China · China travel · Travel

Huangshan photo round-up

As we get set to move into the Year of the Rooster with Chinese New Year coming up on the weekend, enjoy this photo round-up from a CNY trip to Huangshan a few years ago. While it certainly wasn’t the best time to visit the mountain, it was still enjoyable enough.

The subject of countless paintings, photos and literary references, Huangshan is one of China’s most beautiful mountains, and it is not hard to see why. Despite not being able to hike around the paths at the top in full and having to share it with thousands of Chinese tourists, I was still able to experience some of the mountain’s beauty and magnificence.
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China · China travel · Travel

China travel- A Chinese New Year’s trip to Huangshan

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With Chinese New Year coming up in just a few weeks, it’s fitting I should finally write about my first Chinese New Year in China in 2014.

Back then in Beijing, I made a spontaneous decision one week in advance to travel to somewhere in the country, specifically Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains. In hindsight, it was a foolish decision and I learned my lesson not to travel to places at the exact same time as multitudes of Chinese. But, the trip was still kind of good. I didn’t go all the way to Anhui from Beijing just to visit Huangshan, but also Xidi and Hongcun, two grand old villages in the area that are also UNESCO World Heritage sites. Hongcun is especially beautiful, and scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were shot there.

I had long wanted to visit Huangshan, one of China’s most beautiful and famous mountains, its mist-covered slopes and pine trees a familiar image in countless photos and paintings. Its beauty has been paid tribute to in poems and ….. So when the New Year holiday came up and as I wasn’t going overseas, I decided to go to somewhere in China, thinking that the crowds would not be as bad as during the National Week in October (I was told this by at least one acquaintance as well). I deliberated between Shanxi (Pingyao and Datong) and Huangshan and the latter won out. However, I was going to spend several days in the area, which meant staying in Tunxi, a small town an hour away from Huangshan. Getting to Tunxi meant taking a high-speed train from Beijing to Nanjing, then taking a sleeper from there to Tunxi.

Situated in Central China, Anhui is probably best known, besides Huangshan, for being the setting of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Set in 1930s China, this novel follows the hard struggle of a peasant amid poverty, war and instability as he tries to move up in life. While China, and the province,  has long moved on from those terrible times, largely agricultural Anhui is still one of the country’s poorer provinces despite having rich neighbors like Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Many migrant workers in the country, especially in Shanghai and Beijing (I also had a couple of colleagues and friends from there, though they weren’t migrant workers) hail from Anhui. However, Anhui is also the ancestral home of former Chinese President Hu Jintao and current Premier Li Keqiang.

But Anhui’s earthy reputation belies an interesting cultural heritage (Huizhou) that culminated in a distinct regional architectural style with black roofs and impressive wooden designs, which Xidi and Hongcun both feature some good examples of.

My trip was eventful even before it actually got underway because when I got into Nanjing, my favorite Chinese city actually, in the afternoon, I tried to find a bus to Tunxi but there wasn’t one since it was Chinese New Year. I then booked a ticket on a sleeper train but I had several hours to kill. As I wasn’t feeling to sightsee, I went to book a room at a nearby hotel. But what was supposedly a straightforward task turned out to be a jarring shock because I was turned away from several hotels because their system didn’t allow Hong Kongers (I’m one by virtue of birth and ID card) to book hourly rooms. I’d heard of similar experiences happening to Westerners when trying to book a regular room but I didn’t think this could happen to Hong Kongers as you know, being part of China. But finally I found one where the boss told his receptionist to let me stay, saying “it’s New Year, let him in,” displaying a fitting holiday generosity that was glaringly lacking from all the other hotels’ staff.

The train trip was straightforward and I got into the town in the morning, taking a taxi to my hotel, with the driver refusing to use the meter because “it’s New Year.” I went to the village of Xidi that first day, then went to Huangshan the next by a one-hour bus to Tangkou, a tourist village at the foot of the mountain. It seemed I arrived too late despite it being early afternoon, I learned that crowds would mean going up by cable car would take hours. My plan was to take the cable car up and hike around the paths on top because that was where the views were.

