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Thursday, October 15, 2009

China’s Fairytale Terror-Trail

Steep steps
Image: Philip Lai

Far up on Yellow Mountain in the south east of China’s Anhui province is a trail of tens of thousands of granite steps. Partly lacking rails to hold on to, they are a traveller’s only guide past deep ravines and steep descents. Weather-wise, a whole year can pass in just one day: spring in the morning, summer at noon, autumn in the afternoon and winter at night. The most dangerous part yet might be the breathtaking views that can easily make visitors forget where they have to tread.

Wooooow, don’t look down – Fairytale Bridge:
Fairy tale bridge
Image: Jesse Warner

And from top:
Fairy tale bridge
Image: Philip Lai

Huang Shan, or Yellow Mountain in Chinese, is a mountain range consisting of 76 peaks. It has been a popular hiking trail for more than 1,200 years and has been immortalised in innumerable Chinese paintings and poems.

The most remarkable features of Huang Shan are its famous granite steps, said to have been started more than 1,500 years ago – 60,000 steps and altogether more than 50 km of footpaths. Considering that every granite slab had to be carried by hand, building the steps really becomes a Herculean task.

Can you make out the steps to Tiandu („Heaven“)?
Tiandu peak
Image: Jakemete

If you think the next image looks scary and the walk strenuous, consider that the original steps were just hewn into the rock face and people traversing them had to hold a chain hanging off the wall for support!

Just plastered to the mountain – don’t look down while you walk!
Path along the mountain
Image via Pixdaus

Hey, we told you not to look down!
View down
Image: Eden Li

Getting to the top requires 5 hours of climbing the steep granite steps but there is an easier route for those who can bear the stomach-churning, 3,700-m-ascent in a cable car. The 8-minute ride often goes directly along the rock face!

Skirting the mountain:
Cable car
Image via hpmuseum

Once on top, visitors have thousands of stairs in front of them and various trails to choose from for exploring the mountain. That doesn’t mean solitude, serenity and quiet. No, as one of China’s most popular tourist attractions – especially the East and North trails preferred by tour guides – the area is thronged with people huffing and puffing up the mountain, all the while whooping away to try out the echo. So much for serenity.

Coming through! The crowds trekking Huang Shan:
Image via lewisesinchina

The line for the cable car back – the last one leaves at 5 pm, hurry!
Cable car line
Image via lewisesinchina

A handful of expensive and small hotels and hostels await visitors at the top. Everything that is up on the mountain, from the smallest brick to the hotel’s water heaters, was carried up the mountain on one of the porter’s backs. That’s right, no cable car for supplies as they are too heavy and porters are cheaper than the fare, as they make the equivalent of about $5 per trip.

A hotel, literally in the mountains:
Hotel in the mountains
Image via lewisesinchina

Because the porters are fast, they manage two trips in a day – 4 hours from the Huang Shan village to the top where the hotels are and 2 hours back to the village. The same walk for an untrained person will take 7 hours to the top and 5 hours back down!

The path less travelled?
Mountain path
image via hpmuseum

The mountain range was formed in the Mesozoic about 100 million years ago by an ancient sea that disappeared due to uplift. The region’s peculiarly shaped granite peaks were formed in the Quaternary Period through the influence of glaciers. The three highest peaks are almost 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) high.

But looking up is not how you enjoy the magnificence of the Yellow Mountain; you have to look down:

Huang Shan’s famous Sea of Clouds:
sea of clouds
Image: Eden Li

The Yellow Mountain’s vegetation varies with altitude: forest below 1,100 meters; then patches of trees up to the tree line at 1,800 meters; and above that, alpine grass-lands. The Chinese especially love the Huangshan Pine – many trees are more than a hundred years old – because it is a hardy plant that can grow anywhere and in almost any condition.

Many fern species are represented as well and the whole Huang Shan region is an important habitat for rare and threatened plant and animal species. Because of this fact and the spectacular scenery and sunsets, Yellow Mountain was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.

If you’re thinking of visiting, here’s some good advice for you:

Don’t enjoy the views and by no means flirt with the monkeys!
Tourist advice
Image via lewisesinchina

Oh, and do watch this video before you go as it gives you a pretty good idea of a visit on a crowded day:

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4