Sunday, April 01, 2007 China China

Marched up and down Yellow Mountain

Huangshan [Enlarge]

Our driver collected us from the hotel at the pre-arranged time and delivered us to Shanghai's old station at about 21:10, to catch our overnight train to Huangshan, one of China's most scenic areas. The main purpose of our visit was to go up Huangshan Mountain, which gives the city its name. Mae met us at the station and gave us our tickets. We sat down with her in the waiting room set aside for 'soft-sleeper' passengers (first class: bedding included, pretty cheap, comfortable but not overly luxurious). When the train was announced Mae led us up the escalator to the platform and delivered us to our compartment. Her contract fulfilled, she said her goodbyes and we thanked her.

Having swapped compartments with a couple of Koreans who wanted to be with their friend, we found ourselves sharing with an Australian couple from Sydney (the soft-sleeper compartments are four-berth). The Aussies are well travelled, but this was their first experience of a night train. We got on really well with them from the start, and swapped travel tales, recommendations and horror stories until the wee small hours.

Next morning, we didn't realise we'd arrived at Huangshan station at first. From our window we could only see scrub land. Eventually when a member of staff stuck his head into the compartment and shouted "Huangshan!!!", we looked out the other side of the train and realised there was a platform there! Good job Huangshan was the end of the line. Outside the station we found our new guide, Peter. Like many English-speaking Chinese, he has chosen an English name to use with Westerners. We followed him at a swift walk to the car and drove out of Huangshan city into the countryside.

The journey to the bottom of Huangshan Mountain took about an hour. Peter didn't really say much during the journey, but he told us that Huang Shan simply means 'Yellow Mountain' and it was named in honour of a visit by Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor).

The mountain is only accessible by cable car, as there are no roads to the village at the top. At the cable car station Peter showed us a long queue of people which he called the 'common way' to get up the mountain. The queue was so long that he said the people at the back were going to have to wait at least a couple of hours to get to the cable car. You can pay 15 yuan extra (GBP 0.99 / USD 1.94) to queue-jump as a VIP. The cable cars arrive every seven to ten minutes, and the VIPs get a nice comfy waiting room during this time, then are let on to the cable car first. Any remaining spaces are filled by the common people. The trouble is, enough people buy VIP tickets to pretty much fill each cable car, so there are very few spaces left for the commoners. Luckily our tour price included the VIP supplement and we got straight onto the first cable car to arrive.

Huangshan porter [Enlarge]

Only the paying tourists get to use the cable car to the top. Everything else—hotel furniture, TVs, food, drink and construction materials for the ongoing building programme—is carried up to the village by a never-ending line of porters. These guys spend their working lives hauling massive loads up and down the 800 vertical metre, 6.5 kilometre long track to the top. We asked Peter what the porters earn. He reckoned about 70 yuan per day (GBP 4.60 / USD 9.06), plus the occasional tip from guilt-ravaged tourists. For the umpteenth time since we left home, we felt very lucky to be us.

It was still morning, and we had a day's sightseeing ahead. But our first stop was to drop off the bags at the hotel. We had naturally assumed that the hotels would all be reasonably close to each other at the top of the cable car, but we were wrong. We set off on a hike carrying our bags, which though tiny, are densely packed with stuff and therefore quite heavy. We expected the hotel to materialise just around every corner, but it was only after three exhausting kilometres of hiking up and down steep slopes in the hot, thin air, that we reached the other side of the mountain and the Xihai Hotel. We have no idea why our itinerary made no mention of the fact that we would need to do this trek—if we had known, we could have easily left most of our stuff with the driver at the bottom of the mountain, as we were only staying at the top for one night. We couldn't communicate the fact that we were a bit annoyed to Peter because his English was very poor. Glenn asked him what would have happened if we had turned up with large suitcases, as most people on this kind of tour do. Peter didn't understand. Glenn phrased the query in several different ways, speaking slowly and clearly, using simple words. Peter just smiled and nodded and strode off ahead. We were hot, tired and cross by the time we arrived at the Xihai Hotel. We told Peter that we needed half an hour to have a shower.

Unfortunately, our disappointment continued. The hotels at the top of Huangshan have a captive and plentiful supply of customers, and thus they are not very good. The Xihai is OK, especially compared to many places we've stayed on this trip, but it certainly isn't four-star, as claimed by the tour company. When we returned to the lobby at 11:45 Peter sent us straight into the hotel's restaurant to have lunch. It wasn't great—the meat was mostly bones and gristle—and just like Mae did in Shanghai, Peter disappeared leaving us sat there wondering about what we were eating, and which implements to use for what purpose. We were feeling pretty grouchy and let down by the time we finished, as this tour is costing us a lot of money and we didn't feel that we were getting anything approaching good value.

After lunch, we began our walking tour of the mountain area. Without our heavy bags weighing us down, the thousands of steep steps were much easier. Peter kept rushing off ahead of us like he was on a mission, and we didn't seem to be able to communicate to him that we'd actually like to slow down a bit and see the place. Not that there was much point in him walking with us as he didn't have much information in English to impart.

