I had heard a great deal about the Huang Shan before our visit in January of 2005. To be honest, I did not expect them to live up to all the hype. In the event I was not just proved wrong, but (I have to admit) totally humbled by the awesome beauty of these mountains.

It's not by chance that so many poets, artists and composers through the ages have made their way to this small range of peaks seeking inspiration. There are vistas of sublime and exquisite beauty here - in our short visit of a few hours we were treated to scene after scene of vastness, loveliness, drama and splendour. Here nature has sculpted something beyond words, and the widespread activity of human beings in laying paths and cutting stairways has not been able to diminish it. In some places the human additions are of themselves very beautiful and in keeping with their surroundings - this is certainly the case at Bridge of the Immortals.

From our hotel in Tunxi we took a minibus to the "Scenic Area" of Huang Shan - a journey of some 90 minutes rising slowly from the plain into terraced foothills with tea bushes covering the slopes. The weather was cloudy and dismal as it had been every other day of our stay and the temperature hovered around zero as we entered the park. AT Mercy Light Temple we spilled out of the van and were greeted by the crampon sellers, who came down from 40 Yuan to 20 Yuan per pair without even trying to haggle - I think a Chinese person would pay 10! Still, with so much ice around they were sure to be worth it.

The "trail" led up to the right of the former temple (now a tea house and mini museum of mountain photos and history/geology) and for the most part consisted of wide, smooth granite steps. Yes, crampons essential. We climbed steadily up through the mist; on shady sections of path we crunched through small patches of ice and snow. Around us was a forest of bamboo and pine - the only sound the musical chink-chink of crampons on stairway. Our goal was the "Heavenly Capital", from where we hoped to traverse to the highest peak, the "Lotus Flower" with perhaps time to visit "Fairyland Bridge" before descending some six or seven hours hence. Our maps were rough diagrams with pictures and names for all the different peaks and features and muddled lines showing the trails - not great for navigating by, but fortunately there were signs in English along the way and at each major feature. The first of these was shown on the map as "Stant Horse Bridge" and when we reached it the sign said "Standing Horses Bridge". Here it became obvious from warning signs and a cluster of park workers blocking the way that Heavenly Capital was closed because of the ice - apparently this is the case all winter. We stayed on the main trail towards Lotus Flower, pausing to buy new crampons for those who had broken theirs already (after less than an hour!) and eat some of our prasad (blessed food given out the previous night at our meditation in Tunxi).


The trail was almost entirely made up of smooth stairs - there were very few flat sections, just a relentless upward slog with the occasional downhill section as we contoured across the hillside. Visibility was very low, but the quietude in the misty woods was restful and the ascent surprisingly enjoyable. After an hour or so we came to a col and suddenly the cloud sank to reveal a view of "Jade Screen". We had not seen the sun for over a week and this sudden revelation made us all gasp - then reach for our cameras.

The mountainside of bare, smooth granite with twisted pines clinging to its flanks was a truly awesome sight - though one which would seem less memorable after other more spectacular views later in the day.

After no more than half a minute a new tide of cloud had rolled in and enveloped us once more, but we knew we would soon climb right out of it, which we did, finding ourselves at Welcome Guest Pine, a mountain lodge and tea house, where we took the trail to the highest of the many peaks - Lotus Flower. Here our party split up and at the same time met up with a number of friends and acquaintances who had travelled separately to Huang Shan and either climbed up the Eastern or Western steps or taken the cable car - I found myself with a group of friends from Austria, Australia, France, Russia and Czech. The climb up to Lotus Flower was steep and offered dramatic views - the stepped path wound around the mountain finally ending on the small pinnacle.

Picture: The Lotus Flower, highest peak of the Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan)

I'm running out of superlatives to describe the views, so I won't even try any more! Next came a steep descent as we headed out towards what our map called "Fairyland Bridge". Our route took us down yet more steps and then up again - there were very few flat sections. The only named peak we got to on our route was "Turtle" or "Turtle Eating Snails". Having never seen a turtle eat snails I couldn't say if it was well named or not. Here the trail did at least offer some flat and easy going among snow-laden pines and there was a small pagoda which demanded another collective fumble for cameras.

As we headed downwards and westwards on a twisting ridge we came across the best view of the day - a sea of cloud with numerous "island" peaks breaking it's surface. We stopped to meditate and it was hard to pull ourselves away.

As the ridge descended we came across more dramatic sights - finger-like pinnacles rising from the boiling mist, looming sheer-sided bluffs, pines growing impossibly from rock faces. Finally we came to a bridge - a tiny link between two adjacent mountains reached through tunnels hewn out of the rock - the sign revealed that this was "Bridge of the Immortals" so we continued hoping that Fairyland Bridge would be even more stunning. The steps became very icy as we continued down and down - back into the cloud. They were steep too, and there were a few moments of vertigo. Eventually we realised we had to forget this elusive bridge and turn back, or we would miss our taxi back to Tunxi, so we turned and retraced our steps - 1300 stairs as it turned out. With the steepness of the trail and the need to make decent progress because of the time, it was a seriously aerobic workout - I was bathed in sweat by the time we got back to Bridge of The Immortals and discovered from an inspection of the plaque that this was in fact Fairyland Bridge - it is known by both alternative translations from the Chinese. Oh well, those 1300 steps were no doubt good training that we'll all be glad of in our next marathon. We all saw the funny side. Honestly.

Our return was pretty much the same as the outbound route, except that we didn't go back over the Lotus Flower summit, and we opted for the cable car to make sure we reached the taxi at Mercy Light Temple on time. We had heard from friends who had come to Huang Shan a few days before that ice could make the descent slower even then the climb.

All in all, Huang Shan was a great experience - sorry my writing some weeks later is failing miserably to convey it - hopefully the photos will convince you. The best moments by far were that first time the cloud sank to reveal the sunshine and the dramatic views of Jade Screen, and the beautiful meditation over the sea of clouds on the ridge to Bridge of the Immortals.

If you come to Huang Shan, try and give yourself a few days - there are so many great parts of this range that I missed. The trails are well signed, the maps are vague, and between the two you should be able to find your way around. In winter there are fewer climbers and lots of ice - in Summer I'm told the trails are packed out and they have to operate a one-way system to keep people moving. Whenever you go, if you get some clear weather you won't be disappointed with the views. And if you don't, you'll still experience the wonderful haunting atmosphere. The Huang Shan are unlike any other mountains I've seen.

Thanks to Ashcharjya for his pictures.


Sacred Steps Home