Huangshan

Eastern, Anhui, China

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

“Huangshan is the No. 3 beauty spot in the world”, proclaimed the pamphlet, a fine specimen of the traditional Chinese love of lists and categorisation which begged questions such as “who says” and “on what criteria”. There would be no point asking whether any of the top 10 are outside China.

Huangshan, the Yellow Mountains, are, however, truly extraordinary: a cluster of over 70 outrageously eroded granite peaks which poets and painters have come to contemplate for well over a thousand years.

The mountains' fame is justified: gothic spires and dinosaur spines, dizzy thousand-foot plunges into dark, water-scoured ravines; twisted pine trees clinging to invisible crevices, azaleas glowing against the grey rock and the fresh spring woodlands.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting has two main types of subject: Guilin, a river with rafts meandering among improbable towers of rock; and Huangshan, mountains with crags piled on precipices, to which trees grip for dear life, layers of mist shrouding parts of the hillside, a reclusive thinker in very sharp headgear sitting on a patch of grass plotting his next poem. Many Huangshan views can seem deceptively familiar as a result.

When we were there, Huangshan was only moderately inaccessible by Chinese standards, a mere 5½ hours from the willow pattern West Lake at Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, the imperial capital of China during Southern Song times (1127-1279AD). You can now get there in 2hrs on a smart expressway. Shame.

From the prosperous, modern villages and low wooded hills of wealthy coastal Zhejiang province, the road meanders slowly up beautiful valleys, the villages gradually becoming simpler, until it crosses a lowish pass into poorer, mountainous southern Anhui, a province tainted by widespread cannibalism during a famine caused by Mao Zedong's disastrous and with hindsight ironically named Great Leap Forward. The road immediately develops potholes, the villages become more picturesque. Solid, old homesteads, white painted and sporting dignified central porches and a peculiar, low second floor with piggy looking little windows, squat almost complacently among gently terraced hillsides or teeter on the bank of a mountain stream.

After crossing a wide, crowded valley, the road winds up along a beautiful valley into the Huangshan massif. Neat, almost topiaried, tea bushes share the hillsides with groves of delicate feathery bamboo and mixed pine and deciduous woods. In the bottom, a river, swollen with May rains when we were there, roared among fecund rice paddies and crumbling mud-brick hamlets. Behind a dam, a lake snakes for miles back into the side valleys.

We eventually reached a roadhead in thick cloud above the scruffy, charmless tourist town of Tangkou. We bought a stick, a map and our tickets (yes, it is that sort of place), and off we set up the forbidding Eastern Steps, an arduous grind of thousands of ancient hand-hewn steps up a great cleft in the mountainside. We were there at the end of a series of public holidays, and we were not alone: hundreds of people, grandmothers to toddlers, were gingerly descending, many in impossible footwear: the winner was a pair of agonising silver plastic high heels.

Almost the only other people struggling up the hill were spindly looking porters labouring under cross poles which dangled packs of beer, food and tourist tat at each end. It is a strange economy which, with 3 cable cars, still makes their labours worthwhile. We paced one friendly group of four, alternately passing each other at our rest stops. At the foot of some of the most distressing flights of steps were pairs of porters with a bamboo chair on a frame, a contraption which you see on many of China's sacred mountains. No doubt, they only needed to gouge a single desperate victim a day to make it all worthwhile.

The cloud thinned as we ascended, revealing tremendous cliffs, chimneys and jagged ridge tops between soaring shreds of mist, all crowned by the stunted Huangshan pine, Pinus Hwangshanensis Hsia, with its flat pans of leaves and extraordinarily twisted branches, each one almost a caricature of itself. The relatively sheltered bottom of the gully nurtured a wide variety of trees, the vibrant early-season deciduous contrasting with the darker liveries of the long-suffering pines and greys of the rock. Great smears of pale pink azalea tree-shrubs added gaiety to an already surprising light-hearted scene, considering the cloud and the sheets of bare, uncompromising rock all round us.

