April 5, 2010
Early morning at Qianliangtai
I assumed the foggy weather would continue and decided not to rise up early for sunrise. When I woke up at seven, the sky was totally clear, and the sun cast a warm morning glow over everything.
We quickly hiked to the closest lookout facing east, which was the Qianliangtai (Refreshing Terrace 清涼台), a short ten minutes ascent from Beihai. The golden hour had already passed, so I was left wondering how amazing the scenery must had been a short while ago. Still, we were treated to a panorama of strange shaped granite peaks towering over a sea of cloud in distance. Huangshan under a clear blue sky was not as photogenic as it would be covered by a blanket of light mist, but we would gladly take it over yesterday’s damp weather.
A round-trip between Rear Mountain and Front Mountain
Usually an itinerary of two nights atop Huangshan will consist of one night each at the Rear Mountain and Front Mountain to save some backtracking. Our group chose to spend both nights at Beihai (located at the Rear Mountain) because some did not want to go to the Front Mountain. For those of us who were going to the Front Mountain, it would be a long descent then a demanding uphill hike back to the Rear Mountain.
The 45-minutes climb to Guangmingding (光明頂) felt like a completely new experience even though I did the same hike on the previous day. The scenery along this stretch of trail was not particularly interesting, but being able to actually see what surrounded me was a vast improvement from walking in a thick fog. We reached Guangminding at around 11:00am.
There is a saying along the lines of “Not visiting Guangmingding is like never been on Huangshan”, which is complete bullshit. The view from Guangmingding was mediocre at best but was absolutely packed because of its fame and its location between the Rear Mountain and Front Mountain. Our group split into two again like yesterday; the others were heading back to Beihai while my cousin and I would head for the Front Mountain.
We began on an easy note; it was all downhill from Guangmingding to Shixinfeng (始信峰), the location of the Front Mountain cable car station and the most famous pine tree in Huangshan, Yingkesong (Guest Greeting Pine 迎客松). A twenty minutes trek got us to Tianhai (天海), where we bought a few bottles of water at a kiosk.
The traffic to the Front Mountain was astonishing. We had to stop every couple of steps to avoid bumping into the back of someone else. Soon after passing Huangshan’s highest peak, Lianhuafeng (Lotus Peak 蓮花峰), we reached a huge vertical drop, and there were two routes in front of us; one was a continuation of the zig-zag path of stairs we had taken so far, while the other was a single flight of stairs with a 70 degree inclination called Yixiantian (一線天). We opted for the longer but more leisurely route and slowly made our descent.
The sun, ever omnipresent in the sky, made the fog of yesterday seemed like a distant past. We walked down the steps quickly in the summer like heat, wishing we could quickly take a shade from the sun at Shixinfeng. The scenery along our long hike downhill didn’t change as much as I expected. Aside from the major lookouts, there was not very many photogenic locations between Front Mountain and Rear Mountain. If I knew beforehand, I would have left my tripod at the hotel and not carry it around the whole day.
We reached the Front Mountain cable car station at 12:40pm. The plaza in front of the cable station was packed, with countless number of package tours and their guides all talking through their megaphones at the same time. A long line-up of dozens of tourists was in queue for a photo-op with Huangshan’s most famous pine tree, the Guest Greeting Pine (迎客松, this one is actually a replica as the original one died a few years ago). Even Hangzhou’s Lingyin Temple (靈隱寺) felt more serene in comparison.
After planted our feet at the Front Mountain and taken the “been here” photo with the Guest Greeting Pine, we had to face the daunting reality in front of us – take the same route back to Beihai, but obviously every step would be uphill.
Maybe because it was getting late in the afternoon, the path back to the Rear Mountain was mostly empty. There was some occasional traffic from the other direction, but almost nobody else took the uphill route we were on. We reached the section of the trail with the huge vertical drop relatively quickly. We chose Yixiantian (the 70 degree inclined stairway) as our path of ascent to shorten our way back, even as we witnessed how uneasy the uphill and downhill traffic were coexisting on such a narrow path.
We sat for a good five minutes before we began ascending Yixiantian. Because of the large inclination angle and poor maintenance of this stairway, each step required much more effort and my thigh muscles felt like they were burning. I had to lean against the wall every few steps to let the opposite traffic to pass, but the path cleared up about halfway up. I reached the top after ten minutes, probably the longest it ever took me to climb a hundred steps or so.
After Yixiantian, it was still all uphill from there, but the climb didn’t seem nearly as intimidating. We walked slowly, hungry and dehydrated. The sun burnt as hot as it had been the whole day. The only thing keeping us going was the food stall at Tianhai and the prospect of food and water.
We reached the kiosk at Tianhai about two hours since we left Shixinfeng. I quickly consumed one bottle of water and two sausages (tasted disgusting even when starving). Finally, I could see the end in sight.
Sunset near Feilaishi
The rest of our group were chilling out in our hotel room when we returned at 4:00 pm, which was quite a contrast with the two of us who were physically spent. I ate the last cup-noodle and asked if anyone would be interested in seeing the sunset at Paiyunting (Cloud Dispelling Pavilion 排雲亭). My cousin immediately leaped on her bed and declared that she would take the rest of the day off. The rest of the group, obviously well-rested, agreed to go along.
I took a quick nap, and we took off at 5:15pm. My legs felt even heavier after the rest. The relatively short distance to Paiyunting felt like a marathon.
From my pre-trip research, one of the best spot for sunset at Rear Mountain was Paiyunting, though the information was based on the summer peak season. Once we got to Paiyunting, we were treated to a beautiful orange hue over the mountainside, but the sun was blocked by some of the taller peaks.
I was determined not to carry my tripod the entire day without using it once, so I would head to Feilaishi (飛來石) by myself. Not sure if I had enough time before the sunset, I started running uphill. My feet actually felt lighter – for about five minutes.
Around three-quarters of the way to Feilaishi, I reached a tiny nameless lookout with a clear view of the lowering sun. The view was not as wide as I would like, yet it was probably the best I could hope for at this point. I set up my gears and started shooting.
The experience of seeing the sun disappearing from the sky never gets old. The darkening sky brought along a undesirable reality – the return hike back to the hotel. As my adrenaline boost wore off, I was alone on a long trail, wondering how I got to where I was in the first place.