Monday, 20 April 2015

My Solo China Trip: Huangshan Hike/Tangkou "Part III"

The hour long ride to the remote town of Tangkou was filled with curves, abrupt stops, and beautiful hillside farmland, and was preoccupied by my personal attempts to evoke generic banter between the driver and the 2 university students sharing the backseat with me. Unfortunately, the majority of my inquisitive attempts, were received with smiles and giggles as I was confident everything I was saying was not being comprehended.  The driver I so strategically chose for this leg of my trip was actually the only link we had for communication between all 4 of us.  Thankfully, the drive felt short, and before I knew it, we had arrived at our final destination...a random road side entrance?

 I looked around, not sure what the plan was from here.  I saw one road sign in both Chinese and English exhibiting the words "scenic access".  Based on my extensive research before the trip, I knew I needed to take a scenic bus shuttle to the entrance of Huangshan mountain, so I surrendered to the conclusion that I must be in the right area.

The two girls gathered their belongings and seemed content on the whole arrangement as they made their way up the road to the gate entrance.  I unfortunately did not have it so easy.   I somehow needed to convey to the driver I first needed to get to my hotel "Pineridge Lodge" to drop off my main luggage before heading up the mountain with my day pack for the night.  It took him a few moments to conceive my plans, but once he finally came around, he requested the hotel phone number as he needed the directions.  I eagerly gave it to him...anything to help me along here.

He looked confused as he sat there waiting for someone to answer.  He looked at me bewildered after concluding the very short conversion with what I could only assume was the owner of the hotel.  Closed!
NOTE: I should mention at this time that several days earlier, I received an email from stating they could not complete my reservation for unforeseen reasons.  There were two things going through my head at this, he was lying, so he did not have to drive around so much, or two, he was telling the truth, resulting in not being able to complete the transaction based on the place being closed.  Like so many other times throughout this trip, I was forced to put my full trust into this complete stranger.  I agreed to follow him to a hotel literally 1 block from the gate entrance.  If I was being swindled into something, at least this so called "friends hotel" was in a convenient location.

We walked into the hostel like hotel and were met by a young lady.  Oddly enough, she had this honest look to her that instantly eased my skeptical nature.  Her antiquated thick worn-out wool sweater, buck teeth under-bite, and frizzy hair in a bun, added to her trusting demeanor.  In less then 20 minutes, I was able to book the following night for 120 yuen (cheap), and also book the bus to Nanjing two days from now for 110 yuen (just like my book had said).  This was all facilitated by the cab driver as he was the only one who knew a lick of English as the lady behind the desk knew zip!

My complete faith in the cab driver and hotel lady was now officially solidified as I handed over my suitcase to her to store in the back for the night while I departed to hike the neighboring mountain.  I grabbed my backpack, ready to hunt out the ticket booth for the scenic bus shuttle, but to my pleasant surprise, my driver was not done helping me get to where I needed!  He escorted me all the way to a ticket counter, talked to the lady behind the window who again knew zero English, bridging the communication gap I would of struggled with.  Once all was concluded with ticket in hand, I shook the drivers hand, thanked him in Chinese (shey shey), and jumped into the bus at 8am, all while wishing I could of properly shown him my appreciation.    He was another random stranger going out of his way to help a foreign traveler…with no hands out for a tip…so refreshing!

The line up into Tangkou bus station for the scenic shuttle.  Notice the matching tour hats

The short 15 minute shuttle bus ride cost 17 yuen, and was packed full of local Chinese tourist groups…each flaunting their matching tour hats which categorized each into their respective group.  On the ride up, many were comparing their selfie poles, while others were comparing their $1000-$3000 camera lenses.  I was equipped with a cheap waterproof Nikon camera, but I guess I never was a hardcore photographer.

