According to the map, I should’ve been standing directly in front of Huangshan’s third highest peak. But all I could see in front of me was a thick layer of fog – a total whiteout. Where was the peak I was supposed to climb? Maybe I made a wrong turn somewhere, I thought. I hesitated for a few minutes, debating whether or not to turn around and try another path. And then, all of a sudden, a large gust of wind blew some of the fog out of the way. A massive, steep mountain peak suddenly revealed itself before my very eyes. In that exact spot, there’d been nothing but an empty void just a moment before. I stood there speechless, thinking I was seeing a mirage. And then it suddenly disappeared again, leaving no trace of itself behind.
But it wasn’t a mirage. Another minute or so later, the peak reappeared again. And this time it graciously stuck around for awhile. In the distance I could make out some hikers, almost as small as ants, climbing up a steep, misty staircase. This had to be the right place. I headed onward to begin my ascent up Celestial Peak. Though it stands at 1,829 meters high, there had been no evidence that such a peak existed mere minutes before. I knew right then that this would not be like anything else I’d ever climbed.
Huangshan: The Yellow Mountain
Most people outside of China have, at one point or another, seen the misty peaks of Huangshan depicted in traditional Chinese ink paintings. But few realize that such a place actually exists. I always thought that these paintings were exaggerations – imaginative depictions of some kind of fantasy world. But after seeing these same ethereal scenes with my own two eyes, I learned firsthand that these mystical paintings are no exaggerations at all.
Unsurprisingly, the peaks of Huangshan have long been an inspiration for artists. Not just painters, but poets, too. In fact, it was the famed Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (701 – 762) who’s credited with first giving the mountain range its modern name. The name Huangshan in Chinese literally means ‘Yellow Mountain.’ But it’s clearly not yellow. Once known as Mount Yi, the mountain range was renamed in the year 747 in honor of Huangdi, the ‘Yellow Emperor.’
Huangdi is considered China’s most famous emperor – perhaps even the father of Chinese civilization itself. After having once lived among mortal men some three thousand years ago, he’s now revered as a deity. Some say that it’s from Huangshan that he ascended to heaven. In one of Li Bai’s poems, he expresses apprehension about speaking too loud in these mountaintops, lest he disturb its celestial residents.
Apparently, the megaphone touting tour guides roaming the mountain these days never got the memo. While in Li Bai’s day, the misty peaks of Huangshan were only visited by the most dedicated of pilgrims, the mountain range is now a major hotspot for domestic Chinese tour groups. Seclusion can still be experienced in certain areas, though, including parts of some of Huangshan’s more difficult peaks.
Climbing Celestial Peak
The Huangshan mountain range supposedly contains dozens of granite peaks, though nobody seems to know the exact amount. The Celestial Peak, or Tian Du Feng (天都峰天), is the third highest peak. It’s generally considered one of the most difficult climb due to its steepness and narrow pathways. As a result, it rarely gets too crowded, even though it provides some of the best views in all of Huangshan.
I began my walk up the concrete steps. I was somewhat apprehensive that I, too, may disappear along with the peak, should it decide to vanish yet again.
As I got higher and higher, the other mountain peaks all around me would continually disappear and reappear again, as if the mountain gods were playing a heavenly game of peekaboo. It was a stunning, yet eerie spectacle. I couldn’t help but feel like a group of invisible giants were having fun playing tricks on the tiny mortals who dared enter their kingdom.
'After seeing the ethereal scenes with my own two eyes, I learned firsthand that the mystical Chinese ink paintings are no exaggerations at all.'
While steep, the climb is a pretty straightforward one. In total, it takes a few hours to reach the top of Celestial Peak. Finally reaching the top, the visibility wasn’t the greatest. But I did get to see one of the Huangshan’s quirky landmarks – countless pairs of metal padlocks attached to the guard ropes.
The locks are left by couples, who then throw the keys over the side of the peak in a symbolic gesture that their love can never be ‘unlocked.’ It’s perhaps a little cheesy, but a lot less tragic than the classic Chinese tale of forbidden lovers who decided to throw themselves off the side of Huangshan!
On top of Celestial Peak, as I bent over to snap some photos of the locks, some concerned locals told me to be careful, as it’d be a long way down.
