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The Yellow Mountain, Anhui Province, China(中国安徽省黄山)
Photo Travel Guide

Introduction

Main photographic interest: the classic Chinese landscape

The Yellow Mountain (黄山, Huangshan) is a cluster of 72 granite peaks in a 152-square-kilometre area located in southern Anhui Province. The mountain has featured in classical Chinese painting for centuries: exquisite black-ink depictions of rounded rock formations with flat-topped, twisted pine trees floating like an empire of islands in the clouds. It has also been a major photographic destination for Chinese photographers for the past couple decades and a World Heritage Site since 1990. The Yellow Mountain offers a unique opportunity to photograph stunning landscape at literally every turn of the trails.

The Yellow Mountain/Huangshan/黄山

The map and the names

English maps of the mountain do not seem to be widely available and, due to this, I have posted one here (you can upres and print it). Translation of the names that appear in this guide is as follows:

Shixinfeng(始信峰)- Beginning-to-believe Peak
Paiyunting(排云亭)- Cloud-dispelling Pavilion
Danxiafeng(丹霞峰)- Red Cloud Peak
Shizifeng(狮子峰)- Lion Peak
Feilaishi(飞来石)- Flying-over Rock
Bai'efeng(白鹅峰)- White Goose Peak
Yingkesong(迎客松)- Guest-greeting Pine
Shuguangting(曙光亭)- Dawn Pavilion
Guangmingding(光明顶)- Peak of Brilliance
Lianhuafeng(莲花峰)- Lotus Peak
Shihou Guanhai(石猴观海)- Stone Monkey Watching the Sea
Shisunfeng(石笋峰)- Stalagmite Peak

Transportation

First you need to get to Huangshan City(黄山市, also known as Tunxi, 屯溪). If you choose to fly, there are flights to/from Huangshan City airport (seven kilometers away from the city) from/to all major cities in China. If you set out from Shanghai (which is most convenient) you can take an overnight train (no. N518; departs at 22:02 from Shanghai railway station and arrives in Huangshan City at about 9:00 a.m.; hard-sleeper ticket: RMB175). Alternatively, you can go by bus from Xujiahui Bus Station(交通大宇徐家汇客运站; five and a half hour drive; buses leave daily at 6:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.; ticket: RMB90). I personally prefer going by the overnight train as this option allows you to get to the Yellow Mountain and be ready to go photographing from about 1 p.m. on the second day. I find that returning to Shanghai is easier by bus, though - on the day you leave the mountain you can photograph at sunrise and in the morning, leave the mountain at about midday and take a bus to Shanghai in early afternoon so that you get back to the city in the evening.

Once in Huangshan City, you need to further take a bus or a taxi to the entrance of The Yellow Mountain Scenic Park(黄山风景区, 64 km away from the city) which is called Tangkou(汤口). There are plenty of buses leaving for Tangkou at regular time intervals from Huangshan City bus and railway stations (one-way ticket: RMB10). A taxi would get you to Tangkou faster and in a somewhat more flexible manner but at a relatively steep price (between RMB100 and RMB150).

Once in Tangkou you have the choice of taking yet another bus (RMB10) to one of the cable car stations which would take you directly to the top of the Mountain or hike footpaths therefrom. Considering the fact that the purpose of your trip is landscape photography, I would strongly advise not to opt for the latter - it is a major physical effort, takes between six and eight hours and there is not much to photograph along the way.

After several trips to the mountain I find that the following approach is best: on the way to the mountain take a bus to Yungu station and then a cable car to Bai'eling station and hike to your hotel to regroup and start shooting; on the way from the mountain hike from your hotel to Yuping station (via Guangmingding) photographing on the way (do not miss Yingkesong!) and then go down by a cable car.

As of February 2006 Huangshan Scinic Park entrance ticket costs RMB120 in low season (December 1st through to February 28th) and RMB200 in high season. One way cable car ride is RMB55 in low season and RMB65 in high season.

Accommodation and where/what to eat

There are hotels located at the mountain foot and scattered about its tops. Whereas the former is generally significantly cheaper, it is not suitable for photography as you would be unable to photograph at sunrise and sunset. As to the latter, I recommend staying at Hotel Xihai(西海饭店; low season/weekday rate is RMB380/night) or Hotel Beihai(北海宾馆; low-season/weekday rate is RMB480/night). There are also cheaper options such as sharing four- or even six-people room with other Chinese tourists but I strongly advise against it if you do not wish to spoil your experience of the mountain (yes, I tried it). Book your accommodation through a travel agency in advance.

You can eat Chinese-style breakfast at your hotel but I personally found that what most hotels serve in the morning was not very inspiring. In the hall of Hotel Beihai there is a cafeteria where they serve very decent hot dogs and coffee (RMB30 for a set) - I ended up dropping by for a quick breakfast every morning at some point after photographing sunrise. Chocolate bars, crackers and coffee in a thermos is, of course, another option.

Lunchtime is most likely to find you either photographing or hiking somewhere between the numerous peaks so make sure you bring chocolate bars or other high-calorie food; alternatively, you can go for instant noodles if you happen to be near one of the places where they sell them.

As far as dinner is concerned, there are restaurants in most hotels but unfortunately they are infamously expensive (as pretty much anything on top of the mountain). Whereas you can order dishes in a regular manner, a buffet consisting of six to eight Chinese dishes at about RMB60/person is served in both Hotel Xihai and Hotel Beihai (in the latter it even includes unlimited beer - yeah!).

