April 4, 2010
Tunxi and Cable Car
The bus ride from Hangzhou to Tunxi, the transportation hub of Huangshan, took around two hours. We arrived at a bus terminal that had apparently failed to pay its electric bill. None of our fellow passengers were fazed by the darkness, and within two minutes everyone had boarded their pre-arranged rides. We managed to hail two taxis to town centre too – a good 20 minutes after everyone else had left.
After an uneventful night in Tunxi (a town with a staggering amount of hotels and even more unfinished/abandoned ones), we headed to Huangshan on our pre-arranged ride the next morning. As we were driving by the unremarkable scenery, we found out that our driver could only drop us off at the Huangshan bus terminal, after which we had to board a bus to the Huangshan cable car station to get to the top of the mountain.
We arrived the bus terminal at ten, joining the hundred of tour groups already there. I quickly merged into the horde of people and shoved my way to earn the privilege to buy the bus tickets to the cable car station. I was told by our driver that this route, supposedly national property, is actually operated by a local bureaucrat’s company. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics!
The bus ride took an hour to reach the cable car station. Guess what? More queues to buy tickets for both the cable car and park admission. For some reason, the rather simple act of lining up would always turn into a pushing contest in China. At last, a suffocating two hours later, we boarded the cable car to Huangshan amid a dense fog.
Huangshan – Beihai
The fog at Huangshan Rear Mountain cable car station was so thick, I couldn’t see what’s two metres away. A few porters did spot us, and we hired one of them and left for Beihai (北海), the central part of the rear mountain where our hotel was located.
We walked along a well-paved stone trail, and it was not hard to appreciate how well developed was Huangshan’s tourist infrastructure. The concentration of garbage can was higher on the mountain than anywhere else I have been in the country, and in limited visibility the mountainside appeared litter-free, which is not an easy feat in China.
We arrived Beihai after half an hour of mostly downhill walk. Despite carrying several pieces of luggage, our porter walked much faster than any of us. After unloading our luggage into our extremely overpriced rooms, we had to decide where on Huangshan to spend the rest of our foggy afternoon. I suggested Xihai Grand Canyon (西海大峡谷), since many have suggested that this is the most scenic area in all of Huangshan.
Huangshan – Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon
By now, both my mind and body had become accustomed to climbing the seemingly endless flight of stairs. The weather was wet and a little cold, the fog was as thick as ever, and there was no sense of serenity to speak of because of the massive number of tourists everywhere. Even so, taking each step was not as tedious as it sounds – there was a genuine buzz of excitement in the air, as most people, including us, appeared really glad to be on Huangshan, the most famous mountain in China. The collective fervor reached a high point at Paiyunting (Cloud Dispelling Pavilion 排雲亭), one of Huangshan’s iconic lookouts right next to Xihai Grand Canyon, even though the fog continued to limit visibility to a mere few metres.
Many tourist groups stopped at Paiyunting, so the downhill walk to Xihai Grand Canyon was not as congested. After a long descent down many steep sets of very narrow stairs, we arrived at a platform where we could stop for a breather. I left my group and walked across a stone bridge and began to wait for better photographic condition.
Remarkably, the fog receded before long and I finally got my first good look at Huangshan. The iconic granite rocks and pine trees were right in front of me, under a swirling layer of light mist. My appreciation of the surrounding beauty was only enhanced by how fleeting it was, as the heavy fog reappeared a few minutes later.
For the final stop of the day, our group decided to split into two. Some chose to return to our lodging, while my group decided to try our luck at Guangmingding (光明頂) to catch the sunset.
Guangmingding is the second highest point in Huangshan, and the path there from Xihai is all the way uphill. With everything covered in a dense fog, our ascend became strictly an endurance ordeal without any visual reward. My legs felt extremely heavy – each upward step took a little extra effort than the last.
After an hour of stairs climbing, our reward at the peak was not surprisingly more fog. We allowed twenty minutes to pass by before admitting that our effort was a sunk cost, then dragged ourselves downhill on our exhausted return to Beihai.