Race To Yellow Mountain

This blog entry about the events of Friday, April 30, 2010 was originally posted on May 03, 2010.

DAY 11:  Huang Shan, which translates to “yellow mountain,” is amongst the Lonely Planet guidebook’s “Best Of China” list — one of the reasons for my second trip to the PRC for “Chinese leftovers.”  A glorious mountain landscape that has been the subject matter of countless classic Chinese paintings, Huang Shan’s heavenly peaks — which are even more ethereal when they jut out of a sea of clouds — have inspired many, from ancient Chinese 8th-century poet Li Bai to American 21st-century director James Cameron, who has cited Huang Shan as one of the inspirations for the art direction of Pandora in the mega blockbuster Avatar.

“When was the last time you saw mountains?” I asked Juju, who had to stop and think for an answer.  “Many years ago?”

“I can’t remember.”

Even if you were born in China, or just living there like Scott, some places may have gone unseen, and so the three of us Huang Shan virgins set forth for a weekend excursion in the Chinese/Pandoran countryside.  With a fill of Starbucks’ Peppered Beef sandwiches and Starbucks’ cuttlefish cheese bread (a delicious bread made with cuttlefish ink), we left the city of Shanghai, and all its police officers patrolling around on girly bikes.

“DRIVING IN CHINA IS LIKE playing a video game,” Scott said, speeding behind the the wheel of Juju’s Peugeot.  Everyone drives fast, passes and swerves in the right lane (or the left lane, whatever’s easier), and yet, “Nobody has road rage,” he continued. 

We sped out of town as Lady Gaga came on the one American radio station, a favorite of Juju’s (and admittedly, an artist whose songs have been stuck in my head for weeks.)  (Even Elizabeth in Taipei said it was stuck in her head too on the ride to Bisha Harbor.)  When we were out of radio range, we popped in Juju’s best of classical music CD.  “It’s like a car commercial,” I said, interrupting the classy Audi vibe with my intentionally loud crunches of Lay’s “Mexican Tomato Chicken Flavor” and “Italian Red Meat Flavor” potato chips. 

The five-hour drive to Huang Shan wasn’t too bad once we got out of the city.  There were a few moments where we weren’t sure if we were going in the right direction, but that wasn’t so far-fetched since a common sight on the highways is to see cars parked in between a fork in the road, trying to figure which way to go because the Chinese road signs don’t make it obvious.  We stopped off at a rest area to stock up on some supplies; they sold everything from addictive hickory nuts and Red Bull to vacuum-sealed chicken feet.  For the time being, we just got hot food: sticky rice stuffed with meat, tofu and a so-so bowl of noodles

Back in the car, the suburban roads of industry gradually turned into a natural scenic one, with fruit and tea orchards growing in rows on little hills.  Soon the little hills evolved into big mountains, so big that we had to drive through them. 

In the light at the end of the last tunnel, we got lost again and ended up being one of those cars stopped in the fork in the road to look at a map.  Fortunately for us, there was a friendly woman who was hitchhiking there that Juju let in.  The strange but smiling woman led us to where we needed to go: a huge crowded parking lot, the antithesis of everything we’d heard about the beauty of Huang Shan.  However, with beauty came tourists in by the busload to admire it, and we would soon be three of them, at least part of the way.

A bus took us up the winding switchbacks to a higher level of the base, home of the Yungu cablecar station that could take us to the summit in ten minutes, although we opted not to do so.  Instead we decided to “earn it” like one does to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, and went on foot despite the fact that many Chinese people were telling us that we might get stuck hiking in the dark if we didn’t go quick; they predicted it would take four hours to ascend — Lonely Planet said two and a half.  (It was already 4:45 in the afternoon, and it would be dark by seven.)

“Those guys just got here,” I said as I noticed a few Chinese hikers just ahead of us by the entrance gate.  “We’re not alone.”  Perhaps it would be a race even.  We followed them at a leisurely pace — there was only one way to go — up the trail of steps that hugged the Taohua River.

“FRESH AIR,” Scott said, breathing it in.  “It’s been so long since I’ve been in nature.”  The mountain air filled our lungs while the sounds of various birds filled our ears.  Filling our eyes was the incredible landscape that only got more amazing as we ascended up and up (and up) the stairs.  Juju set the pace, one of walking up steep flights of stairs interspersed with much needed sitting breaks.  We were no match for the occasional sight of a Chinese porter, who could go up and down the steps, hauling cargo on his back like an ox.

“It’s like what I do at the gym,” Scott told Juju about his Stairmaster routine, “[but for many hours.]”

His gym routine might have helped us pass the hiking group in front of us, a group of Chinese tourists who loved getting a kick out of yelling as loud as they could to hear the mountain acoustics.  “We win!” Juju proclaimed at the top of one ridge, with the other group several flights behind us.  Her excitement was all a part of the Chinese competitive psyche of being the best, which is why you see many Chinese take-out restaurants in America called, “No. 1 Chinese Restaurant.” 

We weren’t sure how to accomplish the park’s Notice to Tourists’ rule no. 1 (on a list of other Chinglish rules): “Please do not Enjoy the view While walking!” as it was impossible not to do so.  We also weren’t sure how we would handle rule no. 3: “Don’t flirt monkeys by feeding.”

