I just realized that exactly two years ago today I decided to start cataloging our exploits here on Expedition Expat. Happy second birthday! I should probably change the tag line at this point because we are, in fact, preparing to up and move ourselves back to the good ole’ U.S. of A.,but I am not sure I know where that setting is located. Not to mention, I have far more pressing matters to deal with at the moment such as presenting you all with a lovely tale of our recent visit to a fairyland on earth…
黄山 (also known as yellow mountain) came highly recommended to us by several co-workers (both foreign and Chinese). As such, it very quickly made it on to my “must see before we go home” list. From where we live in Suzhou it was a fairly easy weekend trip, not considering the hiking around on top of the mountain part. David had already been there in August 2016 with some of our visitors while I was busy entertaining in Shanghai, but with our impending departure we decided about a week in advance that we needed to go! This time we booked a nicer hotel room and decided to catch the train home as our driver was otherwise occupied that weekend. (Note: it’s actually faster to driver from Suzhou than take the train because of how long it stops along the way!)
Allow me to introduce you to the worst proportioned map you could ever hope to encounter while wandering your way around the mountain. For all of 10元 you can become the proud owner of this artistic masterpiece complete with Chinese/English translations and only a vague sense of where everything is located in relation to each other. It is worth buying for the translations alone I think, but don’t expect it to tell you everything you need to know about hiking Huangshan. For example: The green star is the location David stayed in 2016 called BáiYún (白云/white cloud). I am told the purple line to Bright Top was approximately 15 minutes while the orange line going to the Fairy Bridge took about an hour and a half.
We opted to stay in a hotel called XīHai (西海/west sea) for one night as it was considerably nicer than BáiYún and we were hoping we might actually be able to get a halfway edible meal there. If I were to go back though I think I would try to book well in advance and get the hotel at 光明顶 (GuāngMíngDing/Bright Top) to make sunrise/sunset viewing a breeze. It is the second highest peak on the mountain and has a hotel and observatory on top. What could be better?! I think everyone else had this plan though; pretty sure it is booked 6 months+ in advance!
Our hiking plan evolved as we figured out how exhausted we were and when we were told some of the area(s) near the fairy bridge were closed due to weather. We assumed it was the bridge itself that might be closed due to ice and chance of, you know, falling off the side of a mountain or something. The basic path we took was the long way around Goose Ridge, up past the Magic Pen with Flower on the Tip, Monkey Watching the Sea of Clouds, BeiHai (北海/North Sea) hotel, and finally ending at our hotel (XīHai). There we dropped off any dead weight we did not need and grabbed a highly edible sweet and sour pork dish and some veg. Our afternoon course included a trip up to Red Cloud Peak to scope out a sunset viewing location and then a long out and back trip to Flying Over Rock turning around just short of the Bright Top summit.
The second day we made our way to Bright Top via the BeiHai route (~35 minutes if you hike fast because you are afraid you will miss the sunrise), returned to our hotel for an edible breakfast, and finally took the short route back to the cable car because we had to figure out how to catch a bus to the train station on time!
Upon reaching the upper cable car station we were immediately greeted by a highly rare squirrel sighting. We joined several others in gawking and taking photos because these creatures are so very rare in all the major and minor cities we have visited to thus far in China. After recovering from our shock, we continued our hike on what turned out to be a stunningly fabulous day in Huangshan. The sun was out and clouds and mist were nowhere to be seen. This is pretty unusual because the mountain itself sees around 200 or more days of haze/mist every year. We went during the edge of winter/spring (erring on the spring side I suspect as the price had increased considerably for the cable car 4 days previous!).
Magic Brush with Flower on the Tip
One of the major attractions in this area is this unique rock formation that has a tree growing straight out of the top. Many years ago this was a naturally occurring phenomenon, but as some reviewer on trip advisor has informed the world not wanting to “burst anyone’s bubble” (but clearly doing so by the very nature of their post) the current tree was planted by humans. When the original tree died they put up a fake one for a while it seems. After several unsuccessful attempts they were able to finally get a new tree to take root and thrive in this highly isolated location. Unfortunately the equally famous welcoming pine appears to be dying and I am told people are employing the best techniques they can to keep it alive. We were unable to see this one ourselves as it was located down the pathway to the other cable car section.
At this location we also happened upon two monkeys and some babies hanging out around the bottom of the lookout point. Despite the signs advising against it, people were throwing them food and packaged snacks to eat. David was immensely pleased to see them though as monkeys are not only his spirit animal, but he had thought all the “beware of monkey” signs on his first visit were a farce because they never saw any.
Little did we know we had arrived during what seemed to be monkey season!
Monkey Watching the Sea of Clouds
We made some minor adjustments to our route to accommodate the plethora of monkeys on the walkways as we made our way up to a fascinating rock formation called monkey watching the sea of clouds. Unfortunately we were not able to walk out to the edge of the viewpoint due to some presumably famous Chinese man with a spectacular beard being interviewed for a CCTV special. We saw him later in our travels taking a group photo with other Chinese people, but unfortunately we did not figure out who he was. See if you can identify him from this terribly blurry photo because this other guy moved right in front of me just in time for my camera to focus on his pants.
