Photojournalism Near & Far

Above the Clouds of Huangshan

With only a couple weeks remaining in the People’s Republic, I was determined to check an outdoor adventure off my China bucket list. While the geology is bountiful, it’s important to understand that recreational sports such as skiing, camping, rock climbing, etc. are primarily Western forms of entertainment. Categorically extreme, dangerous, or outright Darwinian to most mainstream Chinese, camping with an American in a National Park was a difficult sell to anyone. And I really needed to sell a native speaker on this idea. Through the generous networking of my Chinese classmates, I connected with a enthusiastic graduate student via the inter-university classified ads. Among many successes from my study abroad program, humbly relying on the well-connected people was one thing that really set my trip apart from others. After a few email exchanges and noting my background as an Eagle Scout, Tristan agreed to my counter-cultural, but seemingly thrilling plan to (illegally) camp in the Huangshan National Park.

Over the coming weeks, we met a handful of times to estimate gear requirements, gauge our fitness levels, and make travel plans. In early August 2011, the two of us ventured far beyond the thick smog of Shanghai into the refreshing air of China’s Yellow Mountains for an unforgettable (and illegal, remember) camping adventure I won’t soon forget. Accompanied by my new Mandarin-speaking friend, we traveled 5 hours west into the expansive Chinese countryside to launch our adventure. I still recall passing endless villages with no more than a single light illuminating the hillside. We eventually came to a stop in the provincial town of Tunxi. Here, we stocked up on food, shared our plans with others at the hostel, and went to bed early. Tomorrow began a great adventure!

Although dry and sunny on our first day, Huangshan is best seen among low-lying clouds, so the peaks appear to float in the sky.

The Adventure Begins

Rising high into the clouds of China’s Anhui province, Huangshan National Park contains some of the most beautiful, yet peculiar granite peaks I’ve ever seen. Strapped with 30lbs of gear and supplies, Tristan and I began traversing the endless peaks of the park. We began our journey ascending Beginning to Believe Peak (and yes, all of the names are like this). Being mid-day, the trails were pretty crowded, and although I would love to travel somewhere tourist-free, I wouldn’t change a thing about our trip. Being in this environment taught me a lot about the nature of recreation in China. This particular location mainly catered to packed buses of day-tripping visitors, looking for a couple kilometer hike, and air conditioned drink lounges at the top of the mountain. We only saw a handful of others with a backpack.

I soon discovered why this is one of China’s most famous landscapes. The scenery was something right out of a Chinese painting. The mountains were sharp and vertical, covered with lush pines growing out of the cracked rock face. The clouds engulfed some of the peaks, and occasionally, a wisp would sweep over the trail. One thing I didn’t expect on the exhausting climb: wild monkeys–technically they are Tibetan macaques. About the size of a medium dog, these monkeys were no stranger to danger. They ran, jumped, and played all around the rocks some hundreds of feet above the ground. One even ran a poor little girl a few dozen feet down the trail.

Before heading into the canyon, we took a load off at a trail junction. It was here where we met fellow campers Wang Jun and Xian Cai Xia. This couple had just finished hiking through one of the canyons and were curious about Tristan and I. (Being a white American draws no shortage of attention in China. I am in many Chinese scrapbooks and photo albums I’m sure. And I received many cigarettes in return for my willingness to be photographed with strangers.) After all, we were the only other people in the entire park with packs large enough to contain overnight gear. Neither of them spoke English, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t have a conversation. Thanks to Tristan’s translating, we got to know each other, and eventually planned the rest of our night together. It turns out they were there for some off-trail camping as well. Wang Jun was 31 years old and his girlfriend Xian Cai Xia was 23. Tristan and I joined our new friends in the trek up Purple Cloud Peak.

It was 16:00, and the sun’s intensity subsided enough to really enjoy the rays beaming across my face. The four of us kicked off our shoes, and enjoyed the most perfect nap/rest we could’ve asked for. There was truly no other place I would rather have been. At the young age of 19, I couldn’t believe I was standing atop a Chinese mountain, completing a hiking expedition through one of China’s most breath-taking wonders. Is this why people travel? What is this incredible feeling of self-sufficiency, discovery, and discomfort I’m feeling all at once? And most importantly: how do I feel this more often?