I won't dwell on the discomforts of the walk: I do not know how many thousand feet or how many steps we climbed, but it was exhausting and we were ecstatic in a stunned sort of way when we emerged at the top 2-1/2 hours later by the (yes, it had to be) cable car station. Somewhere high above us in the mist regiment-sized cabins had been plying silently to and fro. No doubt their presence would detract from a clear day, but we had been oblivious to them.

The climb seemed less drop-down-and-die agonising than, say, the ascent to the Elephant Bathing Pool Monastery on Emei Shan, or maybe I was just fitter this time. A purist would no doubt have insisted on starting the hike a further 7 km. back and 1,000 feet down at the Huangshan main gate, the traditional entry point to the mountains, but there you are.

After a contemplation (recovery) break, we wound our way through dripping trees in thick cloud toward our hotel. We got talking to a rubbish collector, a genuinely charming man with deep smile lines and soft manner, who was keen to practise his self-learned English. No wonder China is growing as it is: how many dust men (sorry, environmental cleaning operatives) elsewhere, even in busy tourist centres, would be teaching themselves a difficult foreign language?

This was a busy time, so I had booked a hotel room, paying an extraordinary ¥1,280 (£100) a night in the “cheapest place near the top” (per the Lonely Planet). Something must have happened to it, as it sported polished granite and uniformed staff, a far cry from our ultra basic nights up other Chinese mountains at Jiuzhaigou, Tianshan or the wonderful but freezing and rat-infested Elephant Bathing Pool monastery on Emei Shan. I had a massage, cruel talons digging agonizingly into clearly malfunctioning pressure points. The manager, a slightly sinister, watchful young man in a suit, claimed to be a Qi Gong doctor and tried to hard sell me some healing – “you have black blood: very bad”. He was very persistent, and I scuttled out feeling, in a very British way, at fault for disappointing him.

We were up at 5 the next morning for the famous sunrise over the “sea of clouds” that covered the lowlands below. Like similar events, this was not a tranquil time: several hundred people crowded the lookout points on the ridge above our hotel, a cheer rolling down the hill in a sort of montane Mexican wave as each group caught their first glimpse of the sun.

The view was superb. Below us, a rumpled blanket of cloud extended to the horizon. The jagged ridges of the Huangshan massif sank down into it, isolated lower peaks protruding, like islands, further away. A band of pale orange pre-dawn sky was sandwiched between the “sea” and a high layer of mauve cloud. The sun's appearance gilded the clouds and the rock face behind us began to glow. Cameras clicked and whirred in a modern mantra (how the Chinese camera has changed, from heavy, ancient contraptions to sleek little things with ersatz Japanese names), girlfriends adopted careful, winsome postures, forming characterful silhouettes against the bright dawn sky. The crowds quickly started to drift off for breakfast. Less than half an hour later, we were alone with an intense and mellifluous dawn chorus, the best we have heard in China, where birds are few; nondescript descendants of survivors of a great cull in the 1950s when the whole population was turned out, banging pans and shouting until the birds dropped from the sky through exhaustion. A disastrous plague of insects followed. The chain around our eyrie was weighed down by hundreds of rusting padlocks, left by young lovers to signify their permanent bond.

We tramped back down past a group tucking into steaming pot noodles bought from an enterprising shack: it was 6:30 a.m. We fell back into our beds, and didn't emerge until 11. I'm not sure what happened: it must have been an altitude thing.

The Huangshan massif is like a crown. An undulating, wooded centre rises to a circle of peaks on the outside of which are the extraordinary chasms and broken ridges writhing away into the distance, which make the range so famous.

Most visitors arrive by cable car and pant their way between the famous viewpoints at the edge of the central plateau. Don't ever expect to be out of sight or earshot of mankind in all its glory along these routes. As soon as you leave these paths, however, you can be alone with the full magnificence of nature.

