Stevie (the 'Red Destiny' sheathed) and the Yellow Mountains.
âSssshnick!â. Our hero Stevie reaches back over his right shoulder and sheathes once more the fabled âRed Destinyâ sword (okay, itâs an umbrella!) in its ornately carved sheath (okay, okay itâs a plastic wrapper and heâs just shoved his brolly in the space between his back and his day bagâŚ and looks like a right twit consequently!) and cranes his neck, his field of vision, upwards to the mystical Yellow Mountains of Huangshan that stand before him. A final adventure. One final challenge in China before he goes.
The Yellow Mountains are one of surprisingly few definite items that ushered their way onto my âmust seeâ global itinerary before I left the UK.
"Let the climb commence!"
The affable British TV Gardner/ Presenter Monty Don included a skip up into them in the China episode of his excellent âAround the World in 80 Gardensâ
series aired not so long before I set out. I was quite captivated then. And here I am today ready to make my personal ascent into these mountains of cloud and mystery.
The Yellow Mountains (or Huangshan as they are more commonly known and referred to in Guide Books) are a large range of high thrown and wind smoothed projections of ochre yellow porphyritic granite stone that are to be found 4 hours drive West of Hangzhou in Anhui province. They have long played a part in the artistic and spiritual hinterland of Chinese culture in the East.
Don't flirt with the monkeys! :)
I enjoy very much a few days later seeing centuries old interpretations of their scenery and cloud-shrouded forms in some of the silk-screen Chinese paintings in the Shanghai Museum.
So here we go! First letâs look at this rules ânâ regs sign here. Number One. âPlease do not Enjoy the views while walking!â. Umm? Are these guys kidding?!? One of the most reputedly beautiful geological sites in China, not enjoy?! Well, um, okay Iâll try not to enjoy the views too much. Number Two. âSmoking is prohibited on the way!â. Hmm, not a prob for yours truly but you may as well tell the Chinese to stop breathing.
Theyâd sooner attempt that than give up their fags. Number Three
. âDonât flirt monkeys by feedineâ
. Hmm? Not entirely sure I needed reminding not to flirt with monkeys, but thanks guys all the same. Is that all clear? Good. Then let us begin.
There are two means of ascending into the Yellow Mountains once youâve got to one of the various base areas/ ticket offices. 4 or 5 cable cars run people up and down various parts of the range but that of course is for wimps and losers and those keen to ânot enjoy the views while walking!â. Okay, Iâm kiddinâ. But Stevieâs here to do Huangshan for real. Which means walking. Walking up steps.
Lots of steps. Lots and lots
of steps. Nah, nah, nah, youâre not
listeninâ to me proper, âcos Iâm telling you âLots and lots and lots and LOTS AND LOTS OF STEPS!â.
Thousands upon thousands. I donât know how many there are to get you up, and then coax your aching muscles back down but itâs probably a greater number than of hot meals Iâve had in 30 years on Planet Earth. My already raw feet and toes are in for some final full-on damage before I retire to Cyprus to recover.
And thatâs it for beginnings. An endless sweat-drenched walk up the well-laid granite steps that wind and stretch all the way up past âTwo Cats Catching a Mouseâ (the first of many amusing and bafflingly surreal place names Iâll visit in these here parts) to âWhite Goose Ridgeâ.
All 6.5 kilometres. Constant, relentless UP. But the views to take in - for view and
enjoy I do ( âOooh! You little rule-breaking hooligan you!â
) are pretty neat. Tall green pine trees and umbrella-fan-like bushes that have found miraculous perches on the most vertiginous and far-flung rock foundations, as is Natureâs way. Blue skies. A bright sun that bleaches some of the colour from the scenery with its over intensity today.
The best views of course come from the numerous peaks to be climbed (more steps, now uuuup and doooown and uuuup again) and that litter the summit areas of the Huangshan range. âBeginning-to-believe Peakâ, âNorth Seaâ and âLion Peakâ. Almost alone on the ascent, I am suddenly back in the full flow of Chinese tourism.
(Huangshan) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
Yep. They pretty much all took the cable car. By the hundred-load by the look of it.
Swarming, swirling tour groups of college kids and the elderly and the young-and-in-love swoop and wash from peak to peak. 10,000 decibel (entirely unnecessary) tour-guide megaphone orations blare out and completely corrupt the quiet, near spiritual serenity and karma that the surroundings should be imbued with up here. âJeez!â.
