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.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cambodia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.