Huangshan, is a large mountain with 36 peaks at the summit. It’s 1,800m above sea level and located a few hours west of Shanghai
. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and a massively popular tourist destination. Our plan for the mountain was to ascend up the West Steps, supposedly the more scenic of the two routes, spend the night at the top, wander around the next morning and then descend via the East Steps in the early afternoon. The West Steps are a much longer and more difficult route, but we like picking the hardest route to walk. I had a small day sack with fleeces for cooler weather and the umbrella for if it rained. Plus painkillers, toilet roll and a few other bits and bobs. We were carrying 4×1.5L bottles of water and a lunch of fried rice prepared by the hostel.
We bought the tickets and set off up the steps. At first it was OK. The steps were steep and it was hot and it wasn’t long before we were soaked.
We had a good pace and easily walked past the few others who had been crazy enough to go up this route. There were very few actually walking up, just us, a French couple, the Chinese couple we’d met at the bottom and every now and again a couple of young Chinese people. Many more were coming down, clothing soaked with sweat and expressions of pain on their faces. In fact, most of the people coming down looked like they were in agony and were dying!
Nowhere on the route was there a flat section of ground more than 10m long. It was just never ending steps. Some sections were steeper than others but there was never a break. We stopped for an early lunch by the side route for the Celestial Peak. Our tops were now soaking from the sweat and our shorts were quite damp. Annemarie was wearing thinner shorts than me and she now had wet patches appearing around her backside. She wasn’t impressed at my laughter…
After lunch we set off up the side route. It was narrow and incredibly steep. Some parts were wet making them slippy too. We went up a section that was cut out of the rock, bent almost double while going up steps that were half a shoe on depth and almost vertical. After that was a long steep section of tiny steps. By now the clouds had descended and we couldn’t see more than 10m away. The next section of path was on the edge of the cliff face. Long and very steep and only a rope on the side. This was too much for me. The drop off the side was a long way down and I really didn’t like these steps. We turned around and went back, costing us about 45 minutes on total. We began our route up the mountain again. Forcing ourselves to put one foot in front of the other and lifting ourselves up the continual granite steps. We were soon soaking again and paused to cool and have a breather. This became part of our routine, pound, pound, pound and pause. When we paused it enabled the Chinese to pluck up the courage to ask for a photo with us. There we were dripping in sweat posing for photos! The homogeneous society of China means we are indeed celebrities!
Back on the main route it started to get very busy. Lots more people coming down and many more going up. We were near the cable car station and people had walked from the cable car to the Celestial Peak and were now coming back. My thoughts on the cable cars are mixed. On the one hand they allow everyone, old and young, to experience the incredible views of the mountain, but on the other hand they put people in places they normally wouldn’t be. We walked incredibly slowly, one footstep every few seconds. Good for others but annoying for us. Another thing about Chinese parks is they are usually well paved. A flat, smooth, wide footpath taking a gentle route to the destination. The Chinese really must hate straining themselves. It was near here we stopped to buy a snack and have a short break. We sat at the bottom of a very long set of steps and rested. The air was already quite a bit cooler which was a very good thing because I can’t imagine sweating even more than I was!
The cloud was covering everything now and we couldn’t see any views. We continued on. There wasn’t many more steps now, the path was mainly long flat sections with a few steps then another long flatter section. We were walking through the forest on the mountain top now. The summit is huge and not completely flat. It’s a few miles wide and long and has 36 peaks in total. Our hotel was towards the north side of the summit. The signs were confusing and not clear which path to take and we went wrong. Luckily it was only a 5 minute detour and the path wasn’t very steep. Then we got a glimpse of the hotel through the trees, after 5h 30m we had reached the hotel. We had reached the top but due to the clouds we hadn’t actually seen any views over the landscape.
We reached our hotel, supposedly a 4 star hotel and walking into the lobby it was not bad. Not 4 stars but not bad either. We quickly checked in and found our room. Very comfortable and clean. Lots of lights and tables and chairs to dump stuff on. Most importantly we had a kettle to boil water and refill our water bottles. Water is usually 3.5 RMB (30p), up here it was 20 RMB (£1.90). We’re used to prices going up on touristy places, but this price hike was ridiculous. Boiling the kettle is a very simple way to save some money.
We went back out for a wander before the sunset. As we walked around the clouds lifted and although it was still hazy the valleys and peaks could now be seen. It looked amazing. The rocks were glowing orange as the sun went down and the view was great. We spent over an hour taking photographs. You could see down to the valley floor and also watch as the clouds swept up and once again covered the wild shapes of the granite peaks. The peaks are also covered by what Kofi Annan, former U.N General Secretary described as ‘Umbrella Pines’, bright green and almost flat branches, looking just like the name. They sit precariously on the granite peaks, sometimes clinging to the edge of the rocks.
Near the hotel is a peak which is nothing more than a small chunk of rock sticking vertically into the air. From below it looked picturesque, from on the top it had great views and vertical edges.
