Pie in the sky

Well, it was a steamed bun actually, a baozi or dumpling filled with a savoury mix, served at 4000 ft by a chef running an outdoor takeaway service from a table outside the hotel on Bright Mountain. We had been on the go for four hours and an oasis opportunity miraculously appeared for a hot snack and drink. The day had begun with a pre-dawn wake up call at 5.30am in our rooms and sleep deprived senses were dragged into Chinese reality with a breakfast of hot noodles, a congee rice gruel and a hard boiled egg. Stomach demands for Kelloggs and toast ignored, we marched into the drizzling dawn to find the Blue Bus.

We were staying at Tangquan, an alpine resort town near Mount Huangshan in eastern China. Liz had booked a hotel on the recommendation of various friends and their take on our need for two twin bedded rooms was superb – we were given the penthouse suite with wet room, Chinese wooden bath and outside terrace overlooking a steep bank of bamboo, whose foliage hung as lime green feather boas towards the road below. The hotel had also arranged two trips for us during our 24 hour stay. Within minutes of arriving on Friday afternoon, we were whisked up to the Emerald Valley waterfall walk by our third taxi driver of the day.

After a relatively easy few days of finding English speakers to help us, we were now in a region where any school English language teaching was long forgotten. With the help of a watch and the taxi clock, our driver told us he would return in two hours. Our underground training began to pay dividends; we can now read Chinese for entrance and exit.

We headed off up the path, following a few groups with loud leaders giving guided tours via a head microphone and speaker. The path was well paved with large flat stones that made for very easy walking alongside a watercourse that didn’t quite live up to its name of Nine Dragons Waterfall. Nine dribbles came to mind.

However we dutifully followed the steady stream of tourists and discovered some surprises along the way. The somewhat random tightrope cyclist was a Chinese crowd pleaser and I made a mental note to forget any idea of their version of mountain biking. Where the pools were deep under the running drips, the water was a pleasing turquoise, a sumptuous jewel foil for the storm washed white matt stone of the river bed. Bamboo lined the walkway, their trunks jade graphite in the low light.

I had noticed a puzzling advertising hoarding near the hotel earlier that had declared
“Civilisation is the greatest form of scenery”
I was intrigued. For me, beauty comes via an untouched scenery where wildness displays its multifaceted character on a daily basis. In truth however, much of what I determine as ‘wild’ isn’t.

The land I walk in shows the heritage of man’s farming and management practice over millennia and that interaction has subsequently fuelled our culture and heritage via invaders and settlers, poets, authors, religious writings and artists amongst others. The Chinese also embrace their wild and outdoor spaces by civilising them in similar ways but in a manner that accommodates visitors in their thousands and keeps us all nice and tidy too.

So, we had a wide stone path reminiscent of a city pavement to walk on along with explanatory signs, automatic commentary at various spots and music along the whole route. Traditional temple style buildings housed seats or photo stops and each waterfall was allocated a legend by which it was named. We especially loved the zip wire option for returning to our cab. The whole system is designed to actively welcome visitors and to help them interact with a newly civilised wild world.

The view from the zip wire
Liz arrives at the bottom

Which brings me back to the steamed bun. The Blue Bus had hurled us up a switchback road to the bottom of the Yun Gu cable car. At 7.30am the concourse was already busy with buses, tour guides and newly forming groups in a given uniform of pink or yellow plastic mac or a red or yellow cap. We joined a queue jostling for cable car tickets and half succeeded in our English speaking desert to purchase the correct ones. At the barrier we were sent back to buy a second set that would allow us onto the mountain itself. Despite the language issue, we were, at all points, very kindly, fast tracked to the front of queues or shown direct routes if we had been delayed by the communication hurdle.

The cable car, reassuringly Doppelmeyr, took us up into the grey gloom of Mount Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is twinned with Jungfrau and named after a Tang Dynasty legend in the year 747 that suggests “the most beautiful mountain in China” is the place to discover the elixir of immortality.

The Greeting Pine. It is a photo that many Chinese wish to take and display at home.

The rain had not stopped and with the cloud down we had absolutely no idea of what we were going into. The fog and crowds at the top didn’t help either nor did a map system that needs a serious Ordnance Survey overhaul. The familiar pavement was here too, at 4000 feet, and, like the yellow brick road, it insisted on taking us into territory that could easily have housed the munchkins, had the thick mist allowed us to see them. I decided that, if this is what immortality looks like, I may take a rain check .

After an hour or so of an exercise that resembled the blind leading the blind, the cloud lifted, unveiling a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon landscape which had us reaching for cameras in wonder. The granite mountains rise steeply from tree clad valleys with none of the luxury of foothills to soften their skyscraping height.

Over 60km of routes weave amongst these 1000m giants, much of them carved into the rock faces or cantilevered into sky paths alongside vertical walls. The mountains are remarkable but the engineering that has crafted substantial walkways to accommodate the thousands of daily visitors is nothing short of amazing. The mountains also house hotels, enough toilets to keep us all happy and various food and trinket stops to satisfy the Chinese. It is high level civilisation of a very particular kind and, with the legend at hand, it draws everyone from babes in arms to grandparents. And a lot of young people.

Our hike took us over a 7 mile route that saw us ascend and descend the equivalent of the Empire State Building three times on around 14000 physical steps. Which felt a walk in the park compared with the achievements of the men who carry supplies to and from the buildings from the cable cars. Using a traditional bamboo yoke, each Yellow Mountain porter takes substantial loads up and down the indeterminably long staircases. We saw bedding on its way for washing, client rucksacks and a ridiculous amount of cardboard for recycling. Basically every visitor relies on these men for any item that is needed on, or has to be removed from, the mountain. Including my dumpling.

For a short visit I have glimpsed very little of China and know I have therefore barely touched the surface of a country and people who I have so much yet so little in common with. A smile opens doors and is the best bridge I know between two very precious cultures, mine and theirs.

Like the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, my experiences here have enriched a personal world view but I am also very happy to agree that there is “No place like home.”

Tomorrow’s flight number may get privately changed. I think I’ll call it Toto.

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