Four thousand feet up on Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain, a wooden sign announces that you are now looking at Beginning-to-Believe Peak. The English inscription reads, 'It's so fantastic, you don't believe your eyes. Seeing it with your eyes, you believe it's really fantastic.' The sign, in all its comic book English, invites you to share the experience of countless others and begin to believe that Huangshan, in the southern province of Anhui, really is the the most beautiful mountain in all China. In my own first thirty six hours on the Yellow Mountain, though, I hadn't seen further than the nearest pine tree.
I had arrived the day before, after a twelve hour overnight journey on sleeper train K8418 from Shanghai, 400 kilometres away. On the giddying cable car ascent from the valley floor to the lower peaks, you could only dimly glimpse tumbling towers and pillars of rock through the mist. When my guide, Nick, and I began the walk up to the Xi Hai hotel (one of several on the mountain) along tree-lined, meandering stone paths, the cloud really descended, covering everything in an impenetrable blanket of fog. On the half hour walk Nick, set to some kind of guide auto-pilot, solemnly continued to point out the stunning views that we would have seen if it hadn’t been for the mist.
I was on something of a mission here. Huangshan had promised to be a highlight of my three week trip to China, and not just for the promised stunning mountain scenery. Huangshan is famous for that, though : the Yellow Mountain is not just one but some seventy peaks over 1000 metres in height. It also has ‘seas’, so-called because often the view from the high peaks resembles rocky islands sticking up out of an ocean of clouds. There was also the novelty of staying in one of the resort hotels, 4000 feet above sea level, and the chance to bathe in one of the famous hot springs. Plus the names on Huangshan are irresistible : Tipsy Rock, Cloud Dispersing Pavilion, Nine Dragons Peak, the Jade Pavilion, Tried Sword Peak, and other natural features called The Immortal Pointing the Way, Falling Over Rock and Monkey Gazing at the Sea of Clouds. But it was the other associations of the place that had really made me want to visit.
Huangshan has been the subject of paintings and poems : most recently the President of the country, Jiang Zemin, came here in the Naughties and was moved to write some verses about his visit. His effort, Feelings on climbing Huang Mountain, made the front page of the People’s Daily, China’s number one newssheet, and is now included in school text books. The big Zemin was in good company : in the 8th Century one of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai, came to live on the mountain to give himself a respite from life at the Imperial Court.
Li Bai, or Li Po, liked a drink and a lot of female company, and supposedly produced much of his poetry while under the influence of one or the other. After experiencing the peace and serenity of Huangshan, which used to be home to many working temples, he is said to have turned his back on his previous hedonism, for a while at least, and cast aside the brush with which he inscribed his poems. You can still see Flower Grown Out Of a Writing Brush Rock from a specially built terrace in front of the one of the hotels. Nick had proudly shown me the picturesque rocky pillar tapering to a point at its summit, with a bushy pine growing from the top of it, and I had to agree that it did look like a traditional Chinese calligraphy brush. Even seeing it through the mist on our walk to the hotel I had been entranced. It was like something from a Chinese scroll painting, all crags and symbolic natural features harking back to a romantic past full of sages, poets and dragons.
Twelve hundred years later the jagged peaks of Huangshan inspired the film director James Cameron to create one of the most eye catching features of the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar. The floating Hallelujah mountains in the film are visually very like the real Yellow Mountain summits, which often emerge from fluffy cumulus clouds at their bases as if suspended in mid-air. Members of the production team have said that Huangshan was a prime source for creating the landscape of he film's fictional planet, and on a visit to China in 2009 Cameron himself was quoted as saying that, “All we had to do was simply recreate Huangshan Mountain in outer space”. He'd obviously had better luck with the weather than I’d had so far.
That evening, in the hotel – unexceptional apart from the altitude and the gift of two cartoon-rosy apples from two ladies who knocked on my door to welcome me to their establishment - I arranged to meet Nick at 4.30 in the morning in the foyer so we could make the trek up to a high point, Dawn Pavilion, to see the sun rise. Foolishly, despite being something of a veteran of these early starts ( why is dawn always the best time to set out for a trip, see a view, catch a ferry?) I hadn’t told him that if it was raining at 4.25, I would simply be turning over in bed and getting another three hours of much-needed sleep. So I stood in the glass lobby looking out at the misty drizzle as Nick approached, looking, unlike me, amazingly fresh for the time of day. He informed me that there was no point in going up to Dawn Pavilion as there would be nothing to see, and suggested that we meet again at 8.30 in the breakfast room.
When I emerged for breakfast the hotel dining room was flooded with sunlight. Having bolted steamed buns, noodles, reassuringly good coffee and a black, pickled 'Thousand Year Egg' to fortify me for the day ahead, I met Nick in the foyer and we began a climb of the last thousand feet to take in Huangshan’s good weather delights. Struggling with the altitude as I was, even just carrying a bottle of water and a camera, I felt a twinge of sympathy for the porters as I saw substantial Chinese citizens being hoisted up a seemingly endless flight of steps in sedan chairs. Almost everything has to be moved by porter on Huangshan, from bottled water and linen for the hotels to iron girders and bags of cement for the constant construction work, which is continuing apace on the Yellow Mountain despite the threatened slowdown in the Chinese economy.
My beginning-to-believe moment came as we approached the first viewpoint, where a chain link fence separates the visitor from a sheer drop of several hundred feet. The fence was adorned with small padlocks, each one inscribed with two names that their owners must have wished locked together for life (a romantic habit that has spread round the globe. I'd seen a multitude of them a few weeks earlier on the Pont des Arts in Paris.) Beyond the ironmongery, sure enough, the granite crags and sheer peaks seemed to float like islands on the clouds: it was Pandora, right here on Earth, with Huangshan's unique species of pine tree and the occasional shrine perched on a crag to give perspective to the view. This was the viewpoint which gives the best sight of Monkey Gazing at the Sea of Cloud, a rock which from a distance does actually look like a hunched-over simian. The Monkey was looking out over what was, on the day I saw it, a serene cotton wool ocean.
Our ultimate destination was Bright Summit, Huangshan's second highest peak, with its swish new hotel and helipad. On the way we stopped at Flying Over Rock, and giddily inched our way round its inverted near-pyramid. The tradition is to rub the Rock three times, once each for health, wealth and long life (longevity being an ancient and modern Chinese obsession). In terms of ordinary good luck, though, I had already been fortunate. The day was sunny, with huge towers of fair weather cloud jostling softly between the peaks and the air, too, was of a purity you can only experience at nearly five thousand feet. Nick and I glimpsed the Thousand Foot Waterfall and the Eight Dragon Brocade Peak, and finally came out onto Bright Summit to stand amazed, taking in the spectacle of the mountains dropping away from us in every direction. I had more than begun to believe : I was a complete convert to the beauties of the Yellow Mountain.