Six in the morning and we are already in a minibus that is making a perfect imitation of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The Chinese are lovely people, but they are the wildest drivers I have met (and I have seen pretty crazy driving around the world). I will have two or three other chances to tell you how wild they are, so this time I will limit myself to notice their total ignorance of the concept that if I let you pass then I will have the road for myself. No. I must pass right now, which means all of you have to shrink away to let me pass (they do the same when walking). So, if there is me and another car going my way, and there are two cars coming against us, then we have the problem that four of us must fit at the same time in a two lane road. Since nobody wants to give way, well, that means we will have to live with clearances of just 2 millimeters on each side!
We got to the town of Tang Kou, at the foot of Huang Shan (The Yellow Mountain), around 9 am, and found all the tourists we had missed at Tunxi. They were everywhere, swarming like ants. Much to my displeasure I found out that there was an entry fee of 230 yuan each, plus 80 yuan each for the cable lift. Actually, this is like 50 dollars total, which is not that much, but certainly highly priced when you compare it with national parks elsewhere in the world. On top of the cost, the queue was like “la cola para la masa”, and packed like only the Chinese can pack a queue. It was not until 10:30 am that we finally stepped into the gondola of the cable lift, and all of a sudden the ground disappeared below us and we were lifted into a surreal world.
Huang Shan is a Mesozoic intrusive massif, which has been recently uplifted. The granite that forms it has two sets of vertical joints, so weathering and erosion have combined to create a forest of spires, hundreds of meters high. The total elevation of the mountain is only 1,600 m, so the vegetation is luxurious, and the small umbrella trees hang from impossibly small crevices on the face of the rock sentinels, creating an other worldly effect.
So, here we are at the Chinese Yosemite, and there are a million Chinese tourists around us (oh, yes, the majority of the tourists are Chinese visiting their beautiful land). I didn’t think this was a problem, because in Yosemite you lose the crowd as soon as you step out of the flat, easy path. Not here, though. The Chinese are tough, and no stinking 60 degree slope is going to stop grandma from climbing the peak to enjoy the view. Besides, here we are in a civilized country where hundreds of workmen have labored to build beautiful staircases that go up and down the said peaks. And I am not talking about rickety ladders. Oh no. Here we make staircases out of granite blocks, carefully chipped to have the perfect shape and firmly set in concrete. How I learned to hate those steps!
My hope of finding accommodations in the mountain were dashed by the roiling crowd. Well, then second best would be to complete the whole circuit in one day and go back to sleep in Tang Kou. I decided this around noon time, so we headed to the northwest of the park, where the real cliffs are to be found (The Grand Canyon of Huang Shan). The map showed two loops, each about half a kilometer in length, that were highly recommended, and after that we could follow the advise of the Lonely Planet guide and head for “the western steps” (curse the Lonely Planet editors forever and ever as we shall soon see).
So, the loops may be only half a kilometer in length, but what nobody tells you is that there is nearly a kilometer of relief in the course of the loop, or that you have to descend about 2,000 steps on a 70 degree slope and then climb a similar number on the other side to complete the loop. The landscape is . . . well . . . indescribable. This stairway to heaven hung in the middle of space, with peaks soaring hundreds of meters above us, and a chasm of some more hundreds of meters at our feet. This is the closest I have come to soaring like an eagle, and the feeling was at once terrifying and exhilarating.
And then, after climbing half a million steps my knee decided that it could not take the half a million and one and went “twang”. Rats, rats, and double rats! We were deep in the center of the park, so I knew that we needed to start back right away, before the knee swelled up. The choices were to climb to the top of the ridge and from there reach the cable lift station, or walk down toward the west gate of the park. Somehow walking down seemed a better idea (it was definitely the wrong idea), so Luke and I started down an interminable 10 km of stairs. The one “good thing” is that suddenly the crowds disappeared, so we were able to enjoy the raw beauty of the towering landscape. Right at the start of the descent from hell we found a couple of Aussies, who had also chosen this way down, and on and off we met as they overtook us or we overtook them.
After the first kilometer my knee was throbbing, after the fifth kilometer my balance suffered because my knee was giving, and after the tenth kilometer I was dragging. This is when we came upon the first path sign: Left: climb 5 km to the pass and down for another 9 km to Tang Kou. Right: 4 km to Tai Ping. Well, we wanted to go to Tang Kou, but 14 km was out of the question. Maybe we could go down to Tai Ping and take a taxi to Tang Kou. Luke went back to let the Aussies know what we were doing, just in case they wanted to come with us and share a taxi.
I went ahead, limping slowly, when out from behind a tree popped out this girl, about 18 years old, with a big smile. We greeted each other in Chinese, and then she started a rapid fire explanation in Chinese. Alas, she didn’t speak a word of English, and besides learning that her name was Wen I couldn’t understand anything else she was saying. So we went back to playing charades, and I told her we were very tired and trying to reach town, and she told me not to worry because she had phoned her uncle in Tai Ping to come pick her up. Right about then Luke, and Katie, and Marcus arrived, and I brought them up to date. Aha, like a knight in shining armor here comes Wen’s uncle in a nice little car. I can only imagine his confusion when he found his niece in the company of four big, sweaty foreigners. No problem, apparently. We piled in the little car, he turned around, and we went back to Tai Ping.
They asked us where we were going, and on hearing Tang Kou there was much shaking of heads, and I quickly understood that to go to Tang Kou would imply driving all around the mountain massif. So we explained that we would like to take a taxi. Consultation ensued while we were drinking some bottled water (Wen’s treat at a local store), cell phone calls, and . . . nothing. No taxi could be found. OK, said Wen’s uncle, I will take you, so we piled into the car again and off we went.
He was the second scary driver we met that day, so let me tell you about the second peculiarity of Chinese drivers. They rely heavily on the horn to attempt to clear the way ahead. The problem is that nobody gives a dam about said honk; in fact, I think they open themselves just a little wider when they hear the horn. But for the driver the horn is a magic shield against incoming cars and trucks, so as long as they have it nothing can go wrong. Well, something did go wrong. The horn stopped working! Just like that. It was a devastating blow to Wen’s uncle, who kept pressing at the button in disbelief. From there on his driving became even more erratic and insecure, and as if in a wicked turn of fate incoming buses and trucks became more numerous. We were all a nervous wreck when we finally came into Tank Kou, after a ride of nearly 75 km!
I cannot describe how grateful we were to Wen and her uncle, who out of kindness and friendliness took an enormous amount of time and effort to see that we reached our hotel that night. It would be as if I found someone in Waterford who with signs managed to make me understand that he was heading for Sacramento, and I were to say “no problem, hop aboard, I will take you there”. Our opinion of the Chinese is soaring right now :)
We spent the night at the same hotel that Katie and Marcus were staying at (Lonely Pines Hotel), and we had dinner together that night. The topic of conversation was, of course, how we all wanted to have an adventure in the Chinese mountains, and how faith had turned it into an unforgettable experience. Life is good!