NOTE: This is an update of a piece I wrote for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s daily newspaper, a few years back. As much as I’d love for this piece to be about rock climbing or mountaineering, it’s simply about travel in the outdoors at one of the coolest places on earth. So it will have to suffice. Enjoy!
It was nearing sunset, and I thought I was witnessing some of the most daring driving exploits ever seen.
Zipping through hairpin turns, in low light and without the benefit of headlights, the driver of the bus I was riding treated this 60-foot behemoth as if he were racing in a Formula One Grand Prix event. Sitting close to the front of the bus, I could clearly see the near-misses we’d had with oncoming traffic, pedestrians and various beasts of burden.
The driver shooed them away with a honk of his horn. To distract us, he got a movie going on an onboard television screen. Yet he chose unwisely. He plugged in the grotesque “The Hills Have Eyes,” and I couldn’t decide which was worse — the hideous obscenity of the film or the live, near-suicidal risks the driver was taking as we journeyed to one of China’s most famous national parks.
Huang Shan is home to some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in all of China. Tucked away in the incredibly green, rolling countryside of Anhui Province, the heights of Huang Shan — translated “Yellow Mountains” — rise to an elevation of just over a mile and cloak themselves in rich woodlands and bamboo forests.
I just prayed I didn’t die getting there.
Perhaps the greatest thing about going into China’s interior is you get to see, hear, smell and taste the country in its most “real” state. Don’t get me wrong — cities such as Shanghai and Hang Zhou are great. But the Chinese government has gone out of its way to make those places look, feel and sometimes act as Western-friendly as possible. When I last visited Shanghai, there were nearly 70 Starbucks outlets open for business there, and I remember quite vividly the Ferrari and Maserati car dealership in Hang Zhou, just down the road from the nicest, most luxurious Pizza Hut imaginable.
But go deeper into the country, and all those Western touch points fade. After our harrowing five-hour bus ride from Shanghai to Huang Shan (just how many times can we pass traffic on the shoulder of the road?), I was ready to hoof it. Though the city is less than half the size of Tulsa, I doubt any community in Oklahoma was as alive at night as this place.
Broad streets had turned into tightly packed alleys with shops, food stalls and hawkers selling everything from knock-off watches to “massages.” (I’m not sure exactly what services were being offered, and I wasn’t really willing to pay to find out.)
Walk down Nanjing Road in Shanghai, you’re bound to see at least a couple Westerners. But not here. Me and the guys I was with were hounded mercilessly by street merchants who refused to take “no” for an answer. Three white guys wearing backpacks? Easy marks.
And I loved it. The food was great and the atmosphere was energetic and just a tad seedy. Huang Shan City is a destination for a lot of Chinese tourists, but Americans seldom set foot there. The city has energy — one that is all Chinese.
Into the clouds
By morning, all the street vendors are gone, and most of the shops and streetside snack stands are closed. There’s business going on, but the cramped alleys of night are now open, vacant streets. Groups of about a dozen people are gathered in open plazas, slowly going through the movements of ancient tai chi forms.
As for us, we were on our way to the mountains. A quick breakfast at a nondescript cafe gave us exactly what we needed: a bowl of noodles in a tasty broth, with vegetables and small pieces of pork sprinkled in. It cost us about a dollar apiece, and we’re not talking about anything ornate here. But it’s perfect. Simple, authentic Chinese cuisine. Try as I might to find that same thing stateside, it has eluded me. It doesn’t matter that millions of ethnic Chinese live in the U.S., or that many of them own and operate Chinese restaurants. They make their profits selling Americans what Americans want, a move catering to the Western palate that sadly leaves so many really, really good things off the menu.
Fueled up for the day, we headed out to explore the peaks that made this place famous.
The mountains themselves are ancient, some 100 million years old. Their sharp granite spires reach an elevation of about a mile, their flanks clothed in the deep greens of hardwoods, pines and bamboo stands. Morning fog creates a phenomenon called “the Sea of Clouds,” which people can see from the mountaintops. Clouds roll in low like the ocean tides, with only the peaks’ summits poking through. Such scenes have long made these mountains the subject of many paintings and writings of Chinese artists, and their significance to this ancient nation’s cultural and natural history has made it a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The government has gone through great pains to create a comprehensive trails system. The trails are all stone paved walkways, but be warned: Many of the walkways are steep and long. You won’t bust your toes on any stumps, but a day’s worth of exploring the waterfalls, forests and ridgelines can be physically taxing.
After several hours of doing just that, we found a gondola that would take us to the higher elevations. It wasn’t cheap, and as we found out later, the ticket we bought was only for the ride up. That’s right, you pay again if you want a ride down. Add to that the fee to enter the park, and the cost begins to pile up.
