China Travelogue-11: Descending Huangshan

Posted in Travel at 14:44 by RjZ

After stuffing ourselves, fueling up and trying to get our money’s worth at the hotel breakfast buffet, it’s time to shoulder the backpacks and hike down the west side of Huangshan. The maps are no more reliable today than they were yesterday, so the biggest concern is making sure we find the correct way down.

60 RMB: breakfast buffet
5 RMB: bottled water
44 RMB: groceries (snacks for the hike)
20 RMB: more snacks

In pretty short order we hike past yesterday’s sunrise spot and into unexplored territory and new views. We’re not alone. Tourists are stuffing the trails and bumping around snapping pictures and following their megaphone-toting flag-bearers. The wide trails are not enough for all the people and it’s slow going as people navigate the uneven stairs in dress shoes.

At each junction we consult the signs and maps and try to snap a few more pictures of the views, but we’ve got a long hike ahead so we don’t dilly-dally too much. As we begin the real descent the views open up more. Ahead are trails snaking straight down into the canyon and straight back up the peaks. The first peak we pass, Lotus peak, is closed. That’s one dilemma down, at least: we don’t feel obligated to climb it.

Here at the junction of the trails, crowds gather to catch their breath and snap more pictures. One of the most popular subjects are western tourists. Frequently a boy or a girl will surreptitiously sit next to one of us and someone else will fire off a shot.
Sometimes, they’ll even ask us if it’s OK and then they put their arms around us and flash a peace sign and a huge grin at the camera. We ask them why they want to take pictures of two middle aged Americans and get various answers including “because we’re just so happy….” Mostly it’s young people, but at one point an overly charming group of seniors who we’ve just greeted calls us back and asks stand for a picture with them. The same giddy and embarrassed laughter ensues, same grins; the only difference is no one flashes a peace sign this time. It happens so frequently that it gets annoying sometimes and it’s easy to feel like a monkey in a zoo, but it’s pretty nice how excited the Chinese are to see western tourists in their country.

In spite of the long queues on the steep sections, we’re making pretty good time by the time we reach the Yung Ke, or Welcome Pine. We eventually identify which is the famous pine among the hundreds and hundreds of tourists as the one that an entrepreneur is charging to take pictures in front of. But where is the trail to continue down?

We explore every possible exit from the square, gift shop, bathroom, and restaurant at Welcome Pine and push through dense throngs of tourists, but the trail is no where to be found. Parents of children blocking our view of the map sign finally notice and ask them to move and reveal the sign. It points to Welcome Pine, just a few steps down, where we’ve just been.

Enough of being lost! With bulky backpacks we decide to push right into the crowd of photo snapping tourists and lo and behold, here is the trail. No one minds us stepping right in front of their photos and jostling them to get to trail and even more surprising is how excellent the view of Welcome Pine actually is once we’ve pressed passed.

There is no reason for them to be crowding around above; the view and photo is just as easy to make from here, perhaps they’ll never now. The hiking is quicker now that we’ve made it passed the bulk of the crowd. We continue our steep descent into steep granite canyons and gorgeous views. Ahead of us, I can see Celestial Peak and a trail of ladder-like stairs going impossibly up the side of the mountain. A trail of Chinese ants with cameras around their necks seems to be making their way up the mountain. Near the foot of the peak, and less than half way down to the busses, we meet a breathless group of Japanese men who point to the peak and exclaim how wonderful the views are from the top. We must go, they insist. Only 20 minutes to the top. “Even with backpacks?” we inquire, but they just go on about how amazing it is.

Stupid tourists. Of course we’re convinced, and suddenly we’re sweating up the just shy of vertical carved stairs and nooks in the side of the mountain. Colorado-strong, we make it up to the narrows, a one person at a time ledge, exposed on both sides, with a low, swinging, chain fence as likely for safety but also an obstacle to trip over, in the promised 20 minutes. At the end of the short, don’t-look-down stretch a woman tries to stop us—to take a picture with us!

Fortunately the pressing crowd has the sense to convince her this is a bad idea as we press off the ledge to finish our ascent. The incredible views and the buzzing of a man engraving names of our fellow achievers onto medals that everyone is wearing are enough to convince us to cough up 20 RMB for a our own personalized memento.

Descending Huangshan. Photos of more
treacherous steps were too dangerous…

As steep as it is going up, it’s no wonder there aren’t many people continuing their hike and going down the back side. Less dramatic, the trail now passes through slots so tight I remove my backpack and drag it behind me trying to get it through. There are foot holds chipped into walls of the mountain and pockets carved out at just the right spot for hands, but the constant straight down plunging is wearing on our thighs. There’s no way to know, now, if we’re making good time and will be able to get to our night bus to Wuhan in time or not, so,on we fall down Huangshan mountain, one step at a time.

Until we rejoin the main trail, there are no crowds, just an occasional group of scared tourists wondering how they got on this trail. Looking back, it’s not so bad, but managing all the exposed stairs with tired legs and a backpack was a frightening ordeal, even for an experienced Colorado hiker. The main trail is wider and we merge with the flow of tourists and realize that we’re actually going to make it down the mountain with time to spare. All we have to do is find the bus!

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