21.04.2012 - 23.04.2012 25 °C
We always expected travelling in China to be different. Already when we sat with our guidebook on the ferry crossing over, it was obvious that it was difficult to grasp. Where do you start? It is a huge country with great distances and there are no equivalents (not common at least) to the Japanese Shinkhansen or the South American long distance buses. It is therefore even more important to be selective and focus on a couple of areas, in order to avoid moving around too much in our two weeks in the country.
The biggest challenge however, is the immense language barrier. While it's easy enough to find English speakers in places like Shanghai, it gets more difficult further away from the big cities. You have to rely on sign language and the short glossary at the end of the guide book. This is particularly frustrating when you're trying to get information and when you're negotiating the price of something. Suddenly you are a child again, trying to make yourself understood with gestures and random phrases. There is only so far "Nihao" (hello) and "xie, xie" (thank you) can take you.
So, after some intense Lonely Planet research and even more intense discussion, we agreed to head to Anhui province first. Why Anhui? Principally for Huangshan, generally touted as China's most beautiful mountain and cited by James Cameron as his inspiration for the scenery in Avatar. Anhui is also relatively close to Shanghai so it made for an easy first step into China. Besides that, Anhui is also regarded as containing some of the most classic Chinese architecture in the Hui villages in the south of the province. These contain houses built by wealthy merchants who were natives of the area but moved away at an early age to make their fortune, sending money home to build beautiful houses for their lonely wives and families. The Hui buildings, together with their setting in lush, pine-covered mountain scenery, have made the Hui villages popular with film directors throughout the years. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed in part in the village of Nan Ping, for example, which we visited.
We boarded an early bus from Shanghai on Saturday 21 April bound for Tunxi. This is a large town in the south on Anhui and a base for heading up Huangshan and seeing the Hui villages. The bus ride was fairly uneventful - loud Chinese films playing the whole way, incessant horn beeping and lane switching by our driver; all the things one generally expects on a Chinese bus ride. We were deposited at Tunxi early in the afternoon, and made our way to the Old Street Hostel. It was a surprisingly nice spot and, at EUR 15 for a double room, a bit of a bargain.
We headed out to explore Tunxi - the tourist area is be street, Old Street, and it was packed out with Chinese tourists. It was pretty picturesque and we found some excellent dumplings for lunch, and an afternoon coffee.
Old Street, Tunxi, Saturday - a busy spot
Dumplings for lunch - tasty
Tunxi outside Old Street looks a lot like any other Chinese city
We stumbled upon some locals playing Mahjong
The very friendly staff in the hostel helped us work out our onward train travel plans for getting to Guanxi - our next destination. But in China there is no way to avoid having to go to the station to buy your tickets, and they sell out quickly. If you don't want to be left with standing room only on a 20 hour train journey, you'd better plan ahead. We headed to Tunxi station and joined a long queue that evening, waiting to be served by one of only two staff on duty. We finally got to the window with Chinese people swarming on all sides (queuing is not China's strong point) and explained to the ticket lady in a mixture of sign language and mandarin phrase book words what we wanted. Miraculously, we managed to get our tickets and even a smile from the ticket lady.
We enjoyed some typical Anhui cuisine of various dumplings and fried pork in the restaurant next to our hostel that night.
Dinner in the restaurant next to our hostel - all dishes were on display and you just noted down anything you wanted. They like their dumplings and pork in Anhui.
The Mountain of Madness - Huangshan
We took a bus from our hostel at 6.30 on Sunday morning with a few of the other guests bound for Huangshan. We were excited about getting our hiking gear on and taking in what is supposed to be China's most stunning mountain. We had arranged to stay a night at the summit in dorm accommodation at one of the hotels up there. It's truly disappointing to say that the trek to one of the highest places in our travels so far turned out to be such a low point...
We had our suspicions from the start. Arriving at around 8am to a huge bus terminal, we were greeted by huge queues of predominantly Chinese tourists for as far as the eye could see. Needless to say, the queuing was not very disciplined and descended into a scrum every time one of the many uniformed guards opened up a barrier to let people through. This queue was just for the shuttle bus to take us up to the start point of the hike.