A couple of minutes from the famous, but crowded, Cloud Dispelling Pavilion, perched on the edge of a giddy abyss, we sat for an hour watching the shattered ridge across the way, with its thousand-foot walls and tenacious, twisted pines, projected into sharp silhouette as a white backcloth was lifted behind it, or briefly veiled as torn fragments of cloud soared on thermal drafts in front of us, delicate, evanescent things which changed their shapes by the second.

We rejoined humanity on the path around the western rim and its poetically named beauty spots, past the famous Flying Rock, a giant boulder perched teetering on a tiny fulcrum, and the Bright Summit Peak, the range's highest point at 1,841m. We were largely in cloud by now, but caught mysterious glimpses of great spires jutting from the mist. Loud, cheerful groups tottered past. A grey-haired but perfectly healthy looking man was carried up a long staircase in a bamboo chair by a pair of panting porters. A mobile phone rang. A strange sort of communist country.

We turned onto a little-used path which headed down along a spectacular knife-edge ridge. We were alone again with dizzy cliffs, Huangshan pines clinging to invisible fissures, sweet birdsong and shreds of cloud soaring up past us, melting away as we watched. We sat on the wild Jade Terrace of the West Sea and gazed in silence.

The next morning was cloudy, and we walked down the northern route, a little used, ancient path, in the hope of getting down below the mist. It was a tough walk, 2½ hours and probably not far off 3,000 ft. of unrepaired, mossy steps made from great beams of cut stone. The only people we saw were the ubiquitous porters, slogging painfully up, their panniers taking up the whole path, no doubt descendants of people who had originally built the steps. Impressive, really, that they had ever had the energy to reproduce.

The vegetation was superb, ancient 20ft. azaleas in fantastically vigorous flower, white through the palest pink to a rich magenta, set off by thick, fresh, pale deciduous leaves and our by now familiar friends, the Huangshan pines, wriggling out of every crevice where other trees couldn't manage. We were in thick cloud the whole way down. Tremendous cliffs on each side disappeared mysteriously up into the whiteness. We could hear the stream in the bottom of our ravine tumbling over waterfalls as we skirted rock walls high above. The path serpentined through a grove of giant bamboos, over a beautiful, ancient stone bridge, and emerged at the roadhead and, vitally, the Tai Ping cable car: tough and fearless though we of course are, this was to be an aerial return.

We were the only people in our huge, hundred-person car. Half way up, we burst out of the cloud into a bright world of cliffs, trees and sky. We crossed a ridge, the unearthly smashed crags of its top almost within reaching distance. Hundreds of feet below us, tiny torrents dug patiently away at the bottoms of their gorges.

At the top, we sat in the sun (the first time that a mountain top has been warmer than its base) above the aptly named Cloud-Dispelling pavilion and I drew the jagged, receding ridges, silhouetted by the rising shreds of cloud, a westerner musing over a very eastern subject.

Back at our hotel, Chinese tour groups were pottering from room to room, unselfconsciously bellowing in the corridor. It sounded as if 50 people had crammed into the room next door and were conducting an intense but comic debate. We wondered how this apparent unselfconsciousness fitted with the importance of “face”, and whether this aspect of communal living would wither over the coming decades.

The next morning's sky was bright and clear. We packed at speed and were walking by 8:30. This was our last day, and our route was going to take us along the highest spine of the mountains before descending back to the real world.

The trees on the gentler inner slopes of the massif were glowing in the morning sun as we heaved ourselves up on stiff legs to Bright Summit Peak, where we breakfasted on biscuits on the smooth dome of the top.

Before us, the great, sheer Lotus and Celestial Capital Peaks thrust, unchallenged, into the empty skies, huge plugs of rock which somehow emanated vigorous life under their solidity, as if their faces would be warm to touch. The sea of clouds heaved two thousand feet below them; scraps were beginning to detach themselves and to slither up the smooth rock faces, incongruous as silk on a wrestler's torso, before disintegrating into the cool, thin air.