Once again, I found myself on a bus, not really sure on its destination.  Not the most flattering picture I must say

After passing a few waterfalls, and winding by some great vistas, (causing a few cheers from my fellow patrons) we pulled into a large parking lot with roughly 20 other buses.  We shuffled off in a hurry, only to be greeted by another 2 lines…one to get into the park by hiking up (210 yuen), and the other to get into the park with the assistance of a gondola.  I had read the hike up was hard, and exerted unnecessary energy…energy that was needed for the top, so I reluctantly lined up for the gondola which I knew wasn't going to be cheap.  I waited patiently, enjoying the opportunity to people watch, taking in the commotion all around me, until I noticed a familiar face.  It was the two girls from the ride up from Hongcun.  I waved in the direction of the other line they were in to catch their attention, and quickly caught it…I guess it wasn't hard when you're the only bald white guy in a sea of black hair haha.  They ran over with giggly faces to say hi.  They then hand gestured to me asking if I wanted to join them on the hike.  I normally would of said no, but company was always welcomed, and heck, what did I have to lose.  So I agreed!  The only problem was they were going to hike up to save money.  I changed my plans on the spot, paid the park entrance fee, and before you could say "Bobs your Uncle"…we were in the park, ready to hike the endless stairs that was reportedly estimated to take 3.5 hours to complete at a steady pace.

The conditions were not ideal.  Not only was it hot (maybe 20C), but the humidity was unexpected, and I began to sweat like a dog (yes I know dogs don't sweat), but kept my demeanor relaxed while I followed the two girls pace.  It was quicker then expected, but not long after, it slowed quite considerably.  I was well prepared with my micro fiber t-shirt, breathable pants, breathable back pack, and light weight running shoes.  On the contrary, everyone around me, including the two girls, dressed in anything from jeans, to slippers, to even high heels. It was to the point of laugh out loud funny.  Leather pants and designer dresses were also observed on the trail.
This is how the hotel receives all its supplies...hence the cost

It wasn't even an hour before my companions stared to look worst for the wear.  The humidity stared to catch up with everyone…even me.  The girls began to take short breaks, followed by longer breaks, followed by sit down resting.  I was recuperating quite quickly, and started to get a bit anxious.  I decided at this point, it was time to wave goodbye to my new friends, slip on the headphones, and power my way up.

The never-ending stairs

I ignored my elevated heartbeat, powering past dozens of fellow hikers struggling to find a pace that would work for them.  There were several moments when a few hikers would run past me smiling, only to be passed several minutes later as they laid flat on their back at a rest stop.  The stairs were relentless, never ending, and after an hour, my water was not cutting it, and I needed to re-energize.  Every kilometer, there were these snack stops with Red Bull and fruit.  I took this opportunity to grab a pricey cucumber (normal here, a first for me) and an energy drink.  I inhaled the much welcomed cucumber as bystanders stared in my direction.  One guy pointed at me and did an Arnold Schwarzenegger flex, laughing.  I took this opportunity to laugh it off, and continued on my way to my much anticipated destination…Xihai Hotel.

The much needed cucumber and Red Bull

They were all making fun of me, but apparently they did not want me to take pictures

Only 20 minutes later, I passed the gondola trail where other hikers were unloading, followed by Baiyun Hotel, and then quickly followed by several more trails forking off from the main path.  I now needed to pay close attention to the directions and numerous signs, as everything began to feel completely random.  15 minutes later, my hotel came into view…and it was only 11am…sweet.  I did the entire hike up in 2 hours; not bad!  I later talked to two Americans who also powered their way up, proud to inform me they did the hike in 2.5 hours.

Xihai Hotel exceeded my expectations as I approached the grand lit up marble check-in counter.  The lady was well versed in English which made the whole process that much more easier.  I was informed I was a bit early as my room still needed to be cleaned, but they would do everything in their power to get me in sooner then later.  I was completely cooperative knowing it was my fault for expecting a room at such an early time when normal check in is around 4pm.  I waited in the fancy waiting room looking out to the extremely foggy views just outside the hotel.  I was a bit disappointed to see the confining clouds dwarf all the potential views, and really hoped all the planning previously done to this point was not all in vain.
Xihai Hotel...exceeded expectations

I don't think 10 minutes passed before I was notified my room was ready.  I made my way up to the upgraded mountain view suite located in the new wing, and was relieved upon entering.  I was quite worried the $200 it cost me to stay on the mountain would be predictably bad as some have expressed on Trip Advisor, but this was NOT the case.  The room was large and clean.  The rain fall shower faucet and weigh scale I was accustomed to seeing in all previous hotels was welcomed, as were the 3-4 English TV channels. I think the most welcomed bonus I found in the room was the heated towel rack.  This allowed me to rinse and hang my stinky sweaty shirt to dry while I switched over to something a bit more comfortable.  I laid down for 20 minutes watching the first English channel I've seen in what felt like a decade, only to have a nagging guilty feeling build up in my subconscious.  I knew I was here to hike, and hike I must.  I peeled my weary body up off the bed and headed out to hike the quieter, yet much rewarding, West Grand Canyon.

