountain high enough” and a few select numbers from the Von Trapp family singers, beating the german family became our primary mode of entertainment on the hike. We also discussed how many runs up the mountain it would take to be as jacked as the sherpas. Sherpas are hired labor who haul hundreds of pounds of food and supplies up and down the western steps of Huangshan. Every day. These guys weren’t just in shape, It was as if Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris had trained a bunch of chinese to run up mountain steps in the heat of the summer with 100+ lbs on their back. That kind of shape.
Despite our spartan pace up Huangshan, there were views along the climb that absolutely took our breath away. Puff and I would stand in silent awe of the nature before us every 20 minutes or so, before spotting the germans about a half mile below and continued our trudge up the mountain. The best view was on Lotus peak, the highest peak on the mountain. There was only a small carved out stone wall seperating myself and the cliff below, and it was pretty unnerving as we ascended into the clouds. But the view was absolutely incredible. By the time we made it to our tent, we were exhausted.
However, there was little sleep to really be gained that night on the mountain. When we rented our tent, we didn’t realize we had rented a moldy blanket inside a tent that was just one of many in a pseudo shanty town on the basketball court behind a hotel. We were surprised that everyone else wasn’t as tired as we were, because our neighbors carried on loudly until the wee hours of the morning. It was into 30 minutes of a baby crying that Puff remarked, “I’m just really not cut out for slum life”
The real ruckus, however, began at 3:30 am. Approximately an hour and a half before sunrise. Now, Puff and I were fully looking forward to a peaceful, “one with nature” kind of a sunrise and had respectively set our alarms for four o clock, thinking we be able to avoid the crowd an hour before sunrise.
Au contraire. The crowd was up, loud, and making moves at 3:30. Not to be left in the dust, Puff and I rolled our sore bodies out of bed and hiked up another 3 km of stairs to the observatory near the bright summit to watch the sun rise above the cloud sea (as they so eloquently describe in our guidebooks). The actual experience, however was decidedly less tranquil. Puff and I managed to be about the only lao wais to get a front row place to stand. The place was absolutely packed.
If any of my readers have had the lovely experience of watching a sunrise at a tourist attraction in America, there is a certain expectation and respect that comes with that experience. We roll out of our beds, wake the kids, throw on our patagonia fleece and oakley sunglasses, grab a coffee, and stroll out into a quiet crowd where you watch the sunrise and maybe quietly speak to the person next to you about cool hikes you went on the day before. This is what I had looked forward to and prepared for, but the scene at the sunrise was absolute pandemonium. My gut was pushed against the railing and I held on with both hands as chinese tourists tried to aggressively jab me out of the way. They yelled at each other, and hacked last night’s phlegm onto the ground. They shouted on their cell phones and used cell phone speakers to play loud chinese pop music. Bits of that morning’s breakfast garbage fell off the cliff and blew around below us in the wind.
In short, the sunrise was an total and complete let down. But, it still served as an excellent cultural lesson nonetheless. At 4 am, Puff and I looked at each other in disapointment and decided to cut our losses and hike down the mountain. At least we would avoid the crowds. And that we did. I grabbed a hot tea on the way down, and we enjoyed another healthy hike down the mountain without seeing anyone but a few early morning sherpas carrying gallons of water up the mountain.
While I have experienced more moving sunrises, Huangshan itself was probably one of the most beautiful, natural, and rewarding places I have been lucky enough to see in my twenty years. I can fully understand why poets and artists have been drawn to it’s peaks since the Tang dynasty.
I also have absolutely no regret about climbing the hard side of the mountain first. The views are spectacular, the difficulty of the hike scares away most of the crowds, and it is very rewarding to see the view at the top of lotus peak! On top of that, I got to have as much ice cream as I wanted on top of the mountain with zero guilt. While the pictures do not nearly do Huangshan justice, I included a photo album so you can get an idea. If you ever find yourself in China, do not miss Huangshan!