Huangshan – the Most Beautiful Mountain in China
With rapid modernisation over the last 30 years, for most people a holiday to China brings to mind futuristic skyscrapers, enormous shopping centres, countless restaurants, dazzling fashion and large crowds in the commercial cities such as Shanghai and Guang Zhou. Measured as the world’s 3rd largest, China is in fact one of the most biodiverse countries outside of the tropics. Its vastness and diversity endow the landscape with some of the most breathtaking natural scenery on earth.
Among the countless natural wonders, there are many stunning mountain ranges in China, each one of them with different characters, history and stories. Huangshan National Park (黄山, also called Yellow Mountains – Huang is yellow and Shan means mountain in Chinese) is arguably the most spectacular of them all, a popular subject for Chinese literature, poetry, paintings and photography.
The Huangshan National Park, a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, is located in the south of the Anhui province (approximately 672km to the south east of Shanghai) covering a core area of 160.6 square kilometres with 72 peaks. The tallest, Lotus Peak, rises at 1,864m above the sea level.
Huanshan was previously called Yishan. According to the legend, the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di born 2717 BC) is the ancestor of all Han Chinese. A renowned emperor loved by all of his people, he served as the emperor over a century. The emperor was the disciple of two well known Chinese Taoist (Daoist) masters (容成子、浮丘公) who were legendary alchemists who knew how to make pills of immortality. It’s said that the best environment to cultivate Taoism and make immortality pills was in the mountain region where the veil between the spirit and physical worlds is at its thinnest. The Yellow Emperor and his teachers traveled all over China until they found Huangshan where they spent 480 years and refined the arduous pill making process 9 times before they finally succeeded. After taking the golden immortality pill and soaking in the hot spring for 7 days and 7 nights, the Yellow Emperor finally became an immortal. In 747 AD, the Tang Dynasty emperor (唐玄宗) a Taoist emperor changed the name of the mountain range from Yishan to Huangshan (Yellow Mountains) in honour of Huang Di.
Art and Poetry
Throughout history, Huangshan has been the inspiration for countless artists and poets.
Many poems were written over a thousand years ago. The literal English translations lack the nuances to allow the full expressions of the beauty of ancient Chinese poetry. In Cheng Zhen’s (Song Dynasty poet 1199~1262) poem Dawn Vista at Huangshan, the poet depicts an ethereal landscape – a heavenly mountain on earth. Through thoughtfully chosen words and phrases, he builds a picture of the region’s heavenly nature through analogy. The immortal beauties’ elaborately sculpted hair represents the mountain peaks. The imagery of the trees emerging through a perpetual sea of clouds and the rising sun breaking through invokes the feeling of a painting. To impress the heavenly quality, he describes how for thousands of years, cranes, a heavenly bird considered by Chinese, land and take flight in this place. And to finish off the sense of still mystery, the poem describes a woodsman wandering amongst the trees and rocks, wearing the cloud as his cape.
Not only does the scenery at Huangshan transform throughout the four seasons (from spring blossoms, to cool, refreshing summer days; from autumn leaves to winter snow), the lighting also varies greatly from dawn to dusk. As with many painters, New Zealand based Chinese painter Wei Lun finds the lighting, forms and shapes of the rocks and pines fascinating, calling Huangshan every Chinese artist’s dreamland.
In his painting Huangshan, Wei Lun captures the elements of the landscape in the most subtle, elegant and fluid Chinese traditional painting style.
In contrast to most western art forms, Chinese painting is an expression of harmony and spiritual contemplation. The deep connection between traditional Chinese art, and Taoism philosophy is not to be missed – the characteristics of simplicity, serenity, fluidity and spirit-centeredness. Its language is more abstract, depicting the oneness with nature rather than the observed effects and concrete details based on intellect. The Chinese artists address their art to the inner eye. It speaks best to those who meet its stillness with stillness.
Huangshan National Park Highlights
Huangshan is most well known for its remarkable pines, extraordinary rocks, sea of clouds, hot springs and winter snow. The magnificent scenery fully embodies the spirits of Chinese artistic expressions, as though it is created by the boldest and most skillful traditional Chinese painters. When one arrives at Huangshan, it’s easy to deduce what influences the intricate Chinese bonsai designs. Standing at one of the peaks and taking in the expansive stunning view of the national park is a wondrous and exhilarating experience that expands one’s heart and mind.
No peak without extraordinary rocks, no rock without pines, no pine without wonder.
~ an ancient Chinese saying
The most notable characteristics of the remarkable pines are their strength and tenacity, leaning over cliffs, rising up through narrow gaps between rocks, adapting to alpine peaks ranging from 800 to 1,800 meters above sea level, their incredible life force is admirable. The tall, graceful, ancient forms of the pines (many of them are over 500 years old) adorn the entire national park as if painted by a traditional Chinese scroll painter to bring the mountain range to life.