As I began the descent, visibility started to improve again. But the mountain range only continued to reveal itself in teases and glimpses. Without being able to see everything at once, it was hard to truly grasp the scale of it all. There’s no question, though, that Huangshan is a large, vast and very mysterious place.
The Yuping Pavilion
Finally finishing the climb after several hours, I rested for a little while at the viewpoint area called the Yuping Pavilion, just in front of my hotel. It was almost a completely different place compared to when I’d left it before. The total whiteout was replaced with a surprisingly clear view of the distant mountains. Now after 4PM, the sun’s position in the sky further contributed to the dramatic scene. And to top it all off, the large tour groups were finally making their way back down the mountain to their hotels in town. Though I had plans to visit another peak for the sunset, it was hard to pull myself away from the ever-changing scenery of the pavilion.
I met one local climber who said he’d stayed on the mountain three different times. And each time, he failed to get a single clear sunset or sunrise. Evidently, the odds were against me. But as tired as I was, that still wasn’t going to stop me from giving it a shot.
After my descent from Celestial Peak, I ran into a group of Spaniards staying in the same room as me at the Yupinglou Hotel. After we decided to see the sunset together, I asked the receptionist to remind of the peak she’d recommended earlier. It turned out that she was just finishing up her shift and was off to go there herself. And so we ended up in an impromptu guided hike, headed in the direction of Jade Peak.
Jade Peak is widely regarded as one of the best sunset viewing spots on Huangshan. Though it was supposed to be a relatively easy 30 minute walk, it was a lot more tiring than any of us had imagined. The Spaniards and I found ourselves panting and exhausted, but pleased with the amazing view. But our guide decided to not just stop there.
She knew an even better peak, she told us. Half of our group decided to stay put, but I was intrigued. I wondered how much better things could really get. And so I found myself traversing even more trails and steps, all the way up to my third mountain peak within half a day.
As grueling as the journey to Ao-Yu Peak was, it was absolutely worth it. We arrived just in time to see the sun setting over a flat sea of clouds. With only a dozen or so other people up there with us, there was also plenty of room to walk around and check out the scenery from different angles. It was truly a sight to behold.
'After seeing the 'Five Mountains' of China, there's no need to visit another mountain. But after seeing Huangshan, there's not even any need to see the other four.'
After the sun disappeared beneath the bed of clouds. we stayed on for a few extra minutes to appreciate the vibrant hues of blue and orange that decorated the sky. But our guide beckoned us to hurry back to the hotel. It was a long way back, and it would soon grow pitch dark.
We didn’t make it in time. We found ourselves shrouded in total darkness for the final twenty minutes or so of the journey. But with some makeshift cellphone flashlights and a knowledgeable local, there wasn’t too much to worry about. Making it back to the hotel in one piece, we headed straight for the restaurant.
I awoke at 5am to the sound of light rain gently tapping against the window. Well, not quite. I’d actually been up since 4:30, thanks to our drunken neighbors down the hall. I’d tried in vain to fall back asleep until my alarm went off, but no luck.
Though most of my dorm mates had declared their intention to get up for the sunrise the next morning, most of them grumbled and turned over in bed when they realized it was raining out. I wasn’t feeling too optimistic myself, but I wanted to give it a shot anyway. It would be my only morning on the mountain.
At a well-known sunrise viewing spot, about halfway between the Yuping Pavilion and Jade Peak, about 20 or so other people and I stared anxiously at the cloudy horizon, our cameras at the ready. Things weren’t looking so good at first.
But even with the clouds in the way, we could still see the color of the sky gradually shift to orange, lighting up the distant mountain peaks. It was a mesmerizing sight.
And then, just as some people were starting to head back to their hotel, the sun finally peaked out from behind the clouds! Though somewhat delayed, I couldn’t believe my luck at seeing both a clear sunset and sunrise during my visit to Huangshan.
It was finally time to peel my eyes away from the colorful scene, as I had to get back to the hotel and eat breakfast. My itinerary for the day included a grueling hiking course that would take me all around the mountain range.
'We stared anxiously at the cloudy horizon, our cameras at the ready. Things weren't looking so good at first.'
