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March 19-20, 2013

(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

You know those Chinese scroll paintings with the gumdrop mountains and mysterious mists? Well, Huangshan (Chinese for Yellow Mountain) is the inspiration. This is one of those points on a trip that one looks forward to, and we had arrived. Our hostel, Old Street Hostel, exists primarily for travelers seeking this adventure and was very helpful in booking overnight stays in Huangshan mountain hotels or hostels, arranging transportation, providing food and weather reports, and holding luggage for returning travelers, etc. They were super helpful, but as always, talking with returning trekkers and getting first hand accounts was always our best source of info — and that, we had plenty of.

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Old Street Hostel

So here was our plan: Take only what we need for a short overnight stay in a mountaintop hostel, and leave the rest of our belongings at Old Street Hostel. We were told it was expensive eating up on Huangshan because all the food had to be hand carried up, so we were also carrying all the food we would need for two days. We planned to take the cable car up the more difficult part of the mountain then hike the rest of the way. Doing this would allow us more time to hike all the trails on top of the mountain, and there were many — more than one could do in a day. Our hostel had booked us for one night in the best hostel on Huangshan, because it was the closest one to the best spot for sunrise-viewing. We were really looking forward to waking up to experience the sunrise over the mountains, a must do if spending the night. Once sunrise is done, we would proceed to hike all the way down Huangshan and return back to Old Street Hostel to rest and recuperate. That was our plan, now let’s hope we get fantastic weather.

To say the least we were pretty excited about the next two days, although Kristin was not sure she was in good enough shape for all that hiking. I took my large backpack, loaded with all our stuff and food and Kristin took my smaller one loaded with camera and hiking info.

Side note: Let me talk a little about the food situation. We have from the start always had on hand instant coffee, milk if possible (usually condensed milk in a tube), oatmeal packages and whatever handy snacks we could find for the road. But now, with the task of taking something more substantial for the next 36 hours, we went looking for something more stomach-filling. We found a large bakery in town the night before, coming back from Hongcun village and the Mukeng bamboo forest trip, so we bought some bread items and what looked liked slices of pizza. Stopping in a large market we bought some large bottles of water, and several different types of China’s favorite fast food: cup of noodles! You know those cups with dry noodles and several little packages of flavor extras, then you just add hot water, cover, simmer, and mmm, mmm, good. We went this way, not just because we didn’t think we had other choices in the market (we didn’t), but because this cup of noodle thing is EVERYWHERE and EVERYONE in China was eating it. Trains, buses, parks, recreation areas, lunchtime areas, hostels, in the streets, EVERYWHERE! Okay, let’s try it, everyone seems sold on it, and loves it, so let’s do as the locals do.

We arrived at Huangshan scenic area, bought our very expensive entrance tickets and jumped onto the cable car up the mountain (there was no line at all!). It was a slightly cloudy day, with possibility of showers, so we could not see the top of the mountains from the bottom. As we rose up higher and higher, Kristin checked out the maker of the cable car: Dopplmeyer (Austrian) — phew! We kept rising higher and higher. Holy cow! Am I glad we didn’t hike up.

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Woo Hoo!

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Look carefully there’s our cable car!

Okay, now here’s the real crazy thing about this whole experience. We could see many people hiking the trail up the mountain but it’s not a trail as we think of a trail as in the rest of the world, no, this trail is paved. Not just paved, but with finished steps all along the way, hand rails, projecting canopy walkways along cliffs, hundreds if not thousands of feet high up. Ugh, what unfortunate souls built this?

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Seeing is believing – a walkway winding up the cliff.

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All of this extending for who knows how many miles up and throughout these pinnacles. We were dumbfounded. Gazing down at the hiking pathways winding around the cliffs filled with people making their way up, we had to pick our jaws up off the floor of the cable car.

We hopped off the cable car at the top of the mountain and joined in with the other hikers who had been making the trek from the bottom. We saw that they were exhausted but exhilarated and so we joined in with the fray. The best way to explain this whole paved hiking trail is: if Walt Disney had built this trail for a high mountain experience for the public, this is what it would look like.

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Looks like the Disney dwarves built this handrail.

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All you needed to do is bring your energy and love for the outdoors to enjoy it, but you better be in shape. You also had the option of taking the cable car down but you still needed the energy to hike miles of paved trails up and down, around and across the tops of these incredible mountain peaks to get the whole view. But the attitude we felt from the people we ran into was that this hike was almost a holy quest of hiking from the bottom to the top, and then back down. It was as if it were a rite of passage, a national pride of passage! And the feeling of exhilaration was all around you.