I had a decision to make – return to Tunxi and come back the next day bright and early, or stay in Tangkou for the night, thus paying extra for another hotel. I chose the latter because I wanted an early start. After I found a hotel, I took a walk through the village which provided some fantastic views of Huangshan from the ground. I did get that early start but apparently 6 am wasn’t early enough, because when I left my hotel at that time the next morning, I found the street filled with other tourists making their way to the car park to take the bus to Huangshan visitor center (from there, you then hike or take the cable car up the mountain). The car park itself was filled with people and the lines were crazy. Eventually I got into one and after what felt like an hour, got into a bus.
That felt like a relief, but it was temporary because when I arrived at the visitor center, I saw even more people than there were at the car park! When I approached the cable car station, the line was so long it started from the second floor or the station and extended downstairs and outside.

As before, my plan was to take the cable car up so I could hike around the top. With no choice now, I would have to hike to the top and hope I had enough time and energy to walk around the trails on the peak. As Huangshan is not that high, it took me about two and a half hours (fitter people can surely do it in less time), and while I was traveling solo, I was accompanied by dozens of Chinese. Some were in tour groups while others were with friends or family, and noone seemed to be hiking solo like me. Being in China, some of those folks just couldn’t keep quiet so there was a constant chorus of shouting, yelling, and throat-clearing, as well as music playing on little portable radios that some older hikers in China and Taiwan like using.

The nearer I reached the top, the better the views got and I was able to get a glimpse of the much vaunted peaks with clouds that Huangshan is famous for. It is a beautiful mountain up close, not just from afar, with its forested slopes and rocky granite peaks. Along the way, you’ll pass well-known rock formations and trees, such as the first photo on top, and these are even named, for example, “God Points Road” and “An Immortal Pointing the Way” (probably sounds better in Chinese).
But when I got to the top, I realized there was a lot of people there as well. I continued walking and got onto a trail, figuring the crowds would thin out along the mountaintop. But no, everywhere I went there were people, and the trails were so clogged, it was impossible to pass people. After continuing for over an hour, the sheer congestion meant I couldn’t make a circuit of the trail, and also I’d have to hurry back to the cable car station if I wanted to make it down by mid-afternoon. I hadn’t planned to stay another night in Tangkou as I wanted to get back to Tunxi.
I wish I had been able to hike around the paths on top and I feel I will return to do just that in future. Huangshan hasn’t seen the last of me yet!

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Lineup for the cable car at the foot of Huangshan, at 8 am. No way was I going to endure that, so I chose to hike up instead.
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The hike up was pleasant in some parts.

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The higher I got, the better the view as the mountaintop started appearing.
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There was a bit of the sea of clouds for which Huangshan is famous for.
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Lineup for the cable car at the top of Huangshan
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Perfect view of Huangshan from Tangkou
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China · China travel

Beijing travel- Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills)

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A lot of people probably don’t realize Beijing has mountains. This is because much of the city center is flat (and smog often obscures the views), but Beijing is actually ringed by mountains that extend from Haidian district all the way to the Great Wall and towards Hebei.
When I lived in Beijing, I only did two hikes near the city. Both were in Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills). Located in the northwestern part of the city in Haidian district, a little further beyond the old and new Summer Palaces, the 557-meter-tall Xiangshan is a decent, scenic choice for an outdoor outing. The whole place is a park, created all the way back in 1186, and was visited by emperors. At the foot of the hill are a garden, a Buddhist pagoda and Biyun Si (Temple of Azure Clouds), which features a large white stone pagoda called Vajrasana Pagoda. While Xiangshan isn’t too high, there is also a chair lift which I never took but I wish I did. The hill is nicely forested, though the path is a concrete stairway with little pavilions along the way. Interestingly, Biyun Si also has an exhibition dedicated to Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese political icon. This is because after Sun died in Beijing in 1925, his body was placed at the temple until being taken to Nanjing to be buried.

The first time I went there was in the afternoon and I only went halfway up the hill because I didn’t think I had enough time, but the second time I went up all the way. The summit was crowded with people, noisy and shouting and creating quite a commotion, as Chinese tend to do. On top, you can look onto urban Beijing but still feel that you are in a completely separate place, with forest and mountains all around you. You can even see the Summer Palace’s lake. I always intended to go back again, but given I lived all the way on the other side of the city, I never did.