The ride up follows a ravine, and those who fear heights or tight spaces might want to skip this one. We were packed in tight, but the views were incredible. Once I got out, the elevation gain was immediately apparent. The temperature had dropped about 10 degrees. But I also noticed the level of development up high was pronounced. Hotels adorned some of these peaks, and this was where all the crowds were. As awesome as the scenery was, you’re not likely to find much natural solitude up here.
A side note: What is truly amazing to ponder was how all of this stuff got up here. There are no roads for trucks or even motorcycles to haul all the food and supplies needed to pamper hotel guests. And they had to get all the building materials — wood, concrete and stones — up to the top somehow. They do it with porters, bare-footed, strong-legged men who loaded supplies and materials on their backs and hiked up the mountainsides every day.
We complain about climbing a couple of flights of stairs at work. These guys walk miles every day, climbing a couple of thousand feet in the process. I thought of myself as being fairly fit in those days, but I was definitely sucking wind after a time with little loaded on my back with the exception of a small daypack with a camera and a couple of other small items. I’d cringe to think how badly I bow under the pressure of loads these guys – none of whom were within 50 pounds of me – hauled every day.
Kind words and foul smells
It’s rare that folks like me get to come to such a revered and gorgeous place as Huang Shan. But after a day in the hills, my crew was pretty beat and ready for a big dinner and bed. So it was back to Huang Shan City. And reality.
One thing you’ll learn quickly here is how easy it is to get hustled. A cabbie will tell you good places to eat and take you there. You find that the cabbie is related to the restaurant owner. Soon after, a waiter recommends a wonderful place to get a massage. It’s across the street. At his uncle’s place.
We gladly consumed another great meal, but passed on the massages. And then we dodged the street vendors who were quite insistent that we buy their tea. It was back to the hotel, a place with a name I don’t remember. But I do remember the accommodations, the dirty linens piled up in the hallways, and the unique smell that could only be likened to that of a dog that just climbed out of a farm pond.
So I dubbed the hotel “the Wet Dog Inn.” The place hadn’t been remodeled since it opened, and it looked every bit of 30 years or more since that grand event. We bunked down to the sights and sounds of Chinese TV depicting classic stories from the country’s past in a language none of had come even close to mastering. As much as I’d like to remedy that, I think it will take some time.
The room was kind of dank, and there were abundant water stains on the woodwork near the bathroom. That in itself was an interesting configuration, with a shower virtually assuring that the entire bathroom floor would be inundated. And I can’t say for sure how clean our bedding was. Was I fearful of bedbugs? Sure. But I was too tired to care.
You take chances in inland China. Sometimes things work out great. Other times, well, I look at it this way: Bad experiences make for great stories.
Heading back to Shanghai, I wisely moved to the back of the bus so I could avoid witnessing the seemingly inevitable highway carnage. I struck up a conversation with a Japanese woman who had been living in Shanghai and teaching Japanese. It was interesting to hear about the demand in China to learn Japanese, especially since these countries don’t have a pleasant history. Japanese war crimes committed here in World War II still evoke strong emotions from Chinese citizens well removed from those times (I had one Shanghainese college student tell me that she “hated the Japanese,” but said so with this weird grin that seemed out of place, and perhaps rehearsed. I think maybe she was trained to say these words, much in the same way every diplomatic row between the countries is met with raucous anti-Japanese demonstrations which are overlooked, perhaps even encouraged, by the normally controlling Chinese authorities).
Nevertheless, China is nothing if not pragmatic, and has fully embraced capitalism. And there’s money to be made by dealing with the Japanese.
Our conversations made the trip breeze by. During one roadside stop, people were able to get out and buy snacks. Once back on the bus, everyone felt compelled to share their goods, keep the conversation going and enjoy the fellowship.
Funny how travel works. I remember the little things, both good and bad.
The savory taste of an ordinary bowl of noodles.
The unseemly services sold at night.
Grand vistas and great conversation.
And the unmistakable odor of drenched pooch.
Also in eastern China
Shanghai — China’s financial capital and its largest city. See the Bund, a scenic riverside historic district that used to be the commercial hub of European colonial powers. It’s now a popular gathering place with fantastic views of Pu Dong, the new area of the city that is home to China’s grandest skyline. Shop on Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s equivalent to New York’s Times Square. Visit the city’s museums, temples and the historic birthplace of China’s Communist Party.
Hang Zhou — The city is known by the ancient stories told about its beauty. Roughly paraphrased, an old saying likens Hang Zhou to paradise on Earth. Marco Polo visited Hang Zhou and described the former Chinese imperial capital as one of the greatest cities on Earth. See West Lake, the most scenic part of the city. The lake is ringed by tree-covered mountains, and small islands near the shore are connected by a network of artfully constructed bridges. Lush, manicured gardens and park areas abound. Be sure to sample the locally grown tea, considered some of the country’s finest.