By Stephen Chien
The less traveled road has its challenges, but the rewards are well worth it; Song-dynasty poet Fan Chengda said that Guilin’s mountains (more tall hills, really) were the most beautiful under heaven, and in my opinion he was right.
China offers many outdoor options for active vacationers, far from its pollution- and population-choked cities. China is about the same size as the United States and its landscape also varies widely, from the hills of Guilin to the valleys of Jiuzhaigou, from the beaches of Qingdao to magnificent mountains like Huangshan and Taishan.
Better yet, some of China’s most beautiful attractions are perfect for active vacations, where you can bike, swim, hike or climb amidst scenery that has inspired poets and artists for thousands of years.
In June, four friends and I flew to China to see as much of the country’s natural beauty as we could – on our own, up close, away from cities and tour groups.
Our first stop was Guilin, a city of about 650,000 in southern China’s Guangxi province. Guilin has always been renowned for its limestone karst hills, which rise sharply out of the otherwise flat rural landscape like sentries in the mist. (Karst topography refers to areas where the underlying rock layer – in this case, limestone – is water-soluble, leading to distinctive erosion patterns like Guilin’s jagged hills.)
After one day in Guilin proper, climbing several of its more famous hills like Solitary Beauty Peak, Seven Star Park and Elephant Trunk Hill in the humid summer heat, we left the next day to go cycling in the nearby town of Yangshuo (about 90 minutes away by bus).
Guilin has long been crowded with tourists, so the local authorities charge high prices for almost everything, especially the famous Li River cruise. While Yangshuo, the former backpacker haven, is also slowly succumbing to tourist-oriented development, it still remains closer to the “real” China (to the extent that there is such a thing in this vast, complex country), with traditional farming villages just a short bike ride out of town.
(We also did our Li River cruise from Yangshuo, since it was cheaper there than in Guilin). Yangshuo is also popular for rock climbing, as well as for caving, rafting and kayaking.
In the morning, we walked to a kiosk near our hotel, where after a little price-comparing and negotiating we rented mountain bikes, and also decided to hire the booth operator, Apple Chen, as our guide for the day.
After double-checking our supplies – water, energy and granola bars, sunscreen, and bug repellent – we were ready to go.
We headed southwest, biking down a small road away from the Li River, which runs through both Guilin and Yangshuo, to the lesser-known but also lovely Yulong (Jade Dragon) River which winds its way through the countryside before flowing into the Li River.
The city quickly faded away, and soon we were cycling along a small, muddy dirt trail along the east side of the Yulong river.
Yangshuo’s karst landscape was surreally beautiful, as if some force had deposited these miniature mountains whimsically throughout the countryside. Biking along the Yulong River was like biking through a classical Chinese painting, as we passed by farmers leading oxen through rice paddies with the lush green hills in the background.
Traveling in China independently, especially in the countryside, can be challenging. Few locals speak English, scams targeting foreigners are common, and hygiene standards are lower – on our all-day, 50-kilometer bike ride we were forced to use some very primitive toilets that were, literally, just holes in the ground.
We passed by several small villages before reaching Baisha town, about 9 kilometers west of Yangshuo. Hawkers quickly came to offer us food and drinks, but other than the occasional bottled water or tea, we stuck with the bread and energy bars we had brought with us.
Afterward, we crossed the Yulong bridge, a local landmark originally built in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), to the west side of the river.
On this side, the trail narrowed even further to a small foot-path; we tried to bike slowly through, but my friend who nearly hit a chicken earlier fell into a wheelbarrow because the path was too narrow. Ouch. Lesson learned, we dismounted and walked.
We were happy to take it slowly, though – this portion of our journey was a trip through China’s past, as we wound our way past rice paddies and fields, elderly retirees watching over their grandchildren, chickens and water buffaloes, and small, Qing-era (1644-1911) homes with minimal furnishings.
Surprisingly, the local villagers didn’t mind us biking right through their fields. “I think it’s very normal for the local people,” said Apple, with her bright, infectious laugh. In a few cases the locals did ask her where these strange foreigners were from, assuming that we didn’t speak Chinese.
We saw relatively few signs of machines, electricity or modern technology other than the occasional TV – except for one instance where we suddenly heard a mobile phone ringtone and were surprised to see a farmer above us, working on his roof, stop to take his call. Nonetheless, it seems that modernization has still left some parts of China largely untouched, for at least a little while longer.
Though we were tired and mud-splattered by the time we returned home, the bike ride through Yangshuo was a fantastic experience.
