HUANG SHAN

The next morning I have to get to the the Shenzhen West train station to catch the K26 train to Huang Shan (the Yellow Mountain). That's when I realize how large Shenzhen is. The journey from the centre to the West Train Station takes almost two hours spent hopping on and off a metro train and 3 buses. It's my first experience with the Chinese railways and I am curious because the train is going to be the main means of transport in my tour.

I learn that people usually arrive at the train station hours ahead of the departure time, and they "camp" there waiting for the train. The trains are always crowded: my train starts its journey from Shenzhen, yet it is complete when it leaves![1] One thing I do not understand: why do all the people queue up in advance (queue is probably not the right term here, heap seems more appropriate ) if the seats are already assigned and written on the ticket?

I somehow manage to get on and I look around: the coaches are good and the crew is reliable and efficient - something I will experience in all my subsequent journeys by train. Noone among the personnel speaks English, unfortunately, but this does not come to me as a surprise. I take advantage of the daylight to look at the landscape from the train. The journey starts from the Guangdong province, goes through the Fujian and Jiangxi provinces and is going to arrive in Tunxi in the Anhui province. Some of the towns along the journey could have been interesting destinations, for example Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital. Surprisingly, the landscape is inaccessible and sparsely inhabited. This makes me wonder: where do the 1.3 billion Chinese live, if not even the South-East of China is flat and hospitable? It's a well-known fact that the North, the West and the South-West of the country, hosting deserts, sky-high plateaus and mountains, is low-density; nonetheless, Chinese have to live somewhere in China, haven't they?

Chinese peasants seem to have been able to leverage each and every square inch of their land for farming: in the countless tiny valleys run through by streams you can see the bottom of those streams conveniently flattened, terraced and grown with rice: the flood of the "tamed" stream does the job. Awesome!!

The train gets to Tunxi early in the morning, allowing me just enough time to visit the Old Town before taking a bus for Tangkou, the village at the feet of Huang Shan. The Old Town, in fact, means just Lao Jie, a renovated street of shops in Huizhou architecture, very typical of this area:

The street gets to the Xin'an river, where some women are washing:

something I will see again and again in the wells, streams, rivers, lakes and ponds of Cina. While coming back from the river to the station

I stop by a tea shop. As soon as I show curiosity for the tea, the girl in the shop "captures" me and offers me all kind of tea tastings. At that point how can I go away without buying anything? Out of the different tastings, I show the one I liked most and I buy it. It's very expensive and, due to the language barrier, I am not even sure what I exactly bought. Obviously it is green tea, the tea which is drunk in China.
»Tea in China has been an institution for ages (that, by the way, explains the English idiom "for all the tea in China"). It is fairly common to see the Chinese go around with tea leaves in a glass vacuum flask, which they refill with hot water from time to time and drink during the day. Bus drivers, people in the city parks, retailers, all have it. Then there are tea-houses such as this one in Shanghai:

where you shall find a great deal of different teas, broken down into place of origin, flavor (jasmine and other flowers are common) and other criteria.

I originally planned to go to Huang Shan with the bus but I meet a female taxi driver out of the train station who can offer me the journey at a much discounted fare because she is going there anyway to bring back to Tunxi a couple of Americans whom she carried there the day before. That's great, I think, the woman speaks a reasonable English and that can be helpful. Moreover, it is a great chance to speak with a Chinese and to learn something.
Once on board I notice the safety belt. That's good, I think, but as I try to fasten it I realize that the coupling device is missing. The driver stares at me suspiciously and says: "No need for it, you know, I drive slowly". The reasoning seems bizarre, even more so when I realize that she doesn't drive slowly at all.
On the way I notice photovoltaic cells on street-lamps. During the day they capture the sun energy and turn it into electric energy for use during the night to power the lamps. It comes as a surprise to me to see such a technology here, whereas I had never seen it before in any part of the "developed" world. I wonder whether I am really in China, a country I imagined relatively underdeveloped and full of chimneys. I am learning quickly that this is the country of contrasts, where high-technology peacefully coexists with ancient habits and behaviors.