My room, worth every penny

The clouds were still engulfing everything including the wet cement trail in front of me.  I had a bit of a jump to my step after leaving my soggy backpack in the room, and was eager to complete most of the West Canyon even though many online posters stated a full day was needed.   I was still clinging to the hope that maybe, maybe, the clouds would dissipate and reveal the wondrous scenery the mighty Yellow Mountains were known for.

Stuck in the clouds for the majority of the first day

This is what I was looking for!

Now and then, the mountains would appear out of no where

I passed a few groups taking photos of what I could only assume was misty fog.  I continued in search for the cliff hanging stairs I had studied back in Canada, as this was the ultimate goal.   I made my way down approximately 500 meters of stairs, knowing full well that what must go down, must come back up….and I was not looking forward to it.  The stairs were abnormally steep, almost to the point of vertical.  I would periodically peer into the clouds only to see a few faint shapes, what I could only assume were sheer cliffs.  All of a sudden, without any warning, a wind gust from the heavens pushed the lingering clouds down the valley for a split second, revealing the awe inspiring Yellow Mountains.  Words could not express these beautiful inspiring views that were finally exposed to me, and my camera could not capture the view I so desperately wanted to portray.  As the views disappeared on and off behind the passing clouds, I tried to take in as much as possible.  My resulting strategy was to hike a 100 meters for a new perspective, get another 5-10 second window of vistas, only to be drowned in clouds again, and then bolt off to the next vantage point.  Without even initially noticing it, I was standing on walkways hanging from 1000 meter cliffs, with only a few concreted re-bar to trust in.  It was quite surreal, and immensely enjoyed by myself.  After 2 hours of being unexpectedly impressed to the point of exclaiming several times "you've got to be kidding me", I decided to start the loop back to the hotel.
This picture shows the ingenuity on constructing this trail

My pictures just could not capture the feel that was present in this mountain range

lots of love locks on railings 
A rare view without clouds
Sure, lets put the trail here

It was only 4 pm, but I felt I had packed in a ton of sights, and was very keen on having a hot shower, a beer, and a quick lay down on the bed for an hour to take in some English TV before having a much needed dinner.

My Huangshan beer to finish off the day

The shower was genuinely enjoyed, but the same could not be said for my pricy 25 yuen Huangshan local beer.  China beer in general is very light and watery when compared to Canadian beer…but this label seemed even more so.  I sucked back the small can of beer and headed downstairs for dinner.  There were a lot of staff to assist the customers, but as usual in a 4-5 star hotel, there was always at least one on the floor who was the go-to guy for English.   The guy had an uncomfortable look on his face when I told him it would just be me for dinner.  I quickly understood why as I observed into the restaurant and noticed the large 10-12 person round family tables.  We stood there with a moment of awkward silence, broken only by the waiter recommending I join the only other table in the restaurant that had 2 similar white tourists like myself.   I nervously introduced myself to the two men, feeling like I had just invaded their personal space.  Conversation was a bit forced to begin with, but once the initial introductions were behind us, we were able to enjoy our overpriced meals with good company.  The two Californian men were your typical loud brash tourists, joking with the waiter expecting him to role with the jokes…he did not.  The food was extremely tasty, and once we were content the night had offered all it could, I paid, and concluded the evening with a couple of hardy handshakes, yearning for the soft bed waiting for me that was well earned. camera is crap!

Day 6

Morning came early…real early.  The sunrise was apparently a highlight in these parts and was not to be missed.  The resulting consequence was for me to hit the trail by 6am.  I headed east of the hotel out to the numerous, much talked about, sunrise points.  Many of the brave souls up to witness the sunrise with me conceded to the lower points at risk of over exerting themselves.  I of course wanted the best view possible, so I hiked all the way to "Lion Peak" and "Stone Monkey Gazing Over Sea" point…the highest I could find.  I plopped in my head phones and listened to the first song that came on…Chandelier by Sia.  It really resonated with the intensity that was happening all around me.  As the sun made its way up, I peered down into the valley at the clouds blowing through at an elevated speed, while also noticing the several other view points poking out along the forest canopy.  It was a surreal feeling that is really hard for me to put into words.  I never really got the absolute perfect picture, but the atmosphere at that time was worth the effort it took to get out of bed.

