There’s no doubt about it; whatever you feel about the regime there, the rudeness of the people, and everything else, China is one of the world’s most extraordinary, amazing, friggin’ mind-blowing destinations!
I’ve just come back from my fifth (or was it sixth?) trip, and although at less than three weeks it was about half the length of most of my previous trips, it was AWESOME as ever! Forget Beijing (too modernized), the Wall (too popular), Guilin (too spoilt) , Tiger-Leaping Gorge (over-rated); those might be fab for a first-time visit, but this outrageously well-endowed nation has tons of places we’ve all never heard of that are just waiting to blow our socks off. I do very trustrated every time – and make no apology for saying so here (WordPress is banned in the People’s Republic anyway) one of the great ironies that so many of the world’s most extraordinary sights are crammed into this country. On the other hand they’re learning to respect their astonishing cultural and natural heritage better these days (if only because by not ruining it they can get more money from tourism), and its getting easy for us tourists to visit these other-worldly landscapes.
Anyway, this summer four of us hikers had 19 days to do six hikes on six mountains and scenic areas between Xiamen and Xian. My goal was to explore places I hadn’t been before, but try as I might I couldn’t be in the area and not revisit two of my favorites from past trips – the notorious Mount Hua (華山) and Zhangjiajie (張家界), where we managed to replicate the longest single day hike I ever did (13 hours non-stop).
More on those two in later blogs, but I before all that, our first hike of the trip. It’s almost a bad thing to begin any trip to China with Mount Sanqing in northeastern Jiangxi Province, because the scenery of this (amazingly little-known) mountain is just so awesome that it could easily spoil us for the rest of the trip, had not the other places on our route also been amazing in their different ways as well.
Off a 12-hour night train from Xiamen (where a couple of us had arrived on the ferry from Kinmen), we arrived at the town of Yushan (玉山; yep, the same characters as Taiwan’s highest peak) , the jumping-off point for Mount Sanqing. Immediately on our guard against locals trying to rip us off, the driver who offered to drive us up to the trailhead at the bottom of the mountain seemed so easy-going that it was hard to disbelieve the reasonable price he gave us. And he stuck to his word: for RMB100 the four of us were whisked the hour from Yushan town through some lovely hilly countryside to the little collection of hotels at the Southern Cable Car, at the foot of the mountain. Some places were still being built – this place is only just getting up on its feet as a tourist destination.
We found a very comfortable place there with great rooms for about RMB150 a twin, and decided, since the weather was so good, that we’d head straight up there-and-then.
Getting up the mountain there’s either a stepped footpath or (of course – this is China!) a cable car. To make the most of the afternoon we broke our usual rules and for once took the cable car up.
From the bottom it’s hard to see what’s so great about Mount Sanqing, as there’s nothing to see but a wooded ridge above. As the car rises, however, it glides over the ridge and the main mountain appears above – a breathtaking wall of crazy pinnacles, towers and needles.
From the top cable car station (we took the footpath back down from here at the end of the day, and it was a monotonous, knee-aching 45 minutes – would be a good bit longer going up) trails head off in different directions, and we needed the whole afternoon and all the following day to do even most of them. There’s a lot to see, divided into three main areas: the Western Ocean Path, the Sunshine Coast Path, and the longevity Garden/ Southeast Circuit.
It’s a long climb up to the Western Ocean Trail from the top of the cable car line, but once there, for its whole length the level trail (an easy stroll from here onwards) juts spectacularly out over the sheer cliffs of the mountain, commanding jaw-dropping views over the crazy, otherworldly landscape of Mount Sanqing as it follows the western cliffs of the mountain. Finally it leaves the cliffs and enters the woods to reach a couple of atmospheric (and old) Daoist temples. Beyond those it joins up with the Sunshine Coast Path. On the way is a swaying rope suspension bridge called the Immortals Bridge, on which some immature locals were jumping as we passed, scaring the ladies in their group. Just north of this (and it took us a second visit to find it) a smaller path (marked ‘No Entry’) climbs uphill, soon becoming steps, and leads all the way to the highest point of Mt Sanqing. From a distance the peak looks quite inaccessible; in fact the final ten meters up the rocky summit is a little tricky, involving a stride of faith from one rock to another that was a bit too much for me. Standing on the rocky outcrop next to it though, just a meter or two lower and thirty meters away, the view was almost as exceptional.
Beyond the summit path, the route becomes the Sunshine Coast Path – more fantastic views, a few sections of hanging trail fastened into the huge precipices, and lots and lots of weird and magnificent rock formations. It’s a long descent on steps back to the cable car from here, but with fabulous views every step of the way.
The third main trail (which we saved for the second day) starts at the upper station of the cable car and has the advantage of plunging straight into the fabulous scenery without the long climb of the other two paths. The loop around the Longevity Garden is much lower than the other trails on the mountain, but equally magnificent, twisting around umpteen strange and spectacular rock formations, and climbing up several rock faces via steep, foot-hold-like steps. At the far side a link path climbs up to join the magnificent Southeast Circuit. On this trail (which eventually reaches the top station of the Eastern Cable Car) we’re once again suspended the whole time on a path jutting out of vertical cliffs, and if anything the scenery is even more spectacular than on the Western Ocean.
At the end we completed a second loop by returning once again along the Sunshine Trail. By the time we reached the cable car at the end there was still a couple of hours light left, but although not a really hard walk, we’d already climbed a couple of thousand steps during the day, and were quite happy with what we’d already seen.
Mount Sanqing is an instant classic – it’s every bit as stunning as anything you’ll find on Huangshan (黃山), that infinitely more famous mountain not so far away to the north, but with the tiniest fraction of the crowds. Don’t wait too long before going though – this places is going to be HUGE when everyone finds out about it….
Details for getting there (it’s straightforward) are in the latest edition of the Lonely Planet China, the first to include Mount Sanqing. That’s not so surprising though; I was in Jiangxi Province on my last visit to China, four years ago, and only heard a few rumors about the place – it wasn’t famous then.
For loads more photos, see my Flickr page here.