A woman screamed on the trail up ahead; a monkey about 2.5 feet tall grabbed onto her leg, looking for food.  “Monkeys,” I warned the other two.

“Oh, I don’t like monkeys,” Juju said, particularly after seeing how terrified the previous girl was.  (In fact, you always knew where the monkeys were by the screaming.) 

Cautiously we walked the path, as another monkey jumped on the scene.  “They sound like something from Lord of the Rings,” Scott commented about their occasional creepy growling.  The monkeys were peaceful though — we didn’t flirt by feeding — except for a third monkey that was eating an apple (picture above), who made everyone holding a camera flinch when it mock charged us. 

But if there was anyone who was being flirted by feeding, it was me, stuffing my face every two minutes with a bag of shredded dried squid I’d bought from the rest area, which was just as addictive to me as it became for my hiking companions.  And if that wasn’t enough, Juju ordered us half a watermelon from one of the little shops on the way.

“I’ll take another piece so you don’t have to carry as many,” I told Scott as a sloppily shoved another in my mouth.  Soon the other group of hikers was gaining on us, but we pressed on, and with great timing too; after 90 minutes of hiking, the shopkeepers told us “[two hours more],” which we ultimately realized was a long estimate by double. 

“They think we walk slow, but we have dried squid and watermelon!” Scott proclaimed.  We continued to race on, up the stairs and through the scenery, getting grander and grander (and darker) with more interesting bonsai-tree-topped rock formations.  We took our breathing breaks of course, mindful of the other “teams” trying to make it up as well.  While the yelling crew was way behind us, we were quickly being tailed by an older hiker who was wearing a business suit

The sugars of melon and protein of squid propelled us to the top just as it was getting too dark to see without a flashlight.  The light of a hotel served as a beacon as we arrived at what we were soon discovering was a very developed summit, with maintained paths and several hotels.

“It’s like we’ve come to Shangri-La,” I said at the top, thankful that I was walking on a horizontal plane instead of going perpetually diagonally upwards.

“Wooo!” cheered Juju.  “We win!”

However, this “Shangri-La” wasn’t a mythical undiscovered place; there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of tourists there, walking around what was like a little tourist town, with a town square area that had a bank, post office and a basketball court that served as a crowded camping ground of tents for those who couldn’t get a room.  Fortunately for us, we had a reservation at the Shilin Hotel, which Lonely Planet described with “Cheaper rooms are devoid of views, but the pricier doubles are bright and clean.  Nine-bed dorms are also well kept, with bunk beds and shared bathroom.”  It sounded like a total backpacker hostel; however that was in the 2009 edition, with research from 2-3+ years previous, before China upgraded many hotels at popular sights in time for the 2010 World Expo.  Banners stating “Beautiful scenic spot, First-class hotel, Meticulous management, Excellent service” hung at each hotel’s entrance.

“Wow, this place is swanky,” I said as we walked into the Shilin Hotel’s lobby.  “They even have a grand piano!”  The now four-star hotel was a class act — yet still had its dorm rooms — and we stayed in a corner suite, upgraded from two separate rooms half the size because they had run out.  Our small but comparatively large room slept up to four, and had a computer station (with internet regulated by The Great Firewall), flat screen TV, refrigerator, emergency gas masks(?) and a glass-walled bathroom with a wooden bathtub (with a chair), and a toilet bowl out of the movie Spaceballs.  We dropped off our things and went down to the comparatively pricey restaurant for a well-deserved dinner of shredded Chinese potatoes, spicy pork, broiled fish, egg drop and tomato soup, a cucumber salad, and honey dates.  Not surprisingly, we complemented it with Huangshan Beer and toasted a winning day.

“Look, we’re number one!” I said, pointing out our table’s number; we all smiled at the coincidence: Number One table for Number One hiking team!  We continued our mini-celebration after dinner by taking turns using the hotel lobby’s coin-op shiatsu massage chairs

There may not have been an actual race, but after a long drive, challenging hike, and brief encounter with monkeys, we felt like winners anyway.  The real prize would come at sunrise the following morning…


Juju told me that Lady Gaga became so popular in China that some jokingly referred to her as a goddess.  “Instead of saying ‘Oh My God,’ they say, ‘Oh My Lady Gaga,” she told me — something she saw on TV.


Next entry: Crouching Tiger, Hundred Tourists

Previous entry: That Jerk Jackie Chan

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Comments for “Race To Yellow Mountain”

  • Sorry this one was a bit rushed and could use some polishing/editing, but hey, it’s a blog.  You’re welcome. wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/03  at  03:11 AM

  • Thank you for the blog Erik!!

    And, now I want spicy pork. Damn. Instead, I’m gonna go spin.

    How does that work out??

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/03  at  03:57 AM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Chinese Leftovers And Other Asian Appetizers," which chronicled a trip to Shanghai and Huang Shan in China, as well as brief excursions to Manila, Taipei, and Seoul.

Next entry:
Crouching Tiger, Hundred Tourists

Previous entry:
That Jerk Jackie Chan


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