Is there just no getting away from this sh*t in the East of China?! It would seem not.
But Iâm happy to be up here. Where the skies are clear and the views, when you can get to them, magnificent. There is quite a network of routes and paths and peaks to amble from one to another and back again once youâre at the top.
It is even possible (although barely) to find a distant area or two thatâs been ignored by the main body of people being told where to take their photos and gawp. But mostly itâs a crush and practicing the art of patience to get your moment to stand and stare at the beautiful mountains in full sunny glareâŚ and take photos of course.
After my two day trip here Iâm being asked about it and I remain in two minds about my time in Huangshan. About my response. Was it all worth it? The distance? The physical effort? The financial burn? [ please see end of entry on this last point]. Yeah, probably. I did so want to be here. And I had no clue as to where it was - not travelling with a guidebook in China or knowing it as Huangshan - until someone fortuitously set me straight and revealed it to be providentially close to my final port of call, Shanghai.
Huangshan horizonline haze.
But these crowds are getting too much. Too inescapable. But this is Modern Life. Modern Tourism Stevie. This is China. You gotta go with the Flow. For you are part of that Flow. So no right to gripe. This is not your private World. Your unalloyed, solitary soul sanctuary. Our hero is dismayed. He cannot lay claim to these lands with the sovereignty of his camera lens alone. Nor hack ânâ slash through these bothersome crowds with the unsheathed power of the âRed Destinyâ. 'Ssshnick!' Swish slash slash, tching-tching, swish slash. 'Ssshnick!' Be gone!
And I have to be careful about my reactions to people, places, situations and destinations right now.
One of the porphyritic granite mounds of the 'Yellow Mountains'
Iâm nearing the end of 6 weeks in China; 9 months on The Road and have to be wary of the various forms of negativity that fatigue can disguise itself as. Still, there are points when Iâm up in Huangshan when I stop and think Iâd rather just take a running jump and get the f**k outta here. Not a beautiful, ethereal self-annihilation like Zhang Ziyiâs character in Ang Leeâs poetic âCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonâ
(shot in part in Huangshan and its surrounds) but more a desperate lunge for freedom and spaceâŚ uncluttered airsâŚ the rush and roar of wind supplanting the chatter and megaphone jabber-jabber of tour group hell in my earsâŚ leapâŚ whoooosh! âSo far so good... so far so good... so far so goodâŚâ
When I finally find dorm room accommodation that only costs half as much as The United States' national deficit for the night itâs fortuitously situated at the top of âBright Summitâ one of the chief locations for taking in a Huangshan sunset.
So yes, the place is completely crawling with people. But actually I donât mind that. I have gotten used to, and enjoy very much these collective moments of human sun worship as I have travelled around my tiny sliver of the globeâs surface. People sit in rows on a shop kiosk roof. They stand in long lines along the barriers here and stagger up rocky outcrops. We are high up. Higher than the sun right now as it begins to bow down. Funny, our feeble attempts (my own included) to try to capture the sun, almost to try to entrap him (her? Havenât lifted its celestial skirts recently to sex the sun) at these moments in the infinite screens and lenses of our phones and cameras these days.
One poor woman is being made to pose about two hundred thousand times by her photographically rabid and incompetent boyfriend.
Love Locks (detail 2)
First she must stand with the sun, then poke the sun, now pinch the sun between her fingers; cup the sun, tickle the sun, form a ring with her fingers to encompass the sun and so on and so on to the point where, the golden orb sinking as fast as it is she, with her back necessarily turned to the scene, will miss the sunset, possibly the finest, most romantic one of her life, entirely âŚ so I tap boyf on the shoulder and smile and say âLook pal, would you just let the lady turn and admire the f**kinâ sunset.â
They both smile ( âPhewf! That was a risky, but calculated bit of rude-to-be-polite foreigner intervention!â
) and she turns to take in the scene. And beautiful it be.
Dawn too has everyone in a fevered state. Of course.
This is referred to as 'The Flower Blooming on a Brush Tip'
But here the crowds are just not even worth contemplating. The over-crowded hotel-come-hostel is hammering with activity as early as 4.00am so weâre all up and out. But youâd have to be outside by 3.30am to beat this rush. A solid wall of people wrapped in blankets to cheer the sun when it finally comes. I smile and laugh and canât be bothered. I shoulder my bag. âSsshnick!â.