Wang Jun asked me many of questions through Tristan. He was very curious about gun possession, women’s rights, and romantic relationships in America. He also wanted to know my thoughts on the Japanese, in general. Personal bias is powerful, so I always try to provide both sides of an issue when representing America abroad. “I think X, but many who oppose it think X”. While I can’t speak for the country as a whole, at least I can enlighten others beyond a simple “this is how all of America is”. For those of us who live or visit America, we know it to be a vast and extremely diverse population. Since arriving in China, I have been asked more questions about the gun laws in America than I expected. After a few more topics, we decided to ascend a nearby peak, watch the sunset, and scope out an off-trail campsite for the night. As the photos depict, it is almost impossible to find flat ground in Huangshan National Park.

A little background on camping: In December 2010, eighteen students from Shanghai’s Fudan University got lost in some of Huangshan’s undeveloped land. And unfortunately, one of the police officers helping search for the missing students died. After the Fudan incident, camping on the mountain has been suspended. This quickly became national news and an obvious reason to contain campers to flat plots located outside of hotels, rather than scattered throughout the park. So why go against these rules? To be honest, I can’t wholly recall our reasoning, but I believe the campsites were pretty far from the mountain peaks, meaning a morning ascent would require an extremely early wake-up.

After the sunset, the four of us converged on the peak to discuss our plan. After waiting for many people to clear out, the four of us descended the mountain a hundred or so feet to locate our site. We discovered a fairly flat patch of soil approximately 40 meters from the trail and out of sight from most passersbys. We considered going deeper into the woods, but the “Beware of Monkeys” sign was enough to keep Xian Cai Xia from going any further. Acting swiftly and with limited light and noise, the four of us set up our tents—Tristan and I in one and Wang Jun and Xian Cai Xia in the other. As it turns out, a two-person Chinese tent is much narrower than a two-person American tent. At this point it was only 21:00, but without any daylight, we had no choice but to go to bed.

A Chinese Sunrise

Our alarms went off at 4:30am–it was time to pack up camp. After a quick bite to eat, Tristan and I packed our tent and headed back up Bright Summit Peak for the most beautiful sunrise I have even experienced. Along with our two new friends, we joined what must’ve been a few hundred people on top of the mountain. Following Wang Jun’s lead, Tristan and I hopped a barb wire fence in order to stand out on the cliff. Was this allowed? Highly doubt it. Was it dangerous? Most certainly. Was it worth it? Definitely! The wind was whipping pretty hard and clouds morphed in the valley below. After ten minutes perched on this cliff , the slightest crescent of light began to appear on the cloudy horizon. People began to cheer and photos were being snapped left and right. I think this was the most spectacular sunrise I have even seen.

Living on the edge (literally) and watching the sunrise from Bright Summit Peak.

After a half an hour, people began to clear out. This is where Tristan and I split up with our new friends. This began what would be our only full day on the mountain, and it easily became one of my very favorite days in China. Eventually we made it to West Sea Canyon. The canyon’s steps were incredibly steep and occasionally led us through some short caves and along sketchy cliff sides. What scared me the most was knowing that every step down meant one step back up! After an hour or so, we reached the bottom to discover a large pool of natural spring water. I took a few moments to freshen up in the cool water, then we decided to catch up on lost sleep and enjoyed ourselves a canyon nap.

After clawing our way out of the canyon, we had to climb Bright Summit once again. One annoying thing about Huangshan is that you can’t just walk the ridge–mostly because there is no ridge to walk. All the mountains have a relatively high prominence and should be thought of as individual peaks. Hence, you have to go up one and down the other side, up one and down again. On the far side of Bright Summit was Lotus Peak—our ultimate destination and a good metric for our trip. Clouds began to roll in as Tristan and I ascended the tallest peak in Huangshan. It became more humid as we arrived at One Hundred Ladders—one of two ways to ascend. With burning thighs, the two hour process concluded at the top of Lotus. When we arrived, we couldn’t see a damn thing due to Huangshan’s infamous fog. It was the mountains way of reminding you who’s boss. Nevertheless, after two days of hiking, we felt pretty accomplished. We were over one mile high—6,118 feet to be exact. At the time, my highest elevation.