Us, hot and bothered [Enlarge]

Huangshan was absolutely beautiful, and we were blessed with perfect sunshine. It rains on 275 days a year, and even on the dry days you are usually in cloud, so we were lucky indeed. In spite of the general bad feeling, we couldn't help but enjoy the scenery. As we arrived at our final destination for the day, Peter proudly told us that this was the best place to see sunset. The only problem was, he had hurried through the itinerary so much that sunset was still three hours away! Had we taken our time going from point to point, looking around, enjoying the amazing views, we would have arrived at the perfect time to watch the sun dip below the peaks, and the mountains turn golden in the fading light. Then we would have strolled back to our hotel in the last of the daylight and arrived just in time for dinner. Instead, we missed sunset and just went back to the hotel to have another shower and pick half-heartedly at some more bony, gristly food.

Luckily we didn't set the alarm for sunrise because the next morning the whole mountaintop was shrouded in clouds. We set out with our bags again to trudge the three kilometres back to the cable car. After 2.5 km there was a fork in the path and Peter told us that the left hand fork would take us to the Beginning To Believe Peak, the last scenic spot on our itinerary. It was a long way up another steep hill to the peak. We told him we were not willing to carry our bags up any more steps than we had to and we would just have to miss the peak. The whole itinerary had been very badly planned.

Back at the base of the mountain Peter seemed to be feeling a bit remorseful about how our time in Huangshan had turned out. He had lifted one of our bags at the cable car station and couldn't believe how heavy it was—it's not just full of spare t-shirts, we have everything in there for a round the world trip. He is quite junior and his inexperience and overconfidence had led him to believe that being a tour guide is easy.

We drove back to the city of Huangshan and had a look around the old part, where wooden buildings lean out across the pavement, their latticed balconies almost touching. After lunch Peter took us to Huangshan Museum, where we looked around two shabby and poorly lit rooms of badly displayed writing implements and paintings. We could have forgiven the state of the museum had it not been for the fact that downstairs, in the shop, no expense had been spared. This was an enormous, glitzy shopportunity (our name for such places), with complimentary tea, and big calculators on the tables. Sadly for them we weren't in a buying mood.

And that concluded our tour of Huangshan. Stuck for what to do next Peter took us to a coffee shop and, with our agreement, left us there. He said he would return at 18:00. It was 14:30. The Starbucks-style coffee shop was expensive and we were unwilling to shell out on more than one drink each. So after sitting with our empty cups in front of us for as long as we thought we could get away with, and taking a surprise and very welcome phone call from Isla's parents at home, we went for a brief wander in the immediate vicinity until 17:45. We're very accomplished at killing time in one-horse towns.

Peter took us for dinner, and then to the station to sit in the waiting room for the remaining two hours until our train arrived. It seemed there was no soft-seat waiting room at Huangshan, and Peter deposited us in the large, grubby, standard waiting room. Rather than waiting with us as Mae had done in Shanghai, he said goodbye, shook Glenn's hand and left. We were the only westerners in the place and we were the object of some interest. For only the second time of our entire trip, we felt seriously uncomfortable (the other was being in Syria the day they topped Saddam). We sat still and had staring matches with the locals, and we discussed whether we should contact TravelChinaGuide to complain about our so far very disappointing tour. Within minutes our minds were made up, as Peter came back clutching a tatty piece of paper. He had forgotten to ask us for our feedback (on which his salary depends). He had also forgotten to bring the proper form! He handed the tatty paper to Glenn and said "please just write something". Glenn told him we would not be writing anything now, but that we would be contacting TravelChinaGuide, as we were not happy with our tour. We felt a bit sorry for Peter, because although some of the problems were of his making, and his English is unacceptably poor for someone making his living as an English-speaking tour guide, he was having to work with a very badly designed itinerary.

Just as we were contemplating moving outside to wait, we spotted a group of tourists whom we recognised from the train from Shanghai the previous day. Were we glad to see them! We went over to say hello and ended up joining them. They are from Malaysia and Singapore, but are temporarily living and working in Shanghai. We were just giving them the address of this blog when one of their group came into the waiting room to tell them that he had found the soft seat lounge. So there was one after all! Peter had let us down again. We all decamped and immediately felt more comfortable. To be fair, in the cold light of day we're sure all the staring was just down to curiosity—most tourists fly in and out and never go to downtown Huangshan, and the locals are genuinely not used to seeing Europeans. But by this time we were in a pretty bad mood and had not been up to doing any inter-racial bridge building.

The day finished on a high note, as we whiled away the last hour or so before the train arrived by playing cards with our new friends. We also got some good tips for places to see in Malaysia and Indonesia. Our train to our next destination, Suzhou, arrived on time as always and we boarded it feeling much better.

Our photos from Huangshan are here.

Map of Day 125

Day 125
Shanghai to Huangshan

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.