One of the things we were dreading the most on our trip (other than Joyce obsessing about her hair color) was getting to China’s famed Yellow Mountain (or Huangshan Mountain to natives). As hard as we tried, the documentation on the internet was confusing and contradictory. Tour agents wanted a fortune to take care of the details. As we were travelling for 4 months, we did not want to spend the fortune, even for this iconic Chinese site. So we decided to try to do it on our own. The good news is that we made it…thanks to the many people along the way who helped us.
Getting There is NOT Half the Fun
The mountain, often referred to as the most beautiful mountain in China, is about 3 1/2 hours from the nearest large city, Hangzhou. There is no rail service to get there and cabs and private car services (we thoroughly explored both) are outrageously expensive. Even once you arrive at the bus terminal, you have to take another bus or cab to the end of a public road, where you pick up a park shuttle to a cable car or to the stairs (which require a roughly five-hour hike, straight up). Then, when you reach the top, you either have to walk long distances to arrive at hotels or the widely dispersed sites, or navigate and coordinate among a network of buses.
But wait…there is more as this is only half the challenge. When you arrive at the Hangzhou airport, you have to get a transfer to the bus station; but not the bus station. You have to specify the West bus station. This requires about 1 1/2 hours and about $20 by cab or a bus to the city’s other train station (which is on the opposite side of the large, traffic clogged city) and then a cab to the West station
Once you get to the Hangzhou West bus terminal, don’t ask for a bus to Huangshan. Although there is indeed a city by this name, it is three hours from Hangzhou and another hour from the mountain of the same name. But even if you do want to go to the city of Huangshan (which, as discussed below, we did), asking to go there is likely to result in blank stares. The reason: the city, at about 500,000 people–tiny by Chinese standards—is typically (but not always) referred to by the name of Tunxi, which is its old town section. Similarly, if you want to go to the base of Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, you don’t ask for that name. This destination is, at least usually, called Tangkou. Yep, very confusing.
To make things more confusing, the names, directions and costs for all these destinations differ depending on where you look and since there is no single official site (at least that we could find), you have to check, cross-check and then attempt to somehow verify what you find. Even if you find a "reliable"source, you may get a run-around. When we asked our hotel (see below for hotel options), they said it was very difficult, and that we should contact their affiliated travel agent. When we did this, they told us that it was very difficult, and at we should ask the hotel. After another attempt with the hotel led to naught, we gave up on that course of action. We tried our China travel agent, who wanted a lot of money. Of course…the more difficult, the more money.
Think you can sort out the confusion at the airport, train station, bus station or in Tunxi or Tangkou? Don’t count on, unless you can speak and/or read Mandarin. Very few people in these areas understand English. And if they do, good luck understanding them. And don’t expect signs to be translated into English. Anticipate all the questions you think may possibly come up and have somebody from a hotel or a previous city translate them for you. Then, since you will never anticipate all the questions you will need answered, be sure that you have Google Translator, or some facsimile thereof.
Returning is another challenge. Our itinerary allowed us only one, or if we really stretched it, almost two days on the mountain. If we took the bus back to Hangzhou, then caught a train to Shanghai (from where we were leaving early the next morning to Lhasa Tibet, we would have had a single day on the mountain and a door-to-door trip (from our mountain hotel to that in Shanghai) of seven or eight hours).
In searching for alternatives, we discovered, almost by accident, that there was an airport in Huangshan (not the mountain, but the airport near Tunxi, but which is, for the purpose of the airport, called Huangshan) with a one hour flight to Shanghai. This would give us an additional half day on the mountain. It would also allow us to spend the first night at a relatively comfortable hotel in Tunxi, catch a bus or cab to the mountain’s shuttle bus and cable car, spend a second night at a very, very basic hotel (with what we were warned was very expensive, with practicably inedible food) on the mountain. We could pack what we needed for the night on the mountain in our backpack. store our heavy luggage at our Tunxi hotel (rather than schlepping it up the mountain) and see the famed sunrise and sunset from atop the mountain. Then, after a day of sightseeing, we would travel back to Tunxi, eat at one of its restaurants, pick up our luggage and get a cab to the airport.
