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Huang Shan

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Soundtrack: 'Comedy' - Shack

There were not now many days left on my visa before I had to exit China.  I made a plan that would allow me to go up Huang Shan, purportedly China's most-beautiful mountain, and visit an American couple I had met at the hostel in Nanjing.  First of all I needed to travel to Shanghai so I could buy a train ticket to Hong Kong a week before they sold out.  The first dent in my plan came when I rechecked my visa as I rode on the Shanghai train and discovered that I had previously miscalculated my dates and found I needed to leave a day earlier than expected.  The second dent came after I arrived in Shanghai and I discovered that the Hong Kong train was already fully booked throughout the next two weeks.  So I had to buy a ticket to Guangzhou, not far from the HK border, for a day earlier and assume that I could work something out when I got there.  The upshot of this being that visiting the American couple had to be jettisoned from the plan.  

After buying the Guangzhou ticket, I bought a night train ticket to Tunxi (for Huang Shan) and set out into Shanghai for the intervening hours to explore.  There was only one place that I couldn't keep myself away from: the MagLev railway that links the city to its airport.  By my understanding, this is the first and still the only commercial MagLev line in the world.  It runs over thirty kilometres and reaches a top speed of 431km/h.  Very impressive, but there are fair reasons to suggest that it is just a bit of a white elephant and only built by a government keen to prove that it could.  I'm guessing that the costs to build and even run it are huge.  Perhaps if they'd spent less money on something a little more conventional, they could have used the rest of the money to take it somewhere useful like the city centre rather than stopping in a fairly pointless location on the outskirts.  Also, by the time you have taken at least three and a half minutes to accelerate up to top speed and the same time to brake to a stop at the station, you have less than a minute left to actually use its full potential.  It's kind of like buying a Ferrari to drive to the end of the road to buy a newspaper in the mornings. 

None of which mattered to me, I was just a tourist looking for a nerdy thrill sensation.  I almost shook with excitement as the train arrived, I boarded and we began the journey.  I even photographed the live speed updates shown on the passenger information displays.  Like my first aeroplane journey, I was slightly surprised to discover that the ride was bumpier than I imagined.  When we got to the airport, I exited the terminal through the out door and walked straight back through the in door to return.  This time I was at the front and noticed that I could peer through the glass door of the driver's cab to see out of the front, which was interesting.  Also interesting was the cab itself.  Essentially, it was just a bare room with a table (not a fitted desk) with a computer sitting on it.  The girl 'driving' the train seemed to do nothing more than click a mouse to begin the journey and click once more when we had stopped at the other end. 

After a few more photos from the platform, I rode the metro back into the centre of town and found myself by the river in the heart of the most modern district.  Maybe I didn't see enough or wasn't quite in the right place, but everything gave me a sense of modern, shiny and expensive but with no deep character.  The river itself was very wide and seemingly lacking in any bridges.  It took me ages until I finally found a passenger ferry by accident, which I rode across to the west/north bank.  On this side I found more tourists and an endless supply of dodgy guys trying to sell me Rolex watches.  Does anyone really buy from these dubious chancers?  I can only assume that it happens a lot, otherwise they wouldn't be out there in force looking for more business, but why?? 

I now tried to walk through the city back to the train station.  A lot of what I saw now was not the tourist or business area and was not as rich.  Certainly not like the peasant places I have seen in most other Chinese towns and cities I have visited, but still an interesting view that Shanghai is not universally wealthy nor modern.  I got fairly lost and couldn't find any reference points from my map until, an hour after I had left the river, I realised that I was just five minutes from the station, so I found a coffee place to kill a couple more hours until the train departed. 

My only companion in my compartment on the late-night departure was a friendly salesman working in the chemicals industry.  My Hitler biography seems to attract a lot of attention from Chinese people, including this guy and the carriage attendant, some of whom assume it is Mein Kampf.  My usual response when they ask why I am reading about him is that I have read about Stalin and Mao, so now I feel I must learn about the final member of this like-minded trio.  It amuses me that they don't understand why the kind and benevolent Mao would be grouped with murderous dictators like Stalin and Hitler but Chinese people don't ask questions, even inwardly, so they just grin at me blankly.  

