Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, art, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.
In late August 2019, I joined a group trip to Huang Shan—Yellow Mountain—in Anhui Province, about six hours west of Shanghai. We were a group of about 30 people from around the world, with “King Kong” as our tour leader. His family name is Kong, so it was an easy choice to add the King part to his name.
As I settled in near the back of the bus, King Kong gave a rundown of what we could expect. “There is an 80% chance it will rain tomorrow. We can try to see the sunrise at 4 AM, but there is only a 20% chance we will see it. Actually, I think it is impossible. Less than a 5% chance.”
We would catch a bus to the start of the trail, at the foot of the mountains, spend the night at a hotel, and begin the next morning. It was quiet in Tuanxi, far from the non-stop traffic and the 24-hour construction cranes of Shanghai. The air smelled fresh—mountain air with a hint of pine.
Rain glistened on the paving stones of the walkway. White buildings with brown roofs, angled in the pagoda style. A row of red lanterns on each side adding color to the streets. Tea shops, herbal shops, a wine place, a place selling photographs and magnets for Huang Shan. Places with storefronts wide open to the street, no doors.
Store clerks sat or stood in the doorways, with samples of tea or sweets. It was a very low-key place, with the feel of a historic town preserved well. We walked in the rain.
The bus gunned its way up the foothills through a series of switchbacks, winding through horseshoe-shaped turns. The bus driver took them at full speed, nailing the turns and managing to stay in our lane. When a bus approached in the opposite direction, on a tight turn with no space for error, and also going full speed, the passengers held their breath. The two drivers like matadors, neither one backing down from the challenge, passed side by side, with only inches of space to spare. We all let out a sigh of relief. We would live to begin our hike up the mountain.
We had two options—hike for eight kilometers to the peak or take the cable car for about 5.5 kilometers, then hike the rest of the way. Most of us thought, An eight km hike, why not? No big deal at all. That’s what we came here to do.
After the first few long flights up the stone staircase, already winded and feeling the burn in our thighs, someone asked, “Is it staircase the whole way?” “Yes,” King Kong answered—a veteran who had done this trip about 20 times and also runs marathons. Only one person out of the group had decided to take the cable car.
It was still clear in the foothills, a bright morning, and we would be ascending into the clouds. Already we could see the steep cliff faces, with pine trees clinging off the sides. Deep, lush valleys filled with bamboo, a lighter shade of green, that needed those lower elevations to thrive.
Soon we were blanketed in mist and heavy fog. At intervals, the strange rock formations loomed out of the mist—a ghostly ambiance on the mountainside. We put our ponchos back on as it began to mist and rain more steadily.
We couldn’t see many of the vistas the mountain is famous for. The fog thickened, and visibility seemed only a few yards. Sometimes you could peer down along a sheer cliff-face, and see for a distance into the valley below. If you fell from here, you would be falling mostly through fog as well.
Crowds of people hiked along with us, and crowds descended in the opposite direction, many with a look of surprise and curiosity, smiling at the sight of a foreign face. “Where are you from?” They stammered, out of breath.
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Years earlier, I’d bought scroll paintings somewhere—pieces of Chinese art that depicted a mountain with unusual cliffs reaching high into the clouds, wispy pines clinging to the sides in the mist. Perhaps the lone figure of a monk walking in the valley or ascending the mountain.
Many of them, I believe, were depictions of Yellow Mountain. These adorned walls in my apartments for years. How amazing to be where these ancients had walked, to look out at some of the same views that they surely knew well. Now I could imagine myself as a tiny figure in one of these paintings as well.
King Kong let out primal screams at certain points along the trail—ape-like cries, celebrating our ascent along the path, conquering this peak on the mountain. He gave us high fives when we finally reached the peak. From there, it would be another two-kilometer hike, most of it on level ground, or descending stairs, to the hostel. The rain was heavier at this time of day. My shoes and socks were soaked through. I tried to mostly protect my backpack with the rain poncho.
After dinner of baked chicken, tomato and eggs, dumplings, and Yellow Mountain beer, we went to bed, wiped out from the long, grueling hike.
A few people from the group woke early, and around 7 o'clock am had a clear view into the distance from the peak (for about five minutes!). The sun broke through, and puffy clouds ringed the valley. You could see for miles, then in a few minutes, the fog poured in, and the view was gone.
The day before, at points, people who couldn’t continue the hike were carried down by two men, seated on chairs tied to bamboo poles—a scene we would see play out many times.
We took a morning hike of about two kilometers. The drizzle started again in the morning, and the mist was thick. We saw tiny squirrels, “Song shu," scampering in the brush, or along branches near the path. We also saw several birds, about the size of a robin, and with a gray-orange color, alighting on branches near us; they seemed to arrive with and keep close to the squirrels. They seemed curious, pausing on branches to have a look at us before flitting away to a higher rook in the trees.
In the wintertime, monkeys come up the mountainside from the valleys, where they can find food. A few in the group saw several of the monkeys, and took a short video. We saw one that appeared like a small gorilla, moving through the undergrowth, before wandering off.
Many of the trees and cliffs have colorful names, given by the Buddhist monks who used to live on the mountain. We saw the “Black Tiger Tree.” The story is that one day a monk saw a black tiger in the tree. Another is “Dragon Hand Tree” where the roots of the tree grow in such a way as to resemble a Dragon Hand. The “Welcome Tree” hangs at a precarious angle on a cliffside, greeting and welcoming all visitors.
After our two-kilometer hike in the rain, a cable car took us down the mountain to our bus. At the low elevation, it was clear and sunny, and very hot. Overhead, clouds obscured the mountain top, where it was still cool and raining. The previous day, wild, cold winds had gusted up out of nowhere, making the pine branches sway in the mists.
© 2020 Sal Santiago