Sunrise at Huang Shan
China kind of killed our fervour for travel. A friend who has lived in Beijing for the last several years described travel in China as "hot, slow, and miserable." After 25 days in China, we knew exactly what she meant.
From the difficult and expensive visa application process pre-trip, to the the worst travel day ever from Datong to Hohhot, to the stomach bug that left me miserable for a full week, to the time we were stuck on the tarmac for 4 hours on the flight from Xi'an to Shanghai, nothing about traveling in China was easy.
Nine Dragons Waterfall
The insurmountable language barriers left us constantly confused and disbarred from the vast populace and I was just about ready to scream if one more Chinese man grabbed me by the shoulders or arms to get me to go into his taxi or buy his cheap merchandise. (They never seemed to grab at Patrick . . . only me . . . leading to my mounting irritation.)
We were in Shanghai at the 25 day mark, 5 days before our Chinese visas expired. We considered heading out of China altogether, jumping into Hong Kong directly from China or maybe spending some time in Macau. Heck, I even researched whether we could fly to Malaysia and sit on a beach and go diving for a while before flying back to the United States from Hong Kong.
Locks at Huang Shan (to symbolize a couple's commitment to each other)
But, everything was too expensive and too far away given our time constraints. So, as a last recourse, we opted for the Huang Shan mountains, a 4 hour bus ride from Shanghai.
Sunrise at Huang Shan
Best. Decision. Ever.
Huang Shan after a rainstorm
I could tell you about the sublime beauty of this place, or how Patrick believes it is the most awe-inspiring place he has been, or how we suddenly were reinvigorated by the mountain air and the waterfalls and the green canopies that spread through the rocks.
Tourists climbing the stairs at Huang Shan
Or, I could discuss how our thighs, calves, ankles and backs screamed bloody murder as we pushed our legs up and down, up and down, and up and down 20 kilometers of stairs carved into the granite mountains in less than 24 hours.
Welcome tree, Huang Shan
I could tell you about how we continuously laughed at the fact that while we took pictures of the stunning scenery, the Chinese tourists took pictures of us.
I could tell you about how, despite our aching legs, smiles were plastered on our faces for the 4 days we spent in the Anhui region.
Cable car station
Or, I could just shut up and let you enjoy the views. Yeah, I think I'll do that.
Tourists at cloud-covered Huang Shan
We had a hard time finding information about Huang Shan, perhaps because it is a primarily Chinese-oriented tourist attraction, and very few foreigners head to that region, so I will try to be overly detailed in this section. If you are interested in going to Huang Shan (and why shouldn't you be!) and need more information, leave a comment and we'll try to help you out.
Getting to Huang Shan: Tunxi in the Anhui province is the gateway city to entering Huang Shan mountains. You can reach Tunxi via air, train, or bus. The Tunxi airport (TXN) is teeny tiny with only a few flights every day, primarily to Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing.
The train from Shanghai to Tunxi takes about 7 hours, so you are better off taking the bus. To take the bus, we highly recommend that you ask your hostel/hotel to purchase tickets for you in order to avoid the inevitable language difficulties (learn from our lesson, we beg of you). If you are sensitive to smoke, ask that they book you on the non-smoking bus, where they rigidly enforce the non-smoking rules, much to our surprise and delight. The bus ride took about 4 1/2 hours and drops you off at Tunxi downtown Bus Station. From there, you will need to take a taxi to your hotel/hostel. [Note: You can also to get to Huang Shan by going through Tangkou, a town on the opposite side of the mountain.]
Staying in Tunxi: Tunxi is a beautiful traditional village that serves as a stop off for hordes of tourist buses during the day. At night, it is a singularly charming place and it is easy to find traditional Anhui cuisine and nice restaurants in the area. There are several hostels and hotels directly next to the Ancient Street, but we opted to stay at the Xiang Ming Holiday Hotel outside the Ancient Street area, because it had excellent Tripadvisor reviews. We were so happy we stayed at Xiang Ming: the hotel property was beautiful, our room was wonderful, and the staff spoke excellent English and helped plan our trip to the mountains. The only negative thing about the hotel was the poor quality food at the restaurants; hop in a taxi and go to the Ancient Street instead of eating at the hotel.
