|Sunrise on Yellow Mountain|
We woke at 5am, roused by our neighbours' excited chattering. They were moving around noisily in the next room and I knew they would be hurriedly pulling on heavy clothes and big boots.
The rush was on. Daybreak would be at 5.45am, dawn at 6.15am. Far too early for me I decided, yet I couldn't stay in bed either. The air of anticipation was infectious.
A thin line of brightness lit the eastern horizon. There was just enough light to make out shadows scurrying around below in the forecourt. Soon streams of people in red caps and warmly padded maroon jackets loaned by the hotel were heading for the paths that led to the various lookouts. Already I could see a bright cluster forming on a high ridge and hear the shouts and whoops of some people the sun to rise.
The Yellow Mountains are really 72 peaks in the space of 1200 square kilometres near Tunxi, south-west of Shanghai. While they have been known and revered for centuries, only recently have western tourists been encouraged and catered for. Even so, when we visited recently, there were still just a few non-Chinese guests.
I had been unsure of what to expect. The little information I could find before leaving home spoke of difficult climbs just to reach the hotel itself. There was a cable car which ruled put several hours of climbing, but what then? And what about our luggage? Our travel company suggested taking just the bare essentials, so we did.
As it turned out, the cable car deposited us at 1730 metres, above the hotel allowing us to walk the last 450 steps down to it quite easily. Those same steps on our return were a little more difficult, but do-able too. More arduous was the hike to the summit of the famous Mount Huangshan along a well made path and a multitude of steps. Even so, those who cannot do this have the option of hiring porters with sedan chairs.
These people are used to loads. I watched in awe one day as men passed me on a path carrying single hefty rocks at either end of a bamboo pole. It is amazing to realise that every rock, every tile, every brick of the hotels (there are two) had to be transported this way. Even now garbage, laundry and supplies are transported the same way.
In typically Chinese way, the attractions of the Yellow Mountains are listed and numbered. There are four "wonders": odd-shaped pines, grotesque rock formations, seas of constantly changing clouds and crystal-clear springs. Daybreak seemed to be the ideal time to see at least three of these.
With moments to go, the tall finger-shaped peaks were still snuggled in the downy clouds that swirled and reformed instantly around them. Camera flashes went off, uselessly. I watched for a while from the window as the nearest peak sank in the mist. It had been an island just moments ago. I had the sensation that I was flying over the clouds.
Then, despite the urgings of the assembled crowd, the sun rose on time as we knew it would, thrusting spikes of light into the eyes of the onlookers, and sending the photographers mad with excitement.
Those twisted ancient pines clung tenaciously to the precipitous rock faces as suddenly those Chinese scroll painting mountains assumed substance and reared clear of the mist as if reaching for the sunshine.
Only then did the people move, fired by a group decision, it seemed. If they wanted to make it to the first sitting of breakfast, they should hurry back. The sun could take care of the rest of the day.
At day's end with those finger-slim peaks now eerily lit by the rising moon, I pinched myself. Could I have just spent a day fantasising about entering a Chinese scroll painting? No, my leg muscles aching from the endless flights of steps told me this was real.
In many ways the Yellow Mountains are a metaphor for China itself: full of wonders surreal enough to challenge belief, yet not impossible to search out and experience.
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