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A Poet’s Place

4 minute read
Jay Colton

As I trekked through the mists of the Huang Shan mountains, I came upon a young man painting the scenery with traditional brush and ink on rice paper. He smiled proudly as he showed me his work. It was indeed quite beautiful…for a painting, but it paled in comparison to the living scene before my eyes: a silken shimmer of pastel clouds clinging in tendrils to the tops of mountains, an endless dance of wind and fog that alternately revealed and concealed subtle changes in the dark hills beneath. How futile it must feel for a mere mortal to try to capture that, I thought.

Yet for centuries, these mountains in the heart of China, 250 miles southwest of Shanghai, have been a destination for artists and poets (among them the renowned Li Bo), who come to commune with nature in one of its more striking poses–and struggle to replicate its beauty. Along with the artists and poets come lovers, who clasp locks symbolic of their undying fidelity to the chain fences that protect hikers from the plunging precipices. Seventy miles of trails wind around 72 peaks, the two most majestic of which are Capital of Heaven and Lotus Flower. The highest of the mountains is less than 6,150 ft., but their steep, stark slopes impart a distinctly higher authority.

In 1990, UNESCO declared Huang Shan a Cultural and Natural Property, thereby ensuring that the area’s physical beauty will be preserved in perpetuity. Pheasant and deer abound. There are hundreds of indigenous plants, including ginkgo, actinidia and tinder fungus, that are said to heal the body and arouse the senses. The famous hot springs are known for their healing qualities and beautiful clear jade-green color. An hour’s meditation in one of these thermal pools is a great way to end a day of hiking.

Ten years ago, the only way to reach the mountaintops was to climb up thousands of steps carved into the sides of cliffs. Now, three separate cable cars run up to the summits, and a range of hotels meet any taste and budget. The three staging areas for Huang Shan visitors are Jade Screen, whose sparsely fixtured hotel reflects its ascetic heritage as a Buddhist monastery; the Hot Springs area at the base of the mountains; and the North Sea (named not for a body of water but for the sea of clouds bathing the range). The Xi Hai and Bei Hai, located on different summits, are three-star hotels serving Chinese and Western food as well as wine and liquor from East and West. There are dormitory-style rooms with public toilets for those who are traveling on a tight budget.

The best times to visit the region are early April, when the rhododendron festivals are held, and the fall, when the foliage offers a stunning backdrop to the mists. But the view, enhanced by the ever-present scent of sandalwood and pine, is spectacular in any season.

Whenever you go, be sure to bring along a pair of sturdy sneakers or shoes, a warm jacket, rain gear and plenty of film. Remember that you need a visa to enter China. And book ahead: during the peak season, up to 30,000 tourists visit the mountains, and although the area is very large, beds do get scarce. As they have for thousands of years, crowds arise before dawn and head toward the peaks to await that magical moment when the sun rises from the sea of clouds and bathes the mountains in the radiant morning light. Huang Shan may not be exactly off the beaten path, but it is on a road well worth taking.

–By Jay Colton

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