In our time on the mountain I have no idea how many people asked us where we were from, how many times we took pictures with them, how many times teenagers came running up to us to try out their English, if we needed directions or pointed in the right direction, it was no problem.

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Yes, there were a few more foreign tourists here, but not many. Any way you look at it this was still a trek, and you really had to want to do this to be here. Unfortunately, there were tour groups here too, lead by those annoying voice box tour guides. You could hear them coming from the other side of the mountain.

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Aaaah!!! The dreaded voice box tour guide.

Huangshan’s vistas were like no vistas we had ever seen. Immense towering pinnacles of craggy peaks exploding out from these mountain tops made for some spectacular backdrops.

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Placards at certain points along the pathway explained the rock formations, mineral compositions, and history of the mountains.

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Along the way we came across an area where hundreds of locks were attached to a chain handrail. Couples had attached these locks to the handrail, with their names or love messages, as a way to proclaim their everlasting love for each other.

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We didn’t bring a spare lock so we did the next best thing and recorded one picture for our memories.

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We were excited about the possibility of capturing some breathtaking pictures at sunset and especially at sunrise. We had seen pictures and read articles of amazing vistas people had experienced — particularly the “sea of clouds” and we were hoping that we too, could capture some of those vistas. Now if only the weather would cooperate.

I mentioned that we were staying in the best hostel on Huangshan, right? Yup, not only do they have a hostel or two up here, but a handful of hotels tucked away on the tops of these mountains! It’s as if old Walt (Disney) took too many of those magic kingdom pills and decided it was also a good idea to establish some hotels up in these Matterhorns. Check this out!

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Can you see the hotel?

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Talk about a view from your window!

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The walk up to your hotel room is pretty exciting too!

Now for the wildest and most unbelievable thing yet. Yeah, I know this is starting to sound like a broken record. All, and I mean all, the items, goods, beverages, products, food, linens, repair materials, everything, is hand carried up these mountains by porters with bamboo polls slung across their shoulders and huge bundles tied on each end. NO WAY! Yup, way!

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They don’t even let them use the cable car to make it easy. They carry all the supplies from the very bottom! These small but lean, muscular men with the most intense calf muscles I’ve ever seen on anyone, did this as their daily job.

Check out the video: http://youtu.be/rWR48akWCDE

This was a feat of gargantuous effort. At first when we saw these porters struggling up all those steps we thought, this is slave labor at best, and bordering on insanity. But it wasn’t until later that it was explained to me that it wasn’t that way at all. “This was a way of employing men, giving them a job when no jobs were available. You have to understand that they are grateful for having this work to do.” Okay, no comment.

Title=”Huangshan Porters, Unbelievable!”>http://youtu.be/etXZ–piZr8
The above link may not work but go to “Bmore Nomadic” channel on YouTube and clink on “Huangshan Porters, Unbelievable!”

As we were venturing around Huangshan’s high altitude paved pathways we had to duck into one of the hotels as heavy rain started to fall. We waited it out until we finally got a break after an hour and decided to make the final hike to our hostel on another mountain top.

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Hiking the mountains with our rain gear.

Checking into the hostel section of the Baiyun Hotel were directed to another building for our dorm rooms. For some reason this hostel did not have mixed dorm rooms and so Kristin and I would be in separate rooms. We also found out there would be no wifi — but that was no surprise. We walked into the multi-story building looking for our dorm rooms. Humm, no lobby, no front desk, we asked a maid (we think) where our rooms were. She grimaced and pointed down the hall. We wandered down the hall but didn’t see our room numbers, so back we went to ask her again for directions. Super-annoyed, she harrumphed and walked us down the hall to another office where there was a guy who could help us. He walked us out to another building and buzzed us into our room. We asked about getting a room key…nope — we needed to get him every time. Hmm.

By far these were the worst sleeping accommodations we had seen in our entire trip throughout all the countries we had visited. Each tiny room had four bunk beds lined up right next to one another, with only a tiny one-foot gap between the two middle beds; this meant that if you had a bed at either edge, you had to climb over someone else to get there — and good luck if you were on a top bunk! There was nowhere to sit and hang out, other than on the beds, which was awkward. But the real kicker was that the men’s dorm was a full-on oppressive smoke fest — and also reeked badly of smelly hiker shoes. Okay, and this supposedly was the best hostel up here? We henceforth referred to this place as the stalag.

