Snow and a Sea of Clouds: Huangshan

The clouds moved slowly away to reveal a massive monolith, craggy and rutted, dusted with snow and studded with pine trees growing straight from the rock, ruggedly resisting the altitude, cold and wind. For a second I couldn't breathe, it was so utterly and completely beautiful.

In one single moment every one of the 28,000 kilometres we had driven around China to get to this point on the map, on this particular day at this hour was worth it. Every one. 

Huangshan, China's legendarily beautiful Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province, is named for the Yellow Emperor who attained immortality here and ascended to heaven amongst the seventy stunning peaks and granite crags.

We had been to Huangshan once before in the early spring of 2010 and weren't planning to visit again until good friends announced their intention to fly from Australia and join us on the road to experience a little of the last days of our China Roadtrip. Huangshan seemed the perfect place to meet, a spectacular piece of China only six hours southwest of Shanghai and perhaps, if we were very lucky, touched by snow.

The weather on Huangshan can be variable to say the least, and on many days of the year the entire mountain is enveloped in impenetrable fog and cloud, obscuring all views. If fortune is smiling on you though, you might witness yunhai 云海, a soft and lustrous sea of clouds from which the craggy peaks rise like islands. This phenomenon is best appreciated in the colder months, September to May, on a clear day after rain or snow, and occurs only rarely in summer. 

We arrived late in the afternoon from our last ever campsite and spent the first night at the base of the mountain in - joy of joys - an actual hotel with human-sized beds and real showers you could actually stand upright in. The campervan, as brilliant as it had been and as much as we had loved our little house on wheels, was happily abandoned in a carpark in favour of more spacious digs.

The hotel's main attraction was a free ticket for each of us to visit the adjacent Huangshan Hot Springs Resort, where natural spring water comes out of the mountain at a restorative 42 degrees all year round.

So after dinner, and in temperatures of minus one, we donned swimming costumes and headed outside. It was a painfully freezing walk from the change rooms to the first pool, steam rising all around us as we strode into the warm water. The outdoor springs were a fairyland of lights and pavilions set amongst trees and flowers, and the dozens of small pools gradually warmed us from the outside in, until we could eventually stride between them in bare feet and without using the heavy robes provided.

Staff in thick down coats walked the narrow paths between each pool with trays of hot, sweet ginger tea which we drank while plunged up to our necks in hot water, looking up at the stars. It was an unforgettable experience and would have been even more appreciated two days later after coming down the mountain, but as usual we were doing things in reverse order.

We woke the next morning to the most exciting sight of all - fresh snow.

At the mountain's base it had dusted all the firs, and lay in a fine white carpet on the ground. It was an auspicious start to our ascent of the mountain and we held high hopes for more snow and a sea of clouds. Originally the plan had been to walk all 6,500 steps up the mountain, but when faced with the reality of slippery ice and four children it suddenly seemed like a very poor idea, compared with travelling by cable car.

We took ourselves, all eight of us, uphill along a mountain stream from the hot springs to the base of the Jade Screen Cableway, and within an hour we were standing on the mountain top.

We stood transfixed as the sun came out and the clouds dispersed, revealing a world of crystal ice and snow, the tree branches and pine needles outlined in a rime of white ice sparkling and shining in the soft winter light.

Huangshan's famous peaks revealed themselves one by one amongst the pine trees along our four hour mountain top walk to beihai, the North Sea of clouds. The mountain was covered in a network of stone paths and steps, icy and dangerous in the shade, and after several falls we bought and installed on our feet the most ingenious invention ever for ice-walking - small steel plates with sharp teeth, attached to the bottom of your shoes by rubber straps, one size fits all. 

We passed the meteorological observatory near Bright Peak, and then suddenly there it was. A sea of clouds all the way to the horizon, with the peaks rising above. It was nothing short of magical.

We stopped to make snowmen and eat chocolate bars and peanuts before continuing several more hours of gruelling stair climbs up and down the icy paths to the Fish Eating Three Snails Peak and finally, leg-achingly, to the North Sea. 

Late in the afternoon, having warmed up a little in our hotel (lobby temperature minus five) I braved the sub-zero chill to see the last of the setting sun leave the mountain. As I looked out over the North Sea the last rosy gold light touched the very tip of Beginning To Believe Peak and I was suddenly filled with emotion. I thought of our immense journey and its immense distances, and the enormous will it took all of us to arrive at this point after so long, so much planning, so much moving, so much change.