The catch? The plane was at 10:30 PM, arriving in Shanghai at 11:30. Unfortunately, we arrived at the Pudong airport and left the next morning from the Shanghai Airport, which is a more than an hour away. Best case, we would get into our Shanghai airport room at 1:00 AM. Since our flight to Tibet left at 7:30, we would have to get up by 5:00, leave our hotel by 5:30 to ensure enough time to clear anticipated complications of flying into the still disruptive, heavily-controlled region of Tibet. Worse case, if the flight had a problem flight, we would not get to Shanghai until the following day, and we would miss our flight to Tibet. At the last minute, we changed our plans from a plane to taking a 5 hour bus that got us in around 8 PM instead.
In spite of the pain, it all worked out, albeit with a lot of hours in transit.
Tunxi to Yellow Mountain
We took the bus into Tunxi and stayed at the Huangshan International Hotel. Fortunately Joyce saw the hotel from the bus window since the taxi we took from the bus station drove right by it. Although the hotel was comfortable, and located 1o minutes from the bus station and 15 minutes from Old Town, only a very few people spoke English and the Internet access was spotty at best.
Tunxi’s primary attraction, other than being something of a gateway to Yellow Mountain, is its "Old Street", lined with shops specializing in souvenirs, inkstone (a local craft specialty), reproduction antiques, tea, mushrooms and other local foodstuffs. Good for perhaps 30-60 minutes, but not much more.
From the hotel, we could have taken the bus (every 30 minutes or so) to Yellow Mountain, we decided to shortcut at least the first part of the trip by taking a one-hour, $20 cab ride (cabs are very inexpensive in China_. From there, everyone must take a roughly 20-minute park bus to the next stage of the journey up the steepest part of the mountain. Then one has a choice of one of two cable cars or two brutally long and steep hikes to different sections of the mountain. We took the eastern cable car up, did a 1.5-day trek through many of the most scenic sections of the park, and the western cable car down. But be warned, each bus and cable car costs money. Bring a lot of cash.
Every Path Leads Up–Way Up With Many Steps
The 130 million year-old granite mountain is filled by dozens and dozens of scenic peaks for which the Chinese have assigned descriptive names such as Nine Dragons, Threading Needle, Eighteen Arhats Watching and South Sea and our favorite, and perfectly descriptive, Flower Blooming on Brush.
Although we viewed most, climbed a fair number of the most beautiful of these peaks over our day and a half in the park, we had few particular favorites:
- Flower Blooming on Brush is a tall, small-diameter pinnacle that does look like a Chinese artist’s paintbrush, topped by a delicate pine tree;
- Stalagmite Peak, as you would guess, looks like a huge collection of stalagmites which are actually, hundreds of sharply eroded shards of granite;
- Shuguang Pavilion, which is built at the tip of a lonely granite peninsular that overlooks all types of eerily-shaped rocks;
- Rock Flown from Afar is a roughly 30-foot tall vertical rectangular monolith that looks like it was carefully placed atop a dome; and
- Red Cloud Peak is a ridge that climbs more than 300 steps above an already high plateau, and offers an incredible view of the sun setting over a large comical peak.