I really like this picture.  I would stand waiting for the clouds to break, while the entire time not knowing there was a peak there

After an hour or so, I was content I had witnessed as much as I could at that given time, so I sprinted back to the hotel for the much anticipated buffet breakfast.  It was 119 yuen, but I convinced myself I earned it.  I took a seat in the corner near a large table full of Americans from San Francisco (my eaves dropping was working overtime), and thoroughly enjoyed my final meal on the mountain.  I made sure I overindulged on coffee as I knew once I was back in town, it would come at a premium price.  Once I finished, I packed up and started to make my way down to the gondola.

That rock sitting on top of the ridge...thats "Stone Monkey Gazing over Sea"

It was still extremely early, and I knew I had all day in Tangkou once I reached the bottom, so I decided to explore and meander the eastern peaks.  I followed the crowds when I wasn't sure of my direction, and avoided them once I saw an opportunity to get a view without the hordes of tourists suffocating me.  I hit up several worthwhile viewing points, happy that I put in the added effort to see more, before making my way down on the Yungu gondola for 80 yuen (ouch).   This officially confirmed my day complete on the mountain.  
I left wanting more.

On my way down...not cheap, but a great new vantage point

After paying another 17 yuen to take the scenic bus back down, I walked over to my newly acquired hotel and checked in.  It was only 1pm at this point, so I had lots of time in Tangkou.  It would later come into fruition that I had too much time in this little town.

My room was cheap…and deservingly so.  It was dirty…so dirty to the point I never took my shoes off until I was officially in bed.  The floor was discussing, hair, stains, and cigarette burns littering the entire room.  Uncharacteristically, I took this in stride, took a deep breath, and headed out to see what this fine town could offer me….well, it appeared it wasn't much lol.

I walked with my headphones in, looking lost, having no where in particular to go.  I got lots of curious looks from the many local shops.  The temperature was abnormally hotter then normal, and I felt my head burning.  I decided to head into the largest fast food chain in the town…KFC.

The loud bustling restaurant was packed full of affluent teenage students indulging on greasy chicken.  I tried not to stir up too much attention, which was pretty much impossible.  I grabbed a weird looking chicken/shrimp sandwich and retreated to my chair to have some "me" time (I'm joking).  I sat back, not really having anywhere to go, when unexpectedly,  I again recognized two familiar faces looking for a table.    Shockingly, it was the two girls I met earlier.  They had met a guy from Taiwan on the mountain who was very outgoing, knowing a tad more English then the other two.  He was immediately curious on every aspect about me.  Questions rained down on me as I tried to keep up with his inquisitive nature. He then looked through my camera while the 2 girls giggled to themselves, something I had become accustomed to.  He informed me the two girls were just finishing up in University, taking a Community degree…something I was unfamiliar with.  Still going through my camera, the picture with my mountain top hotel room intrigued him.  He was in shock learning it was my accommodations for the night.  He then asked "Did you win a lottery?"  I embarrassingly tried to explain to him why I stayed there with no success.  Not quite satisfied with my answer, he continued to shuffle through my pictures, concluding with a concerned look on his face.  In a somber voice, he stated the obvious observation... "You have all these pictures of you by yourself".  I said "yeah, I'm traveling solo".  He looked at me with a depressed look and without hesitation said "You must be so lonely".  I laughed not able to catch myself on his sincerity.  I reassured him I was fine and I took the camera back.

The tone was immediately changed when he spoke to the girls in Chinese for a few minutes, paused, and with a guilty look on his face asked "Do you like Chinese girls".  Now…I am not the smoothest guy by any means, so instead of saying the obvious response "Of course", I preceded by saying "I like all girls in this world". I am such a moron!

We concluded our conversation, and after a brief farewell, we went our separate ways.

I was still bored, which forced me to continue walking randomly around town till the sun disappeared.  I took this opportunity to head to bed for another early night.  I was ready to take on tomorrows excursion (or so I thought!)...first by bus to Nanjing, and then from there by bullet train to Beijing…

WATCH MY SHORT VIDEO:)…its a bit lame, I know   

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