This week, I was faced with one of the most difficult tasks throughout my entire DATE 2019 experience so far: I had to decide which photos to pick for this blog post.

Huangshan (黄山) has been at the top of my list of to-visit places since the very beginning of DATE, but between poor weather, scheduling difficulties, and an ever-increasing workload, I haven’t had the chance to make the trip.

Until last week.

Pinning our hopes on a favorable weather forecast for the next two days, four of us seized the opportunity to catch a breather from our tedious daily routines. We boarded a train to the AAAAA-rated mountain range, some 180 kilometers west of the Zijingang campus.

The Journey Up

Having already made trips to Wuzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing, I’m no longer a stranger to China’s high-speed railway. But as the train smoothly made its way towards our destination, I found myself greeted by an unfamiliar view. While all of my previous trips have been east- and north-bound, this was the first time I was journeying deeper in towards the mainland. In contrast to the urban scenery nearer to the coast, our surroundings became more mountainous and desolate the further west we travelled.

By the time we were approaching the actual mountain on a taxi, we were already flanked on all sides by densely vegetated hills of varying heights. Above us, the sky was a pleasant deep blue colour, sparsely dotted by soft white clouds. A reassuring sight, considering that there were numerous others whose trips to Huangshan had been marred by bad weather and low visibility.

While I would have greatly enjoyed a peaceful hike up the mountain, my travelling companions were less enthusiastic about the three-hour climb. We took a bus to the Cloud Valley (云谷) telpher station, before taking a cable car up.

At the top, we were rewarded with a great view of the adjacent mountain ranges.

Our first view from the top of Huangshan.

The picturesque views were rivalled in impressiveness only by the quality of infrastructure on the top of the mountain, at some 1600 m (5250 ft) above mean sea level. Besides the cableways, there are lights dotted around the more travelled footpaths, and several large buildings (mostly hotels, as well as a massive meteorological station located on the second highest peak). And throughout my entire time on the mountain, I had a surprisingly strong cellular connection – presumably thanks to a massive cell tower on one of the peaks.

Along our travels, we also encountered numerous porters with shoulder yokes bearing loads ranging from trash bags, to bottles of water, to building materials (literally bags full of rocks).

Accompanying the sights were the natives of the mountain – primarily squirrels, birds, and dragonflies, who all seemed accustomed to the persistent human activity at the top of the mountain.

A squirrel enjoying its dinner.

After spending a tad too long using our phone cameras instead of our legs, we finally arrived at our accommodation for the night – Huangshan Shilin Hotel, which set us back a hefty ¥1380 (S$276) for a single room. We then hurried towards the second highest peak, Bright Peak (光明顶), to catch the sunset.

The quickly rising shadow of the mountain.

The Sunset

By the time we arrived, all of the viewing platforms were already packed with people. Fortunately, we were already more than high enough to enjoy a good view of the sunset.

We eventually returned to the hotel as the light faded away and settled in, getting some food (potato chips for me).

The Best Part

After some time, I decided to take a walk out in the dark. Unfortunately, the path I took was not lit, meaning that I had to find my way with just my phone’s torch. But this turned out to be a walk that I would not regret – after some time, I broke through the canopy cover and stumbled onto a viewing platform. Getting a proper look around for the first time since I’d set out away from the hotel, I was greeted by what is the best sight I’ve seen in my life to date. Turning my torch off, I took a few moments to absorb the view before heading back to get the rest.

This is the part where words and pictures will no longer suffice in describing the sheer magnificence of the visceral experience that followed. We made our way to another viewing platform where we soaked in the sensations for the next two hours. Above us, the raw night sky in its naked glory, free from the light pollution of Hangzhou and Singapore; the galactic plane of the Milky Way was visible, along with Jupiter, and a literally uncountable number of stars. Below, the soft but sharp lights of a nearby town. In the distance, lightning raging silently among a mass of flickering storm clouds. And all around us, the ebbing and flowing roar of the wind as it found its way through the contours of the mountain.

Regrettably, between the darkness, the uneven surface of our viewing area, and none of us having brought along a tripod, I was unable to get any good pictures – and even if I had, well, the experience was far more than a visual one. Still, I did my best to capture a few long exposure shots with my phone while holding it as still as I could – here are a few of the more legible ones.

The Milky Way. Camera settings: f/1.8, ISO 6400, 6 seconds. Tripod: my bare hands
A small section of the night sky.
The town below.

Lightning in the distance – reference image above.

Truthfully, if I’d taken a cable car down right after and headed straight back to Hangzhou, I’d have felt that I’d gotten my money’s worth. But there was more to see, and we eventually headed back reluctantly to get some rest for the next day.

The Sunrise

We got up early next morning for the short trek back to Bright Peak, where we caught the sunrise.

Soon after the sun rose, the crowd of people which had gathered dissipated quickly. But the best views were yet to come, and we stayed on for a while longer to witness the beauty of Huangshan in the early dawn.

The sea of clouds (云海) shrouding the mountains in the distance.

The halo is not a lens flare – it is visible to the naked eye as well.

The Grand Canyon

After returning to the hotel for some breakfast, we prepared to set off towards our next stop – but somewhat comically, all four of us ended up falling asleep at the same time. By the time we woke up and departed, it was 11 am.

We headed to the West Sea (西海) scenic area, where we hiked down the valley on stairways that somehow snaked down among the rocky landscape through some 400 m (1300 ft) of elevation.

After reaching the bottom of the valley, we took a telpher back up to regain our lost altitude.

The Summit

Back at the top of the mountain, we rushed towards the highest peak on Huangshan – Lotus Peak (莲花峰). We planned to take the Taiping cableway, purported to have the best view, back down. And with just three hours till closing time (4:30 pm), we’d have to hurry in order to make it to the station, or risk being forced to take the seven hour trek down the mountain. But as our time dwindled, the mountain seemed to get more and more crowded, halting our progress.

Back at the top.

Notice the snaking line of people up the mountain.

Finally, at 2:45, after a steep climb through a queue of people, the four of us reached the very top of the mountain – at an elevation of 1864.8 m (6120 ft). From there, we could see the surrounding mountain ranges for perhaps a hundred or so kilometers in every direction. And none of them were higher than we were.

By the time we started back down, it was already past 3 pm, and we made the decision to descend via the nearer Jade Screen (玉屏) cableway instead.

Back to Earth

But the descent from the summit had some unpleasant surprises in store for us – it was somehow even steeper and narrower than the way we had taken up. Still, we managed to make it back down the mountain and back home safely.

One Last Panorama

There is a really good reason why Huangshan is considered to be a must-visit for anyone travelling to Hangzhou (at least, that’s what many people have told me), and I’ve finally gotten to see it myself after twelve weeks here. It’s a good enough reason, in fact, that I’m considering making a second trip back. And after my recent trip to the Great Wall which was blemished by poor weather, it was really nice to be rewarded with some great views and experiences this week.

(Seeing as how WordPress has so kindly squashed all my panoramas into a size for ants, here they are in full size)

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