The Long Hike Home
My mission for the day was fairly simple: see as many of Huangshan’s landmarks as I possibly could, while making it down the mountain in time to catch my 16:30 bus. The three printed maps I’d brought along, though, all looked different, making route planning more than a tad tricky.
Fortunately, a helpful staff member at the Yupinglou Hotel helped me plan the route. He drew a line on one of my maps, indicating which paths to take, which loops to trek through and which ones to avoid. All in all, it was supposed to take a good five or six hours of walking.
Though I was excited by the prospect of seeing many of the areas that I’d hoped to, it seemed that my good luck with weather up to that point had finally run its course. Despite the gorgeous sunrise, everything reverted back to a dull, foggy gray by the time we’d finished breakfast.
Some of my dorm mates from the hotel liked the sound of my itinerary, and decided to join me for the first half of my journey. But as we passed landmarks like Turtle Peak and Flying Over Rock, it took us awhile to make out anything at all through the dense fog. Our hopes remained high for the part of the trail called the Cloud Dispelling Pavilion, but it didn’t live up to its name. We only encountered a big grey blur.
After reaching the famous Xihai Grand Canyon, however, we were finally greeted with a dash of color.
The Xihai Grand Canyon, now considered one of the most scenic areas of Huangshan, was only opened in 2001. Covering an area of over 25 square kilometers, a good chunk of the trails are composed of pathways sticking out from the side of the rock, and not the stable concrete steps so common throughout the rest of Huangshan.
It’s not for the faint of heart. Looking down, you can even see the distant trees and steep rocks through the little gaps in the trail. One can only imagine what it was like to construct these walkways in the first place!
Also known as the ‘West Sea,’ Xihai features a number of looping walkways, and my plan only allowed me to walk the first loop. Encouraged by the brief moment of clarity we encountered after reaching Xihai, my hiking companions decided to try the second loop. And so we said farewell. I continued on in the direction of the Xihai Hotel, but not without some struggle.
It was now late morning and the yellow-hatted tour groups were out in full force. At some points it almost looked, and felt, like an invasion. Who knows what type of poem Li Bai would’ve written after witnessing such a scene?
Having to push my way through the crowds, I finally made it to the pavilion outside of the Xihai Hotel. I sat down for a much-needed snack (hard-boiled eggs ‘borrowed’ from the breakfast buffet) before moving on. Continuing down a smaller trail, I soon found myself completely alone.
'Who knows what type of poem Li Bai would've written after witnessing such a scene?'
Eventually arriving at the Beihai Hotel area, just before the Yungu cable car, I realized that I’d made much better time than I’d expected. What was supposed to take nearly six hours only took me around four. I had room to fit a few more landmarks into my itinerary, so I walked up to see Stone Monkey Watching the Sea, as well as Lion Peak. Unfortunately, it was just more of the same. Clouds and fog.
Though I’d wanted to walk down the mountain, and even had time for it, I had a change of heart by the time I reached the Yungu area. I didn’t want to punish my body even further knowing that I wouldn’t get any views on the way down. I hopped in the cable car, and like coming out of a dream, returned back to the world of color.
Though the outcome of my second day on the mountain was less than ideal, I still couldn’t shake the images of the previous day from my mind. After a big lunch, I waited patiently in the bus station for my ride back to Hangzhou. It was a long wait, but it felt good to finally be off my feet again.
Here’s the basic rundown of steps you need to take to reach the mountain from Hangzhou, followed by a detailed description of what to do:
Your Hangzhou hotel > Hangzhou West Bus Station via taxi > Tangkou (a.k.a. Huangshan Scenic Area) via bus > Cablecar gateway/trail access point (either Yuping or Yungu) via another bus > cablecar (or walking) to the top
Hangzhou to Tangkou buses depart at 8am, 10:50, 12:40, 14:10 and 17:45.
Getting to Huangshan from the city of Hangzhou is fairly straightforward, but there are a couple of things you need to know first. In addition to Huangshan, the mountain range itself, there’s also a city called Huangshan. Another name for this city is Tunxi. But Huangshan City/Tunxi is NOT the closest city to the Huangshan mountain range.
The closest city to the Huangshan mountain range is Tangkou. Therefore, the quickest way to get to the mountains is to take a bus to Tangkou, not to Huangshan City/Tunxi.
