I don’t think I’m out of shape. I mean ok, I’m not Sally Gunnell or anything. Thank God. But I tend to find I’m in pretty good nick. I can jog solidly for half an hour and only need to stop once for a breather, for example. If I need to sprint to catch the bus, within fifteen to twenty minutes I’m not even breathing heavily anymore! Thus I generally think I’m in decent shape.
…At least, I thought so until I decided to spend two days climbing up, walking around and then climbing back down Mount Huangshan, a big mountain in south east China renowned for its other-worldly vistas, its spectacular karst scenery, and its beautiful sun sets and sun rises. To reach the summit climbers must negotiate thousands of increasingly steep stone steps. It can take anything from two to five hours in either direction, depending on how quickly you go. You can of course take one of the various cable cars to the summit, if you want. But where’s the fun in that?
It actually turns out I’m amazing at walking down steps. Outstanding. World class! If they ever introduce ‘Walking Down Steps’ into the Olympics enter me for the singles, the mixed doubles and the coxless fours – I’m your man! I barely broke a sweat during my three hour descent from the summit earlier today, the worst suffering being a slight tightness in my calves as I neared the bottom (I do have good calves though. I’m unfortunate enough that my calves might actually be my outstanding feature. 20 years of playing drums has given me disproportionately chunky forearms but lovely, muscular, sculpted calves. Its practically no use whatsoever having nice calves. What are you going to do, walk up to a pretty girl, roll up your trouser legs and flex? I digress…).
So walking down the mountain was a breeze. As for yesterday however, and walking up the steps in the first place… Well lets just say I didn’t quite have such a nice time. To begin with I made the classic ‘Man’ mistake right from the start, and wanting to show all the (feebly calved) Chinese guys how its done, I took the first few dozen strides in double quick time. I leapt gaily from step to step, marching with the confidence of Nelson himself (I assume Nelson marched confidently?). I even took two steps at once a couple of times! At this rate I’d be at the top in a jiffy!
Then I began to breathe heavier. Then I began to sweat. And pant. And sweat more, and then to gasp quite desperately for breath. Within half an hour my legs were burning, my shirt was dripping, my face was streaming, and it was the best I could do to stop and gulp down a whole bottle of water at once, flayed out on a rock by the side of the path like an upturned turtle. It was exhausting! The steps just kept on coming, at times in huge, steep banks that seemed to go on forever. You’ve no idea how dispiriting it is to reach the top of one stack of steps only to turn the corner to find an even longer, even steeper line of identical steps facing you. The breaks became both more frequent and longer. My shirt rung wetter and my hair grew soggier. By the time I reached the summit three punishing hours later I was perhaps in the least attractive state I’ve ever been.
But – it was so worth it! At the top of Hangshuan several trails connect the peaks of the mountain together. When you reach those peaks, the scenery is dramatic beyond description. The summit is made up of valleys, from which the jagged sharp fingers of dozens of granite cliffs reach for the sky. You could see for miles into the distance, fold after fold of mountains disappearing into mere shadows. White mist drifts around the peaks of the mountains before your eyes. It was stunning, and just got better and better the further you went.
Having wandered between these peaks in a (sweaty) state of amazement, I found myself a quiet spot to watch the sunset from. I wanted to get away from the crowds, and so headed off the paths and scrambled over a few rocks, finding some that rose gradually up above the trees from where I had a great view. Its not often I make such bold statements as this, but it was one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen, the sky gradually turning from clear blue to a fluorescent red. The orange disc of the sun lowered itself over the horizon, halving and then disappearing from view completely. Remember how TVs used to turn off in the old days? How the screen would disappear into a dot in the centre before gradually fading? It reminded me of that. It was simply spectacular. People actually clapped as the final dot of sun disappeared from view. That was weird, clapping the sun.
I did get up for sunset, but that wasn’t as good. I didn’t have such a great spot, and the sun was mostly hidden behind a thick September of cloud. If you get lucky and see a good one I can imagine its something else altogether. But alas, I wasn’t so lucky. Instead I ate breakfast – two bars of Snickers – and packed up my stuff to head back down the mountain in record time, impressing each and every one of the wheezing small calved hikers I passed along the way.
Adams Top Tips: Mount Huangshan
So this sounds like its worth doing!
It definitely is. Definitely! Its got the crowds still, its got the tour groups still. But this is something you’ve got to do if you come to China! First class, absolutely loved it.
Wow. Ok. So, what’s your big piece of advice?
Do what the guide book says, and if you’re going to avoid the cable cars and walk it, go up the East Steps (that start at the Yungu Cable Car station), and back down the West Steps (with the exit at Mercy Light Temple). I thought it was tough to get up the East Steps. It took me a good three hours, and that was with plenty of lengthy stops for water. But the West Steps are longer and harder, and seeing the state of some of the poor wretches I saw struggling up as I as breezing down convinced me I’d made a good choice!
You stayed overnight on the summit?
Yep. Best way to do it. There are several hotels, some of which offer dorm beds, all of which fill up quickly if you don’t book ahead. But if you’re struggling ask at your hostel for help with finding a dorm bed. I was having trouble finding a until my hostel phoned someone who runs a hotel called Er Suo. I say ‘hotel’ – its basically the cable car station at Rose Cloud Peak, who cram a few bunk beds into spare rooms at peak times.
I imagine there’s a cost to all this…
There is, and it’s your typical Chinese tourist rip off. It costs £23 to get onto the mountain in the first place, and prices at the top aren’t exactly what you’d call reasonable. I paid £20 for my bed for the night, four times what you pay in China for a bed at sea level. Food isn’t cheap either, especially in the hotels, but ask at the shops and you might find some boxes of noodles which they’ve got stashed away.
Can you do it in a single day?
You can. But, take the cable car up, and then make the most of the scenery at the top. Otherwise you’re basically going to sweat your way up and not appreciate the scenery fully. Ideally you’d take two days. Oh yeah – and don’t bother with tours or tour guides. Its easy to get busses there, and the routes are clearly signposted in English along the way.
Smashing. One final big tip?
Don’t be a hero! Take your time when climbing up. Start slow, and get slower. Take lots of water. There’s no shame in stopping every 100 yards for a breather, and taking it easy early on will pay dividends later on. You’re really impressing no-one by striding up like your life depends on it.
Ok. Got it!