So we invoked the emergency clause and decided to see if there were rooms available in the four-star hotel. Indeed there were, so we spent what we had to (and it was plenty) to move into a proper hotel room. What a difference! We went from smoke-filled, cramped, no-free space, chair-less, lobby less, wifi-less, shared bathroom, crawl over bunk bed to get to your bunk bed situation to four-star accommodations with slippers and bathrobes! No regrets here, except maybe for abandoning the nice young couple we had chatted with in the stalag.

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Kristin getting comfy in bed with a cup of hot tea.

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We were so glad to see our friends the next morning and seen that they had survived the night in the stalag.

It was starting to get dark, the rain had stopped and we were about to call it a night when I decided to take a chance and go back out to see if I could catch the sunset over these spectacular peaks through a clearing of the clouds. Is this not what everyone comes up here to see? We had been hearing that it is at sunset and especially at sunrise when you see the most impressive and spectacular vistas. Kristin had enough hiking in the rain for the day and was calling it a night. I told her I’d be back in an hour to 90 minutes, and off I went.

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I stopped at the front desk for directions for the best spot to view the clearing mountain peaks, and set off. No sooner had I left the hotel when I noticed that I might be the only one out on these pathways. Huffing and puffing I hiked up to where I was directed to go, although the heavy mist and clouds were making the pathways ever more eerie and difficult to climb. No more handrails, just mountaintop rock pathways that disappeared into the heavy mist-laden clouds, which made for an ominous situation. Looking down to a thickening misty, wet, mountain rock pathway I decided not to continue in that direction for fear of not being able to see in the growing darkness of clouds.

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Even though I could not see it, all my senses were telling me that I was on top of some high mountain peak.

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The wind was starting to chill me to the bone and one good gust might just knock me over on the increasingly wet pathway. And still I had not seen one other person since leaving the hotel. I retraced my steps and decided to give it one last try on a different pathway. Straining to make out land features in the now swirling mist, every rock formation, tree or bush would only slowly come into view as I approached.

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But I kept wondering what miraculous vistas I might see if it clears for a moment. I passed between a crevice of two massive boulders and looked down to a narrow stairway disappearing into a thick abyss of clouds.

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I could feel the cold mountain wind against my skin and I knew I was climbing down the face of a steep cliffside staircase. Beyond that cliff there was a vastness that I couldn’t see, but I could sense the immenseness by the sound of the wind. I continued down the steep cliff face staircase desperately trying to make something out of the swirling mixture of misty clouds. I could feel a growing shaking in my stride and hands as I tightly gripped the hand rails. I could barely see a small platform about 30 steps further down. “I’ll go there and see how it is”, I said to myself. The stairs and handrails were wet from the mist and my mind was starting to scream out that maybe I should not be there. Okay, I made it to the platform and looked further down the cliff face staircase and saw it disappear into an oblivion of clouds. That’s far enough, I thought, I’ll sit and wait for 5 maybe 10 minutes and see if any clearing occurs. The sound was deafening from my pounding heartbeat as the swirling wind whipped past the face of the cliff and into the nothingness of what lay beyond. I waited with camera in hand. I was staring into that ocean of clouds straining to make anything out. My face was starting to go numb from the cold wind. What’s that way over there? A momentary glimpse of a faraway craggy peak. I look down and the clouds cleared enough so that I could see the valley floor. Oh my god! I’m so much higher than I thought. How many thousands of feet is that? A moment of panic ran through my body as I started thinking, what if I slip on the wet staircase going back up? No one knows where I am. Okay, okay, stop thinking that. Take a big breath. And on cue Huangshan delivered. For just a few seconds the clouds cleared away perfectly and the grandeur of the Huangshan peaks surrounded me, tall spiraling rocky peaks crashing out of that ocean of misty clouds as the sound of the wind died away. The moment was so amazing that I froze and grasped for the handrails because I felt that I might fall over. It wasn’t a gasp or a breathlessness that I felt – but a deep pressure in my chest that expanded and filled me with awe. And as quickly as it appeared, it vanished under a blanket of mist.

The feeling overwhelmed me and I wanted more. I instantly became an addict and wanted to feel that chest pressure again. Oh please, please, please let me experience it one more time. But it was not to be. I climbed slowly and carefully up the cliff-face staircase, holding the handrail firmly and making sure of each step I took on the wet stairs. And it was on the climb back up that I realized that in that moment I had not taken a picture. But what I was left with was a memory deep in my soul for which I will always hunger for.