I sheath the âRed Destinyâ. And I start the many million stepped descent down another face of the Huangshan range. Iâm concerned about getting back down in time for my 14.00pm bus back to Hangzhou, but this proves folly as Iâm down by 9.30am having started so early. Too much time to kill in Nowheresville. 4 hours coach to Hangzhou.
An explosion of sunshine as it hits the horizonline ahead of sunset.
90 minute bus ride across town to Hangzhou train station. 90 minute wait for my super-smooth direct train (55RMB/ $8 and 165km/h top speed noted). A Metro ride and finally with buggered legs and toes I have arrived back at âEtour Youth Hostelâ where things are calm, and clean and serene despite the city surrounds. I prop the âRed Destinyâ against the wall, where I shall leave it forever moreâŚ and I collapse asleep.
Epilogue & costs : âBeauty has a priceâ
Huangshan is the most expensive of all the expensive sights of natural, historical and cultural interest that I visit or hear of in my time in China. I was not aware of this before arriving there. Ticket âentranceâ fees in China are the number one gripe of foreign visitors to the country.
Collective sun worship at 'Bright Summit', Huangshan.
The Chinese wonât agree, stating (predictably) âOh your country though is so expensive, this is nothing to you!â
and also the expression of personal wealth and success by often excessive expenditure is deemed a social virtue and necessity in China, especially amongst its modern, better-moneyed societal strata. I.e. Those that can afford such expressions. In brief and over-simplified rebuttal to the âyour country is so expensiveâ
charge : Yes
England is an expensive economy to be a part of, and certainly to enter into
as a visitor. BUT almost all of Great Britainâs principle sites of natural beauty are FREE to enter. You will not be charged for going anywhere in The Lake District, The Peak District, The Cotswolds or seeking to ascend Ben Nevis or Mount Snowdon or visiting Loch Ness.
Moon & star & crowds ahead of dawn.
Our national parks are FREE. You have the âRight to Roamâ near enough anywhere without harassment or financial burden enshrined in law. All of our most famous (and I think very fine) national museums and art galleries are FREE. Our most iconic botanical garden Kew Gardens costs ÂŁ8.50 to enter. That equates to just over two hours labour after tax at the UK National Minimum Wage rate of earning (ÂŁ5.73 per hour for those older than 22)*. $34 (Huangshan entry) represents 17 days living for the approximately 595 million Chinese inhabitants (35% of the population)** who still live on less than $2 per day. So we have what I shall dub the âeconomics of accessibilityâ issue in modern China. How do you make an overcrowded site less over-crowded than it already is? By pricing out the visitors.
It's one argument I've been given. And itâs a potentially pertinent one (given the thrust; âthe moanâ of my blog entry above) if such issues as egalitarianism and democracy of life quality for a nation's own people in relation to their own national assets can be shelvedâŚ which they often are in China and many other countries around the world. The vast and rapidly increasing wealth divide in China is already a source of much social tension and friction and domestic and international commentary as to the potentially destabilising consequences if its widening cannot be stemmed is rife. But such speculation and debate is far beyond the scope of this already monstrously digressive blog.
So, to the damage. Huangshan costs 99RMB ($14.50) to get to by bus from Hangzhou.
Ochre yellow porphyritic granite mounts at Huangshan.
The same again to get back of course. The entrance fee is a staggering 230RMB ($34) - for perspective think 3 whole days in Angkor, arguably the greatest known archaeological treasure trove on Earth for $40. So with such costs you donât wanna just dash up in a cable and back down right? You wanna stay up there right? Right. Private hotel rooms in the various luxurious and not-so-luxurious resorts that sit at the top will start usually if youâre lucky at 900RMB ($132) a night and quickly escalate to 1,500RMB ($220) and beyond. There are dorms in a couple of these establishments and small tents can be either carried up and pitched on hard ground or rented but will usually cost you more than a dorm room unless your splitting the cost with your partner.
The very, very cheapest six to god-knows-how-many-bed dorm (Guangmingding Hotel on âBright Summitâ) will set you back 100RMB ($15 or $9 if youâre willing to sleep in the rapidly sold out corridor racks). Itâs an expensive little excursion so plan and consider. Do spend time up there. Thereâs lotâs to see. More than I had time for. And it is pretty despite the crowds.
So THE Number One top travel tip for China is that you MUST travel there with a Student ID card. If you donât have one already get one, get a fake one anyway you can, as that will save you 50% off almost all such entrance costs and a pretty packet throughout a protracted stay in the country!
** âList of countries by percentage of population living in povertyâ - www.wikipedia.org