Depending on your plan, though, you may want to spend a night nearby before ascending the mountain in the morning. Tunxi is regarded as a much more interesting town than Tangkou, so many people still choose to stay there instead of Tangkou. Regardless, even if you stay in Tunxi, you’ll need to take a shuttle bus or taxi to get to Tangkou, the gateway to the mountain. In my experience, I went straight to and from Tangkou and never stopped in Tunxi.
To make matters even more confusing, Tangkou is also sometimes interchangeable with the term ‘Huangshan Scenic Spot.’ In fact, your bus ticket is likely to say Huangshan Scenic Area (in Chinese letters) on it, and not just Tangkou.
If you’re departing from Hangzhou, you’ll need to get to first get to the Hangzhou West Bus Station. Hangzhou has a number of bus stations, but apparently this one is obscure even to locals. A taxi ride from the center of Hangzhou should take about 40 minutes and cost roughly 35 RMB. Be aware that typing ‘Hangzhou West Bus Station’ into Google Maps might reveal a completely different station, one that appears to be much closer to town. Don’t go there or you will miss your bus! The correct address can be found here.
Even my taxi driver didn’t seem to know the Hangzhou West Bus Station. Unfortunately, I ended up with a rude driver who drove me up to a locked gate, implied that it was the correct address, and then drove off with little regard for whether or not I found my way. It took me some time to find it, but the main entrance was on the other side of the block. It’s actually a fairly large station.
I’d already bought my ticket in advance even before coming to China, because I wanted an 8am bus and wasn’t sure how long the line would be in the morning. All bus tickets in China must be bought in person, but I used a service called China Bus Guide. They go in person to the bus station on your behalf for an added service fee. The basic ticket from Hangzhou to Tangkou/Huangshan Scenic Area is ¥112, and the service fee was an extra $5 USD. I was able to pay for everything via PayPal.
Arriving at the bus station, I still needed to present the receipt that China Bus Guide had sent me to get my actual ticket. Luckily, there was no line and I still had plenty of time to make my 8am bus.
Be aware that bus stations in China often have no English display whatsoever. Therefore, you’re best off looking for whatever gate matches the bus number and departure time listed on your ticket, and then double checking to make sure the Chinese letters also match up.
The bus to the cable car station at Tangkou takes three to four hours from Hangzhou. If you only have a couple days in the Huangshan area, definitely aim for the 8am bus from Hangzhou.
I only have experience getting to Huangshan from Hangzhou, but ff you’re coming to Huangshan from Shanghai, the best way to do so is by train. This page has some great information. As Shanghai is a little further away, you may want to break up your trip with a night at Tangkou or Tunxi before ascending the mountain.
To get to the mountain, you first need to visit the ‘Huangshan Scenic Area,’ in Tangkou. This basically means the special bus station in Tangkou city which takes you further to one of the mountain bases. You cannot ride directly to the cable car station via long distance bus from another city. You will always need to take at least two buses to reach the mountain.
In Tangkou, the special bus station is an easy walk from the parking lot where intercity buses (or minivans from Tunxi) drop you off. But you’ll first need to buy the bus ticket to the mountain at a ticket booth outside.
Note: Use this as an opportunity to ask about return buses from Tangkou to wherever you’re headed next, and be sure to buy that ticket in advance. The buses departing from Tangkou could sell out, so you definitely don’t want to put this off until coming back from the mountain.Unless, of course, you’re staying at a hotel in Tangkou already.
From Tangkou to the base of Huangshan mountain, you have the option of riding to either the Yuping or Yungu cablecar stations, both of which are also the starting point for trails up the mountain for those who wish to walk. The bus ticket to either station from Tangkou should cost around ¥19 RMB and it’s just about a twenty minute ride.
Whether you’re getting off at Yuping or Yungu, you will next need to line up to buy an entrance ticket to Huangshan itself. This costs ¥230 RMB. This is also where you buy the cable car ticket up the mountain, should you choose to take one. The cable cars are not cheap. They cost another ¥90 RMB (one way) but will save you hours of climbing.