Then it was back to the hotel to eat. Vegetable dishes were reasonably priced at ~30 RMB but meat and fish was anywhere between 100 RMB and 200 RMB. Some people had many plates of fish and meat. There are plenty of loaded people in China now and they love their food…
The next morning we skipped the sunrise (neither of us slept great and we didn’t feel like getting up at 4am) and got up at 8am. We went to get the breakfast advertised in our room but could only find a Chinese buffet breakfast for 50 RMB per person. The hotel had continental breakfast advertised, meats, cheeses, cornflakes, etc. The Chinese breakfast didn’t look very good and was pricey. We showed the staff the menu and they read it with confusion. As if they’d never seen it before. The guy went to ask someone else while we stood around with the staff giggling. Everyone was confused by the menu and said no. We had no choice but to pay for the crappy Chinese buffet breakfast.
We left our day sack in the room to wander to see ‘The Lion Peak’ and also to try and see the ‘sitting monkey rock’. We made our way up the many steps again with a little tenderness in our calves but nothing too bad. We reached the top after a kilometre walk to see the cloud had not lifted or it had once again being pushed onto the mountain, whichever… No view of the lion shaped rock or the rock that looks like a sitting monkey. We had seen both in the lobby of our hotel, which has a display of photographs taken by the staff. They were very impressive and the staff would probably be better off quitting their jobs and becoming full time photographers. The exhibition description said these had been taken over a 2 year period. Maybe it’s best not to quit the day job yet…
Having checked out of the hotel we headed for the Xihai Canyon. We’d been told that this was a must see on the mountain. We didn’t have time to do the whole circuit, but we had a couple of hours in each direction. Getting there was annoying. I can read maps, I’m usually very good with maps and can navigate pretty well, but I couldn’t understand these maps. They were like a puzzle to be deciphered and the prize was our destination. Fortunately I got it right and our prize was fantastic. The path led to the edge of a cliff and we stood there looking down a valley with sheer rock faces on both sides. The rocks were the usual orange colour and has trees sprouting from impossible looking crevices.
The path followed the cliff edge along the valley. In some places the steps were stuck into the cliff face and were just hanging there defying gravity. I was pretty fast on these steps to get them over a done with quickly. We were hundreds of metres above the valley floor and many of the view points were on the edge of the cliffs. Absolutely amazing views. Probably the best sight we’ve seen in China and up there with the best natural landscapes we’ve ever seen. The steps just seemed to never end. And they were always going down. The further along the valley we went the more steps we went down. Knowing we had to come back up the steps wasn’t a good thought but the views were compensating for that right now.
In one section a set of steps were carved into the rock leading to a gap between two rocks. The gap was little more than a shoulder width and it led to a small ledge overlooking the valley. A small bridge had been built linking the ledge with a set of steps curling around the rock. My legs went weak and I couldn’t go forwards any further, but Annemarie was OK and stood on the rather weak looking bridge with a few hundred metres drop below her. I took the photo and got away from there!
When we reached a long and very steep set of steps we decided this was far enough and we’d turn around. The walk back up was tough, very tough. The sun was shining and it was getting hot and the steps were incredibly steep, almost vertical in places. Plus the route was now getting busier and walking two abreast on a narrow path with a huge drop off the side isn’t something I like. We spent many minutes waiting for people to pass so I could get over the next section before more people filled the path.
It was about a 30 minute walk through the woods at the summit to reach the top of the East Steps. The views weren’t as dramatic on this side but it had the cable car station so it was still quite busy. On the steps down there were many more Chinese people walking up. The ones who chose to walk obviously came up this route as it’s easier and shorter. The surprising thing was just how many porters were on these steps. All the food and drink on the summit is carried up by hand by these porters. This seems stupid to me considering there’s two cable cars up the mountain. The last cable car is at 4:30pm so why not set aside an hour or so each evening to transport food and drink up and rubbish down. Nah, human life is cheap in China and wages for manual labour are very low. The porters looked like they were dying. Covered in sweat, panting, scrunched faces in pain. This can’t be good for their health! We reckon they had between 30-50kg on their shoulders and they had a 7km journey of non-stop steps. They took up most of the width of the path and we continually had to stop and move for them.
About halfway down we stopped at a seller to buy a bottle of coke. The small sellers on the steps are cheaper. He also had the ubiquitous noodles that are everywhere in China so we bought a tub and the boiling water to prepare them. This was our lunch!
The scenery as we came down was OK. It wide, green valley with a few peaks of rock sticking out. China is incredibly green and lush and Huangshan was no exception. It took us 1h 40m to get down in total. The steps were starting to take their toll on our legs and knees. Coming up is all in the quad and calf muscles, but coming down your knees are pounded as are your feet. We were aching quite a lot by the bottom.
Huangshan epitomises the Chinese landscape. When you see traditional paintings of China, this is the landscape they capture; lush green peaks in a range of shapes. A landscape that is breath-takingly beautiful. We really enjoyed our time in Huangshan and believe it was one of the most spectacular places on our trip. Should you ever come to China then make sure you come here!