Getting to the mountains: Tunxi is about 1 1/2 hours (93 kilometers) from the entrance to Huang Shan mountains. You can hire a private driver to take you to the mountains for about $50 USD for two people or you can take a local bus for about $6 for two people. Guess which way we chose? As usual, the local bus driver noticed that we were not Chinese, drove for a while, and pointed to the side of the road so that we stopped somewhere else than the local people. On this occasion, we were dropped off at Mr. Cheng's Tourist Restaurant, run by Simon Cheng, an English speaking tour guide who sold us a map of the mountains and gave us advice on hikes to take in the area. Mr. Cheng was really helpful and we highly recommend that you stop off at his Restaurant. If you would like his email address and contact information, leave me a note in the comments below.
Nine Dragons Waterfall
Hiking Huang Shan: There are many, many ways to get up to the top of the mountain. We took the road less traveled. Mr. Cheng suggested that, as usual, we take a locals' only path that wound us through the Nine Dragons Waterfall. The Waterfall was absolutely beautiful, worth the hike, and the peace and quiet because no one else was on that path. However, he said that it would take us only 2 1/2 hours to get to the first cable car station and it took us more like 3 1/2 hours, including time stopping for pictures. If you plan on hiking through the Nine Dragons section, leave early in the morning to give you enough time to hike the rest of the way up.
Cable car up to top of mountain; flower; me resting on the steps
Most people take one of the three cable cars to the top of the mountains, leading to often huge lines - especially at the Yuping Cable Car. We highy recommend taking the Yungu Cable Car either up or down, which offers majestic, unbelievable views of the surrounding mountains. Then, we hiked the entire top of the mountain --- almost 7 kilometers of stairs going up and down the mountains to a hotel on the other side of the mountain. We woke up early the next morning, watched the sunrise, then hiked down to the Yuping Cable Car station, and took the cable car down to the Huang Shan station. If you have plenty of time, you can hike the whole way up and down, but we only stayed 1 night on top of the mountain, so we had to save time by using the cable cars (and we think that the Yungu Cable Car is worth taking just for the views).
Climbing up and down mountain; construction worker carrying rebarb up the mountain
There are no roads to reach the top of the mountain. Every piece of equipment --- rebarb, furniture, laundry, food, trash, and people --- come up and down the mountain on either cable cars or by walking the steps.
Palanquin up to Huang Shan
Of course, if you're feeling especially lazy and indulgent, you can hire a palanquin to reach the top of the mountain.
Mountains after the rain
Staying in Huang Shan: Given the physical limitations of staffing a mountain top hotel without roads, trucks, and easy transportation, there are surprisingly a handful of hotels on top of the mountain. They are all quite expensive (expect to spend $140 USD/night for a standard room and $45 USD/night for a dorm room). If you can build it into your budget, we highly recommend staying two nights at the top of the mountain. Book early because those rooms go fast! We stayed at the Baiyun Hotel (Cloud Dispelling Pavilion hotel) which was in a very nice location to watch the sunrise, but all of the hotels have beautiful views and comparable amenities, so I am not sure that it makes a difference as to where you stay.
Cloud Dispelling Pavilion
If we could do it over again: If we could do it over again, we would have hiked up through the Nine Dragons Fall to the Yungu Cable Car, then taken the Cable Car up to the top of the mountain. At that point, we would have stayed one night at the Beihai hotel, which is about 45 minute walk from the Cable Car station. On the second day, we would have woken up early for the sunrise, hiked through the entire mountain top, taking enough time to enjoy all of the different sights (about a 5-6 hour walk). Then, we would stay the second night at the Jade Screen Hotel, which is right near the entrance to the Western Route. The hike down the Western Route is about 6 hours and there are some really tough spots going up and down the mountain but the views are sensational.