High as the Clouds

October 5, 2015 — Huangshan City, Anhui Province

In Chinese, “Qiyun” means “as high as the clouds”. That’s true of Mount Qiyun, but only because the clouds slip down to meet it.

Rising just 585 meters above sea level, Qiyun strains, rather than thrusts, out of the dripping Anhui countryside. From heaven, clouds twist like the fingers of ghostly gods, stroking some of the mountain’s 36 ragged peaks and gripping others in a moist embrace.

For modern tourists, Qiyun is much overshadowed by its larger, far more physically impressive brother – Huangshan, less than 50 kilometers away – but through the passing of ages, the toppling and rebirth of dynasties, the wars that have riven China, Qiyun has stood as the epicenter of Taoism in southern China.

Perhaps it’s the millennia-old carvings of heroes and gods that glower out of Qiyun’s alcoves and caves that provide the air of mystery that have kept pilgrims climbing Qiyun’s steps since the 8th century. Perhaps it’s the natural scenery of the rocky peaks and the lush, river-split valleys below this one of Taoism’s four sacred mountains.

Or maybe it’s just the clouds, the way they wrap the mountain in their chilly fingers and cup peaks in their moist palms, deadening sound and fogging vision and spiriting visitors away from this world and its history, dynasties, wars, and concerns.

I read about Qiyun the evening before my last day in Anhui, and decided I wasn’t yet done punishing my legs. Getting there wasn’t easy, though. It was back to the early-morning bus station for more waiting and wandering and asking and wondering.

After a while, I learned that the same bus I’d taken to Hongcun the day before runs by the village at the base of Qiyun, but it doesn’t stop there. I’d have to ask the driver to make a special stop on the outskirts of town, then walk a couple of kilometers to the village.

I arrived at the crossroads an hour later, and the bus lurched to a stop. Sure enough, the peak to my left was “as high as the clouds”, and rain spit from the heavens.

Mount Qiyun is wreathed in clouds above a Huizhou village.

Mount Qiyun is wreathed in clouds above a Huizhou village.

As I walked toward the many-arched bridge that led to the mountain base, I stopped by a baozi shop to pick up some steamed buns and a local pancake filled with beans, peppers, and bean noodles, then promptly burned the skin off the roof of my mouth trying to protect them from the sog.

Compared Huangshan, the climb up Qiyun’s stairs was gentle and short, but in the rain and humidity, my pace left me sopping by the time I climbed to the main gate. From there, Qiyun’s paths wound along the cliff sides and up to its peaks. Everywhere, alcoves hid graves, altars, and shrines to Taoist heroes and gods, and hidden speakers whispered the plucked notes of a guzhen. Here and there out of the trees and rocks rose temples dating from the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

Perhaps the spookiest place on the mountain was a huge, sheltered recess which housed a few dozen statues and carvings. I ducked into one cave, lined on both sides with the crumbling visages of ancient priests. The cave plunged into darkness behind a large altar, and I tip-toed in.

The darkness was encompassing, but in the back reaches of the cave, golds and whites glittered in the dark. As I stood, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the black, bats squealed and shuffled just above me. I began to make out figures in the gloom.

Gods, or demons, many armed and many eyed. Some snarled and brandished weapons. Other just sat and stared. Silence, except for the bats.

I battled a sense of unease that tried to force me back into the light, and tried to take it in. When I turned finally retreated out into the haze of murky daylight, an odd sort of relief washed over me, despite the thickening rain.

Out of the alcove, the path climbed to a plateau upon which sits an ancient village, its walls plastered white and its roofs black in the Huizhou style. The village clung to the cliffs, looking out on the river below which hugged the Anhui hills as it cut through more white-and-black hamlets. A giant yinyang was shaved out of the fields at the foot of the mountain, and all around clouds wreathed the trees.

More ancient temples were scattered among the Huizhou homes, many of which made use of their bottom floors to sell food and beer, souvenirs, or joss sticks for burning in offering to the gods. After clambering down one set of rain slicked stairs, I found some dinosaur footprints alongside a decorative archway that was more than 600 years old.

I spent a couple more hours climbing up and down stairs, squeezing between rocks, and stepping through temple halls before the rain began to fall in earnest. I tucked my camera deep in my bag and ran to the top of the highest peak. From the top I saw nothing but the clouds and heard nothing but the drip of the rain.