I had only taken one step down the peak when I felt a rain drop on my arm. Armed with rain gear purchased only one day prior, we prepared for the worst. After fifteen minutes of precipitation, it was over, and we were once again blessed with clear, sunny weather so rarely experienced in the park. The fact we even got to witness a sunrise earlier that morning was rare enough. After descending from the peak, we headed for Yupinglou Hotel–a mountain oasis for many tourists. And a camper-friendly hotel to spend our final night in the park. This was en route to the main gate which served as our final destination and gateway back to Tunxi. The weather that night was once again a mild 65ᵒF. I slept like a baby.

Descending From The Clouds

We both woke up around 4:45am to judge the chance of a sunrise. Although it looked a little cloudy, we headed out for some more wonderful photography. It was yet again another beautiful day on Huangshan. With a smile on our faces, Tristan and I broke down camp and began our final descent down the mountain. It was a relaxing and enjoyable two hour stroll to lower ground. After reaching the base of the park, we hitch-hiked a ride all the way back to Tunxi. At first I was quite hesitant, as I had never hitch-hiked before. As it turns out, these cargo vans serve as a proxy-transit system out in the country where folks may own no more than a single motor bike per family. We rode back with a few locals in a rickety old van before getting plopped in the center of town. Mission accomplished!

Celebrating our great Huangshan adventures and Tristan’s 24th birthday!

After returning to the hostel, we met our new roommate Tang Shi Yu. She was planning to go to Huangshan in a couple days and we were happy to share our stories. As a fellow photo enthusiast, she was showing us a picture of the villages (another famous Huangshan attraction) she had been to earlier that day. She spoke some English and after a few hours of getting to know her, we invited her to join us for dinner.

At dinner, I got one of my favorite things in China: known to many Americans as kung pow chicken. I got it ‘mild’ but that was spicy enough. Thanks to many laughs and just as many beers, our dinner lasted quite a while. I once again spent a fair bit of time learning new Chinese phrases, jokes, and colloquialisms. Tang Shi Yu told me I should continue learning Chinese and be a translator one day, but I wasn’t so sure. Apparently my accent and pronunciation is pretty good for a foreigner. When it comes to language, I find it important to mimic people as best I can, even if it sounds a little stereotypical at times. Spanish, Chinese, and everything in between. In making some of those simplifications or inflections, I’ve been pretty successful in sounding as native as possible.

By the end of the meal, I realized what a great pleasure it was to meet so many young and fascinating Chinese. After dinner, we returned to the hostel to pack and relax–the adventure was over. It was then Tristan and I inscribed our historic adventure onto the hostel’s wall. So many people before us had done the same; it seemed only right to add a masterpiece of our own.

Looking back on what was my final weekend trip in the People’s Republic, I am beyond happy. On the bus ride home, I put some serious thought into this, and I truly believe Huangshan is the most beautiful place I have ever been. I couldn’t think of anywhere else! The scenery was unlike anything you could imagine, and I am incredibly lucky to have been there. Without my friend Ma Jun’s help, I never would’ve sent a message to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University community board and connected with Tristan. Tristan made many parts of this trip possible. Although I have only known him six days, I consider him one of my greatest friends in China.

On a personal level, I was very proud of myself for pulling off this adventure–to the dismay of my program’s leadership. Let’s just say most higher-ups don’t like you wandering off into the mountains for three days with no means of contact. Regardless, I would’ve done anything to make this trip happen. Although I jumped through plenty of hoops: finding equipment, spending hours researching routes, and modifying my schedule, it was all worth it. I have been camping for many years, but I haven’t done anything quite like this…and in China no less! Huangshan put the perfect cap on what will be one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I am very grateful for that. The air was clean, the views were marvelous and I was content as could be. I was in my element, and that is all I could’ve asked for. According to my best estimates, we clocked 23 miles worth of hiking within those 45 hours on the mountain.

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