My first time travelling in China with nothing but a backpack was in 1998 when after an industrial exhibition in Shanghai, myself and 2 other colleagues decided that it would be a worthwhile adventure to visit Huangshan. Planning for the trip was minimal. We only applied for vacation leave, a quick check on the weather conditions in Huangshan and we were off. What else could go wrong?
Huangshan literally translates into Yellow Mountains. It’s not because the mountains are yellow colour, but they were named after the legendary Yellow Emperor. This is a mountain range in Anhui province famous for it’s mysterious and beautiful scenery which appears in traditional Chinese paintings and literature. Chinese painters and poets have waxed lyrical about Huangshan for centuries, and this definitely piqued our interest to see what all the fuss was about.
We decided to take the overnight train from Shanghai to Anhui. There were no bullet trains then and no internet ticket sales. So we asked our hotel’s bell boy to help buy the tickets for us. As we were last minute customers, we were only able to get the ‘hard sleeper’ (硬卧) bunks since the ‘soft sleeper’ (软卧) bunks were already sold out. What’s the difference? Soft sleeper seats were considered the first class bunks then, and hard sleeper were the economy bunks. For soft sleeper bunks you had your own lockable compartment with 4 bunks to a compartment. In hard sleeper, well, there are 6 bunks and there is no compartment to separate you from the people walking around.
So leaving behind our main luggage and the safety of our business class hotel in Shanghai, we brought just our backpacks and ventured forth…
The train takes roughly 12 hours to make it’s way from Shanghai to Huangshan. And it was also strange that the train station in Shanghai did not sell the return tickets. We were told that we could only buy the return tickets in Huangshan. After a restless overnight train ride, we reached Huangshan in the morning and went to the ticket booth to enquire about buying the return tickets. And so did a lot of other tourists from the train. Everyone was told by the ticketing guy that we had to join a local tour group which will then include the return train tickets. After a lot of grumbling from everyone, there was still no tickets for sale. So in the end, everyone had to find a tour group to join and haggle on the price. We noticed that we were among the very few foreigners here and most of the tourists were Chinese. And it was strange that they would accept such a scam without any violent protest.
From the train station, it was still quite a distance to Huangshan and we had to take a mini-bus in. The mini-bus ride took almost 1 hour because it had a leaking radiator and had to stop at several wells and rivers to refill the radiator. This trip was turning out to be more memorable than ever…
Finally we reached the foot of Huangshan and we had a choice to walk up or take the cable car. Walking takes more than an hour uphill and involves climbing thousands of steps. We decided to save our energy and take the cable car. Both choices offer spectacular views of Huangshan. Even though we took the easier option to take the cable car, we still had to trek for 1 day to reach our hotel. The trek is not an easy one and involves uphill and downhill walking along steep stairs and narrow ridges with sheer drops. One slip and you could find yourself falling over the mountain side to a quick death.
Of course, there are porters offering to carry you on a sedan chair for a fee. But they will up their price halfway before you even reach the end point. We also saw many porters bringing food supplies and construction materials up the mountain. It looks like this is the preferred way to bring supplies to the hotels and restaurants on Huangshan. But because of this manual way of bringing up supplies, the cost of hotels and food in Huangshan is rather expensive.
After a day of trekking we finally arrived at our hotel. It certainly looked inviting from the outside. It sat on top of a ridge like a castle with a good view of the surroundings.
But the moment we stepped inside the rooms, it was a horror. There was no running water because the guests before us had used up the water ration in the hotel’s water tanks and there was no schedule to pump water up from the reservoir below. The toilets were not able to flush and human waste was choked in it. Gasp! No way we were going to stay here. We were not the only ones complaining about the smelly and dirty rooms, the Chinese tourists were similarly up in arms. The guide was apologetic but she couldn’t do anything, the hotel staff had a take it or leave it attitude. The 3 of us decided that we wouldn’t stay there and the guide helped us to find another hotel which was located a short hike down the ridge, beside a lake and had running water, but we had to pay 1 night’s room rate. We decided that paying was better than suffering in a dirty room filled with human waste. The rest of the Chinese tourists decided to stay put but I wondered how they could stand the smell and dirtiness in their rooms.
Things didn’t get better when we arrived at the other hotel either. To save costs, 3 of us had decided to share a room. Looking at us, the hotel reception pointed out that under China’s ethical code, 2 guys couldn’t share a room with a girl unless we were married… Huh?!?! No matter what, the hotel insisted that we take 2 rooms. In the end, it was take 2 rooms or walk back up the mountain to a dirty, stinky room. Booking 2 rooms wasn’t cheap, and I think it cost us almost US$100. But we did, and to try and forget about the whole incident, we used as much water as we could to bathe and wash up. We had a proper dinner in the hotel’s restaurant that evening and watched the villagers come with their laundry baskets to wash their clothes by the lake. Some of them even bathed in the lake naked, men and women together. So much for so called Chinese ethics.
The next morning we climbed up to the top of the ridge near the first hotel to watch sunrise. Huangshan is famous for the Sea of Clouds (云海) where you are above the clouds and can see them like a sea below you. However, that morning was foggy and we didn’t get a good view.
After watching the sunrise, we rejoined the other tourists from our group. We saw many grumpy faces as they couldn’t wash up last evening and in the morning. We trekked the rest of the morning to another cable car station which took us down to the base of Huangshan. From there another mini-bus took us to the train station.
And so we were promised a return train ticket for joining a tour group, or so we thought, and so did all the other tourists. But, we were brought through a back door through the train station and onto the train early ahead of everyone. There was no train ticket given, instead we had to buy the train ticket from the train conductor himself. It was chaos as everyone mobbed the train conductor for a ticket. We managed to get our hard sleeper bunks back to Shanghai, after showing our passports and yes, being foreigners we get preferential treatment back then, but at a higher cost. For the less fortunate, they had to settle for hard seats, which means sitting for overnight.
Wow! This is one elaborate scam we have ever seen, and everyone from the train operator to the tour agencies was involved. We had been scammed throughout the whole trip, but then it was just only money lost and we did have a unforgettable trip, although probably we wouldn’t want to relive through it. Over the years, I’m sure (or hope) that such scams will have disappeared for good with better information available to tourists.