Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Wintry, Snowy Mountain Trek to Huangshan, China

The tunnel provided some respite from the biting cold outside. This concrete, man-made structure stretched a few meters up through the slope of a mountain. Posted on the tunnel walls were photos of these same mountains taken when weather was better, more tolerable. Up ahead outside stood a building.

I took my time climbing up the tunnel to prolong my being shielded from the snowy fog. We had been walking for almost an hour then, fully exposed to the freezing breeze which, at times, became frigid winds. The cold dried out my eyes, numbed my face, and turned my hair white (apparently from the temporary loss of melanin). We reached the building at the end of the tunnel hoping that it was one of the hotels on top of these mountains. It wasn't. Rather, it was a broadcast tower.

Weather outside was worsening and dark fast approaching. We did not get decent sleep last night and we had been traveling all day just to get here. Yet there was still more than an hour of walking to do.

Trekking through Huangshan, China would be harder that I expected.

Huangshan, Anhui, China
Huangshan in Anhui, China

Related Post: Photos from Our Winter Mountain Trek to Huangshan, China


Dizzyingly Vertical

Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, is a range of hills and peaks in Anhui, China, about 330 kilometers west of Shanghai. The mountains were formed when granite rocks rose from the floor of an ancient sea around 100 million years ago, and were then carved by glaciers almost 100 million years after that. What can be found here today are pine forests, rock peaks, and dizzyingly vertical granite towers.

The Huangshan National Park is one of the many scenic areas of China which claim to be the inspiration for the Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron's 2009 science-fiction film Avatar. As can be expected, the park is easily one of the top ten tourist destinations in China accommodating 15 million local and foreign visitors per year. During the high season in summer, queues easily take two to three hours just to get on a cable car. However, that winter day when we visited, it took us less than five minutes to get ourselves into one.

China: Huangshan, Anhui
Snow and fog covered the high areas of the Huangshan National Park that winter day when we visited.

The cable car ride was taking us to an elevation of 1,650 meters above sea level. Views outside the glass panels were limited but what views we got were impressive nonetheless. On top of craggy mountain ridges stood pine trees and sat precariously perched boulders. Sheets of snow covered much of the landscape.

Related Post: Photos from Our Winter Mountain Trek to Huangshan, China

As soon as we stepped out of the cable car, we felt the temperature had already dropped at least 10 degrees lower. It became apparent, too, that we were about to walk into the snowy fog and trek through ice-covered mountain trails. We had to get to our accommodations that night, Baiyun Hotel, still two hours away on foot.

Snowy Fog
Trekking through snowy fog was not an easy feat, we discovered.
Photo by Lauren of Pandelicious.com | In the photo Chyng of ChyngReyes.com


Missing a Few Turns

Twenty minutes in and here came another challenge. Hiking through snowy fog when visibility was reduced to only a few meters was hard enough. Following mountain trails which confusingly branched out into various directions was even harder. Markers and map boards were few and far between. Those that we encountered, understandably, only served Chinese-speaking tourists.

We walked down a set of long, concrete staircases for a few minutes, but realized quickly we shouldn't be heading downhill at all. While figuring out on our pathetic smartphone maps where we might have missed a turn, we noticed a local, Chinese, walking towards us from below the hill. He had a camera slung around his neck and as luck would have it, we learned he was on his way to the same hotel. Just then, he confirmed what we already knew.

We were heading in the wrong direction.

Descend only to ascend
Happily heading down the staircase only to find out later we were going the wrong way
Photo by Dong of EscapeIslands.com | In the photo Lauren of Pandelicious.com

Related Post: Photos from Our Winter Mountain Trek to Huangshan, China

Off we went, up the staircase this time, with the Chinese tourist who at this point had become our most valued companion. We reached a snow-covered clearing right by a deserted park office. One of the walls had a large map and beside it were a small set of narrow stone steps. This, we realized, was the turn we missed.

It didn't mean, of course, that we wouldn't miss another.

That was how we found ourselves taking shelter in the warm offices at the base of the broadcast tower, the same one we saw at the end of the tunnel we just went through. For a minute there, we considered camping out for the night here or just until the weather cleared up. But that would be silly. (Would it though?) So outside in the cold we went and back through the tunnel we descended. At the foot of the hill, we took another path.


Darkness at the Bright Summit

Forty minutes or so passed with more walking and just walking, because honestly, stopping to take a breather was torture. It meant having to endure intolerably freezing air longer than necessary. Besides, we only had a few minutes of sunlight left. And more walking to go.

From a spot I later learned was the Rock Watching Pavilion, we climbed steadily around 100 meters up the side of a mountain. At the top, an area called Bright Summit Peak, barely anything was visible anymore. It was very foggy and at this point, already very dark.

However, for the first time since we entered Huangshan National Park, we saw a relatively large gathering of fellow tourists. I supposed they climbed to the peak to catch the sunset, but were now leaving disappointed. Obviously, after having climbed up 100 or so meters myself, I reckoned I would be, too.

Rock Watching Pavilion
Ice-covered trail towards the Rock Watching Pavilion
Photo by Agnes of TrampingPhilippines.com

Related Post: Photos from Our Winter Mountain Trek to Huangshan, China

We followed a group on their way down, towards the other side of Bright Summit Peak. At this point, I was getting restless, summoning all the remaining energy and warmth in my body to take the final steps down the staircase. Knees rattled every step I made. And shoulders ached from my heavy bag. I honestly did not know what I would do if we had not reached our accommodations sometime in the next half-hour.

So really it was a good thing that we saw at the bottom of the staircase a bright LCD screen (oddly enough) showing Chinese advertisements and announcements. Right by the screen was a sign: Baiyun Hotel.

We had finally arrived.


Chinese Paintings

Change of clothes, dinner, and bed. The next morning, as soon as I woke up, I peeked out of one of the hotel's windows hoping against hope that the snowy fog had already left. In the dark blue sky, I could make out the silhouette of granite rock peak. Things looked promising.

We layered up (and I mean, really layered up) in order to brave the -15°C temperature outside. Fortunately for us, not two minutes from our hotel was a viewing deck. Through pine trees, the sun slowly rose tinting the sky orange, and then it became light blue, and finally blue. The viewing deck looked out between two mountain slopes, forming a V-shape, onto a sea of low-lying mountains. This morning, the mountains were covered in mist.

Growing up, I would see Chinese paintings depicting very steep mountains, looking almost like a collection of tall mystical towers. Fog and clouds draped over and between them, and pine trees in various bonsai poses stood on top of them. I had always wondered if these mountains really existed, if it were at all possible to see real-life versions of these Chinese paintings.

I never thought I would get an answer.

China: Huangshan, Anhui
Sunrise in Huangshan, China. And I thought Chinese paintings did not exist in real life.


*This is the first of three posts about my trip to winter trip to Huangshan in Anhui, China. You can see more photos from our two-day stay in the national park here: Photos from Our Winter Mountain Trek to Huangshan, China.


Have you trekked in winter? In snowy fog through freezing breeze and frigid winds? I don't suppose the experience was pleasant?


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