Sitting at a station on a train bound for Beijing, I’m travelling with Tony, he speaks Mandarin. We’ve just come back from Huangshan, Taoist holy mountain, as I ponder what befell us there, I begin to grin.
That first paragraph was meant to be sung. Kenny Rogers has a lot to answer for. Or should that be, a lot for which to answer?
So i’m in Shanghai at a frisbee tournament. One of the other players (Tony, whom you have already met) is also headed to Beijing. But once I tell him my plan to go climb Huangshan (holiest of the five Taoist holy mountains, and just 12 hours south by train) and not at all on the way to Beijing, he happily agrees.
Getting there is not all smooth riding. But who wants smoothness anyway? This isn’t peanut butter. This is third-world (but getting richer every day) travel.
It starts fairly sameish. A taxi to the station, a comfy-ish bed on a train for a long time, and we find ourselves in Tunshi. This is, of course, not the base camp town for the mountain. That requires a taxi ride. But before we can even begin to cope with that, we need to get some train tickets out of here for tomorrow or the next day.
The train station is quintessentially Chinese. Cavernous (if the people are so small, why must the ceilings be so high? It can hardly be to give room to expand), and echoey with just one staff member behind an enormous counter, protected (from what or whom is not clear) by bars and perspex whose other function is to make communication between customer and service provider impossible.
Fortunately, from the moment of our arrival and for almost every second that we spent in this little town, we were followed around by a small crowd of people. Unaccustomed to seeing white people, or white people who spoke Chinese, annoyed at tourist invasions, on the make, or on the prowl, it was never entirely clear. But everything we wanted to do (and particularly our transport options out of town) were a matter of enthusiastic, sometimes even vociferous, public debate. I got the impression that they felt that the reason we did not immediately do as they suggested was that we did not hear them. Rather than the truth which was that we did not understand them (Tony’s Mandarin not being yet attuned to comprehension of the utterances of many energetic Chinese all at once).
I say fortunately because a helpful man suddenly appeared (as they often seem to around here) and enquired if he could assist. 10 minutes later we had our train tickets out of town, and were sitting down at his restaurant (handily located on the main square) smelling dinner.
Things were a bit more difficult when we wanted toi grab a taxi to the next town (and the mountain). Arduous negotiations over small sums of money at one point led to Tony leaping into the driver’s seat of the van, locking the door, rolling up the windows and making as if to take the self-drive option.
But eventually we made a deal, and raced for 40 minutes on the backroads to another town, this one with a much higher ration of hotels to people, and far fewer rowdy hordes of people to follow us about the place.
Climbing the mountain was excellent fun. Walking up how ever many thousand steps (yes, there are steps from the bottom to the top) made me feel virtuous, particularly by comparison to the people who took the cable cars. But it also made me feel a little inadequate when I met the carriers who climbed the mountain two or three times each day, each time laden with loads so heavy and bulky that I would have struggled to move at all, let alone climb straight up for four to six hours. You could even pay these people to carry you in a sedan chair to the top. I hope it wasn’t cheaper than the cable car.
What it doesn’t tell you in the guide books, but what you can easily detect while lying in the damp bedding of your overpriced bunkroom listening to the snoring of your Chinese roommates, is that it rains a lot on the top of Huangshan. Like almost all the time. And even when it is not raining it is cloudy. Makes you wonder when they take the photos.
Nevertheless we leapt out of bed at dawn to see the light fade in through the clouds, and to listen to the maddening crowds of Chinese tourists disturbing the early morning vibe. We saw numerous mountain tops in amongst the cloud cover, and ocassionally it cleared momentarily to tease us with an amazing view or two.
We climbed Lotus Peak (the tallest one) in misty rain. Worth doing just to have done it, even though we could see nothing and our map was a little too basic to make us very confident about which way we were going. And we met clusters of non-Chinese tourists (a fairly rare breed) who were even more lost than we.
So wet were we, and so running close to the time for our train, that we took the cable car down. We jumped into a taxi, we explained where we were going, the driver got on her cellphone, and, after screeching around a few corners, we found ourselves pulling up beside a bus that has stopped on the side of the road. The taxi driver’s friend was waiting for us.
Forty minutes later we are back at our friendly train station, and ready to rock and roll on to Beijing. Which is where this whole story began.