Huangshan(The Yellow Mountains): Chinese New Year Travel Hell
Disclaimer: I went on Chinese New Year. Known as the worst time to go anywhere in China. Most people that have been appear to have had a good time. And also, I’m not very organised so some of the bad was completely my fault.
- Breathtaking scenery
- Climbing mountains is good exercise I guess, if you’re into that
- Tunxi is cool
- A woman gave me some small oranges
- There are too many people to enjoy the scenery
- There are too many people to move freely
- There are too many people in general
- Have to tolerate a great invasion of privacy in return for small oranges
Back in February, when I’d been in China for one month. Chinese New Year happened. I decided to take my first trip. To Huangshan (or the Yellow Mountains). Unfortunately, so did 1.3 billion other humans.
- The Journey
- And so begins my career as a professional zoo exhibit.Because I am an organised and efficient adult. I decided it would be best to ignore all warnings along the lines of ‘everything will be sold out early’ and book everything 2 days before I went. (Which is very forward planning for me actually). Which meant I had the pleasure of taking a 12 hour slow train. On a hard seat ticket.
- In fairness, it wasn’t actually that bad. As far as 12 hour train journeys in unheated carriages in mid winter with a middle aged Chinese woman resting her bare feet on your face go.
- As I wasn’t yet accustomed enough to the language to understand any of the stations as they were shouted down the train by an elderly man, I stayed put and just followed everyone else off the train at 7am. In the hopes that I was at least somewhere within a 50 mile radius of Huangshan.
- Luckily, when I showed the taxi driver the address of my hostel there was no apparent shock and it was treated like a normal request. So I guess I was in the right place.
- I spent the first night in Tunxi, a nearby town.
- To be honest, the first thing I did was head out to panic buy 2 hot water bottles as soon as I found out that the air conditioner at my hostel didn’t work and the shower was outdoors. The man I bought them from seemed to require some sort of proof that I was qualified to make such a purchase and was very reluctant to put the sale through until I’d explained to him how I was going to use them.
- As someone who had never been to a Chinese ‘old town’ before, Tunxi was great. Very Chinese looking. Very touristy and crowded. But very interesting.
- I saw loads of things I hadn’t seen before. Local residents washing their clothes in the river and then hanging them out to dry alongside huge chunks of meat.
- 7000 people queuing for one restaurant on a street of 30 restaurants.
- Chinese tourists climbing over absolutely everything that it’s possible to climb over in order to get a good photo.
- The sun, it was the first time I’d seen that since the day I arrived too. Loads of things.
- It was also the first time in my life that a woman forced her child to come up to me and call me ‘ayi’. I still don’t know what that means, but it’s the same word used to describe Chinese cleaning ladies over the age of 60, so I suspect I should be offended.
- The way up
The next day I was delighted to be woken 3 hours before my alarm by the 5 Chinese men I was sharing a dorm room with as they simultaneously arose at 5am to loudly expel alarming amounts of phlegm from their lungs.
After a leisurely breakfast of something that looked a lot like a carpet in a sandwich, but tasted like meat flavoured cake (a Chinese staple) and coffee, I packed my bag and asked for directions to the bus station.
I was told to get on bus number 5, but being the sane and logical person I am, I just got on the first bus to go past. It wasn’t the number 5.
After realising that it probably wasn’t going to the bus station, I got off in the middle of nowhere and roamed around the streets until I found the train station instead.
At the train station there was a crowd of old women shouting at me about buying a plastic rain mac., I battled my way through them and got on a small minibus that claimed to be going to Yellow Mountain. The journey took around an hour and was fine until a Chinese family got on and took it in turns to sit right next to me and wordlessly pose for selfies next to the blonde ‘laowai’ (foreigner).
After being ditched in an empty car park and wished ‘good luck’ by a group of travellers on their decent, I took a second bus to the actual entrance to the mountain. This bus got stuck in traffic and refused to go all the way, so I essentially paid to be driven 3 feet up the road before walking the rest of the way.
The journey up the mountain taught me the importance of both packing lightly, and also always being photo ready. Which, after dragging myself and a bag of roughly a similar weight to myself, up a mountain, I was not. Not that that was any deterrent for the Chinese tourists who continued to both ask for photos with me, and just openly take them despite clear signals on my behalf suggesting that I was not a willing subject.
The weather was still great, and the mountain really is very photogenic. Here are some photos to prove that last statement.
After a day of hiking around pretending to be some sort of photographer. I took myself off to eat at a restaurant with some highly appetizing items on the menu (see photos below). And tried to get an early night ready for getting up for sunrise which was happening at a time I didn’t know.
Unfortunately, the accommodation options at the top of the mountain were limited. What with all 1.3 billion visitors having booked in advance and everything. So I was stuck in a dorm. Of questionable cleanliness. With a Chinese family of 6 who deemed the bedroom the perfect place to eat spicy animal parts into the early hours.
The way down
AKA the day I realized why people had wished me ‘good luck’ for 2 days straight.
This is the day things went downhill. I know it sounds like they weren’t going uphill to begin with. But they were. I just like to express what a good time I’m having by pointing out all of the negatives. I’m a ray of sunshine like that.
I woke up at 5am and headed out to witness the sunrise that is so hyped about on TripAdvisor. After standing on a painfully windy rock alongside several thousand Chinese tourists for 2 hours I realized that it was now light and the sun had rudely risen without being pretty or anything.
The sunny weather from the previous two days had been replaced with rain and extreme fog. But I assumed that that was because it was 7am, and what with me not experiencing 7am very often, this was what it was always like.
So I grabbed my bag from the dorm and headed out to find some of the landmarks marked on the map I’d bought from the old plastic rain mac women the previous day. In hindsight, a rain mac was probably the way to go.
After about an hour and a half of wandering around on the mountain without seeing any other signs of life I figured I should head in the direction of down so that I wouldn’t miss my train back to Kunshan. And also because it was now properly raining and nothing on my person was waterproof.
It was as I was trying to find my way off the mountain that I ran into the 1.3 billion other people also trying to find their way off the mountain.
A 3 hour queue ensued, during which I learned that Chinese people don’t tend to wait patiently in queues. They push. Even on the edge of very steep precipices.
We queued alongside a different queue headed in the other direction for the cable car. It looked longer than ours and I was glad I wasn’t in it.
Eventually I reached the front, which sported a sign informing me that ‘due to forecast storms’ the steps down were closed. I turned around, joined the queue in the other direction for the cable car and lost my will to live. Nothing dampens the spirit more than joining a continually moving queue for 3 and a half hours and still not seeing the end in sight!
I finally made it to the bottom where I changed. In public. From the dripping clothes I was in to some from my backpack that were only quite wet. Because if you’re already a source of entertainment just for not being Chinese, then why wouldn’t you take off all of your clothes in a public place?
Clearly my bedraggled appearance made an impact on the woman sitting next to me on the overnight train back home. She made up for staring at me try to sleep by feeding me small Chinese oranges every hour or so, like she was trying to cure me of scurvy.
Huangshan, not for you if you don’t like hiking and beautiful scenery.
However, if you enjoy suffocating crowds, small oranges, being pushed by thousands of people, and having unflattering photographs taken of you by strangers despite categorically not giving your permission. Then a Chinese New Year trip to the Yellow Mountains is your ideal vacation.
The moral of the story is, basically, if you have the misfortune to be in China on a public holiday it’s probably best to just stay indoors until it goes away. And if literally everything you read about a place, no matter how positive, warns against visiting at a certain time (like this). Then maybe take notice.