Speaking of steps, these are one of the most defining features of park…at least to our thighs
First the steps are numerous and steep. All of the sights are connected with a network of granite sidewalks and stairs as there aren’t any roads. And boy are there stairs. It seems like every sight requires climbing 100s, and often more–we counted more than 300 stairs to our Red Cloud Peak sunset view and we have no doubt that there were at least 500 steps to Rock Flown from Afar and, what seemed like a thousand steps to the China National Weather Observatory. Although the stairs are certainly in good shape, the steep grades sometimes required the steps to be quite narrow, forcing one to turn your foot sideways to fit and forcing you to calibrate every step so that your heal or toe (depending on whether you are going up or down) is flush against the step above. Given how treacherous some of the steps were,we were surprised that we saw only a few slips and no serious accidents. We were also surprised at the willingness of the vast majority of Chinese–including some rather elderly and heavy people, and many smokers) to traverse stairs that the vast majority of Americans (much less OSHA) would never even consider. Yes, they were huffing and puffing and using sticks, but although we think that we’re in pretty good shape, many of the Chinese put us to shame. This beings said, some people would never dream of such exertion. Joyce’s brother would be happy to join these tourists to pay porters (two to carry them in a chair connected to two long poles) up the to the scenic spots. If we were impressed by the stamina of the vast majority of visitors,we were in downright awe of the porters.
Stocking, building and maintaining the park.
Speaking of porters, without roads, supplies and building materials can be brought up the steepest spans of the mountain by cable car, but everything must still be carried miles–and up hundreds of steps–to their destinations. Porters passed you on the steps, carrying people, multiple suitcases or boxes, sacks and even large granite slabs for rebuilding steps, balanced front and back for weight, on wooden poles carried on their shoulders. And since power tools are so expensive and heavy and labor is so cheap, workers break and shape large granite boulders into paving slabs with sledges, hammers and chisels. Given the magnitude of such tasks, it is amazing that the park operates at all– much less that it is in such wonderful shape.
Park Hotels and Restaurants
We were warned to not expect much from the food and lodging on the mountain. Hotels ranged from “international 5-star” hotels, although we suspect the ratings were done 50 years ago to pitching your own tent. although many people brought their own food, one could purchase food from vendors and shops, “fast food” places or in restaurants, which include Chinese inexpensive (and not great_ Chinese buffets to fine dining. We ended up being very surprised that the food in the better places was eatable…not great, but we have had worse.
Based on everything we read in advance, we didn’t expect much comfort or cleanliness in a hotel on Yellow Mountain and were delightfully surprised at the quality of the Xihai Hotel. We booked the room through China Odyssey, which we think helped get us a good room in the new section. The room was clean, very comfortable with soft linens/towels, a comfortable king size bed/pillows, a flat screen TV (although, with such beautiful nature around us, who watched TV), great light for reading in bed (which doesn’t seem normal in China), a tea maker, soap, shower cap, scale and slippers (no bathrobes). You had to pay if you wanted a comb, toothbrush etc. but we were prepared having read about this earlier. No water was provided in the room surprisingly, but we just used the tea maker to boil what we need.
The bathroom had a clear glass wall separating it from the bedroom, but a switch on the wall turned it opaque for privacy. Marble floors, rain shower and tub. Although we brought our own soap, it was provided, as well as shampoo (no conditioner or body lotion).
We had roasted duck, which is not at Beijing’s quality level, but OK even though it was a little dry, frog (with a lot of garlic) and some type of corn porridge with vegetables. Also experimented with rice wine which taste like fortified alcohol even though it was only 16% alcohol. Tom got to keep the entire bottle to himself and Joyce ordered a bottle of Great Wall Chardonnay to console herself. Although many of the reviews we read complained about the pricing, we felt it fair considering that they had to cart everything up the mountain. We did have the window open for fresh air and people getting up for sunrise were quite noisy. However, after climbing thousands and thousands of steps…or so it seemed, we slept well. We were surprsed that we could hear people in the hallway so clearly as this section was quite new. But, hey, it wasn’t bad, and noise doesn’t both us much when we are tired
Although we did not stay here, we did peak into one of the rooms, which looked old and tired. We were glad we stayed at the Xihai. But we were able to grab lunch here. We shunned the inexpensive buffet and opted for a whole steamed sea bream in soy sauce and green onions, complemented with noodle soup with meat. The fish was delicious. Although the noodles were good and the meat (at least what there was of it) was tasty, the soup was watery and had little taste. But we were glad to eat at a different spot.