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Cheng Chin Yuen

Sunday, September 24, 2006

10th Sept – Hang Zhou to Huang Shan Cont’d

Six hours doesn’t seem that long when you are on a super-highway elevated way above the fields and valleys below. At Tang Kou (Huang Shan’s gateway village), we trusted a tout we shouldn’t have and paid 80 yuan for a room which we would have gotten for 60 a little way up the road. The owner tried to get us to visit a waterfall for 10 yuan each but I suspected a scam and told her we weren’t interested. A van was parked outside the guesthouse waiting for us. Halfway down the main road, the driver caught up with us and offered to take the both of us there for 8 yuan!

Tang Kou doesn’t see that many tourists in this season so every shop, restaurant and hotel owner was eyeing us. One farmer offered to sell me two cans of tea and a map for 10 yuan! One lady followed us and gave us lots of advice and information about the climb so that we would dine at her restaurant later. You now her intentions but she wasn’t pushy so we gave her place a go later. Huang Shan which forms a huge rocky backdrop for Tang Kou doesn’t look so bad from down below. Huang Shan is actually a super dense grotto of porphyritic granite peaks (at least 40 listed on the map) not a solitary mountain.

The food was good. We had 13 small but fresh river fishes, a chicken and vegetables. The owner whom we initially thought looked like a crook lent us his detailed map of Huang Shan and offered to store our baggage for free. He also warned us about the exorbitant prices up there.

‘One plate of vegetables here costs only 3 yuan, up there 18 yuan! The average room costs 750 yuan!’

And we intend to spend two nights up there.


11th Sept - Up Huang Shan

China rates her attractions by the number of ‘A’s. Huang Shan with the only ‘AAAAA’ rating we have seen in China must be really something. No wonder my mum tells me ‘Huang Shan is very special’.

Also very special is the entrance fee of 200 yuan per person (still second to Jiu Zhai Gou). Go forge your student pass before you come here. It will save you 100 yuan.

There are about 5 different routes leading up into the middle of the Huang Shan collection. From Tang Kou, there was the eastern route which takes 3 hours, the longer and harder western route (7 hours) or the 65 yuan cable car along both routes if you are willing to be clobbered. We weren’t rich or decadent enough to take the bamboo sedan chair. We took the LP’s good advice to hike up the eastern route and down by the west where the scenery is supposedly out of this world.

For experienced trekkers, going up Huang Shan is easy and would not fall within the category of a ‘trek’ since steps are laid along every path here. The walkway is broad enough for porters balancing their load on a bamboo pole to bypass you and the even steps allow you to pay more attention to the mountains on the go. As a reference, if you have done Kinabalu, Huang Shan wouldn’t make you sweat too much.

For a few cents a gram, the green-vested porters carry everything from fresh bedding, petrol, melons, fresh meat and fish to unbroken toufu up to the hotels near the main summit area where crowds gather to watch the sun break the ‘sea of clouds’ or yun(2) hai(3). I asked one guy (there were no female porters) how many runs did he do per day. He said only one. The aunties at Mt K seemed fitter than this lot.

Still they have an innovate way of shouldering their load which is mainly hanging at the ends of a flat bamboo pole. They jam one end of a second pole between the free shoulder and the main load pole and using the shoulder as a pivot, press down on the other end of the second pole to help distribute the load between both shoulders. Whenever the porter needs a rest, this second pole doubles at a vertical support, forming a ‘T’ with the main pole to take the full load. Quite ingenious! See photo.

The effort to keep Huang Shan as natural as possible is commendable despite the whirling of the gears that keep the cable cars moving. There is a wonderful absence of railings even at precarious spots. Only at the guaranteed-death zones will there be a barrier. Inconspicuous dustbins are something unique to Huang Shan. There are plenty of them around but because they are made by putting four slabs of rock in a square to form a container, they are very low profile and blend in. A little outlet lets water out and there are enough uniformed collectors to clear the rubbish.

Human traffic isn’t too heavy today, only a little plugged at the sections where everyone is trying to overtake a porter. We do get stopped quite a few times by folks on the descent. They always want to know how much further they have to go. ‘Didn’t seem this long from the cable car!’ I wonder why. I asked if they got to see the sunrise in the morning. None of them did.

As we got higher and higher, so did prices and I had to pay 6 yuan for the roll of shit tickets (usually 1 yuan) which I had forgotten to buy at Tang Kou. I heard water is scarce up here. An egg which would cost a few cents were going at 2 yuan each. The thing was things were still going, testimony to the increased purchasing power of the Chinese. Unlike India, foreigner and local ticket prices are the same.