Two days later, after our legs had recovered, we left the rivers and hills of Guanxi province for the peaks of Anhui province, located in eastern central China and home to Huangshan, China’s single most famous mountain. (Huang means yellow and sha means mountain, so it is often called “Yellow Mountain” as well.)
With more than 70 distinct peaks, Huangshan is perhaps best known for its uniquely shaped rock formations, with features unlike almost any other, creating a landscape with some truly amazing vistas.
Though Huangshan is not considered a sacred mountain like Wutaishan or Emeishan, it often feels like one, with mist enshrouding its peaks in a “sea of clouds” most of the year, animal-shaped boulders seemingly carved and then placed atop the mountain, and the same quiet serenity found in most mountaintop settings – except for all the tourists, of course.
After a 1Â½ hour bus ride from our hotel in Tunxi (the mountain’s gateway city to the southeast), we boarded another bus at the Huangshan front gate, which took us to the base of the eastern steps, one of the two main routes up the mountain (along with the western steps).
From there, we boarded the Yungusi cable car, which whisked us up to the Beihai (“North Sea”) area, a relatively flat section home to several hotels, actually slightly behind the highest peaks, which are in the Tianhai (“Heavenly Sea”) area.
After dropping off our bags at the Xihai hotel, we started hiking through Beihai. We were lucky in our timing, since the usual cloud cover had given way to bright sunshine, which along with the cool, fresh mountain air provided a perfect setting for the day’s hike. (On the other hand, the tourism authorities insist Huangshan is just as beautiful when shrouded in mist or even under cover of snow.)
Even the hordes of tourists gathered at each of the scenic spots – there are over 100 named rock formations – did not really detract from the setting, since there is no doubt from looking at the imposing peaks that humans are mere visitors here.
(A word of caution: because all supplies are carried up the mountain by hand – the slow progress of laborers carrying back-breaking loads up the mountain is fascinating and painful to watch – prices are generally higher, and not only did our hotel not provide towels, it only changed the bedsheets once every three days. I tried not to think about that.)
All the views were spectacular, and neither words nor the average camera can do them justice. All around us, rocky, craggy peaks reached for the clear blue sky, as did the pine trees perched so precariously on top of them. More so than at other mountains, at Huangshan we could really walk among these summits instead of just seeing them at a distance – it was simply breathtaking.
Walking west, we came to Feilaishi (“Flew-Over Rock”), a large vertical slab of stone standing on an otherwise flat boulder – it really does look like it flew there on its own. Further down the path was Paiyunting (“Cloud-Splitting Pavilion”), reportedly the best place to watch the sunset.
Hiking Huangshan was straightforward, since concrete or stone steps have been built along all the major trails (“mountain climbing” it is not).
Straightforward does not mean easy, though – the steps are often narrow and steep, and during the peak season they are crowded with large tour groups going back and forth. The trail was strenuous, too, continually rising and falling, and sometimes twisting around the mountainsides via narrow walkways clinging to sheer cliff sides, with steep drops just a few feet away.
The next day, we caught the sunrise at Qingliangtai (“Refreshing Terrace”) – it was beautiful, though not quite as nice as in the postcards – and then we started our way home via the western steps, which feature Huangshan’s three highest peaks. We first came to Guang Ming Ding (“Bright Summit Peak”), the second-highest at 6,100 feet, where a relatively flat cluster of boulders at the top provided a perfect vantage point to see Lian Hua Feng (“Lotus Flower Peak”), Huangshan’s highest peak at 6,115 feet.
Unfortunately, that would be the only peak we would conquer that day. Lotus Flower Peak itself was closed because of dangerous trail conditions. The third-highest, Tian Du Feng (“Heavenly Capital Peak”), further down from Lotus Peak, is supposed to have even more amazing views, but the trail to its summit is even more vertigo-inducing, so since we were already exhausted from the day before we decided to skip it.
Even so, we had plenty of challenges and sights on the way down. At one point the trail narrowed so much between two mountains that only one person could pass at a time down its steep, slippery steps. And there were more unusually shaped rocks, including one plateau with rabbit- and turtle-shaped stones in a slow-motion race. Finally, we reached the Yingkesong (“Guest Greeting Pine”), which extends a long branch in welcome, and then boarded the Yuping cable car for the ride back down the mountain.
By the time we returned to Tunxi for some sorely needed massages, we were both exhausted and elated – biking in Guilin and hiking in Huangshan had been unforgettable, offering windows into China’s rural past as well as close-up views of some of the most unique and beautiful landscapes in the world, places that inspired us just as they had countless poets, artists and travelers before us.