The name, from another one of Huangshan's many legends about a non-believer in the mountain's natural beauty, seemed so significant, and to speak directly and forcefully to me. 

This whole journey to China, begun some three and a half years before, of learning the language, of trying to understand the culture and people, of traversing the country north to south and west to east, was it to arrive at this point of beginning to believe?

And what exactly was I beginning to believe? In myself? Perhaps, just perhaps it was, and certainly these travels had given me a courage and confidence I never knew I possessed. Or was it beginning to believe in China? Can you believe in a country, in its sometimes glorious and often troubled past and uncertain but momentous future the way I believed in China? I knew the China I believed in was very different to the China most people believe in, the people who have never seen its mountains and skies and its complicated, rich, wonderful human landscape. 

Yet it wasn't exactly either of these things.

It came to me suddenly, unbidden. It was a belief in possibility. Believing in the possibility of anything occurring, no matter how improbable or how difficult, no matter how strong the oposing forces. In the evolution of an idea from conception to completion. In change. In achievement. 

As I stood there and watched the last light die from Beginning to Believe Peak I understood, finally, that this was what China had given me. 

The beginning of a belief that anything is possible.

Huangshan Nature Reserve
Admission Prices:
Low Season (Dec 1 - Feb 29) adults 150rmb, children 75rmb
High Season (Mar 1 - Nov 30) adults 230rmb, children 115rmb

Cable Car
There are three cable cars ascending and descending Huangshan.

South: Jade Screen Cableway
Closest to the Huangshan Scenic Area South Entrance and the townships of Tangkou and Tunxi
Leaves from Mercy Light Temple and arrives at the Jade Screen Station

South-east: Cloud Valley Cableway
Departs from Cloud Valley Temple and arrives at White Goose Ridge Station (from here the walk to the small cluster of hotels at Beihai is the shortest)

North: Taiping Cableway
Closest to the Huangshan Scenic Area North Entrance
Departs from Pine Valley Nunnery and arrives at Rosy Cloud Station

Low Season: Dec 1 - Feb 28 65rmb one-way (adults) 35rmb one-way (children)
High Season: March 1 - Nov 30 80rmb one-way (adults) 40rmb one-way (children)
Children under 1.2m free
Operating hours vary by season: winter 6.30am-4.30pm

Staying on the Mountain
There is no road access on the mountain top so all hotels are walk-in, walk-out. Some are close to cablecar stations, some are several hours' walk. For a place where every single piece of building material and every bedsheet has been brought from the mountain's base by porters (no, they don't use the cable car) there is a surprising choice of mountain top accommodation.

There are two hotel clusters: one at Beihai (Shilin Hotel, Beihai Hotel) and one near Rosy Cloud Station (Dispelling Cloud Hotel, West Sea Hotel). In addition there is the Jade Screen Hotel at the top of Jade Screen cableway, and the White Cloud (Baiyun) Hotel near Bright Peak.

Food choices on the mountain top are limited. There are frequent snack stalls along the stone walking paths selling bottled water and other cold drinks, chocolate bars, instant noodles, steamed corn on the cob and tea eggs. Expect to pay mountain prices for everything - at least double what you would normally pay (and when you see those porters carrying two twenty kilo boxes of bottled water by bamboo pole you'll wonder why it isn't eight times more expensive).

There are restaurants at all the hotels where good hot food can be had, again at mountain prices.

Shilin Hotel
Located on the mountain top at Beihai. Well-heated with wall heaters and silk quilts, with down jackets available to borrow. A surprisingly high level of comfort and cleanliness with an in-house restaurant.
Expect to pay about 450rmb/double in low season, higher in summer.

Huangshan Resort and Spa Hotel
Located at the mountain base (south side) about 1.5km from the Jade Screen Cableway.
Well-heated but a little faded, the main attraction is its location adjacent to Huangshan's Hot Springs Resort, which is not actually part of the hotel.
Doubles from 400rmb, basic price, or 560rmb including two entry tickets to the hot springs (normal hot springs and spa entry price 238 rmb pp).

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