Spirited away, just as Qiyun promised.

Without an umbrella or a rain jacket, I ran the paths back to the main gate, then down the stairs to the village below. I only fell once.

I arrived at the crossroads where the bus had left me, and I stood in the drizzle waiting for it to return. I tried in vain to flag down a few passing tourist buses, then finally stuck out my thumb. Only a moment went by before a middle-aged woman pulled up and asked if I needed a lift back to Tunxi. I thanked her profusely and asked how much she wanted.

“Just pay whatever you think is fair,” she said.

As we wound along the country roads I dozed off in the front seat and dreamed of clouds.


History in Huizhou Country

October 4, 2015 – Tunxi, Anhui Province

My legs felt liked they’d been beaten with hardwood staves, but the thing I felt most was fear.

After what I’d just experienced on Huangshan, there was no way I was going to find a room for the night in the nearby town of Tunxi, where I planned to base myself for the next couple of days.

Tunxi, hosting a mere 150,000 people, is the central district of the greater Huangshan City and with its busy bus station, it serves as something of a gateway to both the mountain and the outlying Huizhou villages.

The Huizhou region of southern Anhui province boasts its own distinct culture, including its own language – which is mutually unintelligible with standard Mandarin – its own culinary style – which is recognized as one of China’s eight main cuisines – and most recognizably, its own architecture – which has earned two of the area’s ancient villages World Heritage status.

And that’s why I was there. Rather, why I’d planned to be there, if I could find a place to sleep.

I caught the late-afternoon bus to Tunxi, about an hour from Huangshan, after spending an hour in a Chinese restaurant bashing my head against the spotty internet and failing to find an available room. Fingers crossed, I arrived outside of the city’s famous Old Town, a touristy street full of Huizhou-style buildings, antique shops, souvenir stands, and packed-house restaurants.

My guidebook only listed two hostels, so it was going to be that or pay Huangshan-summit prices for a too-big bed. If I was lucky. The first hostel I tried was booked up. Along the humming Old Town street, things looked bleak. I started to prepare myself to sleep in my tent in a park corner. Two Germans I met once in Kyrgyzstan had done this for a month in China. They said the police only bothered them sometimes. I also considered what it would be like to sleep face down on the table top at KFC. Chinese friends of mine do this all the time.

But I caught a break. The second hostel had a single bunk left. It was mine. No parks or KFC table-tops. The fear dissipated. All that was left was the wood-cane pain. I booked a bunk for two nights just to be sure, then took my first shower in three days. When the front desk attendant rented me a towel she told me to bring my deposit slip back to the desk.

After I showered, she emphasized.

Cleaned up, I wandered the sea of people along Old Street, trying to marvel at the Ming Dynasty-era architecture without knocking anyone over. The sun blazed through the legion of Chinese flags adorning the eaves in celebration of national week and turned the crowd orange. When the sun set, so did I.

Morning came early after sweating it out in my hostel bunk. I set out in the dark for Hongcun Ancient Village, about an hour and a half from Tunxi brushing against the southwestern slope of Huangshan. Getting there required taking a long-distance bus to a different county bus station, then transferring to local bus. My first bus was nearly an hour late – this was normal – so I arrived later than I’d hoped, and The Horde had already arrived.

I ducked out of the main square and into Hongcun’s still-deserted back alleys.

Hongcun was founded during the Southern Song dynasty with a history stretching more than 900 years. For much of its history it, its residents were mostly merchant families, which used their fortunes to construct elaborate entranceways famed for their distinct horsehead eaves and intricately carvings adorning the tops of their doorways. Homes in Hongcun mostly date from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, between about 600 and 200 years old, and are typical of Huizhou style: white walls with black tiled roofs and those horsehead eaves, originally designed to prevent the spread of fires before taking on a more decorative nature.

Hongcun, in particular, has an irrigation system composed of a large lake, a small lake, and a stream, which flows alongside winding stone alleyways of village, flushing water all the way through and providing a convenient place to wash vegetables or clean out chicken innards. The village elders designed the village in the shape of an ox, two trees making up its horns, the hill at the back the head, the lakes and stream making up its entrails, and the four bridges that span it making up the ox’s legs. Purportedly, this formation resulted in some positive geomancy.