I also made a new Chinese friend while contemplating the best viewing angle given the amount of people around and one particularly cheeky monkey who kept jumping up trying to steal peoples food among other things. We both agreed getting a good view of this rock formation was worth the potential monkey attack and managed to get a few good shots in before that same monkey returned to take a swipe at a woman’s purse.
Despite the warnings everywhere, people like to feed the monkeys around here. The will give them packaged foods and other less than ideal snacks to the point that the monkeys will swipe at any plastic bag that makes a crinkling noise. The monkeys are so used to this attention that they know how to peel and open the packaging, but that does not mean they are friendly by any means. We watched one Chinese woman wanting to get a photo by a carved rock (similar to the one above on the right), but she was unable to because a hissing monkey was fending her off for some reason. I can now see the appeal of a walking stick in these parts though. Part stability tool, part self defense weapon!
Our hotel was rather exceptional from the way David described his first trip, though in the future I think I would prefer the location of the other hotel(s) mentioned above. We did spend a good amount of time here in the evening being just plain exhausted, so it was an ok choice this time around. The bathtub was a really nice addition after an entire day of hiking too.
A quick word on food in Huangshan. When you consider how all supplies are brought to the mountain top, it is no surprise the prices are higher and the food is not terribly good. We planned ahead and brought some Cliff meal replacement bars among other snacks expecting the worst, but our hotel actually had decent food. I guess if you pay $200 for one night, they give you better food too. We had only brought two waters each with us expecting to buy more at the top, but when we saw these guys carrying their loads to the top, we felt pretty bad about not wanting to carry any more with us! This is how all the supplies make it to the top folks. I don’t even think these guys get to use the cable cars…I think they walk up the entire way. One of our friends told us in the summer when they are not wearing long pants you can see their calves and they are just massive. I believe it.
Red Cloud Peak
The afternoon hike on day 1 included a visit to red cloud peak to scope out the area for a nice sunset location. I can see why it is recommended as a sunset viewing opportunity. It has great visibility off to the west and not so much off to the east. Its viewing angle turned out to be completely irrelevant for us in the end however as it rained so hard that evening we decided not to huff and puff our way back up there.
Flying Over Rock
The rest of our 3.5 hour afternoon hike included an out and back trip past Flying Over Rock which ended part way to the Bright Top observatory. At this point we considered the wisdom of venturing farther toward the fairy bridge as we knew it would get dark and likely rain on us before we made it back. We would have given it a try anyway if 1) we trusted our map more and 2) we had not just been told it was closed this time of year. What precisely was closed off we never quite clarified, but guess it was probably just the bridge itself. David is of the opinion the walk from bright top out to the fairy bridge has some of the most interesting scenery, and until I make it out there myself we will have to rely on his opinion.
A Word About Packing
General wisdom suggests you minimize what you need to bring with you as you will end up carrying it a good long way at one point or another. We opted for our smallest hiking day-packs and layered jacket approach. I get warm quickly, so it only took about 10 minutes of walking each time before I removed every outer layer and ended up in jeans and a T-shirt. Even in approximately 3C/37F and raining all I did was pull out an umbrella while hiking. I needed both jackets once we stopped moving though, maybe I just walk fast…I think we can probably all agree on that, but I digress…Huangshan is famous for mist/clouds/rain, so preparing appropriately for the season at hand is important. I was glad to find another opportunity to use these waterproof Gortex hiking boots we bought in Hangzhou during what turned out to be monsoon season, and they worked splendidly. I was a bit nervous about what they might do to my feed though as we decided to hike the weekend before a half-marathon race, but my feet and legs did not end up any more torn-up than usual (score!). Comfortable hiking clothes, extra shirts, many snacks, and two water bottles all made the cut as well as my big girl camera (as evidenced by the pretty pictures littering this post). I think this was the first time I literally used everything I packed…oh wait, except those two extra pairs of socks. I just kept using the same long smart wool pair to counteract the cold “stand around and wait” activity we participated in lieu of watching the sunrise. As you can tell from this picture, unfortunately there was not much sunrise to be seen for us…
Sea of Clouds
Despite the incredibly cloudy morning, I think we got quite lucky in the end. As we were starting to make our way back to the cable car via the short route, the sun started to break through and the most amazing thing happened: we got a somewhat rare sighting of the sea of clouds! This was the one thing I has specifically hoped to see, and had we left for the cable car 10 minutes earlier we might have missed it. This clouds move fast and the scenery is constantly changing. I think this is part of its appeal, it is beautiful and unique in all seasons.
You can see how fast the clouds move here, this is why it can be so difficult to get a good view of the peaks sometimes. Looks like a “fairyland on earth” to me…