Most of the locals come here on package tours where the flag-bearing guides through their amplifiers will identify and tell them interesting stories behind peaks like ‘The Immortal Pointing The Way’, ‘Eyebrow Peak’, ‘A Monkey Gaping At The Sea’, ‘A Flower Grown Out Of A Writing Brush’, ‘Begin To Believe Peak’ and ‘The Eighteen Arhats Watching At South Sea’. We would rather let rock be rocks.

True to a raincoat tout’s prediction, it started drizzling close to noon when we were at the cable car station at White Goose Peak and a dense mist started drifting up the valley bringing visibility down to about fifteen metres. So slight was the drizzle that we didn’t need our raincoats but the stubborn mist blocked all views for the rest of the day.

To add to the gloom, the Bei Hai hotel LP recommended decided to go up-market, convert the dorms into doubles and subsequently the 150 yuan price tag to 750. A tout offered his place for 80 yuan per person in a dorm without any chance of a shower. Water is precious and expensive up here. We thought this was quite ridiculous so we tried our luck with Xi Hai, another hotel a short walk away. Xi Hai’s offer was the same as the touts. A dorm with a shower costs 130! We walked on to the next hotel which was fully occupied even though it was more expensive.

Xi Hai has a decent reception area, receptionists in light blue suits and a lobby area with 5 massage chairs and a café selling instant coffee at 20 yuan. If you are feeling rich try the 60 yuan ‘Paris Coffee’. So when we were led to the dungeon below, we were quite disappointed to see 9 or 10 beds cramped into our dorm. Fearing Huang Shan’s sheer beauty would inspire more than just poetry, Karen and I found ourselves in two separate dorms. At least we were the only ones around and the bedding felt fresh. We ate our cup noodle lunch, pre-ordered a 90 yuan set dinner and went out for a walk.

It was a good walk with all other tourists united in disappointment. After a couple of cold and windy viewpoints, we concluded that the whole region was shrouded and all we could enjoy was the misty pine forest. Some of the pines here look like umbrellas or giant fungi. Quite a number of viewpoints extend right to the edge of the cliff so you can dizzy yourself by looking down the vertical drop. Today you just feel stuck in some huge cloud. Still always something special happens everyday no matter how shitty. We meet another bunch from Singapore but didn’t get to talk. There was a group meditating at one viewpoint, trying to think warm thought as the wind blew through them. Maybe some secret Falung Gong faction training for a comeback. There is the forest patrol making sure people like me do not cross barbed-wire barriers and local men do not smoke beyond the designated areas at the hotels. We visit the Dawn Pavilion knowing that chances are that we wouldn’t be here tomorrow to miss the sunrise.

The dungeon was in mayhem we returned for a nap before dinner. We certainly weren’t the only two inmates here now. Several budget tour groups have flocked in and were happily eating their cup noodles, vacuum sealed chicken feet, preserved eggs, canned porridge, sausages and salted vegetables. This they did bearing in mind that the dorm floor was synonymous with ‘rubbish receptacle’. There was an old man sitting in my bed, chatting with his friends. Not a problem, he got up when he saw me. There were three guys smoking in my room. That was a problem. Two guys were eating on a mat spread on the bed next to mine. Karen’s dorm became a hen’s pen with ceaseless yakking in the higher registers. At least we got the small dorms. The late comers had to make do with up to 16 people in a dorm which the average Youth Hostel would fit 10. These were the true budget people who were armed with enough preserved food for their entire stay up here.

The 90 yuan dinner we got consisted mainly of vegetables. It was way overpriced but they took the hard way up and everyone has to make a living. Those who want to enjoy a little more of it has to bear the cost. And that’s us. The slightly more up-market tour groups were here too and once again proved to us that China was not the place to pick up waitering.

When I got back to my bed, my dear friend was sleeping in it now. His friend woke him up and put him in his own. I didn’t really mind. This guy could have been my grandfather. Their bubbly 27 year-old guide was having her dinner with them and through my comforter, I could hear them talk about the quality of rice and how people in Jiang Xi still revere Mao. She comes from a farming family and tells the group of men she was leading that her family grows only one crop a year because two harvests was too tiring. I went to sleep and eventually slept.