Huangshan bus terminal, 8am Sunday. This queue is just to get the shuttle bus to the start of the hike!
Eventually we made it on to a shuttle bus that took us to the start of the trek. It was 10am and getting hot. Before we could start, we had to pay the entrance fee - 230 RMB each (about EUR 30). That may not sound much, but in China that's a lot of money - four night's accommodation, for example - just to climb a mountain.
At 10h15 we passed the entrance gate to start climbing the East Steps, the quickest route to the summit. We told ourselves that the crowds would surely thin as most people would take the cable car up - the majority surely did but there we're still thousands of people on the steps with us. As mentioned we were in our hiking gear. It turned out we were pretty much the only ones - people were wearing suits, loafers, high heals... It was obvious they weren't in it for the hiking. It was hot, the steps were narrow, steep and relentless. We were dodging not only Chinese tourists going up and down the steps, but also porters carrying bamboo poles across their backs with incredible loads (a pair of large gas canisters, crates of beer etc) that took up the entire path. Every now and then one of them would flip and start yelling loudly as they were pushed by tourists trying to get past on the narrow path. It was - in short - not a pleasant experience.
Labouring through the Crowds up the East Steps of Huangshan. Unpleasant
As an aside, it is amazing that even though there is a cable car system on this mountain, human porters are still taking back breaking loads up and down the mountain: a sign of just how cheap human labour is here.
We made it to the top in just over two hours and we greeted by even heavier crowds of Chinese tour groups, led by tour guides with megaphones. We then managed to get thoroughly lost with out useless map as we tried to find our hotel for the night. Ironically, this led to our most pleasant experience on the mountain as we wandered off the concrete tourist path, looking for a short cut. We found ourselves on a ridge a few hundred metres above the tourist path on an isolated rock. It was the furthest we ever got from other people. We heard birds signing for the first time as the sound of nature finally conquered the megaphones. We decided to have lunch here.
Relative peace at last - our lunch spot. From here, we could still see the crowds of tourists and hear the megaphones, but we also heard birds for the first time
We did finally find our hotel after several more wrong turns. The Bei Hai hotel is one of four over-priced options at the summit. Our dorm accommodation was better than expected, however - a normal hotel room with three bunk beds crammed into it. We were in separate rooms (male and female dorms) and we both shared with very friendly Chinese people who seemed to find it very exciting with foreigners in their rooms. We had planned to dump our bags and explore the summit further but the combination of crowds and heat put paid to that. Instead we relaxed for a while and then hiked up the nearby peak to take in some views.
Views from the peak next to our hotel at the summit
The temperature dropped quickly as sunset approached but we found a spot on a miraculously almost empty roof terrace of the next door hotel to watch the sun drop behind the karst cliffs, which was very beautiful.
This guy was not letting anyone get his spot for sunset
Sunset was magnificent
Next morning the hotel was buzzing by 5am as guests got up to watch sunrise. We again hiked up the peak next to the hotel and found a spot for viewing. It was another Uluru moment as clouds left us guessing when exactly the sun had risen. Add to that the fact that we shared the moment with about 100 other tourists at the same viewpoint with little respect for personal space, and you can guess it was nothing to write home about. Nor blog about, for that matter.
Has the sun risen yet? Sounds familiar...
We had a plan. Only so many tourist groups could be staying on the mountain, and day trippers would not arrive for a few hours. It was 6.30 am and we threw our packs on - we would set off for the Western Steps descent and grab our window of opportunity for some peace and quiet. How naive! As we came over the peak behind our hotel heading for the Western Steps we heard the familiar blare of megaphones. There were a number of them. Each megaphone represented a large tour group: there were hundreds of Chinese tourists clogging the paths. Where had they come from? Had they slept? Do they ever stop to rest (as in somewhere other than in the middle of the path just in front of you)?!
