Huangshan, the Mountains of Primordial Ink


Painting personified.

The colossal forces that formed the mountain range of granite peaks roughly 250 miles inland from what would later be known as the East China Sea succeeded in inspiring countless artists, poets, Buddhists, and travelers to imagine their world as crafted by powers greater than themselves.

An ancient titan drew up enormous mounds of earth from the Mesozoic sea floor¹ and took a hammer and chisel to the whole thing with reckless abandon. The mountains that remain are the work of that capricious giant.

Li Bai, the famous Tang Dynasty poet, once described the mountains: “The place is still traceable where the immortal/Before ascending to heaven made elixir out of jade.”

The scale and intensity of geologic change is unfathomable.

Humans call this mountain range shaped by the demiurges of time, tectonism, and erosion Huangshan (lit. Yellow Mountains).

Located in the south of modern-day province of Anhui, the 72 peaks of the Yellow Mountains still stand with 6,000-foot-tall shoulders above an ocean of clouds.

Climb

The UNESCO World Heritage Site asks much of its visitors.

The mountains require traversing endless paths of steep stone steps to truly appreciate the scene. These 60,000 steps are said to have taken over 1,500 years to carve out of the mountain.¹

For the countless porters laden with loads of food and supplies weighing more than they do, climbing the mountain unburdened would be no problem. The muscles in their calves are evidence enough that they could reach the peak in half the time it takes the average tourist. As such, the Yellow Mountains demand payment for their incredible vistas (and all the amenities available at the top of the mountain), and those who aren’t short-of-breath receive nothing in exchange. Sacrifice must be made for the mountains to rewards photographers with beautiful photos.

The mountains also require that artists portray their curves and juxtapositions beautifully. Chinese shan shui (山水) painting is a type of ink wash painting that is particularly well-suited to the natural aesthetics of Huangshan. The style of traditional Chinese painting has been used since the 5th century;² countless images of the mountains have been produced in the shan shui style since then.

Photographers have also adapted some elements of good shan shui painting to the different medium.

The Yellow Mountains and their surrounding villages draw thousands of visitors every year. The villages of 宏村//hong2cun1 and 西递村//xi1di4cun1 at the base of the mountains are renowned for their 600-year-old buildings³ and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scenes from the famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film were filmed in Hongcun.

Gnarled trees clinging to unorthodox (and precipitous) formations of megalith aren’t the only draw to Huangshan. The location also produces some of the China’s most famous teas: Maofeng, and Keemun (祁门//qi2men2).

More information about Anhui’s Huangshan can be found on the local government website, which also features some incredible images and descriptions of the mountains’ most breath-taking sites.

The Rice, Rivers, and Rocks of Guilin


The Rice Terraces near Guilin are one of China’s most famous landmarks.

And for good reason: they’re stunning. Picture miles and miles of rolling hills terraced in green and gold. If you visit during the right season, you’ll find the curved basins filled with water, shimmering in the sunset and reflecting the thousands upon thousands of rice plants jutting up from the muddy deep.

Guilin, in the northeast of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is very much a travel hipster’s mecca. Hostels cost $5 a night on average, there are copious rock formations, hikes, and rivers, as well as seedy karaoke clubs and meals that involve horse meat

But that’s not why you came.

It was the rice terraces. You left the Nanjing Earthen Buildings too soon for this — left the tobacco-growing hills of Fujian and the flash-flood, tea-leafed, guest-accommodating 土楼 to come here.

And you’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if you’re hiking across giant dragon’s scales made of clayey soil and silver irrigation water.

You’ll need to take at least three buses to get there. Head to Guilin’s all-traveler bus station (桂林汽车客运总店), book your tickets to the 龙胜梯田//long2sheng4ti2tian2, also known as the 龙脊梯田//long2ji2ti2tian2.

Guilin City itself is the seat of the prefecture of the same name. It administers 17 smaller political divisions, two of which are termed “autonomous counties” and are home to the 瑶族/yao2zu2 (Yao ethnic minority) and 苗族/miao2zu2 (Miao/Hmong ethnic minority) peoples.

The majority of the Yao people in China, also known as the Mien people, live in the hills of southeast China (Hunan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan), Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. They are famous in China for their bright headscarves, intricate needlework in dress, and, of course, their ingenuous terraced agriculture.

[trigger warning: offensive terminology]

The Miao (Hmong) people have a storied history, beginning in the southern Chinese area, but marked by cultural and linguistic division, relocation, and refusal to be subjugated by the majority-Han Ming and Qing empires. The term “Miao” itself was used officially by the Chinese government in the middle of the 20th century in its attempts to identify, classify, and administer the ethnic minorities of southern China. The term has a history of being applied inconsistently in China and the West to refer to several different non-Han peoples. The term is accepted and used autonymically in China but is derogatory in Southeast Asia and the West, where “Hmong” is preferred.

Be awed. This place is awesome: hillsides costumed in rice terraces while foals nibble on grass and flower and just revel, satisfied.

The next day you’ll wade through the large puddle/small pond outside your hostel on the way to the long-distance bus station.

You’ll want to grab a ticket to either Yangdi (yang2di1//杨堤) or Yangshuo (yang2shuo4//阳朔) via Yangdi. This is where you’ll get on a bamboo raft and speed down the 美丽漓江//mei3li4li2jiang1.

And incredibly 美丽 is the 漓江. With its karst stonescapes and hazy backdrop, the Li River is like a scene out of a Chinese watercolor painting. That’s no exaggeration — tap in “Li River watercolor” to any search engine for proof.

Get your guide to let you disembark somewhere before Xingping Village (兴坪村//xing1ping2cun1) so you can trek the rest of the way.

Take a detour through the citrus orchards. Stop for a lunch of cold rice noodles with cha shao, chili, onion, chives, and pickled beans in broth.

Go slow: the famous “back of the 20 yuan note” scene will still be there when you arrive.

Spend the entire next day eating mangos, loquats, and rambutans in the city. Guilin City proper is home to some incredible scenes of the Li River and craggy granite towers sprouting up between urbanite.

The Seven Star Park (七星公园//qi1xing1gong1yuan2) is pricey (75 kuai) but worth it for the views, and if you visit while it’s raining, you’ll have the place to yourself. Artists, believers, historians, and tourists all have something for them: caves with historical inscriptions and Buddhist statuettes with incense at their feet, residence studios, vistas that let hikers peek out through the misty green at the city and mountains…

Look back before you leave. Take a picture of where you were at the top of the mountain from where you are now at the bottom of the mountain.

Turn around, hail a taxi to the train station, head home to Shanghai.

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