“To enjoy the magnificence of a mountain, you have to look upwards in most cases. To enjoy Mount Huangshan, however, you’ve got to look downward.” Quote by an ancient Chinese writer.
Awful queues and magnificent views is how I would describe my visit to the Yellow Mountains. In my final month of living in Shanghai, I knew I had to visit Huangshan, the Yellow Mountains. Ever since moving to China I had wanted to visit these strange mountains protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Yellow mountains are not too far from Shanghai, just 6 hours by bus which is not far by Chinese standards. At the end of October, I was beginning to count down the days until I was leaving Shanghai and see which places I simply had to visit before I was due to leave. The Yellow Mountains was number one on my list. Therefore, I checked the weather forecast to see what the following weekend would bring. The forecast predicted a very sunny weekend. Consequently, one Friday afternoon in early November, I boarded a bus and headed to Tangkou at the base of the Yellow Mountain National park.
Little did I know that thousands of others had the same idea…
Bus from Shanghai to Tangkou
The bus to the yellow mountains leaves from Shanghai South Long-distance Bus station. Make sure you buy a ticket which takes you to Huangshan national park, the town of Tangkou, and not Huangshan city which is an hour away from the mountains! You may be transferred once you reach Huangshan city to a smaller bus heading to Tangkou. In Tangkou there are two or three hostels to choose from. I choose Kunlun which was a very nice hostel and I met some cool travelers there. The only downside is that Kunlun is three kilometers from Tangkou bus stop. The other hostel where everyone else who was on the bus was staying offered a free shuttle bus to ferry them to their final destination. On the bright side after sitting down for almost 6 and a half hours I didn’t mind a stroll and walked the 3km to the hostel.
The town of Tangkou is full of many hotels and guesthouses. Everyone is here because they wish to visit the national park and thus it is full of all the standard tourist amenities. There is even a KFC. I popped in and got a portion of chips to snack on whilst walking, as all others restaurants were closed by that point. There were lots of little shops as well selling everything you could ever need for a hike.
Other than that, there is nothing else to do or see in Tangkou.
Hostel and planning the route
At the hostel, I was given a free map and a walking stick to borrow. I spoke with others who had been up the mountain earlier that day and decided which way I would like to walk around the mountain.
After reading many blogs and websites I had not been able to figure out the best routes on the mountain and how long it would take to walk certain parts.
Essentially there are two laps. The main route starting at Yungu temple, the eastern steps, going up the mountain towards the hotels in the middle of the route. A detour is available towards the lion peak. Back at the hotels you then have the choice of going to the western canyon or towards the western steps and going back down. I had no idea if you could do all of that in one day.
After chatting with some students from Europe, America and India who were studying in Shanghai, I went to sleep not sure whether I would be able to see everything on the mountain.
Early start and the queues begin
Many people had warned me not to visit the Yellow Mountains at the weekend due to the crowds. After living in China for 10 months I thought I was used to crowds by now. Yet I heeded their advice and rose as early as I could.
I left the hostel around 6:30 am and headed to the bus stop. The town of Tangkou was already wide awake and full of tourists, thousands of them. Had I not got up early enough?
I headed to the closest bus stop to purchase a ticket which would take me from Tangkou to the entrance of the national park. There were already so many people, I believe I did not board a bus until after 7 am. With my ticket in hand, I was pushed around a queue system with many old ladies waving gloves and selfie sticks in my face, urging me to buy them. Urgh, it was a bit early for all this!
Off the bus, you then walk to the entrance. As a foreigner, I was allowed free entry as part of a tourist campaign to try and put the Yellow Mountains on the International map. The mountains are well known within China but not yet widely known outside of the Middle Kingdom.
At the entrance, you can then decide whether you want to walk up which takes around 3 hours or jump on the cable car which would take 10 minutes. I opted for the cable car in order to save time. Again, the queues were already gigantic! I finally boarded a cable car around 8:20 and was on top of the mountain by 8:30. The cable car journey was fun although a bit squished as 8 of us were packed onto a 6-person carriage. I was so happy when I was finally on top of the mountain! It had taken me 2 hours to get here!