Finding a path on Huangshan without tourists on it is so rare, we had to take a photo while it lasted
As we started on the descent of the Western Steps, we ran into a bottleneck of people so thick that we hardly moved for 20 minutes. It's not just the frustration of standing still - it's the shouting of the crowds, the barking of the megaphones, the loudspeakers playing the latest Chinese hits and people shouting "hello" to the foreigners (it says something about our fighting spirit that we always said "hello" back). This is nature being beaten down by human traffic.
Just after 7am Monday morning on the Western Steps and already it's mobbed
It was all the more disappointing because the scenery on the Western Steps is some of the most magnificent on the mountain. We took a few shots on the run as we tried to slice through the crowds.
Stunning views from the Western Steps
After two hours of hiking, we came to the cable car station near the top of the Western Steps. We took a snap decision to jump into the cable car and cancel the planned 7km hike to the bottom. The Mountain of Madness had beaten us! Grant politely asked the people in the queue behind us to take the next car. They only had to take one look at his face to realise that he was very serious - for once no Chinese language skills required. We shared our most peaceful moment in 24 hours in the cable car cabin on the way down. We agreed that our sanity may not have held up if we had continued along the hiking path.
Huangshan had not quite finished with us, though. On returning to the busy bus terminal at the bottom, we tried to find a bus to Xidi, our next destination. Every person we asked had a different sign language answer. We wandered the main street for an hour, becoming increasingly angry at the conflicting information we were getting and the various touts trying to overcharge us to take their taxis. We finally discovered the Xidi bus left from the bus terminal we had been in at the start, but that tickets were all sold out.
We were at the end our tether and ready to be ripped off just to get to our destination. We found a taxi driver and arranged a price (through his colleague who spoke some broken English) to go to Xidi. It took a good 40 minutes to get there. On the way, a lady on a three wheeled motor bike pulled out of a side road 20 metres or so right in front of our speeding taxi - our driver swerved and rolled down the window to hurl abuse at the woman. We heard her scream fading into the distance as we drove past. When we looked back we could that she had ended up capsizing in a ditch with her bike overturned on the far side of the road. Our driver sped on.
There was major confusion on arrival. Our driver took us to a parking lot on the edge of a tourist village which had signs saying Yixian, not Xidi. All he said was "money, money". We told him he had agreed to take us to our hotel - he said we had to buy tickets to enter this town. This was all in Mandarin/English/sign language and no one understood anything. Things got heated on both sides. We stormed out of the taxi, grabbed our bags and went to the tourist office - but no one there spoke English and could not help. Finally, our driver got his colleague on the phone who spoke some English - it turned out we were in Xidi and the hotel was close but we could not enter the town without tickets.
Part of the deal was that we paid the driver and he bought the Xidi entry tickets for us -clearly a scam somewhere but we were past caring. We handed him money and he went to get the tickets. He returned with them and gestured us back to the taxi. We drove 300 metres along the road and stopped. A lady was waiting for us and made clear she was from our hotel. She gestured us to come with her down the narrow alleyway. We asked our driver for our entry tickets but he did not seem to understand - it seemed from the gestures between him and the woman from our hotel that it was understood we had paid.
It was only once we got to the hotel that we discovered we had indeed been scammed. The driver had bought some kind of discounted ticket with our money, kept the extra money and our tickets to sell to some other tourists! Normally we would have despaired but as mentioned, we were beyond caring. However, we were amazed when we were told (by another guest who spoke English) that the staff in our hotel had called the ticket office and explained the situation, meaning we didn't have to buy more tickets. We knew then that we would like it at Pig's Heaven Inn.
Between Huangshan and the pain of the journey to Xidi, China had beaten us down pretty badly. Luckily, we now found ourselves in the beautiful Pig's Heaven Inn in Xidi for two nights. It was the perfect antidote to the Mountain of Madness!
Note: when looking through our photos afterwards, we were amazed by how beautiful the scenery had been, and what luck we had with the weather - the mountain is covered in mist and rain most of the time. It's a shame we couldn't enjoy it while on the mountain. Maybe if we had thought twice, we would have realised that hiking up one China's biggest tourist attractions, wasn't going to be entirely pleasant.