Immediately before us was a knife-edge ridge, along which snaked our path. A hotel clung to into a cleft below the further peak, proclaiming the mountain's might with its sheer insignificance. Below us, a bowl of bare rock, thin grass and pines contrived, with the help of a couple of reflecting pools and bursts of glowing azaleas, to look like a very idiosyncratic paradise.

We passed some spectacularly twisted pines, lovingly fenced and labelled, and then teetered uncomfortably along the ridge, smooth rock quickly becoming precipice on each side. (I believe it is now railed in; safer but a shame.) We then gingerly clambered into a hole under boulder and scrambled down several hundred very steep and narrow steps through a deep cleft, gripping a banister which had been hacked out of the living rock.

We emerged into a wide gully of pale trees and bright azaleas. Its sheer walls, with their ragged cloak of squirming pine, created a secret little world through which our path meandered before slogging up another great spine of rock.

The cloud rose up the great chasm, frail shreds at first, followed by more substantial shrouding which soared past us, hiding the cliffs in front of us and blocking the sun. The temperature dropped 10 degrees in as many seconds.

We clambered along dizzy paths in the middle of tremendous cliffs, up narrow clefts and even through a tunnel, until we reached the Yuping Feng cable car. Two tedious and uncomfortable hours descending steep wet rock in thick cloud, or 10 minutes in the cable car: the choice was ours. We took the car, and lurched out into misty. sighing nothingness. The journey was the opposite of the day before: half way down, we fell out of the cloud into a long, deep gorge which dropped steeply to the world of roads and villages far below. An ancient, decayed path of cut stone wound through brilliantly varied woodland, often collapsing completely where it crossed the great, smooth flanks of the mountain. Hundreds of people must have laboured for years making this path, only for it to be left now to rot. Far above us, the sheer walls of the valley disappeared into the cloud as we slipped away from the mysterious world of the Huangshan.

© William Mackesy, 2009

“Huangshan is the No. 3 beauty spot in the world”, proclaimed the pamphlet, a fine specimen of the traditional Chinese love of lists and categorisation which begged questions such as “who says” and “on what criteria”. There would be no point asking whether any of the top 10 are outside China.

Huangshan, the Yellow Mountains, are, however, truly extraordinary: a cluster of over 70 outrageously eroded granite peaks which poets and painters have come to contemplate for well over a thousand years.

The mountains’ fame is justified: gothic spires and dinosaur spines, dizzy thousand-foot plunges into dark, water-scoured ravines; twisted pine trees clinging to invisible crevices, azaleas glowing against the grey rock and the fresh spring woodlands.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting has two main types of subject: Guilin, a river with rafts meandering among improbable towers of rock; and Huangshan, mountains with crags piled on precipices, to which trees grip for dear life, layers of mist shrouding parts of the hillside, a reclusive thinker in very sharp headgear sitting on a patch of grass plotting his next poem. Many Huangshan views can seem deceptively familiar as a result.

When we were there, Huangshan was only moderately inaccessible by Chinese standards, a mere 5½ hours from the willow pattern West Lake at Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, the imperial capital of China during Southern Song times (1127-1279AD). You can now get there in 2hrs on a smart expressway. Shame.

From the prosperous, modern villages and low wooded hills of wealthy coastal Zhejiang province, the road meanders slowly up beautiful valleys, the villages gradually becoming simpler, until it crosses a lowish pass into poorer, mountainous southern Anhui, a province tainted by widespread cannibalism during a famine caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous and with hindsight ironically named Great Leap Forward. The road immediately develops potholes, the villages become more picturesque. Solid, old homesteads, white painted and sporting dignified central porches and a peculiar, low second floor with piggy looking little windows, squat almost complacently among gently terraced hillsides or teeter on the bank of a mountain stream.

