Mountain High, Mountain Low

Owyang is a writer who lives in Carlsbad

"Meiyou, meiyou." Repeating the word that functions as an all-purpose negative, the tall, lanky man in worn canvas shoes, pants rolled up to his knees, shook his head, baring his nicotine-stained teeth in a grin. He was repeating the bad news for us, good news (he thought) for him: The cable cars up the mountain were not running today; we would have to walk, and surely we would need a porter-guide.

We probably looked like easy pickings: my aunt, Frances Chang, and her friend, Charles Li, both in their sprightly 60s, and me, much younger, all of us Chinese, but "foreign" in our sturdy brand-name hiking boots and slightly beleaguered demeanor.

I was halfway through a four-month trip through China and had come here, to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), because it has always been a must-see for Chinese, local or overseas, young or old. Climb Huangshan, the saying goes, and you'll not want to climb another mountain.

Unlike the other fabled mountains in China, Huangshan has no religious significance; it has been a point of pilgrimage for 1,200 years simply because it is beautiful, a series of plateaus and peaks--72 of them, the highest 6,000 feet--traversed by paved paths and stairs cut into the rock, with soul-stirring vistas at every turn. Or so they say.

What they didn't tell us about was the flip side of a destination that attracts thousands of visitors every year (most of them Chinese, mostly in summer): the locals' taking advantage of the tourists.

From the comfort of Shanghai, where I'd met up with Frances and Charles, our initial plans for exploring Huangshan had seemed sensible: We would take the cable car up the front of the mountain (the easy, eastern route, only a 4 1/2-mile ascent), stay overnight at the summit, join the tourist throngs in the ritual of seeing the sun rise, then meander back down.

"It's a nice day for a climb," our would-be guide repeated. "And wouldn't you like some porters to carry your bags and point out the sights along the way, Miss?" We hadn't brought much, just one backpack each. How hard could this be? We politely declined and got out our map.

It was then that we realized we were nowhere near the eastern route up. The minibus from Tangkou (the main village at the base of Huangshan) had deposited us at the back of the mountain, at the foot of the western steps.

Our persistent porter, two others in tow now, pressed forward: "Oh, the front of the mountain is half an hour away by bus. But there's no buses going that way. Anyway, the cable car isn't running."

We decided to start climbing the route in front of us. As we wound our way up the first hill through clusters of pine trees, there were few climbers but plenty of hardy porters. Although the day was cold and damp, they were stripped to the waist, their gleaming backs bulging with the effort of shouldering baskets of fresh vegetables or boxes of bottled water suspended on wooden poles. Everything that is needed up the mountain has to be toted like this.

Our own three stooges were following us. They knew that something had to give. It turned out to be our lungs. Twenty minutes into our climb, Charles turned to the leader. "How much to carry the bags?" "Six yuan per kilogram [$1.50 per pound]. We weigh them at the halfway mark." By Western standards, it was a reasonable price. By local standards, we were being taken to the cleaners. And in fine style too: Soon, Frances and Charles rented a jiaozi (sedan chair) for 200 yuan (about $24).

By then, the steps, though paved and even, had grown staggeringly steep. Perhaps it was our sheer desperation to breathe that temporarily separated us from our common sense. When it came time to pay, we cursed our inexplicable stupidity in not bargaining and our naivete in assuming that the porters would be fair with their calculations.

As Frances and Charles took turns being carried in the jiaozi, emperor style, I wheezed up the wretched steps assisted only by my cheap walking stick. Under several layers of clothing meant to ward off the damp chill, I was sweating and miserable. True to their word, the porters pointed out sights along the way, but all I could fixate on was my next breath, the next rest stop.

At the misnamed Mid-Level Temple, about one-third of the way up, the porters demanded more money, and we agreed, desperate to make it to the real midpoint, where there was a hotel. When we finally arrived at the Jade Screen Tower Hotel two hours after setting off, we watched in dismay as the happy porters totaled up the weight of the bags, which had miraculously grown heavier, and then cheerfully relieved us of 500 yuan ($60).

The Chinese word zhan means to cut, to chop or, more ominously, to behead, but in the local vernacular, a person who has been "chopped" is one who has been seriously bilked of money. And zhan-ed we were, twice over: Other hotels were a good two hours' climb away, so we were stuck with what turned out to be overpriced and unfriendly lodgings.

After lunch--one of those silent occasions when no one wanted to admit out loud that the trip so far was looking like a disaster--I decided that I simply had to redeem something for myself. While Frances and Charles rested, I set out for Huangshan's third-highest peak, the forbidding Tiandufeng (Heavenly Capital Peak), which we had passed up earlier in our eagerness to arrive somewhere, anywhere.

From afar, Tiandufeng looked ominous, a series of vertical rocks hewn together into a smooth face. An exposed steep stairway led upward, with only a thick, rusty knee-level chain at the outside edge. Scattered climbers clutched at the chain, knees bent at an awkward angle, men in patent leather shoes, women in ankle-high nylons and high heels. Out of nowhere, a man barreled down the steps, firing off a litany of instructions into his cellular phone.