The extraordinary rocks are so named because of their unique and wondrous shapes, some resemble humans, some birds and others resemble land creatures. Over 120 rocks have been given creative and artistic names from fables, legends and poetry, such as peacocks playing amongst lotus flowers, dream flower pen, sleeping buddha, flying-over rock (depicted in the photo below), white elephant and monkey looking over the sea, sparking the wildest imaginations. Gazing at them from different angles, some rocks shift their shapes, for example, one rock called golden rooster calling open heaven’s gate looks like 5 elders in flowing robes from a different peak and perspective.
Sea of Clouds
When the peaks immersed in the clouds, they appear as islands in the sea, contributing to the heavenly atmosphere of the national park. Standing atop one of the great peaks, it would seem that the sea of clouds is comprised of great shifting forces and thunderous waves, yet at other times it is as calm as a lake and smooth as a mirror. The sunlight streams down, highlighting a thousand contours, like an army of riders advancing on roaring horses. The visitor is surrounded by the sounds of light breezes blowing, enveloped by the soft, fluffy clouds all around tempting her to reach out and sense their softness.
There are a great number of peaks and ravines in Huangshan, the 3 tallest peaks are the best locations to view the spectacular sea of clouds. The most well known are called the Heavenly Sea (in the middle), North Sea, South Sea, East Sea and West Sea.
Huangshan hot spring originates from the Cinnabar Peak. The water temperature stays at 42℃ (107ºF) all year round and is full of rich minerals. According to the legend it has the magical power to vanish wrinkles and restore youth. There are a few recorded cases of patients recovering from skin conditions and other diseases from bathing in the hot spring. It was reported in the news that one day in 1948, a man working at the hot spring heard a thunderous roar and subsequently the water was dyed red with the mineral deposits. He thought something was not right so he let out the spring water downstream to the village creeks. The villagers knew it was from the Cinnabar Peak. They all stoped working and ran back home to bring towels to go bathing in the water. The water sample showed later that there was indeed cinnabar in the water.
It is said that Huangshan is stunning all year round, but the scenery is at its best during winter snow. Snow transforms Huangshan into a silver wonderland, enhancing the national park’s ethereal atmosphere. The snow covered pine needles, the crystal like icicles hanging from the trees sparkling brightly in the sun, the sea of clouds surrounding the snow covered peaks, and plentiful cool fresh air makes one wonder if they have entered a fairy land.
There are several mountain villages and scenic sites at the base of the Huangshan mountains. The most well known is the Emerald Valley, a 6000 km long canyon located at the eastern side of Mt Huangshan. A 6000m long area is open to tourists. It is where the fight amongst the bamboo forest was filmed in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
There are forests of swaying bamboos, charming flowing waterfalls and several hundreds of emerald green ponds in varying sizes (from 100 sqm to 1000 sqm) dotted across the entire valley, filled by water from Huangshan peaks.
The beauty of the Emerald Valley displays more feminine qualities, calm, peaceful and romantic, compared to the majestic, spectacular and bold forms and shapes of the Huangshan peaks.
In 1988, a group of 36 young men and women from Shangshan visited Huangshan and decided to explore the Emerald Valley. At the time, the valley was not yet developed for tourism with no established walking path. The group became lost in the wildness and had to overcome much difficulty supporting each other to find their way out. They became so close that after returning to Shangshai, 10 couples wedded. Therefore, the valley is affectionately called by another name, Lovers’ Valley.
Huangshan National Park Trip Planning
Getting there from Shanghai
There are 4 ways to get to the Huangshan city from Shanghai – by air (approx. 1 hr), by bullet train (approx. 4 hrs 45 mins), by regular train (11 -12 hrs overnight) or by bus (approx. 9 hours).
You can then either take a taxi or a bus to the national park which takes 60 to 70 minutes. Many choose to spend a night at Tangkou town at the base of Huangshan where there is a wide selection of hotels, restaurants and streets with houses built in the ancient architectural style, many of which have been converted to shops and galleries that sell art, craft, teas, spices and textiles.
The ideal minimum itinerary is to spend 2 days in the national park, ascending on day 1, spending the night in one of the hotels at the peak and descending on the 2nd day. Depending on the traveler’s fitness, we recommend climbing up the mountain on the 1st day and take the cable car part of the way down on the descend. The path is long and steep, but well maintained. There is much to see and explore. This gives the best opportunities to see the sights during a short trip. Weather permitting, watching the sunset and sunrise are very much worthwhile.
Pack light with lightweight clothing that can be put on in a few layers. Take warm clothes. It can be cool at night even in summer.
Take sufficient water. Water can be purchased but it is expensive, especially at the peak.
Huangshan is a very popular tourist attraction. It is busy almost all year around (from March to October) but the busiest time is in July and August. Many locals go there for a long weekend getaway. Try to avoid Chinese public holidays and weekends.
Looking past the facade of a key global production hub, and the highly industrious and commercialised modern society, there is much more to China, such as spectacular natural beauty, rich culture heritage and the wisdom of eastern philosophy.