For Westerners, the most distinctive feature is the main bridge leading over the south lake into the village. That’s because Hongcun was the setting for a number of shots in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the bridge featured in the opening shot.

Hongcun's famous bridge was featured in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Hongcun’s famous bridge was featured in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

But I was more giddy to find that the oldest surviving building in Hongcun once served as the headquarters for the Taiping Heavenly King.

A historical aside:

In 1837, a would-be imperial scholar, a Hakka-minority born named Hong Xiuquan failed the imperial service examination – which had a pass rate of about 1 percent – again, this time due to what was apparently a nervous breakdown. The mental break brought on dreams and hallucinations of terrifying intensity. Six years later, upon reading Christian tracts gifted to his family nearly a decade earlier, he reinterpreted this dreams as mystical, heaven-sent visions. Then he declared he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. And he began to gather a flock.

By 1850, Hong Xiuquan had a following that numbered in the tens of thousands. The increasingly alarmed imperial authorities tried to disperse the multitude in 1851, but Hong Xiuquan’s followers routed them, then beat back a full-scale assault by the imperial army. On January 11, 1851 Hong Xiuquan declared that the Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace had arrived in China.

For the next 14 years, China would be riven in two pieces – Southern China the domain of the Taiping with their capital at Nanjing, Northern China the domain of the Manchurian emperor with his capital at Beijing. Over that time, perhaps as many as 100 million people would die (though a precise estimate is hard to come by), some by violence, some by disease, some by starvation.

Sometime in those years between 1843 and 1964, Hong Xiuquan lived, preached, and commanded from a small, stone gate tower in a little village in Anhui Province. And I was standing in it.

The Heavenly King made his headquarters in this watchtower, the oldest building in Hongcun.

The Heavenly King made his headquarters in this watchtower, the oldest building in Hongcun.

My moment of wonder, didn’t last long. The village peace was soon shattered by the omnipresent scourge of Chinese tourist sites: Chinese tour groups, each equipped with its own speaker-equipped tour guide.

Through the narrow stone lines their tinny drone hounded me as I skipped from one village tourist site to the next, never quite escaping except in gloom of dusty, lonely alcoves in the back corners of ancestral temples.

Nevertheless, there was always just enough breathing room to admire the never-quite-the-same wood carvings that shaded the window light set in those distinct whitewashed walls.

I spent a few hours marching along with the crowds, snacking on a local style of tofu, and trying my best to imagine what the village would’ve been like in the 1850s as longhaired rebels crowded the lanes, or in the 1940s when a ragged band of communist soldiers including Mao Zedong made Hongcun a hotel during the Long March.

By the time I felt like I’d marveled enough, there was just enough time left to try to make a quick tour of the bamboo sea a few kilometers up the road. The first cab refused to take me, saying that the traffic was too bad. I had a hard time believing it, as my destination was just up the road, and found room in a van instead.

Thirty minutes later, I was on the main road to the bamboo sea. I could still see the village gate through the choking exhaust of unmoving buses. Should’ve listened to the cabbie.

The time started to press one me. The van driver told me not to worry, I could just call him when I was done with the bamboo and he’d take me back to Tunxi. For about 500 yuan. The bus was 18. No thanks. I paid him 25 yuan for the 300 meters we’d moved and jumped out into the traffic jam.

As I walked along the road back to Hongcun, I tried to imagine the army of the Heavenly King tramping through the lush and sweltering hills around me. I tried to put myself behind the eyes of Zeng Guofan – commander of the Hunanese Provincial Army who would in 1864 finally capture Nanjing and bring an end to the war – as he peered into the winter mists from the mountain peaks to the north, unable to see his enemy, sure of his impending destruction, and paralyzed with fear and regret. And I tried to picture the barren and blackened earth that pushed the price of human flesh so high in Anhui in the last days of the Taiping Civil War that only the richest of folk could afford to eat their dead.

Around me, the yellow grasses swayed, peaceful and alive in the afternoon breeze.

