Matt and I wanted to go and see the Terracotta Warriors – but the dates we chose ended up being the same weekend that all the university students go home, and trains from Shanghai to Xi’an were all booked up. I asked a colleague where he recommended we should go and he suggested Huangshan.
Huangshan (literally, “yellow mountain”) is actually a range of mountains, rather than a single mountain. It’s in Anhui province, about 700 km from Shanghai (so not that far, in China terms). We booked tickets for the overnight train from Shanghai railway station, leaving at 8pm and arriving at 7am the next day.
We arrived at Shanghai station with hours to spare (I worry about missing trains) and bought snacks and hung out, before boarding our train. What seemed like a full on argument was taking place in our cabin, though on closer inspection, this was just normal volume Shanghai negotiations about swapping bunks around. We refused to swap as we wanted to be in the same cabin and eventually someone else relented and the main instigator of the shouting, Grandpa, climbed onto his bunk and immediately started snoring. I chatted with the six year-old granddaughter, who kept checking with me that Matt couldn’t speak Chinese, was amazed that I could read English and ate the sauce directly from her packet of instant noodles.
The train terminated at Tunxi, now rebranded as Huangshan City. Our cabinmates had disembarked (noisily) at 2am and we fussed about getting ready before stepping out onto the long and old fashioned platform. Outside the station we got some snacks before boarding a minibus to Tangkou, the town at the entrance to the Huangshan scenic area. This took about an hour. Once at Tangkou, we took another bus, to the very foot of the mountains. I think you can walk all the way from Tangkou but it would be a long old way. As we were buying tickets, we got chatting to a Canadian guy who’d spent the last few days up the mountain. He said it was wet and stormy up there but it seemed impossible from where we were.
I’d printed out a map of Huangshan and planned for us to walk up the Eastern Steps (about 750m ascent over 7.5km) and then walk down the Western Steps (1000m and 12.5km) the following day. But I didn’t think about this when buying tickets for the bus at Tangkou, and we were dropped at the start of the Western Steps. Oops.
Most of the other tourists took the cable car up to the top but we set off walking.
After about 1.5 hours I started feeling a little bit wobbly, as we hadn’t eaten much, and I inhaled a Snickers bar. Matt’s legs were a little sore from the personal training session he’d done at the gym the day before. The views back down were becoming more and more incredible.
It started to rain, and we saw some terrifying monkeys.
Towards the top of the Western Steps it started raining heavily, floods of water that nearly washed my contact lenses out. We made it to a hotel near the top of the cable car, where a lot of people were sheltering. We found a corner of the restaurant where we ignored the stares from the waiting staff and unpacked/repacked our bags, and put them back on underneath our fetching yellow plastic ponchos.
It was still quite a way from here to our hotel, and we were dispirited to see we had another 6km to go. The rain was bad (it got a little lighter), the views were nonexistent thanks to the fog and the crowds of people were both annoying and a little worrying. A lot of people were dressed for much more clement weather, and most people didn’t seem to be aware/care that slipping over could mean falling down the mountain, and probably taking a few people with you. The worst bit was walking up a waterfall, nose to tail with people wearing sandals.
Matt said “this is the worst place we’ve ever been to, there’s no way that either of us could possibly say that we’re enjoying this, because it’s awful.”
When we finally made it to our hotel, we were absolutely soaked. The hotel was a dispiriting building, commissioned by none other than Deng Xiaoping. We checked in and went to see our rooms (separate dorm rooms, as a double room was 1000 RMB) only to find that there were no towels. Back we went to reception and they told me that they didn’t have any towels in the hotel, but I was annoying enough that eventually I got us a towel each.
The rest of the evening was spent pointedly sitting in the cafe area with one purchased snack and lots of snacks bought elsewhere, then going to the restaurant and drinking three pots of tea to make up for the overpriced (and not very good) food. By 9pm we were in bed. My roommates kept staring at me and Matt told a young boy to STFU in the night.
At 4.15am we woke up, got dressed and met up at the hotel reception. The whole point of coming to Huangshan was to see the sunrise, and I’d asked the receptionist where we should go (she’d told me there was only a 20% chance of seeing anything, due to the weather) and done a little online research. We went out into the dark morning. It wasn’t raining. We headed for Lion’s Peak, using my phone as a torch. Very soon we came to a lookout point.
We tried a few lookouts.
Then we settled in for the sunrise.
This was the exact same time that loads of other people showed up, tourists who’d come all the way to Huangshan, and woken up early but not early enough. Suckers. We wandered about a bit more before deciding to pack up and head down the mountain before all the crowds came out.
Our hotel was very near the top of the Eastern Steps so we had a short walk to the steps before heading down, down, down. It started raining, of course, but it was nice to walk with hardly anyone around. It was amazing to look up at one point and see the cable car stretching up into the sky and realise that we’d come all the way down from there.
After about an hour, we started coming across porters carrying up food, laundry, construction materials. I wanted to take a photo but it felt wrong, these men carrying more than my bodyweight on their shoulders, all the way up a mountain. It put into perspective our whinging about the weather.
I’m quite nervous about going down steps, so we didn’t make hugely fast progress, but less than two hours later we were down at the bottom! Lots of tourists were arriving, some of whom didn’t look like they’d make it up in one piece.
We boarded a bus back to Tangkou and Matt promptly fell asleep. Back in Tangkou, things didn’t look right. We had a hotel booked but the town didn’t look anything like the pictures. I slowly realised that where we were staying was the other side of town, not near the bus station – which meant that the bakery I’d been using as encouragement for Matt was also on the other side of town. Matt looked like he might cry so I suggested we go to KFC for breakfast: coffee, chips and custard tarts.
Refreshed, we walked to the main town and went to the bakery. We were able to check into our hotel really early, and after showers (and towels!) we had a big nap. Later we wandered about the town. There was nothing much to see: a small creek with shops and restaurants on either side, a dusty carpark with a bank. We had dinner at a local restaurant (including a Huangshan beer) and we went back to the bakery. It was all incredibly relaxing!
The next morning we continued relaxing, before getting the bus to Tunxi. It was very hot and we set off for Tunxi’s only sight (Old Street) in the baking heat, quickly feeling sticky and sweaty. Luckily there was an underground mall on the way, so we ducked in there and gawped at the endless fake New Balance stores.
Old Street itself was quite sweet, touristy but nice to wander along. We stopped at a cafe, which was perfect timing as almost immediately it started raining. Matt did some work and I listened to cheesy music and did some instagramming.
I decided I ought to check the train time, and rummaged in my bag for the tickets. Immediately I noticed the date on the ticket. They were for yesterday. The blood drained from my face and I showed Matt the tickets. I checked online for the train on the correct date and all the sleepers were sold out, we’d have to sit the whole way back… Then I thought to check the buses (it’s 12 hours by train but only 5 or 6 by bus) and there was one at 16:50. It was 15:53! We paid and legged it to the main road, jumped in a taxi, got to the bus station and a man said he’d flag the 16:20 bus down for us. I was a little sceptical but sure enough, it all came off as planned and we had a long bus journey back to Shanghai.
Transport in China is really cheap. If this had been in the UK, we’d have had to fork out serious money for another train or bus ticket. However 700km back to Shanghai cost us 135 RMB each, and we got dropped off at a slightly better location (to get back to ours) than the train would have done. I still can’t believe that at 15:50 we didn’t know we had a problem, and 45 minutes later we were on a bus back to Shanghai. I really didn’t expect it to work out!
All in all, lessons learnt: check tickets before and don’t go up mountains when it’s absolutely pissing down. But we did have a good time, saw an amazing sunrise and we felt really relaxed at the end of the trip.