Mike's China by Mike Dixon - HTML preview

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5 Huang Shan


We have all seen Chinese paintings of misty mountains with trees and temples hanging in space.  It is a very old style and I used to think of it as pure fantasy.  Then I went to China and was surprised to discover how close it comes to real life.

My plane descended towards Shanghai and suddenly the clouds looked very Chinese.  They were the puffy sort you see in Chinese paintings.  All that was lacking was a few mountains and the odd dragon.

I got a further surprise when we visited the Huang Shan Mountains.  They are perpetually bathed in mist.  It swirls about granite pinnacles and forms seas in deep valleys.  You rarely get more than a glimpse of anything before the mist returns.  Trees cling to rocks and shrines poke up on ledges.  They are there one moment and gone the next.

I tried to photograph the scene and was always frustrated.  Like the rainforest, the mountain is all around you.  Individual elements are impressive because you know they are there.  Getting them together to form a picture requires skill.  The artists of antiquity developed a style that captures the spirit of the mountains.  Photographers rarely achieve the same result without a lot of photoshopping (mucking around with the digital image).

Today, you can get on a train in Shanghai and be at the foot of the Huang Shan in a few hours.  Cable cars speed you to the top.  It was very different when I first went there twenty-five years ago.  You had to trudge up a pilgrim path.  The mountain is now equipped with tourist hotels.  Twenty-five years ago, there was just one place to stay unless you found a monk or nun who was prepared to put you up at their place.

Going back was a bit of a disappointment but don't let me put you off.  The Huang Shan are one of the great natural wonders of the world.  You can put up with the crowds and the commercialisation.  The scenery makes the whole thing worthwhile.

I returned last year with my wife.  We took the precaution of avoiding Chinese public holidays but forgot about Korean holidays.  The place was overrun with South Koreans.  Over two thousand had descended on the cable car station.  To add to the problem, the Chinese bureaucracy was insisting on seeing everyone's passport.  The excuse was security and the alleged danger was suicide bombers.  God/Buddha/Confucius knows how seeing a passport will stop people blowing themselves up.  We would have waited hours if a Chinese tour guide had not taken pity on us.  He included our passports with those of his (overseas) party and we went up with them.

Once on top you have to walk.  That means taking a small bag if you are staying at one of the hotels.  Your other luggage can be left below in a locker.  The walk to the hotels is long and if you can't manage it you should stay at the bottom.  There is a lot of climbing and descending but the going is easy.  The paths are worthy of an emperor.  No expense was spared creating steps and walkways from blocks of granite.

If you don't want to carry your bag you can use the services of one of the many porters.  These are immensely fit people of all ages who carry stuff around on poles slung across their shoulders.  I was told that much of what they do could be done by vehicles but that would put an end to their jobs.  The official policy is to provide work for the locals and not displace them by machines.

If you like a bit of solitude in beautiful places then stay on the mountain for at least one night.  The crowds melt away towards evening and it's quite peaceful after the last cable car has gone back down.  It stays that way until the first cable car arrives the next morning.  Then the pressure builds up as more and more people are disgorged.