Anhui grass

Anhui grass

Shades of Red on the Yellow Mountain

Holidays being what they are, I wasn’t able to get a bus out of Hangzhou until three hours after the first one left, which crimped my plans for climbing Huangshan.

Rising out of the Anhui bamboo forests, the Huangshan range is known for its jagged and jutting granite peaks thrusting more than 1,800 meters out of a sea of clouds into the blue. The mountain, which translates as Yellow Mountain in English, inspired an entire school of Chinese painting. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the peak has held renown in China for more than 2000 years, and some of its 10,000 steps are said to have been constructed as long as 1,500 years ago. Today it’s one of the most popular tourism sites in China and, being located just a few hours from Hangzhou, I got it into my head to climb it.

The only problem was, given those 10,000 steps, Huangshan isn’t the easiest climb. And since I wanted to summit before sunset, my three-hour delay, coupled with one of China’s ubiquitous traffic jams, was jamming up my plans.

There are two main routes up the mountain – well three if you count the three different cable cars, which I don’t – a 15-kilometer climb among some of the mountains most well-known geologic features or a 7.5-kilometer climb up the east side. I’d planned on the long route, but given my time constraints, I decided on Option 2. Still, by the time I’d bought my ticket and taken the shuttle to the base, it was already 3 p.m.

My guidebook says the climb takes 2.5 hours. The sun starts to set at 5:30 p.m. I was going to have to run.

So I did. Taking steps two at a time and dappling the stones with my sweat, I hoofed the four-mile climb in an hour and a half, shrugging off the shouts of “Look, look! Running foreigner!” and even stopping to snap some pictures and make some new friends, two of which mentioned they’d each make an excellent girlfriend. I declined.

And then I was at the top.

I’d packed a borrowed tent with plans to camp at the summit, but I had no sleeping bag and no pad, only a light down jacket and a pair of gym shorts. Two days before, I read that the temperatures were dropping to the high 30s some nights, so I’d booked a room at the White Goose Hotel at the summit at the last minute, figuring it would be better to pay outrageous prices than spend the night freezing on a block of concrete.

I hiked one more set of stairs and found the place, then checked in to my bunk in the hotel basement. Nice enough for a night, though not for 70 bucks.

The White Goose Hotel, complete with campsites.

The White Goose Hotel, complete with campsites. I did dodge a bullet indeed.

Then it was off for the sunset.

By the time I reached Guangming Peak, the second highest of Huangshan’s spires, nearly every piece of ground was supporting at least a body and a half. I scrambled around, climbing trees, balancing on fence posts – sometimes with the help of my new friends – snapping whatever pictures I could. Below, wisps of haze went red, then purpled as they embraced the rolling hills which gently shaded the sun as dusk turned to night. Behind, the rock faces caught the last light before they, too, faded into the gloom.

As I walked back to the hotel, I realized I’d made my second big mistake: Food. I didn’t have any, I hadn’t eaten any, and there didn’t seem to be any.

I bought a pack of cookies for four dollars, and went to find my bed, tripping all the way over the darkened stairs.

Turned out, sometime in between checking in and taking pictures, someone else had taken it. And every other bed in my basement room. That wasn’t all: By this time, beds had appeared in all the hallways and all the lobbies. Outside on the basketball court, nearly 100 tents were packed side to side in a scene that was being repeated all over the mountain, wherever tents were allowed. Where they weren’t, police were chasing off would-be sleepers.

I realized I might be in trouble.

I went up to the service desk. She drug me back down and the questioning began. We went through everyone’s receipts. After much denial, it turned out a middle-aged man tucked in to his spectacles had taken my bed in confusion.

“We can switch, OK?” he pleaded. “Ok?”


The attendant showed me to my new room. I had the corner bunk. Pushed together with some other bunks. Shared with other people. At least it would be warm, I thought.

I followed the attendant back upstairs, where I started a pretty typical conversation: “Where are you from? How old are you? Where do you live? You’re Chinese is so good … blah blah blah.” Then, it took a weird turn.

“So,” all three young women behind the desk turned to look at me.

“Do you think Chinese girls are pretty? Do you think they’re prettier than American girls? Are Chongqing girls or Anhui girls prettier? What about Shandong girls?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you want to be?” one of them practically shrieked.