In my opinion, taking the cable car is the way to go. As Huangshan is a mountain range rather than a single mountain, it’s not really the type of mountain you try to “conquer.” It’s more about walking around at the top and enjoying the stunning scenery. Of course, if you’re looking for a bit of a challenge, try climbing some of the peaks like the Celestial Peak mentioned above.
I was hesitant to visit Huangshan after adding up all the costs. That, along with the confusing route to get there, in addition to the additional cost of a hotel at the top, made me initially decide against a visit to the Yellow Mountain.
But while doing research for my trip to China, I kept coming across more and more pictures of Huangshan’s misty peaks, almost straight out of a traditional painting. I just knew I had to see it for myself. Or at least attempt to.
The truth is, a visit to Huangshan is a major gamble, especially if you’re short on time. After committing to the trip, I made sure to constantly remind myself that I might not end up seeing anything. I didn’t want to get too depressed if the weather turned out to be awful. I told myself I’d end up regretting it more if I didn’t at least try.
As you can see above, I lucked out big time. Despite the constant fog of the second day, the views of my first afternoon, sunset and sunrise the next morning made all the hassle and expense well worth it. I was more than happy with my decision to visit Huangshan. There’s no question that it stands out as one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been.
With that said, you may go and see nothing but fog. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, nothing but perfectly clear skies. Clear skies would obviously be preferable to perpetual thick fog, but it’s also a very different setting from the traditional ink painting scenes which draw so many visitors to the region.
In the end, a lot just depends on weather, luck and also on your budget. I was able to see what I’d come for after only one night on the mountain, but if your budget allows, you may want to stay 2 or 3 nights on top to increase your chances of some good scenery. That’d also give you the opportunity to see pretty all the main landmarks and trails.
Many people stay at hotels in either Tangkou or Tunxi, but I’d highly recommend staying on top of the mountain. This gives you the chance to see a sunset and sunrise that would be impossible to see otherwise, as the cable cars operate at limited hours. The couple hours just before sunset and after sunrise are also excellent, both for lighting and for relative peace and tranquility.
I had a great experience at the Yupinglou Hotel. At first I wasn’t sure whether or not it was necessary to stay on top of the mountain, but I’m so glad that I did.
Obviously, prices for accommodation on top of the mountain are going to be higher than the hotels in town. To save costs, I stayed in a bunk bed dorm room, which I normally avoid doing otherwise. A single night in a dorm room cost me $25 USD, or ¥160 yuan, and it turned out to be a fun experience.
Even if you’re hesitant to book dorm rooms like I am, keep in mind that the average traveller coming to stay at the top of Huangshan is probably going to be more mature, cleaner and quieter than the typical crowd you might find in hostels in Southeast Asia or Europe. (Though I couldn’t say the same for the Chinese tourists down the hall from us!) I was put together with a friendly bunch of people from around Europe and the US who also made for great hiking companions.
Where Yupinglou Hotel really shined for me was the staff. As outlined above, a couple of the staff members were kind enough to give us an impromptu sunset tour up to Ao-Yu Peak, a place that inexplicably doesn’t even appear on most English maps.
I should emphasize that this was likely more of a ‘right place at the right time’ situation, so don’t get disappointed if the hotel staff don’t also offer to take you personally to the sunset viewing spot. But the point I’m trying to make is that the staff at Yupinglou were incredibly kind and hospitable. It was by far my best customer service experience in China.
There are a number of other hotels on the mountain and I have no experience with them, but I’d highly recommend a night or two at Yupinglou. It’s an easy walk from the Yuping Cable Car and it’s also just across from the Yuping Pavilion, one of the scenic spots in all of Huanghsan (pictures in article above).
The food at the hotel is also quite good. We ate a rather large dinner, with various dishes shared among 4 people, and it came out to around ¥90 yuan per person. The breakfast buffet the next morning cost ¥68 yuan.
I only ate two proper meals on top of Huangshan, both at the Yupinglou Hotel. As mentioned above, dinner cost around ¥90 yuan per person (roughly $15 USD), though we ordered a lot and ate until we were completely full. The breakfast buffet at the hotel costs ¥68 yuan ($10 USD).
Around the top of the mountain, small bottles of water all seemed to cost ¥8 yuan ($1.2 USD). Apples cost ¥5 yuan. I didn’t buy much else other than this, but this should give you an idea of general costs.