Enjoying the Autumn Sunshine in the Mountains
Now I could start to enjoy the Yellow Mountains. Happy that I was finally not standing in a queue, I began to really take in my surroundings. It was spectacular up here. The late autumn sun cast its warm rays over the autumnal foliage.
I began my explorations. I followed the path upwards. At the viewpoints it was very busy but otherwise, the crowds were manageable, and you could take similar photos away from the main viewpoints.
The Yellow Mountains are truly spectacular. They are huge grey rocky granite outcrops that reach into the sky. Despite their name, they are not yellow. The name yellow was given to them after the yellow emperor, Huang Di.
The Refreshing Terrace
I gasped at the views and was ecstatic to be on the top of the mountain. I choose to take a small detour towards the Lion peak. I was glad I did as not many other tourists choose to follow this path. Here, I was truly around the wonder of nature and could listen to the birds. On the refreshing terrace, I stood by the fence and just stared at my surroundings. The air was fresh. I could feel the sun warming my cold hands. I was slightly out of breath partly due to the physical exertion and partly because of the view. It was quite magical.
After tearing myself away I choose not to continue up to Lion Peak but to join the main path again. I groaned as I joined the swarm of people.
Western Canyon or Western Steps?
I carried on to the site where I needed to decide whether to risk walking around the Western Canyon or whether to carry on towards the Western Steps. I bought some noodles with vegetables from a stall and sat on a step trying to decide.
I wanted to visit the Fairy-walking Bridge but was unsure how far it was. My app suggested it was just 20 minutes, yet I had no idea of the elevation involved. It was 11 am already. I cursed at how long it had taken to get to the top of the mountain.
After some deliberation, I decided to continue on my route towards the Western steps. I did not want to risk going down in the dark. I later discovered that I had made the right choice.
Bright Top Peak
I walked towards Bright Top peak which appeared to be the center of the national park. I could not walk at my normal pace as it was hard to overtake people on the narrow paths.
Bright top peak is the second highest peak in the national park at 1860 meters. From here you gain a real sense of the scale of the scenic area. There is also a strange white structure on this peak!
More and more tourists were on the mountain now. I began to queue as I made my way to Turtle peak.
The views from Turtle peak were amazing. It was nice to be over the other side of the mountain to see views across Anhui province. The weather just continued to improve as the day progressed meaning I was able to fold up my jacket and put it away in my backpack. I looked around as I saw that I was not the only person who had looked at the weather forecast and decided to visit the national park.
I struggled to take photos on here when I would ask fellow tourists if they could take a photo then they would bend down to just get a photo of me rather than the mountains behind me… I set up my tripod which attracted much attention. I experienced a rare moment that I was sad to be solo travelling as I felt I was wasting time trying to take just one good photo.
In the distance, I saw literally thousands of people queuing to go up to a peak. Tiny colourful dots were packed together all lined up. They did not appear to be moving, or if they were then incredibly slowly. I looked in horror as I vowed to avoid that path. I left Turtle peak and wanted to head towards Tiandu peak. Lotus Peak is the tallest peak on the mountain, but access was denied during my visit. The park authorities rotate access to Tiandu peak and Lotus peak every 5 years to protect the summits. Tiandu peak is the third highest peak in the park.
I carried on until I noted that I was heading towards the sea of people I had spied in the distance. I looked at my map trying to figure out a way to avoid them. I asked fellow hikers for other paths. One gentleman just laughed telling me there was no way to avoid them. Sadly I realised I would soon be a squished colourful dot amongst a sea of people..
Queuing on the mountain
“Don’t visit the yellow mountains at the weekend” They told me. “Don’t visit the yellow mountains if you can’t handle crowds of people” they said. Did I listen to this advice? No, I did not. I am used to crowds. I believe living in Asia you have to be. Yet in a city there seems to always be some rest bite from the crowds. Or the millions of people seem to be spread over a wider area. Up on the Yellow Mountain, there is just one path from the Central peak to the Western Stairs. Millions of people must use this one narrow path. It was hell.