After crossing a wide, crowded valley, the road winds up along a beautiful valley into the Huangshan massif. Neat, almost topiaried, tea bushes share the hillsides with groves of delicate feathery bamboo and mixed pine and deciduous woods. In the bottom, a river, swollen with May rains when we were there, roared among fecund rice paddies and crumbling mud-brick hamlets. Behind a dam, a lake snakes for miles back into the side valleys.

We eventually reached a roadhead in thick cloud above the scruffy, charmless tourist town of Tangkou. We bought a stick, a map and our tickets (yes, it is that sort of place), and off we set up the forbidding Eastern Steps, an arduous grind of thousands of ancient hand-hewn steps up a great cleft in the mountainside. We were there at the end of a series of public holidays, and we were not alone: hundreds of people, grandmothers to toddlers, were gingerly descending, many in impossible footwear: the winner was a pair of agonising silver plastic high heels.

Almost the only other people struggling up the hill were spindly looking porters labouring under cross poles which dangled packs of beer, food and tourist tat at each end. It is a strange economy which, with 3 cable cars, still makes their labours worthwhile. We paced one friendly group of four, alternately passing each other at our rest stops. At the foot of some of the most distressing flights of steps were pairs of porters with a bamboo chair on a frame, a contraption which you see on many of China’s sacred mountains. No doubt, they only needed to gouge a single desperate victim a day to make it all worthwhile.

The cloud thinned as we ascended, revealing tremendous cliffs, chimneys and jagged ridge tops between soaring shreds of mist, all crowned by the stunted Huangshan pine, Pinus Hwangshanensis Hsia, with its flat pans of leaves and extraordinarily twisted branches, each one almost a caricature of itself. The relatively sheltered bottom of the gully nurtured a wide variety of trees, the vibrant early-season deciduous contrasting with the darker liveries of the long-suffering pines and greys of the rock. Great smears of pale pink azalea tree-shrubs added gaiety to an already surprising light-hearted scene, considering the cloud and the sheets of bare, uncompromising rock all round us.

I won’t dwell on the discomforts of the walk: I do not know how many thousand feet or how many steps we climbed, but it was exhausting and we were ecstatic in a stunned sort of way when we emerged at the top 2-1/2 hours later by the (yes, it had to be) cable car station. Somewhere high above us in the mist regiment-sized cabins had been plying silently to and fro. No doubt their presence would detract from a clear day, but we had been oblivious to them.

The climb seemed less drop-down-and-die agonising than, say, the ascent to the Elephant Bathing Pool Monastery on Emei Shan, or maybe I was just fitter this time. A purist would no doubt have insisted on starting the hike a further 7 km. back and 1,000 feet down at the Huangshan main gate, the traditional entry point to the mountains, but there you are.

After a contemplation (recovery) break, we wound our way through dripping trees in thick cloud toward our hotel. We got talking to a rubbish collector, a genuinely charming man with deep smile lines and soft manner, who was keen to practise his self-learned English. No wonder China is growing as it is: how many dust men (sorry, environmental cleaning operatives) elsewhere, even in busy tourist centres, would be teaching themselves a difficult foreign language?

This was a busy time, so I had booked a hotel room, paying an extraordinary ¥1,280 (£100) a night in the “cheapest place near the top” (per the Lonely Planet). Something must have happened to it, as it sported polished granite and uniformed staff, a far cry from our ultra basic nights up other Chinese mountains at Jiuzhaigou, Tianshan or the wonderful but freezing and rat-infested Elephant Bathing Pool monastery on Emei Shan. I had a massage, cruel talons digging agonizingly into clearly malfunctioning pressure points. The manager, a slightly sinister, watchful young man in a suit, claimed to be a Qi Gong doctor and tried to hard sell me some healing – “you have black blood: very bad”. He was very persistent, and I scuttled out feeling, in a very British way, at fault for disappointing him.

