Thirty six strange peaks, Immortals with black topknots. Morning sun strikes the tree tops, Here in this sky mountain world. Chinese people, raise your faces! For a thousand years cranes come and go. Far off I spy a firewood gatherer, Plucking sticks from stone crevices.
There are many reasons to visit Huang Shan. Chief among them—for me, at least—is this: the opportunity to emulate one of ancient China's booziest and most famous poets, Li Bai (few have made drinking alone sound so romantic). Surely every one of us has had a moment not unlike the one recounted above, standing somewhere majestic, observing the world, thinking to ourselves thoughts of great insight and wisdom.
These are our more poetic moments, times when we can stand shoulder to shoulder with the great scribes of history and consider ourselves sages. These are the times when we tell ourselves that change is coming, that a new day is dawning, that we'll eat more salad, run more often, call our mothers every day, appreciate the sunshine, remember to smile. That we'll see a new era ushered in during our lifetimes. That we are witnesses to history, both our own and one of greater import and significance.
Huang Shan, in Anhui Province, has surely seen more than its fair share of these moments. That is simply because the Huang Shan mountain range is a beautiful place, the kind of place that inspires all who travel there. Heavy cloaks of fog drape the shoulders of some of the most iconic peaks in China, and the sunrises have been renowned—quite literally—for centuries.
The Huang Shan of today is certainly not the isolated mountain range of 1,300 years ago, where Li Bai stood on the peaks and composed lines that would endure for more than a millenia. But while the once secluded region is now dotted with hotels, a chairlift for transporting the less athletically inclined visitors up the mountain and other examples of the shrapnel that accompanies the tourism-mortars being so carelessly lobbed across China, the landscape remains no less magnificent.
There are scores of peaks to be mounted and conquered, and huge expanses of nature to explore, but there are a few locations worth noting: Celestial Capital Peak, Bright Summit Peak and Lotus Flower Peak. And of course there is the Huang Shan Summit, where the Eastern Steps meet the Western Steps, and trails meander around from breathtaking view to breathtaking view. It is from this point where the two Seas of Clouds—so named because the clouds so frequently settle below the peaks and fill the valleys like bodies of water—are best viewed.
But be warned: though the setting in these popular locations will surely be calmly awe-inspiring, the crowds will no doubt be less so, particularly if you find yourself vacationing during a Chinese national holiday. For the heartier traveler, one easy solution to avoid the masses is to go in the winter, when the peaks, twisting pine trees and valleys are covered in soft pillows of snow, and the hordes stay far away from the beautiful, icy chill of a winter's day outdoors.
Huang Shan is an easy weekend trip from Shanghai. The bus ride from Shanghai is about five hours from the Shanghai South Bus Station (Shànghǎi Nán Zhàn, 上海南站; 399 Lǎohùmǐn Lù, 老沪闵路399号); tickets are RMB 150), and there are many daily flights to Huang Shan. Once you're there, it's pretty easy to get around, with an array of buses and cabs catering to the tourists; so you can definitely fly by the seat of your pants, planning wise, especially if you've got some Mandarin skills. But if you're the type of traveler to whom the idea of winging it doesn't sound appealing, Ctrip's private Huang Shan tours are a good bet, with transportation and guidance provided (inspiration not included).