I believe I queued for two hours. Slowly, I made my way across the mountain towards Tiandu. People were pushing. Hikers were jumping over the barriers and using the other side to jump in. Couples would try and pass me as a solo traveller. I desperately held the rail on one side and the rocky mountain on the other to try and keep my space.
Finally, as we passed the Yuping cable car I could breathe again. I found a bench and sat down exhausted. I ate a small snack and looked forward to being able to walk without being pushed.
Spectacular Tiandu peak
I saw the ominous stairs leading vertically up the mountainside. Excited to be away from the crowds I raced up this stone path. Holding on with my hands I scrambled up deftly. Completely out of breath I was incredibly satisfied. I finally managed to do some actual climbing rather than queuing!
Of course, there were still many people close to the summit. I did have to queue to cross the Celestial Bridge. This bridge is a narrow walk way with barriers that barely came up to my knees. I knew I must pass this obstacle between myself and the summit of Tiandu.
It was terrifying, but I made it. The path then led under great boulders with little trees perched upon them. I bent over but my rucksack made a terrible sound as I realised I had not bent far enough and had scratched the outer lining badly. Whoops.
The view from the Celestial peak was truly magnificent. Little love locks swayed in the wind. the autumn sun had begun its descent and the sky was alive with an array of colours. I stood up here and forgot all about the queuing and the pushing. Up here I could feel the last warmth of the afternoon sun and admire the mountainous landscape around me. It was worth it for this view.
I walked back under the boulder and sat on a stone bench which afforded similar views to the peak. A woman came up to me and asked if she could have a photo with me. I said of course as I was in a very happy mood now. The lady must have been in her 50ies and she began stroking my hair whispering beautiful in Chinese. It was very strange! I told her that she was beautiful, and we had an odd conversation about who was more beautiful. After that peculiar interaction, I sat on the stone bench for a long time. I set the camera on timer and stood by the edge. I finally had my perfect photo.
The silhouette of the mountain against the different shades of blue were wonderfully framed by a pink sky above. It was the view that painters have been trying to capture on the Yellow Mountains for thousands of years.
Around 5pm, after spending almost an hour and a half just gazing at the different views on Tianmen, I knew I had to start heading down. I walked across the bridge which was just as impressive and slightly less scary now there were no crowds to battle. It was a wonderful experience. Some other hikers also loved the serenity and we took it in turns to take photos of each other on the bridge.
I decided to walk down the steps rather than catch the cable car down the mountain. The steep stairs took their toll on my knees. There were many people almost running down the mountain. I made my way as quickly as my knees would allow. The sky turned the mountains pink until everything descended into darkness.
I reached the bottom when night had truly fallen.
Some more queues for the buses at the bottom then I was back at the hostel.
Was it worth a visit?
The Yellow Mountains were amazing. I think I may have chosen a particularly popular weekend due to the sunny weather but if you can, avoid visiting this national park at the weekend! I spoke with other travellers who had been on the mountain on the Friday and they told me it had been empty in comparison. The national park is trying to create more paths to ease congestion but due to the nature of the sheer mountains, this is a very costly and slow process.
I think it is good to be aware that because there are only a few concrete paths which thousands of tourists are forced down, it feels very busy. Make sure you wear good walking shoes for concrete on this hike.
I will admit that at one point I was questioning why I was spending my weekend queuing but when I reached Tiandu peak, I knew I had made the right decision to visit the Yellow Mountains during my final few weeks in Shanghai. It had been worth it to stand in the Yellow mountains and witness the colourful sky. I finally understood why artists and poets have been fascinated with Huangshan for centuries.
If I had had more time I would have loved to have visited some of the ancient towns in Anhui near Huangshan after my day of hiking. Yet I had had enough of battling the crowds at that point! Would you battle the crowds on Yellow Mountain? There are many incredible hikes in China and the Yellow Mountains is certainly one of the most memorable!