We were up at 5 the next morning for the famous sunrise over the “sea of clouds” that covered the lowlands below. Like similar events, this was not a tranquil time: several hundred people crowded the lookout points on the ridge above our hotel, a cheer rolling down the hill in a sort of montane Mexican wave as each group caught their first glimpse of the sun.

The view was superb. Below us, a rumpled blanket of cloud extended to the horizon. The jagged ridges of the Huangshan massif sank down into it, isolated lower peaks protruding, like islands, further away. A band of pale orange pre-dawn sky was sandwiched between the “sea” and a high layer of mauve cloud. The sun’s appearance gilded the clouds and the rock face behind us began to glow. Cameras clicked and whirred in a modern mantra (how the Chinese camera has changed, from heavy, ancient contraptions to sleek little things with ersatz Japanese names), girlfriends adopted careful, winsome postures, forming characterful silhouettes against the bright dawn sky. The crowds quickly started to drift off for breakfast. Less than half an hour later, we were alone with an intense and mellifluous dawn chorus, the best we have heard in China, where birds are few; nondescript descendants of survivors of a great cull in the 1950s when the whole population was turned out, banging pans and shouting until the birds dropped from the sky through exhaustion. A disastrous plague of insects followed. The chain around our eyrie was weighed down by hundreds of rusting padlocks, left by young lovers to signify their permanent bond.

We tramped back down past a group tucking into steaming pot noodles bought from an enterprising shack: it was 6:30 a.m. We fell back into our beds, and didn’t emerge until 11. I’m not sure what happened: it must have been an altitude thing.

The Huangshan massif is like a crown. An undulating, wooded centre rises to a circle of peaks on the outside of which are the extraordinary chasms and broken ridges writhing away into the distance, which make the range so famous.

Most visitors arrive by cable car and pant their way between the famous viewpoints at the edge of the central plateau. Don’t ever expect to be out of sight or earshot of mankind in all its glory along these routes. As soon as you leave these paths, however, you can be alone with the full magnificence of nature.

A couple of minutes from the famous, but crowded, Cloud Dispelling Pavilion, perched on the edge of a giddy abyss, we sat for an hour watching the shattered ridge across the way, with its thousand-foot walls and tenacious, twisted pines, projected into sharp silhouette as a white backcloth was lifted behind it, or briefly veiled as torn fragments of cloud soared on thermal drafts in front of us, delicate, evanescent things which changed their shapes by the second.

We rejoined humanity on the path around the western rim and its poetically named beauty spots, past the famous Flying Rock, a giant boulder perched teetering on a tiny fulcrum, and the Bright Summit Peak, the range’s highest point at 1,841m. We were largely in cloud by now, but caught mysterious glimpses of great spires jutting from the mist. Loud, cheerful groups tottered past. A grey-haired but perfectly healthy looking man was carried up a long staircase in a bamboo chair by a pair of panting porters. A mobile phone rang. A strange sort of communist country.

We turned onto a little-used path which headed down along a spectacular knife-edge ridge. We were alone again with dizzy cliffs, Huangshan pines clinging to invisible fissures, sweet birdsong and shreds of cloud soaring up past us, melting away as we watched. We sat on the wild Jade Terrace of the West Sea and gazed in silence.

The next morning was cloudy, and we walked down the northern route, a little used, ancient path, in the hope of getting down below the mist. It was a tough walk, 2½ hours and probably not far off 3,000 ft. of unrepaired, mossy steps made from great beams of cut stone. The only people we saw were the ubiquitous porters, slogging painfully up, their panniers taking up the whole path, no doubt descendants of people who had originally built the steps. Impressive, really, that they had ever had the energy to reproduce.

