Winter in the Sky Mountain World
Visiting China's Anhui province in the frigid off-season, Dave Stamboulis climbs the staggering mountain paths of Huangshan in search of a sunrise in the snow.
A visit to China's Anhui province in the frigid off-season offers a unique sunrise over the frost-covered landscape.
TRUDGING UPWARDS INTO A COLD, gray drizzle, I was trying to recall why my wife and I had decided to spend our Christmas vacation climbing a Chinese mountain in the middle of winter. Instead of a hot strip of sand somewhere in the tropics, we had chosen the peaks of Huangshan National Park, where visibility was registering zero and our soggy packs were feeling heavier by the minute. Sticking my frozen hands into my pockets for warmth, I vaguely recollected the scenes that had lured us here: otherworldly jagged pinnacles draped in ice and snow, and gnarled solitary trees perched on precipices, with clouds swirling around them like scenes from old Chinese ink paintings. But at the moment, all I could see was my condensed icy breath, funneling out of me like a fog machine.
Though the mist was putting a damper on things, there’s a reason why this place was designated a unesco World Heritage Site in 1990. The park is composed of hundreds of mesmerizing granite peaks, often sticking right out of the passing clouds, and rising more than 1,000 meters from the valley floor. Huangshan, meaning “yellow mountains,” gets its name not from any specific color feature, but from Huang Di, the mythological Yellow Emperor, said to have inhabited the pinnacles here as a supernatural being. Located in the eastern Anhui Province the park is thronged with tourists in the summer, coming to explore its waterfalls, caves and hot springs, and hoping for glimpses of the cloudshrouded spires that have inspired so many ancient paintings. Yet winter is the driest time of year, when the weather is clear and it’s likely you’ll have the scenic vistas to yourself. Our goal was to catch a lucky weather break, brave the cold, and capture the rugged pinnacles bathed in frosty rime ice—frozen
white layers caused by crystallized dense fog—in the early glow of dawn.
The top of Huangshan is accessible to mere mortals these days, with several hotels perched on the top of the high ridges, and stone walkways and staircases navigating around all of the most scenic peaks, which are given evocative names like “Monkey Gazing at the Sea” or “Beginning to Believe Peak” after their stone formations. Aerial cable cars make it easy for those who don’t want to exhaust themselves to get up into the clouds, and shops at the start of the climb rent and sell walking sticks and mini-spikes (in case there is snow) for those who want to do it all on foot.
Hollywood director James Cameron purportedly named Huangshan as the inspiration for his fantasy film Avatar, although Chinese netizens claimed he was confusing it with the similar peaks of Zhangjiajie. In either case, Cameron most likely didn’t visit on a numbingly cold January morning like this one, the thermometer registering a frosty minus four degrees Celsius. We are making progress uphill though. I recognize the iconic pine tree we’ve just passed as the one featured on all the postcards and tourist brochures here. Named “Welcoming Guest Pine,” the crooked tree is more than 1,500 years old and is a Huangshan pine, a hearty species noted for its ability to grow directly out of rocks and survive the wrath of perpetual mountain storms.
Several days later, huddled around a small heater in our hotel room, gloomily eating instant ramen noodles and staring at the persistent drizzle outside, we’re close to considering the trip a bust. Yet come dinnertime in the fogged-up dining room, a shout from several tourists outside sends all of us running to the door, where we see snowflakes falling heavily, smothering the trees with winter cover. I venture out long enough to confirm that the temperature is falling fast, it’s now minus nine degrees, signifying clearing weather, so we retreat to our rooms to prepare our camera gear for tomorrow’s sunrise.
We rise at 5 a.m. The temperature has dropped to minus 15, so we wrap ourselves like mummies, and walk out into a star-filled wonderland: there isn’t a cloud in the sky. At the nearest overlook to our hotel, large macaques scurry along slippery railings and leap into trees, sending mini-avalanches off the boughs.
Some 10 minutes later, the first orange glow of dawn appears, and then the sun begins to slowly rise on the horizon, illuminating one of the most brilliant landscapes I have ever seen. The entire forest is covered in rime ice crystals; the trees and granite pinnacles look like frozen ghosts.
Ancient Chinese poets raved about Huangshan. An 8th-century passage from Li Bai commences: “Morning sun strikes the tree tops, Here in this sky mountain world.” Smiling through chattering teeth and gazing at the surrounding beauty some 13 centuries later, I feel just as inspired.