It took me 20 to 25 minutes to find my way back to the mountaintop hotel in the darkness, and I did not run into one other person along the way.

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I made it back just in time as a thunder and lightning storm blew over the mountains.

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I didn’t tell Kristin about my experience right away because I think I was still a little numb from it. But once I did, we set our alarms for the next morning’s sunrise.

Up and adam. We shot out of bed and bundled up in some extra large puffy coats the fancy hotel provided us, as we raced over to the other side of the mountain peak for the sunrise.

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Kristin looking like one of the “Blue Meanies” in her puffy coat.

We made good time and were ahead of the pack so we were able to stake our claim at the best viewing sight for the sunrise. Cameras in hand, we were set. In a short while the whole area filled up with camera- and tripod-toting adventurers. It was a paparazzi affair for the sunrise.

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These folks didn’t get the warm comfy puffy coats we got.

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The crowd awaits the picture perfect moment to snap thier pictures.

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Sleepy-eyed Kristin all set to take pictures in our prime photo spot.

The mountain tops were thick with clearing storm clouds and it was a continuing battle of clearing and thickening clouds the entire sunrise. There were times we thought we were on the brink of some spectacular shots, but they never materialized. Instead we had a rather hazy ho-hum sunrise.

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We returned to the hotel, packed up and started our long descent down the mountain — no cable car for us this time! How long of a descent you say? Well, after a while I started counting our steps — I counted in sets of thousands. Yes you heard me right, sets of thousands. So by the time we finished our painful hike down Huangshan, with backpacks, I estimated we had taken somewhere between 9 to 10 thousand steps down. OUCH! It was a real knee-buster.

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This was the last picture we saw Kristin smiling on the hike down.

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You see that staircase winding down the cliffside? That was just one of many we did on the way down.

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I may be smiling but my legs were finished!

After that hike it took our legs, especially our calves, about five days to return to normal. But boy was it a painful five days, and we sure walked funny too. Overall it was a tremendous experience that we will always look back on with wonder and awe.

You know how I mentioned the food thing, and how we were all stocked up with cup of noodles for those 36 hours on the mountain? Well if I never have to eat another one of those cup of noodle things again, it will be too soon. And, for some reason, in this part of China, we have found that they like their food sweet. Especially this weird sweet hot dog thing, which they put on a lot of stuff, like those pizza slices we bought. Yuck! Can we please have some savory type of food? It has now gotten to the point where both of us can smell that sweet sausage cooking and we’re both repulsed by it.

On the other hand, our favorite restaurant in Huangshan was this great sit-down restaurant right across from Old Street Hostel, “Lao Jie Diyilou”, serving authentic Anhui cuisine. What a cool and wonderful place. You walk by all the cooking stations with pen and pad, and write down the item number of the dish you see displayed on the counter. Perfect! We still couldn’t read what the descriptions of the dishes were, but if it looked good, we jotted it down. Even better than a picture menu! Everything we ordered, all three times we ate there, was wonderful.

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Up to that point, Lao Jie Diyilou was our favorite restaurant in China.

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Old town Huangshan turned out to be a really unique place with some really wonderful people. We met some great English-speaking Chinese people that were really helpful to these lost souls. A young couple on the bus coming back from the magical village and bamboo forest helped us find our way back to our hostel and took us to the large local supermarket near by. The elderly, educated, and extremely friendly man we met on the bus coming back from our Huangshan hike introduced himself and his wife to us. He was eager to speak English and we passed the time away talking about the times he has visited, worked, and traveled in the US. He was especially kind as he personally walked us over and made sure we got on the correct bus back to our hostel once we were in town.

And finally on our last morning in Huangshan, we got to wander the streets of Old Town. Again, we needed more time here. If you go one direction on the street in front of our hostel you get great modern stores selling everything from hiking attire, clothing, and food, etc. And if you go the other direction you get Old Town: tea shops, calligraphy stores, food stores, inns, unique cafes, bars, all sorts of stores selling all sorts of things. But it’s the old town architecture, charm, and watching the owners of these places set up shop early in the morning that is a real pleasure to behold.

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We left Huangshan exhausted, exhilarated, awed, and wanting to spend more time in town for the ambience, for the people, to catch our breath, and for a really good masseuse to massage away the pain in our aching legs.

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