Arriving at Tunxi station, I caught a minibus to the village of Tangkou, near the foot of the mountain.  I think most of these buses are independent in some way because they all fight feverishly for your custom as soon as you exit the train station and then sweep up an down the main road a bit looking for extra passengers to fill their seats before finally heading off on their way.  Two men, one of whom may have been associated with our bus, were engaged in a furious row which we assumed to be about fare poaching.  Others were pulling them apart but it looked like it might not come to anything.  Then, just as our bus was going away and out of sight, I saw one of them take his jacket off, throw it through his bus window, then march back towards his opponent to really get stuck in.  Sadly, we turned a corner at that point so I never did get to see what happened next.  

Upon arrival in Tangkou we were approached by Mr Hu, a local restaurant owner and tour operator who was mentioned in the guidebook as being very helpful.  Basically, there was not a problem that could not be solved by visiting his restaurant.  Want something to eat?  Visit Mr Hu's restaurant.  Want a hotel?  Visit Mr Hu's restaurant and he will arrange it for you.  Want a taxi to take you to the mountain later today?  Visit Mr Hu's restaurant and he will call one.  Want to go straight to the mountain now and not eat anything?  Well, Mr Hu seemed confident that this problem could be best solved by visiting his restaurant and ordering lunch as well.  

As hard as the sell was, I figured that he wasn't being as rude as most hawkers and he reckoned he could get me a large discount on a hotel room, so some of us went along with it.  I was fairly ill still so my plan was to get to Tangkou today, go up the mountain tomorrow then either stay in a hotel up top or come down the same day to a Tangkou hotel, depending upon how I was feeling.  I had lunch at Mr Hu's with Jasper, a Dutch guy who planned to go up to a mountain top hotel that afternoon, as he gave me a fascinating education on the workings of the prostate gland.  I walked around the village for a while in the afternoon before going back to my hotel, resting and taking an early night in my inevitably-cold room.  

Knowing that there would be a lot of walking and not much more than ten daylight hours in which to do it, I hoped to be ready to leave my hotel by dawn at 7am.  As it turned out, I was out by nearly 8am, which wasn't bad going.  Getting to the start of the climb wasn't straight forward though.  There were buses from the bus station, but the village was large and elongated so this itself was two miles away.  I asked at reception, who put me in contact with Mr Cheng.  Also mentioned in my guidebook like Mr Hu, he also provided information, assistance and tour services from his little restaurant.  In my mind, the two of them were bitter rivals that would make the subject of a great sitcom, just like Never The Twain.  

Mr Cheng arranged for a 'taxi' to pick me up and take me to the bus station.  He also arranged for it to stop at his restaurant en route so I knew where it was and so he could greet me and encourage me to come by for dinner later. 

On the bus, I got chatting to a Chinese girl called Li Min.  I wasn't sure where I should be getting off for my climb so, when she and her tour group disembarked, I accidentally got off with them at completely the wrong place.  Fortunately, I realised my mistake before the bus pulled away and was able to scramble back on for the remaining couple of miles.  

I planned to walk up the eastern steps, which the guidebook described as "hard", as opposed to the western steps which I would use to go back down as the guidebook described them as "even harder".  Between them were many other peaks, viewpoints and places of interest, all linked by further steps going up and down.  

The climb up took an hour and three-quarters.  The views were pretty unexceptional and it was hard to see where the tag of 'China's most beautiful mountain' came from, even when I got to the top and could enjoy a view.  As I began to walk around the miles of paths around the top, it became easier to understand though.  Chasms, surreal rock formations, jutting edges, sweeping forestation and a bright, sunny day.  

A few places were closed off this day, but I tried to methodically make my way through all the marked locations and pathways.  With time ticking by, I still hoped to be able to get back down before sunset, but wasn't really sure if I was heading in the right direction because the otherwise-excellent signposting never used the words "western steps" or "eastern steps".  Fortunately, I then chanced upon Li Min and her tour group again.  Although they were going to spend the night on the top, she was able to speak to her tourguide to give me directions and send my on my way.  

