The Celestial Yellow Mountains
* * * * *
"Thousands of feet high towers the Yellow Mountains;
With its thirty-two magnificent peaks
Blooming like golden lotus flowers,
Amidst red crags and rock columns"
"And pick your way through fragrant bushes,
Many a stream and many a ford,
Peaks upon peaks shutting out the sky
That's where I'll call on you some other day
Across a bridge that spans cliffs like a rainbow."
* * * * *
With those words, Li Bai, the great Chinese poet, immortalized the Yellow Mountains. Extending across four counties, Shexian, Yixian, Taiping and Xining, the mountain range covers an area of 154 square kilometers in the southern part of Anhui Province. Nowadays, the Yellow Mountains have lost some of their natural appeal due to tourism, but not the enchantment of their aesthetic beauty and extraordinary attributes. The looming peaks still fascinate spectators with different season tones, unusual growth of pines, figure-shaped rocks, and celestial sea clouds. They have inspired numerous mood paintings, memorable poems, and unforgettable journeys recorded by prominent Chinese since the Qin Dynasty (211-207 B.C).
When my Chinese students, Chen Yong and Shaw Lin, wanted to show me a place of natural wonder for a three-day holiday, I jumped at the offer to escape the overcrowded industrial city of Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province. When they mentioned the Yellow Mountains, the thought of seeing a world famous mountain range aroused excitement and curiosity that I hadn't felt for years.
With gushing waterfalls forming streams and crystal pools, a hot spring area at constant temperature all the year round, abundance of fauna and flora, including medicinal herbs, and lofty pinnacles penetrating the heavenly clouds, the Yellow Mountains feature all the ideal elements of Shangri La, as the secluded monks had discovered thousands of years ago. In fact, they built a monastery, often shrouded in clouds, in the midst of nowhere surrounded by water, greenery, and mountains.
At the base of the Yellow Mountains, we encountered loads of tourists (mainly Chinese) disembarking buses or streaming through the gate. Oddly enough, some ladies wore skirts and heels and a few young couples put on their best Sunday attire. Of course, I expected to see a large crowd. This is CHINA with a billion people! But I didn't expect to find climbing mountains of thousand meters high to resemble an adventure through an enormous amusement park - long successions of stone steps carved into steep mountainsides, paths meandering through dank caves, sights of flowing cascades, and perilous passages along the edge of precipices. I was disappointed how the Chinese have conquered the mountains by removing their inherent ruggedness. After all, I came here to see nature in its pristine state.
As one of the top natural sites in China, the Yellow Mountains attract countless domestic and international travelers who wanted a glimpse of the mystic sunrise above the clouds, who dared to scale steep mountain slopes, and who enjoyed looking at magnificent views from mountaintops.
Our objectives were no different; we spent our first day, ascending the winding trail on the eastern route to the Cloud Valley Temple. Lin suggested that we take an eight-minute tram ride over the dense woods to the White Goose Ridge, which would save us hours of clambering to the North Sea area. The North Sea Guest House located at the summit provides decent rooms with a bed and a television.
Before the break of dawn, most of the lodgers had already made their way to the Cooling Terrace, which overlooks a valley. Standing in the morning cold on the cliff, all faces turned toward the east as we caught the first sunrays emerging from a horizon of clouds. After the initial oohhs and ahhhs had died down, everyone observed the magical moments in silence, probably harboring thoughts of being immortal or being one with nature. We felt the warmth of the sunlight as it gradually spread and brightened the mountaintops with its brilliance.
On a clear day, one could identify many rock formations, twisted pines and scenic spots. However, on a foggy day, one could only see a few steps ahead and a partial view receding in the mist. Unfortunately, hundreds of climbers a year plunged to their deaths by taking one wrong step, ending their ultimate trip in tragedy.
After an early breakfast, we began our long descent on the western route noted for its scenic sites and spectacular views. Among many columns of huge granite rocks, the three highest peaks, Lotus, Brightness Apex and Celestial Capital, rise above 1800 meters, forming deep ravines. Like a painter employing color, texture and form in creating an image, Mother Nature has summoned the wind and the rain to mold 72 pinnacles and boulders into familiar shapes of animals and things. With numerous fantastic rock figures perched on precipices, such as "Golden Cock Crowing towards the Heavenly Gate", "Rock Flying from Afar", "Immortal Pointing the Way", and "Monkey Gazing at the Sea", the Yellow Mountains host one of the most amazing natural rock displays.
Distinctively gnarled and graceful, the pines of the Yellow Mountains survive on crags and cliffs. With roots extending several times the length of the trunks deep in crevices, they remain sturdy, braving wind and snow. Among thousands of pines, each with its unique shape and beauty, the most celebrated ones are the Greeting Pine, Farewell Pine, Phoenix Pine, and Unicorn Pine. Besides trees, a thousand species of flowering plants and three hundred types of medicinal herbs flourish throughout the mountain range. As for fauna, none could be seen around humans.
Fortunately, the clouds had lifted by the time we arrived at the West Sea area where the incredulous precipitous seven-kilometer staircase stretches from the Hook Bridge Nunnery across the bottom of the valley to the Central Sea Pavilion. Looking down at the trail from a dizzy height, I was astonished to see people, like ants in a line, crawling up a perpendicular slope. Relief was nearby; we refreshed ourselves at the Qianxun Falls, the highest falls in the Yellow Mountains.
As we descended further to the Jade Screen area, a myriad of summits, including the three major ones, unfold their splendor before our eyes. Although Lotus Peak is the highest, the Crucian Carp Back of the Celestial Capital Peak is the most dangerous. Before crossing the latter, we came upon several women - sobbing, too terrified to move - and one of them was carried off on her partner's back, returning the way they came. Barred by only a chain, the foot passage is wide enough for one person. My knees trembled as I looked down - a sheer drop of thousands of meters below on both sides. Imagine crossing it in the fog!
After reaching the base camp, the Hot Spring area, everyone opted for a soak and relaxation. Besides being known for its therapeutic effects, the hot spring never runs dry and remains at 42( C all the year round. After a soothing bath and a hearty meal, we decided to stay a night at the Yellow Mountain Guest House.
In my hotel room, I reflected on my earlier expectations of the Yellow Mountains. Although they were not like any other natural mountains I've ever climbed, but they were nevertheless magnificent and much more interesting than I'd ever expected. I marveled at the way the Chinese brought civilization to nature. They'd carved extensive steps into the steep slopes to make hiking easier and accessible to the old and the young. They'd accomplished the difficult task of building rest stops - pavilions and hotels - perched on cliffs with stupendous views. And they'd meticulously dedicated names to so many peaks, stones and trees as a way of showing their respect for nature. Although thousands of visitors arrived every day, one never felt that they'd overrun the mountains or they'd spoiled the natural scenery. Yes, it was a thrilling trip. Ahhh yes, the Yellow Mountains must definitely be included on everyone's agenda to China.
* * * * *
Published on 10/9/02