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July 25, 2011

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Huangshan stairway to heaven

ALL the poets, painters and ancient travelers were right: All the cliches are true. Immortal Yellow Mountain spoils you for any other mountain, as Liam Singleton discovers.

Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, is a paradise shrouded in mystery. Once uncovered it reveals a pointed landscape of wonder that has inspired people from all corners of the world. Its beauty has resulted in an almost ethereal reputation, rather fitting as it can rarely be fully perceived since clouds veil her untold peaks, as I was to discover.

Xu Xiake, a traveler from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), commented, "You will find viewing another mountain no longer worthy after you visit the 'Five Sacred Mountains' (Taishan in the east in Shandong Province, Huashan in the west in Shaanxi Province, Songshan in the center in Henan Province, Hengshan in the south in Hunan Province and another Hengshan in the north in Shanxi Province). Nor will you find viewing the 'Five Sacred Mountains' worthy after you visit Huangshan."

As it is an intensely spiritual site, past generations have claimed this mountain can bestow wisdom, tranquillity, even immortality. A proud and unmoving feature on China's ever-changing face, it is covered with temples and pavilions, every peak honored, celebrated and revered. It remains one of China's top tourist spots, and for good reason.

The peace and veneration that comes from wandering across timeless mountains cleanse the soul and bestow a sense of humility, a rare feeling when for those living in the plenitude of China's booming East coast.

So what to expect of Huangshan? Has it succumbed to the terrible fate of commercialization and exploitation that has ravaged so many of China's scenic landmarks? Or does it stand unaltered and defiant?

As I approached the distinctive granite rock formations of Anhui Province, the clouds parted to give false hope. At the ticket booth entrance to the mountain (one wonders what the ancients would have thought of such restrictions, especially considering the exorbitant price tag) coaches begin the winding ascent, taking sharp corners over perilous drops. A few moments into the journey and the clouds smother the view, I hope not for the last time.

Climbing usually takes four hours, or you can take the cable car to the top.

The mountain pines wriggle their branches: "There are those that flicker and wave like delicate feather canopies, and those that writhe like powerful flood dragons." So warns the 17th-century poet, traveler and official Qian Qianyi, in his "Record of Travels on Yellow Mountain."

Off the bus, through another checkpoint, and the trek begins. The stone path is one long staircase reaching up almost two kilometers. The pines crowd around, whisking the clouds to obstruct glimpses of the monolithic cliff faces, the auburn stone occasionally broken by a pioneering pine that has nestled in a crack in the rock.

A remarkable scene fades out, the steps remain. Four hours in, muscles are burning and there's a steamy aura in the dank air of the hallowed forest. Porters carrying goods for the hotels on the summit stream past, callous loads on bamboo sticks rubbing backs raw; a pig's carcass, huge sacks of coconuts and watermelons, and (bizarrely) a bench.

Porters line the paths with bamboo sedan chairs, offering to carry any stragglers who balk at the endless stairway. The higher you get, the steeper the fee. One portly fellow succumbed to the temptation of a ride and sat posturing a little anxiously as the porters squirmed under his bulk on the severe terrain. One dewy step and all could be lost.

The peaks were getting closer, alas, the cloud was billowing denser. Thousands of steps, sore joints and sodden clothes, yet no peaks. One "could never make out more than one zhang (3.3 meters) from his face," quipped Qian an age ago.

Reaching the summit, I was overjoyed, and felt a glowing sense of achievement. Yet I was denied the views. There was no petulant Immortal Throwing the Desk Peak, or teasing Above the Clouds Peak, and the Beginning-to-Believe Peak was beyond my grasp as I pondered my folly at not paying respects at the Cloud Dispersing Pavilion.

Standing atop Lotus Peak, at a crowning 1,864 meters, only my imagination filled the gray void. But I was not disenchanted. The challenge and the difficulties overcome is part of the enjoyment, but they also exposed our human frailties - I was reminded that no person can conquer a mountain, instead we may sometimes scale one, but we will always be subject to its whim.

Descending the mountain, I felt exhausted but elated. Despite missing out on one of the undoubted wonders of the world, I was uplifted.

The mountain had managed to maintain its mystic charm despite the checkpoints, food stalls, and (tragically) litter. Straying off the beaten track is unauthorized and challenging, yet you can still feel lost as you weave between misty interlocking peaks.

Looking up the clouds part and the sun seeps through; a final jest, one last tantalizing view to cherish on the return to the smoky city and our own dissolved concrete peaks.

Xu Xiake was right - Huangshan is worthy, if a little shy at times.


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