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.

Luoyang: A City from China’s Heartland


China was born here, in Henan.

The place is both unique and ubiquitous at the same time. As one of the 中国四大古都 (China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals), the city of Luoyang still embodies a part of China’s soul and history. The city was prominent as far back as 510 BCE as the capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. This dynasty existed on the very edge of ancient Chinese history, directly following the quasi-mythic Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE) and China’s first archaeologically proven dynasty, the Shang Dynasty of 1600-1046 BCE.

The Zhou Dynasty, which existed between 1046 and 256 BCE, is itself divided into the Western and Eastern eras, the latter of which encompassed the Spring and Autumn period and the subsequent Warring States period when monarchical authority crumbled and various minor kingdoms rose and fell.

As such, Luoyang represents an era that later marked a critical turning point in Chinese history. With the fall of the Zhou Dynasty came the rise of the first dynasty of Imperial China, the Qin Dynasty, whose initial emperor unified six of the warring states. His accomplishments are forever commemorated by his massive mausoleum (still being excavated today) and the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an.

Remnants of the past still persist in Henan. Luoyang’s 白马寺//bai1ma3si4 (White Horse Temple) is traditionally thought to be the “cradle of Chinese Buddhism,” as the first Buddhist temple in China. The temple’s historical roots stretch all the way back to 68 CE, when it was constructed under Emperor Ming after having a vision of the Buddha in gold.¹

***

Astounding in their size and quality, the Longmen Grottoes on their own are worth the trip to Henan. The incredible grottoes feature Buddhist figures carved directly into the limestone hillside.

The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, with its 2,000+ caves, 100,000 statues, and over 60 pagodas.² Most of these are over 1,000 years old, dating back to the culturally and socially inspired Tang Dynasty before Emperor Wuzong’s xenophobic Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution that attempted (and, in some cases, succeeded) to purge nonnative religious influences.

However, Longmen’s enormous carvings survived until modern times for flocks of tourists to stand in awe and selfie.

The Deserts of Dunhuang


The Gansu/Xinjiang border is the edge of the world.

Figuratively, of course. But when you’re there it feels plausible. Like when the sand and soil ends, the world ends too. Walk off and you’ll likely fall into infinity.

Although, the friendly owners of Dunhuang’s local guesthouse seem unfazed by the fact that they live so close to boundless space. They have kids and a dog and offered us dried red dates and coal-furnace hospitality in the middle of winter.

Continue reading “The Deserts of Dunhuang”