One of the lessons of climbing, of course, is that the higher you climb, the greater the reward--the reward of solitude, blessed and rare in China. I didn't feel crowded by other climbers at Tiandufeng's 5,500-foot summit because up there, there weren't any. There were only rocks coated in fine brown sand, a lone pine standing tall against all odds, a small bunch of white daisies piggybacking on a large bald rock, nature in her balance. And in the distance, the mysterious hazy outlines of graceful, undulating peaks.

Not even the most picturesque calendar art prepared me for the beauty before me. As I drank in the view, the morning's fiasco vanished. The touts, the scam artists, the laborers with their bowed backs all fell away. Occasionally, a loud laugh or yell floated up from somewhere below, but it was not real. In the west, the setting sun refused to go gently, struggling to blaze a path through layers of clouds. Where the trail ended, the rusty chain bulged with countless lockets carved with the names of sweethearts who had braved this climb together in proof and hope of eternal love. The lockets and the engraving are hawked at every turn on the lower path; I let that image slip away too.

My companions didn't make it up for sunrise the next day. I stood in the cold predawn mist and saw nothing, the view on this side of Huangshan obstructed by the eastern peaks.

As we resumed our journey later in the morning, porters approached us, snickering this time. No doubt the story of the three dupes had made the rounds. Poorer but wiser, we negotiated a fixed sum to have our bags carried to the main summit.

Unlike the previous day's hike, which was a steep ascent, this one was broken up into short ascents, long plateaus and even occasional descents into pleasant valleys. Around almost every corner we encountered bizarrely shaped rocks--one looking like a turtle, another a fish. One gargantuan boulder standing precariously on its tip is known descriptively as the Rock That Flew From Afar.

This route to the highest viewpoint was thick with climbers coming up from the east. We met Chinese families, a tour group from Singapore, another from Japan, and one elderly Caucasian couple being led by a young Chinese woman.

About a mile from the main summit, itself a plateau spanning several miles, we lunched near the Xihai Hotel, an expensive joint-venture chalet designed by Swedes, where guests can admire the gorgeous sunsets without crowds.

At the high point, the Beihai Hotel is touted for its proximity to the unobstructed sunrise lookout. We had heard that on most mornings, the clouds shrouding the lower peaks actually obscure the rising sun, but even then it is a breathtaking sight when the first faint light touches the nearest cloud and spills over onto the others in succession.

Having unwittingly reversed the order in which most people climb Huangshan, we saw near the end of our circuit Shixin Feng (Beginning to Believe Peak), where we could look down into a valley of dark woods and silvery rivers. A gorgeous sight, but it was a little late in our journey to make Huangshan enthusiasts of us, eager as my companions were to get down the mountain. And I didn't need this pretty view to convince me; all the irritations and frustrations notwithstanding, I had become a believer the day before in my pilgrimage up Tiandufeng.

It was late afternoon, and dark clouds were rolling in when we finally reached the cable car terminus. After waiting for almost an hour in damp, cramped and smoky queues, we squeezed onto a cable car and began the five-minute descent. Outside the window, needles of rain hurtled past at a 45-degree angle. As we glided down, row after row of pine trees rose above us. Then, nothing. A blanket of dense white fog had enveloped us.

Rocks, pines, fog, mist, rain--the combination lulled me into a reverie. And then I heard a telephone ring. The man next to me, alcohol on his breath, whipped out his cell phone and began to yell into it. There was no escaping today's China, not even in the timeless beauty of Huangshan.

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GUIDEBOOK: Yellow Mountain

Getting there: Huangshan is in east-central China, off the typical tourist path for Westerners, but it can be reached fairly easily from Shanghai. Reservations should be made at least one month in advance for lodging during summer, the peak season; entry to Huangshan is closed in winter.

China Eastern Airlines has three nonstop flights a week from LAX to Shanghai, starting at $1,350 round trip. Connecting service, LAX to Shanghai, is offered by United, Asiana, Japan and China Southern airlines, with restricted round-trip fares starting at $1,047.

China Eastern flies from Shanghai to the provincial town of Tunxi (also called Huangshan Shi), $111 round trip. It's a 1 1/2-hour bus ride from Tunxi to Tangkou, outside Huangshan Gate. Tangkou has numerous hotels and restaurants and other services for mountain visitors.

I'd advise people who do not speak Chinese to leave Huangshan arrangements to their hotel concierges in Shanghai or Beijing.

Where to stay: On the mountain, the no-frills Beihai Hotel, tel. 011-86-559-556-2558, is closest to the summit. It charges the equivalent of $100 for a double with bath. The Scandinavian-modern Xihai Hotel, tel. 011-86-559-556-2132, is popular with tour groups. Doubles with bath start at $120. Both hotels serve Western and Chinese food, but their staff's English is minimal.

In Tangku, the Free and Unfettered (Xiaoyao) Hotel, tel. 011-86-559-556-2571,is recommended as being friendly to English speakers. The rate quoted in a phone call from the U.S. was $200, almost twice that of good hotels on the mountain.

For more information: China National Tourist Office, 333 W. Broadway, Suite 201, Glendale, CA 91204; tel. (818) 545-7505, fax (818) 545-7506. E-mail chinanto@aol.com.

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