ultramarinus – beyond the sea

WEST SEA CANYON (西海大峡谷), HUANGSHAN (黃山), Anhui, China

Peculiar granite peaks, ancient pine trees, and the majestic sea of clouds, Huangshan (黄山) is considered by many as the most picturesque mountain range in China.  Throughout history, the scenery of Huangshan has long been a popular subject for Chinese literature and paintings.  What so special about Huangshan is its frequent foggy days during which the entire summit area is concealed behind moving mist, revealing only small fragments of its rocky silhouette at certain moments.  This mysterious scenery has become a major inspiration for the pursuit of yi jing (意境).  Yi jing refers to a way to see beauty through poetic revelation.  The pursuit of yi jing is common in Chinese artwork and poetry.  Artists or poets often find ways to express yi jing in their work through abstract depiction or selectively not showing something in order to convey the hidden beauty of the whole picture.  To put it in other words, yi jing is about conveying the essence of something without depicting it fully, just like the scenery of Huangshan, whose real beauty is often hidden from view.

At 1,864m, Lotus Peak (蓮花峰) is already the tallest peak in Huangshan.  While the height of 1,864m is hardly the tallest mountain in China, the granite peaks shaded first by an ancient sea and then retreating glaciers had inspired ancient poets and painters and modern photographers and movie directors (James Cameron cited Huangshan as a major inspiration for 2009’s Avatar).  With its unique scenery and endemic pine trees, in 1990 Huangshan was enlisted on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.  Today Huangshan is a top tourist destination in China.  At the summit area there are several hotels and guesthouses, cable car services at four different locations, and extensive paved trails crisscrossing the famous peaks and scenic lookouts, capturing the imagination and hearts of visitors from dynastic era to the contemporary.

At around 6am, we left the youth hostel at Tunxi’s Laojie and hopped on a tourist bus heading to Tangkou (湯口), the base town at the south entrance of Huangshan’s scenic area.  The bus journey took about 1.5 hour.  At Tangkou, we got to transfer onto a shuttle bus designated for a specific cable car station; but beforehand, we had to decide which path to take. There were a few options to climb to the summit area of Huangshan, either by cable car or by half-day hike.  Since we preferred to spend more time at the summit so we decided to take the cable car.  There are two cable car stations accessible by shuttle bus from Tangkou, the Yungu (雲谷) and the Yuping (玉屏).  We picked the Yungu cable car for its close proximity to our hotel Xihai Hotel (西海飯店) at the summit area.  The cable car journey only took about ten minutes.  It was drizzling when we arrived the submit area.  In light rain, we found our way to the hotel in light rain, checked in, dropped off our bags, and headed out again to the trail head of West Sea Canyon.

The summit area of Huangshan host a series of hiking trails.  The area is large enough to keep any visitor busy for at least two days.  Given the unpredictable weather of Huangshan (over 200 rainy days per year), staying a night on the summit area of Huangshan is the minimum.  Most local visitors and tour groups favour the Yuping scenic area, where the Welcome Pine (迎客松), Heavenly Capital Peak (天都峰) and Lotus Flower Peak (莲花峰) are located.  We opted for the less crowded West Sea Canyon (西海大峡谷), where a narrow cliff-side footpath zigzagging its way down the steep canyon.  Despite the rain, the cliff-side footpath down the canyon was manageable.  Just as we started our descend, the mist suddenly came and concealed much of the mountain scenery.  The famous mist and sea of clouds prevailed.  Occasional moments when the granite peaks emerged from the clearing mist were purely magical.  We took our time finding our way surefootedly down the steep steps until we reached a pavilion at the canyon’s bottom.  We stopped several times along the way watching the moving mist and photographing the picturesque Huangshan scenery as if meandering through a mysterious Chinese painting.

At the bottom of West Sea Canyon, we took the new West Sea Canyon Funicular back up to the summit area.  The rain got heavier and the visibility got worsen by the time we returned to the submit.  We hiked across the west side of the summit area, passed by the Flying Rock (飛來石) and Bright Summit Peak (光明頂) before returning to the Xihai Hotel.  It was rainy and foggy all the way.  By the time we arrived at the hotel, we were soaking wet.  At the hotel entrance deck, we could hardly see beyond a few meters in the fog.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first glimpse of West Sea’s scenery as we were heading to the trail head of West Sea Canyon from the Xihai Hotel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAExpression of love is universal. Huangshan is also a popular place for lovers leaving their love padlocks onto the fences as a manifesto of love.

3Mountain scenery varies in different seasons, weather and time of day.  At Huangshan, it was all about the mysterious scenery in the mist.

4The Chinese named this granite formation, “the Flower Blooming on a Brush Tip” (夢筆生花).  It is one of the most popular views at the North Sea area.

5Looking down to the West Sea Canyon, the mist was gathering at the valley.

6We were amazed by the engineering of the extensive cliff-side footpath with stone steps held by horizontal supports attached to the rock cliffs of the mountain.

7Mysterious mountain view of the West Sea Canyon.

8Visibility was low and everyone was paying extra attention on the trail.

9The sea of clouds at the West Sea Canyon.

10The pine trees and the winding footpath attached to the sheer cliff.

11This picture was taking when we paused and took a break at the mid level of the West Sea Canyon. We were enchanted by the changing mist in front of us.  We patiently waited for the magical moments when the granite mountain emerged from the mist for a few seconds.

12Embraced by the mighty peaks of Huangshan, we cherished the moments when we were alone on the trail.

13We marveled at the pine trees growing from tiny cracks in the rocks. Before we often saw pine trees being depicted in strange gestures in Chinese paintings.  Now we finally saw the real thing and realized where their inspiration originated.

14Changing scenery of the mist-encased granite mountains.

15Approaching the bottom of the West Sea Canyon.

16Before the West Sea Valley funicular came in service in 2013, the West Sea Canyon trail was like a secret paradise for individual travelers who wanted to seek moment of tranquility away from the horrendous crowds in the summit area. We had mixed feelings for the new funicular.  We cheered for its convenience (without doing the return climb via a treacherous cliff-side path and thus saving 2.5 hours of time) but we feared that the West Sea Canyon would eventually lose its serenity.  During our visit, we opted for the funicular to save us from the knee and thigh-killing return climb.

* * *

Read other posts on 2015 Anhui and Hangzhou
1. History, Scenery, Architecture, 5-day tour of Anhui and Hangzhou, China
2. Laojie (Old Street), Tunxi, China
3. Hongcun, Anhui, China
4. Xidi, Anhui, China
5. West Sea Canyon, Huangshan, Anhui, China
6. From Monkey Watching the Sea to Welcome Pine, Huangshan, Anhui, China
7. Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China
8. Folk Art Museum, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China

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