Spotlight on: Huangshan


Huangshan - Image source: Wendy Qi

HUANGSHAN, CHINA: I had never been to Huangshan before, and was surprised as I scanned train/bus schedules at how close it was to Shanghai. An overnight train ride, or a six-hour bus ride, would place you at the foot of the mountain that legends are made of.

Opting to enjoy what scenery there was from Shanghai to Anhui, I chose the bus ride.  My impeccable sense of timing had me leaving Shanghai on a day that was raining buckets, and the trek to the bus station resulted in a two hour bus ride that I swear was going to run over some poor person on more than one occasion (this is a general feeling I got most days though, and not unlike Muni at times).  My huge backpack drew more than a few stares as I left my family’s residential complex, and a couple kind, curious “nai nai” and “ye ye” asked whether or not I should be in school.

On the bus ride to Tunxi, a town at the base of Huangshan, I sat next to a middle-aged man from nearby Yixin, a small town in Anhui. He had been visiting relatives in Shanghai — the first time for him in 15 years. I just have no desire to go there, he explained simply. I have everything I need at home. The city is too loud and confusing for me.  Hopefully, the effects of mass urbanization will leave him and others like him with the possibility of still returning to his chosen lifestyle.

He talked about the dazzling lights of Shanghai, of the awe-inspiring construction, and about how glad he was to be going home.  And encouraged that I add Hongcun and Xidi, two cultural heritage sites, to my visit to Huangshan.

When I arrived at bus station in Tunxi, I looked for the hostel TripAdvisor had handily directed me to. After checking in, I went straight to the train station only to find that tickets to my next destination, Guilin, had been sold out for the day I had planned to leave on and a sleeper would not be available until the following day. Ah, the joys of traveling alone.

I bought my ticket and went back to the hostel; by then, one of the girls  I would be sharing the room with had come back. Her name was Wang Ye, and she was for a nearby city in Anhui.  A very quiet girl who didn’t look more than 25, she told me she was a doctor who was about to be married to her high school sweetheart. This was the trip she wanted to take as her last act of independence, she said.

There was something sweet yet sad about the way she said it — as if she looked forward to the life she had ahead, but regretted leaving behind an independence she never really experienced. We spent the evening walking in Tunxi, along the streets of the Old Town.

The next day I got up bright and early to make the 1-hour car ride to the actual mountain.  On the car ride there, I met a girl from Sichuan — Li Kun — who was also making the journey herself. We agreed to hike up together since our hostels that night were so close together as well.

And this is where we ran into the joys that is Chinese tourism — we wanted to climb up the backside of the mountain, and in the midst of the confusion when the van first stopped, we were ushered into another car and told we were going to the back of the mountain. We quickly realized that the empty scenic spots they took us to was not the mountain we were looking for and ended up in a heated argument with the driver. Thankfully, we were able to persuade the driver to take us back to the bus depot after threatening him that we’d sue (one American past-time to make its way over East …)

When we finally ended up at the right mountain, we realized how tough the climb was gong to be. After seemingly endless steps, we were still only halfway from our destination. We met a couple porters on the way up, who were probably among the most fit people ever. They made the trek up and down the mountain twice a day since everything on the mountain (tofu, meat, vegetables, toiletries, cigarettes, etc.) is carried up on their backs.

By the time we reached White Goose Pavilion (why do English translations always have such funny sounding names :P ), the famous Huangshan clouds had rolled in. These clouds are called “sea clouds” because of the way they come together and look like waves in the sea. I have seen very few scenes as peaceful as the one I saw that day, and could see what had inspired so many an ancient tale and poem.

The next morning, I got up early in hopes of catching a glimpse of the sunrise. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans and the clouds covered any ray of sunlight as the rain came down.  I decided I had come to far to not walk down and contemplated using my extra day to stay on the mountain. Sadly, the weather forecast for the next day projected heavier rain and I figured it was probably best to head down.

The mountain was actually just as beautiful in the mist, as leaves danced in and out.  Rocking out to my iPod, I made the slow descent down, taking as many detours as I could. By the time I made it down and back to Tunxi, it was time for dinner.

And there … I would be introduced to fuzzy tofu. Yes. Fuzzy. It had a taste like “pi dan” (thousand year old egg — again, one of those weird names that don’t really translate into English), only 10x stronger. I smiled politely at the cook’s wife as she smiled and chuckled.

I got a foot massage for the first time after that, and listened as my masseuse told me about her son, relationships, love, and life. It was really interesting listening to her as she cheerfully described how she only went home on the weekends, and spent most of her income on giving her son an education. She talked about how her and her husband never fought in front of their son, wanting him to grow up to be optimistic and happy. I was touched by her story, especially the non-assuming, happy and carefree way she relayed it all. Life couldn’t be easy for her, yet she was so much happier than many who were more economically fortunate than her.

As I left Huangshan the next day for Hongcun and Xidi, I knew this was a place I would return to, a place where the gods came to paint in the sky.


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