I was surprised to learn how many people online complain about the cost of goods on the mountain. The goods are carried up by porters, who quite literally walk up the entire mountain with huge sacks. You will be passing by many of them during your trek. After seeing the backbreaking effort required for the restaurants and shops to replenish their stock, paying a little over a dollar for water isn’t anything to get worked up about. I’ve definitely paid more than that at airports before!
You will, of course, want to stock up on snacks to take with you on the journey. If you go through everything early on, it’s not going to kill you to buy an apple or two from one of the shops.
SNACKS: As mentioned above, try to pack snacks with you to munch on during your trek. All the climbing is likely to give you a ravenous appetite.
If you’re staying at a hotel with a breakfast buffet, stuff as many hardboiled eggs and muffins into your bag as you can. This will save you a lot of money on snacks later on.
LUGGAGE: Most hotels in China have no problem with holding onto luggage for you. If you’re traveling throughout China with a lot of luggage, there’s no way you’ll want to bring all that up with you to the top of the mountain, even if you’re staying a night on top.
Many people who stay in Tangkou or Tunxi leave their heavy luggage there, while just taking what they need for the top of the mountain. In my case, I would be returning to the same place in Hangzhou that I’d been staying at, so I left most of my stuff there.
Only take as much as you’d be comfortable with carrying with you for hours at a time.
PACKING LIST: There’s not a whole lot you need to think about when packing for Huangshan. Even if you’re climbing in summer, bring a long-sleeve shirt or light jacket for nighttime. Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a torch in case you want to see the sunset. There are no lights on the trails so may have to walk back to your hotel in pitch darkness.
There are clean (by Chinese standards) toilets throughout the mountain which you are free to use. As far as I can recall, they were all stocked with toilet paper, but you should always carry some with you in your bag just in case.
GETTING AROUND: The signs around Huangshan can be incredibly confusing to non-Chinese speakers. Sometimes you’ll see the English translation of Chinese name for the peak, landmark, hotel, etc. Other times, though, the name will merely be transliterated from the Chinese name.
For example, ‘Jade Screen’ and ‘Yuping’ are the same thing, while ‘Celestial Peak’ and ‘Tian Du Fang’ are also the same. But if you don’t speak Chinese, there’s no way you would know this!
The word 天 (celestial, heavenly) appears in many of the names. But it sometimes might be transliterated as tien, tian, chen, zhen or something similar. Sometimes it’s just easiest to memorize the Chinese symbol.
Different maps on the internet that you might print out may also switch back and forth between translations and transliterations.
The best way to avoid confusion during your trek would be to do plenty of advance research, deciding on the main landmarks or peaks you want to see, and make a three-columned list. Mark down the Chinese name (in Chinese characters), English transliteration of the Chinese name, and also the commonly used English translations. It’s tedious work but it will save you lots of time and stress.
Another useful tool that I regret not using on top of the mountain is the Maps.me application, a map app intended for offline use. Though I’d known about it and already had it in my phone on top of the mountain, I never bothered to use it and relied on my printed maps instead. It was only after my time on Huangshan that I took a closer look at it and found it to be surprisingly accurate. Most importantly, it features each location in both Chinese and English, unlike most maps you can print from the web.
CLOSED TRAILS: Certain trails may be closed at any given time for a number of reasons. This could be due to weather or basic maintenance. Some trails may be even closed for years at a time. Be sure to research which trails may be closed before you ascend the mountain. Or, just ask for advice at your hotel.
As you may or may not be aware, a bunch of major web sites are completely blocked in China. This includes Google, YouTube and social media sites like Facebook. Not only can this be a huge annoyance, but not being able to access your Gmail account or use Google Maps could even cause major problems during your trip.
That is, unless, you have a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to access the internet via servers in a variety of international locations. Therefore, when traveling in China, you can access the internet through a server in Taiwan or Hong Kong (or anywhere, really) and suddenly start using Google and social media apps like normal again.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies over the course of multiple trips, and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
The actual use of VPN’s in China isn’t illegal in itself. However, the Chinese government will often make things difficult for certain VPN companies, and some services may stop working for you out of the blue. That’s why it’s important to go for the most reliable VPN, and ExpressVPN is widely regarded as the best to use in China.