Time was running out, but I did my best to pause long enough to absorb all the stunning views and photograph them, even though the camera wouldn't be able to capture it properly.  Beginning my descent, I started walking and talking with a Chinese couple from Guangzhou.  They both had heavy bags and I tried to make them understand that, as an Englishman, it felt very wrong for me to watch the lady struggling with hers whilst my backpack was light and almost empty.  No such gentlemanly conduct exists in Chinese culture, not least due to Mao's attitude that women should be both able and expected to do the same amount of back-breaking work in the fields as men.  I did find an opportunity to force a swap though, which they found both strange and kind.  It wasn't entirely altruistic mind you, if something hadn't been done to lighten her load and speed her up, we'd still be limping down those bloody steps now!  

At the foot, they engaged in a long, painful negotiation with the only taxi waiting in the car park for a price to take us back to town.  It all seemed pretty pointless to me.  I mean, he was our only option and he certainly wasn't going to find any other passengers there that night - surely everyone would be keen to make a deal as soon as possible. We thought we'd got a bit of a bad price, but when I asked Mr Cheng about it later, he thought it would normally have cost more.  Conversely, he assured me that Mr Hu wasn't entirely honest as "He's a businessman" and hadn't got me the best deal for my hotel room.  As if to prove the point, he was able to find me a slightly better room for this night that was more than 25% cheaper.  I rewarded his services by patronising his restaurant for dinner. 

From the time I got up in the morning, the only thing I had to do all day was get a bus back to Tunxi in time for the late-night train back to Shanghai.  Given how tired I was from the climb, this seemed a good opportunity to lounge around in bed until the midday checkout deadline before returning to Mr Cheng's for breakfast.  Times are tough in this town/village.  Essentially, it only survives on the tourism that the mountain brings in.  In the cold winter, there is very little of that and the people are not rich to begin with.  My Cheng, with his curious Bristol accent, explained his worries to me that the global economic problems would mean many fewer tourists next Summer and possibly the year after that. 

I left my bag with him and went for another walk around town.  Since I bought some cookery stuff for Mark Watts before, he had suggested that a wok would actually be a good thing to send back as they can often be better than the ones back home.  So, finding a shop of such implements, I bought some for him.  I got two different woks, a rough-looking grater and a thing for wok stirring which looked like a shovel to me.  The total cost was only a fiver.  I thought I had bought some interesting authentic stuff and, because it was tough and 'real', would be good to cook with.  When I showed it to Mr Cheng later he was less certain: "Even for us, this is cheap stuff". 

Next stop was the post office to send it back to the UK as I had no intention of dragging this scrap metal around Asia for the next few months.  Infuriatingly, the woman behind the counter refused to serve me, speak to me or even look at me.  She served anyone else that came in but completely ignored me even when I was the only person there, leaning over the counter at her.  I started to make a minor fuss, but she just looked up, laughed, and looked back down to whatever else she had found to do.  After twenty minutes, I decided to walk out and left her with the pots to dispose of herself. 

Two minutes down the road, I was lucky enough to run into good old Mr Cheng who was passing on his motorbike.  He stopped for a chat and when I explained my problem said he would investigate.  A few minutes later he returned and rode me back to the post office to sort it all out.  Apparently she had told him that she couldn't serve me as she didn't understand me, which seemed odd as I hadn't actually spoken to her.  She still did her best to be obstructive, including when she spent twenty minutes setting the whole package up as express air delivery for seventy pounds without bothering to ask us if I preferred the cheaper boat option.  An hour later, we got the job done though. 

I shopped for snack supplies for the train, picked up my bag from Cheng's and took a bus the hour back to Tunxi.  I walked around there (with heavy backpack!) for an hour to see the town and spent a couple of hours in a coffee restaurant before getting to the train station and beginning the ride out of China. 


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China - 2nd visit

Qingdao, Jinan, Qufu, Tai'An, Beijing, Pingao, Handan, Zhengzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, China