I refresh myself with a good lunch at Mr. Hu's in Tangkou. It's my first Chinese meal and I appreciate it - and it was very much needed: as good as instant noodles[2] may be, you get tired of them sooner or later . Under the effect of a masochistic transport I am persuaded to start the ascent on foot from the very bottom, so as to pass by the Nine Dragons Waterfall . No doubt this waterfall is a natural wonder in spring, when it gathers the rain and, possibly, the melting snow; on September 11, however, this is what it looks like:

Who among you is particularly good-sighted will have noticed a dim water streamlet falling down the rocks: that's the Nine Dragons Waterfall. Had it been given a less high-sounding name such as "The Lame Lizard Waterfall", I wouldn't have had such expectations . My disappointment is alleviated by the lush nature on the way, especially bamboo forests which fill up the mountain sides:

Along the way a short man suddenly springs out of nowhere and checks my ticket. He shows me a tree above us and says something in Chinese, which obviously I do not understand. He keeps repeating it several times until I take a picture of it with my camera. I still have no idea why that tree is so important but in any case here it is:

»During the ascent from the east trail I run into carriers:

This surprises me because there is a cable-car which takes 10 minutes to go up the mountain, whereas the journey on foot takes approximately 2 hours. So what's the benefit of carrying goods on foot? It's a matter of cost, I learn: the cable-car ticket costs 65 Yuan (~6 Euros). For our mentality it is difficult to understand that they do such a long and tiring journey on foot "only" to save 65 Yuan. Why not using the cable car in off-peak hours (in the evening, for example), at a much reduced cost? No way: goods are carried manually. Something I intend to speak about with local people as soon as I have the chance. Ah, look at the stick used by the man to carry the goods: it is made from bamboo. Just one of the many examples of usage of this wonderful grass in China. There are many others, for example scaffolding, as you can see in this picture taken in Old Shanghai:

There is also a bearer service for people who begin their journey on foot but later realize that they cannot manage to complete it. It must be a painstaking effort, especially if the carried person is a heavy-weight (rare for Chinese passengers, very common for American passengers). Here is a bearer enjoying a well-deserved rest:

After a long walk I get to the top just in time to enjoy some amazing views:

and to see the sunset:

We sleep on top in a dormroom shared with other Chinese tourists. At 3:30 in the morning they get up very enthusiastic and make a bit of noise (ok, a lot of clamour). I wake up a bit annoyed (ok, very angry), I look at them with an inquiring stare and, before I am even able to ask anything, one of them says "The sun rises"[3]. Now, I am sure that at the end of June / beginning of July the sun rises so early, but why get up at 3:30 and wake up everyone else in the room on September 12, when the sun does not rise earlier than 5:30-6:00? Not much I can do about it though: I go back to sleep until 7:00, thus disregarding the dawn, and I get up ready for the "West Trail". And the West Trail will turn out to be one of the most beautiful experiences in my whole journey: you can see 1000-metres high granite blocks towering out of deep gorges. The pathway carved into the rocks is amazing with countless steps (you'll have to sharpen your eye in order to see the steps in the video):

The steps go through inaccessible passages, making them relatively easy for walkers:

Even if I am used to beautiful mountain landscapes (I don't live far from the Alps), I consider Huangshan an absolute natural wonder:

On my way back on the trail, a snake falls from a tree right in front of me. I was not looking, so I don't realize about that, but a girl who happened to be walking near me sees it and utters a deafening cry - at this point I see it too. The poor snake runs aside and disappears in the vegetation, probably terrified by the girl's screams. I do not know whether it was a poisonous snake, it was green, a little more than one metre long and not particularly thick. It may still be running away .

  1. ^As a consequence, it is nearly impossible to find a seat on a train if you get on at an intermediate station.
  2. ^Instant Noodles is by far the most popular food in China for quick meals, for example during journeys on trains or buses, or while visiting scenic areas and attractions. In many places, including trains, you'll find hot water dispensers.
  3. ^The sunrise from Huangshan is breathtaking, so it is very common for tourists to wake up in time to see it.