The vegetation was superb, ancient 20ft. azaleas in fantastically vigorous flower, white through the palest pink to a rich magenta, set off by thick, fresh, pale deciduous leaves and our by now familiar friends, the Huangshan pines, wriggling out of every crevice where other trees couldn’t manage. We were in thick cloud the whole way down. Tremendous cliffs on each side disappeared mysteriously up into the whiteness. We could hear the stream in the bottom of our ravine tumbling over waterfalls as we skirted rock walls high above. The path serpentined through a grove of giant bamboos, over a beautiful, ancient stone bridge, and emerged at the roadhead and, vitally, the Tai Ping cable car: tough and fearless though we of course are, this was to be an aerial return.

We were the only people in our huge, hundred-person car. Half way up, we burst out of the cloud into a bright world of cliffs, trees and sky. We crossed a ridge, the unearthly smashed crags of its top almost within reaching distance. Hundreds of feet below us, tiny torrents dug patiently away at the bottoms of their gorges.

At the top, we sat in the sun (the first time that a mountain top has been warmer than its base) above the aptly named Cloud-Dispelling pavilion and I drew the jagged, receding ridges, silhouetted by the rising shreds of cloud, a westerner musing over a very eastern subject.

Back at our hotel, Chinese tour groups were pottering from room to room, unselfconsciously bellowing in the corridor. It sounded as if 50 people had crammed into the room next door and were conducting an intense but comic debate. We wondered how this apparent unselfconsciousness fitted with the importance of “face”, and whether this aspect of communal living would wither over the coming decades.

The next morning’s sky was bright and clear. We packed at speed and were walking by 8:30. This was our last day, and our route was going to take us along the highest spine of the mountains before descending back to the real world.

The trees on the gentler inner slopes of the massif were glowing in the morning sun as we heaved ourselves up on stiff legs to Bright Summit Peak, where we breakfasted on biscuits on the smooth dome of the top.

Before us, the great, sheer Lotus and Celestial Capital Peaks thrust, unchallenged, into the empty skies, huge plugs of rock which somehow emanated vigorous life under their solidity, as if their faces would be warm to touch. The sea of clouds heaved two thousand feet below them; scraps were beginning to detach themselves and to slither up the smooth rock faces, incongruous as silk on a wrestler’s torso, before disintegrating into the cool, thin air.

Immediately before us was a knife-edge ridge, along which snaked our path. A hotel clung to into a cleft below the further peak, proclaiming the mountain’s might with its sheer insignificance. Below us, a bowl of bare rock, thin grass and pines contrived, with the help of a couple of reflecting pools and bursts of glowing azaleas, to look like a very idiosyncratic paradise.

We passed some spectacularly twisted pines, lovingly fenced and labelled, and then teetered uncomfortably along the ridge, smooth rock quickly becoming precipice on each side. (I believe it is now railed in; safer but a shame.) We then gingerly clambered into a hole under boulder and scrambled down several hundred very steep and narrow steps through a deep cleft, gripping a banister which had been hacked out of the living rock.

We emerged into a wide gully of pale trees and bright azaleas. Its sheer walls, with their ragged cloak of squirming pine, created a secret little world through which our path meandered before slogging up another great spine of rock.

The cloud rose up the great chasm, frail shreds at first, followed by more substantial shrouding which soared past us, hiding the cliffs in front of us and blocking the sun. The temperature dropped 10 degrees in as many seconds.

We clambered along dizzy paths in the middle of tremendous cliffs, up narrow clefts and even through a tunnel, until we reached the Yuping Feng cable car. Two tedious and uncomfortable hours descending steep wet rock in thick cloud, or 10 minutes in the cable car: the choice was ours. We took the car, and lurched out into misty. sighing nothingness. The journey was the opposite of the day before: half way down, we fell out of the cloud into a long, deep gorge which dropped steeply to the world of roads and villages far below. An ancient, decayed path of cut stone wound through brilliantly varied woodland, often collapsing completely where it crossed the great, smooth flanks of the mountain. Hundreds of people must have laboured for years making this path, only for it to be left now to rot. Far above us, the sheer walls of the valley disappeared into the cloud as we slipped away from the mysterious world of the Huangshan.

© William Mackesy, 2009

 

 

 

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