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Continue reading “Beijing travel- Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills)”

Japan travel · Travel

Mt. Fuji photo roundup

Here are more photos of Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko, which lies near the foot of the mountain.
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Almost as if I were soaring in the clouds
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Volcanic crater on the summit
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This is on the trail at the fifth station, where I started from
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Rock cairn on the summit
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Close to the top
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Looks like a grave  
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Heading down

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel – Tateyama

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On my trip to Japan in 2013, between Kyoto and Tokyo, I stopped at Matsumoto. Now, Matsumoto is a nice town with a very impressive castle, but the main reason I stayed there was to go to nearby Tateyama, one of Japan’s holy mountains in the “Japan Alps.”

Tateyama features a giant dam and a scenic lake halfway to the top, which is surrounded by mountains. This route, called the Kurobe Tateyama Alpine Route, consists of a series of different modes of transportation – buses going through tunnels, cable car, and an uphill tram – which allow you to stop at certain points. At the highest stop Murodo, you can hike a couple of hours to the top of Tateyama or other mountains. Getting to Tateyama from Matsumoto first entailed taking a train to Shinano-Omachi station, then getting onto a shuttle bus to the Tateyama visitor center, where the actual alpine route started.
I’d gone to Tateyama many years before when I was in university as part of a tour group with my brother. Back then, we’d had to rush and we didn’t have much time to spend at each point, but I knew I wanted to come back.

This time, I was determined to get off at the top station and hike to the mountaintop, but unfortunately the weather didn’t play along. When I reached the dam, the sky was blue and calm though there were a few clouds. When I got out at the top station, the clouds had gotten thicker and there was slight rain. I walked around hoping the sky would clear, but instead it got worse. This was in late July but there was still some ice and hardened snow. I did go on the trail and passed numerous people coming down and I had to stop and go back when I could barely see up ahead.
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Starting off on the way up, as you can see here at Kurobe dam, the weather was fine.
Visitors can walk across the dam in the middle to the other side to continue the ascent to Tateyama.
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The top station has a wide “meadow” and a small lake as well as trails to get to several mountains including Tateyama.
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Starting off the actual hiking to the top of Tateyama
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Passed a lot of people coming down, including these schoolkids

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Going up, it looked good at one point but then the clouds came back again and it got really bad (see below).
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Coming back down, the weather was like this.
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One of the several forms of transport up and down the mountain
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A last look at the dam on the way back

The following photos are in random order:
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Saw these guys going down a slope from the cable car
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Probably the most amusing non-native English sign I’ve come across
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Field (rice maybe) on the way back to Matsumoto

Uncategorized

Taiwan links

Just time for a quick post to 2 Taiwan links. The first is a lengthy article from Taiwan’s Commonwealth magazine about how South Korea “left Taiwan in the dust” economics-wise. In case you read this article and wonder, why do Taiwan people seem so anxious, or even obsessed, about South Korea, it’s because South Korea is Taiwan’s biggest competitor and second favorite nemesis (the favorite starts with a C and ends with a). Whether it be sports, economics, or history, Taiwanese harbor a lot of animosity and annoyance over South Korea. Though I wonder if the feeling is reciprocated, given that the “competition” has long been in South Korea’s favor and that South Korea probably has bigger things on its mind than a little island. But, Taiwanese still love S. Korean electronics, TV shows, and music. Taiwanese have been going gaga over Korean pop long before “Gangnam Style,” with the likes of Super Junior and the Wondergirls being heavily adored here.

The second is a fantastic gallery of Taiwan’s high peaks by somebody, presumably a Taiwanese guy. One of the best things about Taiwan is its mountains, some of which loom over 3000m as the album features. Looking at these pictures, I find the scenery to be really lush and similar to the Alps (though I’ve never been). Taipei has got some nice hills and small mountains, but the really majestic ones like Jade (Yueshan) or Snow (Xueshan) are in the Central regions.