I hadn’t noticed that a crowd had gathered. It erupted in cackles. My ears flushed. I dissembled.

“Yeah, Beijing is pretty far away,” she said.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, looking at my feet and wishing beer didn’t cost 20 yuan a can.

After a half hour of conversation with this person and that, the lights at last went out. I went downstairs to find a room of snoring men. I clambered into bed with them, snuggled up, and tried to sleep.

My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. Sunrise at 5:40, and I had a couple of kilometers to cover in the meantime. I grabbed my bag, and lurched into the dark.

Down, up, down again, more up, passing crowds of people on the half-lighted steps along the summit paths. In no time, my hat, gloves, and sweatshirt came off. Wherever I got, 1000 people had gotten first. I tried to force my way up to the cliff edges to get a clear look. Nothing. As the clouds started to brighten, I lucked upon a security guard opening a gate to a previously closed peak. The rusty gate creaked open, and I darted up the steps. Fifth one on the top, with prime position. Finally. More shades of red, this time the morning. Below, the cloud sea lapped at the lower peaks, and early rays silhouetted the pinnacles in pinks.

In less than 12 hours, I’d seen the sun fall and rise on the slopes of Huangshan.

But I had miles to go.

My plan for the day was to hike the West Sea Canyon, regarded by many as the most beautiful hike in the park, then to slide down the West Steps that I’d shunned the day before.

I’d picked a sunrise peak in close proximity to the West Sea Canyon entrance just for that reason. As soon as the sky blued, I was through the gate and onto the steps, built hanging onto the side of the cliff with 1,000 meters of air below. Across the canyon, the famed Huangshan rocks burst with of gnarled pines clinging to their faces like beard patches on a high school boy. For three kilometers I looped around the spires and down the hanging stairs, through tunnels, over pines and across broken bridges, swooning with bits of vertigo where the railing disappeared and the path edges slipped into abyss.

About halfway down the winding staircases, though, I realized I’d made my third classic mistake: I’d brought half a bottle of water my last three cookies. Surely there was a store at the bottom.

Indeed, there was. Only, it was staffed by a pair of small dogs which, instead of offering me succor, chased me out of the storefront, yipping and howling at my heels. As I faced the upward stairs stomach rumbling, mouth parched, I knew it was going to be a long five kilometers back up, views of the sun-sloshed granite notwithstanding.

My nemeses.

My nemeses.

I didn’t know just how long it would really be.

Through my whole hike in the West Sea Canyon, I saw maybe two dozen people. That changed.

As I staggered up the last of the steps, nearly fainting and vomiting both for lack of hydration and energy, I nearly fainted and vomited again. I’d finally found what everyone had warned me about: The Horde.

I spent the next four hours “hiking” in line, shuffling up and down steps, shoving by in frustration when gaps appeared only to run into the next person’s back. Where I could manage, I ran through the underbrush, dodging angry police and even People’s Liberation Army soldiers who were trying to keep order and stop runners like me. I tried following a stick-stick porter whose bamboo load-bearing pole kept the crowds away but eventually lost him to the masses.

At one junction approaching my planned decent-route, after jamming myself into the crowd China-style, I stood without moving for nearly 10 minutes in the then-baking sun as I stared aghast at the red-and-yellow-capped snake of tour groups that coiled around the mountain past what appeared to be a man-carried chair that had fallen off the mountain side, and then coiled around again out of sight.

No way. No way. I shook my head. And shook it some more.

No way out, indeed. Yes, this is the summit.

No way out, indeed. Yes, this is the summit.

For a moment I considered hurling myself after the chair into the void and into sweet release from panic. Then I ducked the line, instead, smacked a woman with my bag, and went back the other way. Only to find more jams. In vain, I searched this way and that with trembling legs frantic to find an alternate route down the mountain. Everywhere was more of the same. Lines in every direction. There was no way out. I was trapped on the mountain with a million other people. There was no way out.

Well there was one: The way I came. And I could only pray it would be better.

It wasn’t by much. For another 7.5 kilometers I smashed my way through children, tripped old women, and stumbled over groups of men sauntering back and forth across the steep and narrow stairs – all the while seeing my last shades of red and trying not to scream or punch or simply kill myself on the mountain side.

Well, I didn’t. But it was a close call.