Huangshan: A Mountain In the Mist

Huangshan is an off-the-beaten-path destination for travelers By: Mark Edward Harris
Sunrise and sunset are especially beautiful on Huangshan. // © 2011 Mark Edward Harris
Sunrise and sunset are especially beautiful on Huangshan. // © 2011 Mark Edward Harris

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 Huangshan is served by Tunxi Airport (TXN) which offers nonstop flights from Shanghai and Beijing. Another, more adventurous, option is an overnight train in a four-berth cabin from Shanghai to Tunxi, the jumping-off point for Huangshan. Ground transportation is available from Tunxi Airport and the train station to Huangshan (approximately 40 miles away). Travelers can also spend a night before or after their time atop Huangshan at a hotel at the base of the mountain such as the Ramada Huangshan Hotel. (www.ramada.com)
Few places on earth are more beautiful than China’s Huangshan Mountain (Yellow Mountain). Poets, such as Li Bai, have written about the destination and painters, including Li Liufang, Shi Tao, Jian Jiang and Mei Qing, have made the mountain the subject of their artwork for centuries. Ancient artists not only had to be skillful with their brushes, they had to be athletic. When they went to interpret the magnificent crags and 72 peaks of Huangshan, located 280 miles southwest of Shanghai, they had to carry their canvases up arduous trails. These days, aerial trams transport visitors, mostly Chinese nationals, up the mountain. While this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular domestic destination, it’s relatively off the tourist map for foreign visitors.

During the Qin Dynasty, the mountain was known as Yishan (Mount Yi). In 747 A.D., its name was changed to Huangshan by imperial decree in honor of emperor Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), the mythological ancestor of the Han Chinese.

Unlike most mountains, where the best view is from a distance looking up, Huangshan is best appreciated when looking down. This is especially true when clouds create a misty sea around the mountain’s rocky peaks. With or without fog, sunrises and sunsets are magnificent, silhouetting the granite outcroppings. Lotus Peak (Lian Hua Feng, at an elevation of 6,115 feet), Bright Summit Peak (Guang Ming Ding, at an elevation of 6,037 feet) and Celestial Peak aka Capital of Heaven Peak (Tian Du Feng, at an elevation of 6,001 feet) are particularly good vantage points.

These days, photography has replaced the words of poets and the ink drawings of painters to a large degree, but little has changed in the landscape itself. The same views that inspired artists from the Tang through the Qing dynasties still exist. Director James Cameron cited Huangshan as one of the influences that inspired the design of the fictional world in the movie “Avatar,” and the famed landscape photographer, Art Wolfe, has created seminal work atop the mountain. Wolfe has said that any time of year is a good time to visit Huangshan, with different seasons offering distinct scenic impressions. Winter is particularly beautiful, when the mountain and trees are covered with snow and ice, and there are fewer visitors.

Anyone who wants to trace the steps of ancient travelers up Huangshan can skip the 15-minute aerial tram ride to the top and use the eastern stairs or attempt the longer and steeper western stairs. While the ascent is not alpine climbing, those who attempt it must be in good shape and expect to be on the trail for the whole day. Thousands of steps have been carved into the mountain, making it perhaps the most stunning stairway in the world.

Once on top of the mountain, a five-mile hike up and down thousands of steps gives visitors the opportunity to view all the dramatic landscapes Huangshan has to offer. Rather than backtrack, hikers can take an aerial tram down the opposite side of the mountain where shuttle buses take them back to the main parking lot. For visitors who have no fear of heights, several stone-step paths are carved into the sheer faces of a number of the peaks, beckoning the bravest of hikers.

Several hotels have been built on top of Huangshan Mountain, including the Xi Hai Hotel. Staying at a hotel on the mountain for one night provides visitors the opportunity to watch an almost-guaranteed dramatic sunset and sunrise.
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