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Destination: China

Mountain High, Mountain Low

Tackling Huangshan, a 'must see' but also a genuine tourist trap

September 13, 1998|SHARON OWYANG | Owyang is a writer who lives in Carlsbad

HUANGSHAN, China — "Meiyou, meiyou." Repeating the word that functions as an all-purpose negative, the tall, lanky man in worn canvas shoes, pants rolled up to his knees, shook his head, baring his nicotine-stained teeth in a grin. He was repeating the bad news for us, good news (he thought) for him: The cable cars up the mountain were not running today; we would have to walk, and surely we would need a porter-guide.

We probably looked like easy pickings: my aunt, Frances Chang, and her friend, Charles Li, both in their sprightly 60s, and me, much younger, all of us Chinese, but "foreign" in our sturdy brand-name hiking boots and slightly beleaguered demeanor.

I was halfway through a four-month trip through China and had come here, to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), because it has always been a must-see for Chinese, local or overseas, young or old. Climb Huangshan, the saying goes, and you'll not want to climb another mountain.

Unlike the other fabled mountains in China, Huangshan has no religious significance; it has been a point of pilgrimage for 1,200 years simply because it is beautiful, a series of plateaus and peaks--72 of them, the highest 6,000 feet--traversed by paved paths and stairs cut into the rock, with soul-stirring vistas at every turn. Or so they say.

What they didn't tell us about was the flip side of a destination that attracts thousands of visitors every year (most of them Chinese, mostly in summer): the locals' taking advantage of the tourists.

From the comfort of Shanghai, where I'd met up with Frances and Charles, our initial plans for exploring Huangshan had seemed sensible: We would take the cable car up the front of the mountain (the easy, eastern route, only a 4 1/2-mile ascent), stay overnight at the summit, join the tourist throngs in the ritual of seeing the sun rise, then meander back down.

"It's a nice day for a climb," our would-be guide repeated. "And wouldn't you like some porters to carry your bags and point out the sights along the way, Miss?" We hadn't brought much, just one backpack each. How hard could this be? We politely declined and got out our map.

It was then that we realized we were nowhere near the eastern route up. The minibus from Tangkou (the main village at the base of Huangshan) had deposited us at the back of the mountain, at the foot of the western steps.

Our persistent porter, two others in tow now, pressed forward: "Oh, the front of the mountain is half an hour away by bus. But there's no buses going that way. Anyway, the cable car isn't running."

We decided to start climbing the route in front of us. As we wound our way up the first hill through clusters of pine trees, there were few climbers but plenty of hardy porters. Although the day was cold and damp, they were stripped to the waist, their gleaming backs bulging with the effort of shouldering baskets of fresh vegetables or boxes of bottled water suspended on wooden poles. Everything that is needed up the mountain has to be toted like this.

Our own three stooges were following us. They knew that something had to give. It turned out to be our lungs. Twenty minutes into our climb, Charles turned to the leader. "How much to carry the bags?" "Six yuan per kilogram [$1.50 per pound]. We weigh them at the halfway mark." By Western standards, it was a reasonable price. By local standards, we were being taken to the cleaners. And in fine style too: Soon, Frances and Charles rented a jiaozi (sedan chair) for 200 yuan (about $24).

By then, the steps, though paved and even, had grown staggeringly steep. Perhaps it was our sheer desperation to breathe that temporarily separated us from our common sense. When it came time to pay, we cursed our inexplicable stupidity in not bargaining and our naivete in assuming that the porters would be fair with their calculations.

As Frances and Charles took turns being carried in the jiaozi, emperor style, I wheezed up the wretched steps assisted only by my cheap walking stick. Under several layers of clothing meant to ward off the damp chill, I was sweating and miserable. True to their word, the porters pointed out sights along the way, but all I could fixate on was my next breath, the next rest stop.

At the misnamed Mid-Level Temple, about one-third of the way up, the porters demanded more money, and we agreed, desperate to make it to the real midpoint, where there was a hotel. When we finally arrived at the Jade Screen Tower Hotel two hours after setting off, we watched in dismay as the happy porters totaled up the weight of the bags, which had miraculously grown heavier, and then cheerfully relieved us of 500 yuan ($60).

The Chinese word zhan means to cut, to chop or, more ominously, to behead, but in the local vernacular, a person who has been "chopped" is one who has been seriously bilked of money. And zhan-ed we were, twice over: Other hotels were a good two hours' climb away, so we were stuck with what turned out to be overpriced and unfriendly lodgings.

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