12th Sept – Around and Down Huang Shan

The inmates are all awake and their genuine excitement is loud and contagious. Stay here and don’t worry about not being able to get up for the sunrise. Despite knowing that our chances are super slim, I slept dressed for a cold wait at the Dawn Pavilion clinging on to the weather miracle that might happen.

I put on my shoes, got out of the dungeon, went back to the dungeon, told my nmates that they wouldn’t see a thing, took off my shoes and went back to sleep. These folks were here for the sunrise and as long as it rose, they were quite happy even though they might not see it and freeze in the slow process of not seeing it. I applaud their enthusiasm and ability to resist the temptation of a warm sleep. It was a cold and rainy 5am and everyone went to the various sunrise spots. When Karen and I awoke, the dungeon was empty of the previous day’s inmates and their belongings. The workers were sweeping up the last chicken and duck bones and re-making the beds (which I thought smelt rather fresh). We congratulated ourselves for a good night’s sleep and packed our bags to discover that Karen’s pink umbrella had gone off with someone from the sunrise crowd.

Fortunately, the morning’s rainy and misty misery cleared by noon, revealing some truly 5A scenery as we made our winding 3 hour steep descent through the Xi Hai Canyon which (thankfully) most tour groups avoided. This seemingly endless 2.7 kilometre stretch of close mountains, sheer drops, rock fingers pinnacles, strange rock-plant combinations and gorges emerging, fading and then re-appearing behind a swirling veil of mist takes top spot in my book of must-see places in China. It might actually be less beautiful and mysterious on a clear sunny day. Most of the photographs below are of this unique landscape which will most likely resist development due to the sheer gradient. So take you’re your time, save some money, build some leg muscle but come here before your Earthly lease runs out. Thankfully granitic Huang Shan’s lease is a bit longer.

Chinese couples and families have a uniquely wasteful way of sealing their love here at Huang Shan. They get suckered for a lock from the shops up here, engrave their names and the day’s date and add it to the thousands dangling on the chains of the guard-rails up here. Price doesn’t include the key of course.

Our ration supply of 3 biscuit packets wasn’t very substantial for all those steps so by the time we got to the nearest hotel (Bai Yun) we were quite willing to pay for fried rice that costs 50 yuan (usually 10 at the most). Hunger also robbed us of the standard No-MSG reminder so a generous dose was thrown in. The portion was generous and readied us for more walking.

The drizzle and mist returned as we went back onto the freeway of cold and disappointed tourists. Our initial plan to stay at Jade Screen Hotel was shelved when we found our that their cheapest bed in a dorm costs a whopping 260 yuan per person! Even the budget out-of-the-way place to stay has also hopped onto the cash cow. The receptionist directed us to the cable-car station which we assumed lay along the walking route down the mountain. It was not but we held on to our trekking roots and went back up the steep steps to Jade Screen to take the correct path. A friendly guard at the station who was quite amused that we were unwilling to part with 130 yuan to save 2 hours of walking did the back-track with us to ensure that we got onto the right path. It was 4.30pm and we were on a mission to catch the last bus back to Tang Kou at 5.30pm.

On the way, we met a few people who were definitely not going to make the last bus. Obviously having some knee problems, some of them were tackling the steps so gingerly, they would be lucky to down by 7pm. That would probably be us in 30 years which is not too long from now. One man asked a rubbish picker how does he zip down the steps so nimbly without damaging his knees.

‘You shouldn’t walk in a straight line. Instead walk in a zig-zag manner from one edge of the steps to the other’, said the rubbish picker in Mandarin as he did a short demo.

All of us started trying out this mountain secret and I found that it actually did work! By walking down in this fashion, a different set of knee muscles are used, the landing impact is lessened and you can go faster.

Armed with this new walking technique, I went on a little ahead to the bus-park to see the rear of the last bus go round the bend. Also here were a few taxi drivers who might have tripped me if I ran for it. They wanted 15 yuan per person for the return ride just 5 yuan more than what the bus-ride costs. Not much of a problem if you think of it in Singapore dollars but irritating in terms of percentages. Fortunately a group of three elders showed up and we bullied the driver to back down to the bus rate. I am sure we would have lost if the bunch that showed up were under 40.

We collected our baggage, had a good dinner of beef, fungus and vegetables at ground-level prices and were happy to have been up and down the very splendid Huang Shan. It would be nice to spend one more night on the mountain and if we had known we would probably stay two nights at the dungeon. But there will always be too many ‘would be’s’ and ‘if we had known’s’. The last strenuous activity in China has been completed and it was time to move on south.

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