Photographic tactics

This, basically, is easy. Get up sufficiently early to photograph sunrise and once you are done explore all the peaks and scenic spots scattered between Shisunfeng and Paiyunting. Upon that hike to Feilaishi and further to Guangmingding while keeping photographing en route. After that you might want to go to Lianhuafeng but I personally find that anything past Guangmingding (i.e. Qianshan(前山)- frontage of Huangshan) is not terribly interesting photographically and would advise hiking back to Shixinfeng. You then might want to hike the whole route all over again - you will be quite surprised to find that the same places look very differently as the sun travels westwards. Towards the end of the day make sure to be at your sunset photography location of the day on time, though.

I find that staying on top of the mountain for three nights is most appropriate. This allows you to photograph three sunrises and three sunsets as well as thoroughly explore all the peaks and scenic spots. Choose a new shooting location for each sunrise and sunset (see concrete suggestions below) and simply keep cruising and photographing along the route suggested above - it might sound boring but it actually is not as normally weather changes quite rapidly and so does the look of the scenery.

If you visit in summer you might want to explore Jiulong Waterfall(九龙瀑布)on the way to Yungu cable car station.

Best time of the year to visit

The best time to photograph The Yellow Mountain in autumn is mid-October. If you would like to photograph it in snow then I would suggest going around Christmas and/or Chinese New Year (note that luck plays a major role here, though). Otherwise, any time between April and October is fine - the difference is going to be in how hot it will be (it does get very hot in summer) as well as in such subtle details as colour of the greenery and position of the sun at sunrise and sunset.

Sunset and sunrise

The best locations to photograph at sunrise and sunset will depend on the time of the year you visit - as the position of the sun at dawn and dusk changes so does the foreground that is seen from the available shooting spots. Note that some of the best locations for sunrise/sunset photography in summer are not suitable for winter and vice versa. These are the best locations for sunrise/sunset photography (in order of my preference):

Winter sunrise: this place has no name but you basically have to go to Shixinfeng and then continue further along the trail eastwards until you reach the end of the path; another alternative is Guangmingding but I personally did not find it too spectacular. Note that Qingliangtai is not suitable for sunrise photography in winter.

Winter sunset: Paiyunting (the classic location for winter sunset photography); Feilaishi; Guangmingding; Danxiafeng.

Summer sunrise: Qingliangtai; Shuguangting, Shizifeng, Guangmingding.

Summer sunset: Feilaishi, Guangmingding, Danxiafeng.

Make sure you allow enough time to hike and get to the shooting location of your preference in time. I strongly recommend arriving well in advance as you are highly unlikely to be there alone. Precise time of sunrise and sunset on any given day can be found out at the reception of your hotel.

Local contact(s)

I strongly recommend booking your accommodation in advance to make sure you have somewhere to stay (yes, there are times when all hotels on top of the mountain are fully booked) and at a reasonable price (yes, walk-in rates are astronomically high). There are many travel agencies you can do this through; I have been using Huangshan Zhonghai Holiday Travel Service(黄山中海假日旅行社)and found their services adequate and reliable (contact Mr. Wang Xiaosi(汪小四)on 0559-2511205 or 13705596548; Chinese language only). Alternatively, you can contact Huangshan CITS - they provide English language services. Please read Disclaimer here.)

Photo and other gear recommendations

At different times and different shooting spots I used lenses of focal lengths ranging from 17mm to 200mm (in terms of 35mm film format); that said, though, on one occasion I was entirely comfortable photographing with only three fixed focal length (prime) lenses (equivalent to 28mm, 40mm and 80mm in 35mm film format). As you will be doing some seriously extensive hiking it is important to consider carefully what equipment you want to take with you - bring only what you think absolutely necessary. Tripod is a must, though, as ideally you should be photographing at sunrise and sunset every day. All your equipment should be carried in weatherproof bag(s). Do not forget to bring a flashlight to hike the trails before sunrise and after sunset; also bring a plastic bag to protect your camera on foggy days and in snow and/or rain.

Issues to be aware of

  • Although on the average you will be at altitudes of only about 1700 meters make sure you bring sunblock if you have sensitive skin - even in winter!

  • Weather on top of the mountain is notoriously unpredictable - one time I was expecting snow yet ended up hiking in heavy rain; the other time I was expecting -15C yet ended up wearing only a sweater. Make sure you are sufficiently prepared for all possible types of weather in the season you travel to the mountain in.

  • The difference between morning/evening and daytime temperatures might be quite sweeping, too.

Other notes

  • Additional information on and more photographs of The Yellow Mountain can be found in this essay.

  • You can hire a porter if you find that the equipment you bring is too heavy to lug around; beware, though, that this service is very expensive and you would need to negotiate and clearly establish a price for a specified length of time and/or distance.

  • It might be a good idea to visit Huizhou (only about 40 miles away from The Yellow Mountain) during the same trip.

UPDATE - January 2007

  • In 2007 it snowed several times in mid-January. If/when it snows, check out which cable car stations and trails are still open as some of them might be shut for safety reasons.

  • Xujiahui Bus Station has been permanently closed and buses for Huangshan now leave from Shanghai Nanzhan Long-distance General Bus Station. However, the first bus leaves quite late in the day (7:40 a.m.) thus making the option of going by bus not viable, as you will spend most of the day on the road. Going by train is still the best option.

  • Prices mostly remain the same but the buffet in Hotel Beihai has been changed to Chinese hotpot buffet (RMB100/person) and does not include unlimited beer anymore.