China: Capturing the Eternal and the Ephemeral of Huangshan, How to Organize (Part 3)
Updated: Nov 24
Among all the representative landscapes of China, the Huangshan Mountains are certainly the most famous. Also known as the Yellow Mountains by a decree from 747, referring to the first emperor who visited them, these unique landforms have been one of the major sources of inspiration for traditional Chinese painting and culture in general. A journey through time.
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Immersed in a misty atmosphere for more than 300 days a year, this 1200 km² national park has become a must-see for black and white landscape photography. The contrasts between the high brightness of the clouds and the dark hues of the rock flanked by ancient pines give the impression of moving through a traditional black ink painting.
Characterized by their granite peaks emerging from a sea of clouds, the Huangshan Mountains offer a multitude of scenic facets to photographers. However, time and patience are required to fully admire these phenomena. Optimal conditions are not always present, where and when one would like them to be.
The landscape is constantly changing, influenced by the clouds and winds that sometimes blow at impressive speeds between the rocky peaks.
A look back at the fascinating history of these mountains, their origins, spirituality, and the tourism they attract. Here are my tips for optimizing your journey through a series of 5 articles that I invite you to read and discover in chronological order.
1. History, Geology, Characteristics, Spirituality, and Tourism
2. How and When to Get There, and Where to Stay for Photography Under Optimal Conditions
3. How the National Park is Structured and How to Organize Your Travels
4. What Equipment to Bring and On-Site Logistics
5. Descending into the Depths of Huangshan Canyon
My Equipment: GITZO Adventury. The Ultimate Backpack for Photographic Adventure.
Contents of this article:
© O. Robert
How is the Huangshan National Park organized
The Huangshan National Park is organized with three main entrances that allow access to the park from the valley. These are the Yungu Cable Car Station (the main entrance), the Yuping Cable Way, and the Taiping Cable Way. As you can see, it is advisable to get there by cable car (see my article n°2 on this subject).
The park itself consists of eight distinct sectors with poetic and evocative names. Thus, you will explore the trails of the West Sea Canyon, the Hot Springs sector, the Jade Screen sector, the Pine Valley sector, the White Cloud sector, the North Sea sector, the West Sea sector, and the Cloud Valley sector.
Among the sites, viewpoints, and peaks not to be missed, here are some of my favorites and what you can find there:
Highlights and landmarks:
1. Buxian Bridge: a spectacular natural stone bridge.
2. West Sea Grand Canyon: known for its striking beauty and panoramic views.
3. Greeting Guests Pine: an isolated pine tree that has become an icon of the park.
4. Cloud-Dispelling Pavilion: excellent for observing the surrounding peaks.
My equipment: URTH Filter Kit. High-quality filters for landscape photography.
1. Bright Summit Peak: the second-highest peak in Huangshan, famous for its sunrises.
2. Celestial Peak: one of the highest peaks, ideal for panoramic photography.
3. Beginning-to-Believe Peak: offers a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains.
4. Turtle Peak: less frequented, offers a more peaceful experience.
5. Lotus Peak and Tiandu Peak: breathtaking views at almost all times of the day.
6. Jade Screen Tower: perfect for sunrise and sunset.
Upon your arrival on site or at your hotel, you can obtain a map of the national park that accurately presents the different hiking circuits where you can observe these various places. There are several maps that do not systematically present the information in the same way. Some maps display distances in kilometers, others in hours of walking. Do not rely on this. The names of the above places are indicated in both English and Chinese on these maps.
Depending on the hotel where you have decided to stay, some spots are several hours' walk away, or even a full day. Plan to leave early. It would be a shame to miss out on some iconic landscapes due to a lack of time.
Finally, all these circuits are marked by small signs that blend perfectly into the environment. This means it's easy to miss them, especially in foggy weather. Heads up for those who are prone to making U-turns and are easily distracted.
However, be cautious: the maps or drawn charts that you will obtain (for free) are misleading. Distances appear short because the 3D drawings are deliberately enlarged.
© O. Robert
How to Plan Your Travel and Photography Days in the National Park
Depending on the season you visit, some areas of the park will be closed. For example, the canyon is closed during winter due to high risk of accidents. Given the terrain and the dizzying stairs built right into the cliffs, there's no doubt that safety is easily compromised.
When it comes to safety, the Chinese leave no stone unturned in Huangshan. Protective barriers are present everywhere and also blend perfectly into the environment. However, they can pose visual obstacles in your photographs. But you can't have everything.
Also, plan your trip according to what you want to do and see to avoid any disappointments. The winter season is magical, but unfortunately, you will not be able to descend into the canyon, which, in my opinion, is the most beautiful place in Huangshan. And by far the most productive for photography. For this reason, it's advisable to plan at least two trips to Huangshan. Read my article n°5 dedicated to the Huangshan canyon for more information.
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 Ball Head. The lightest and strongest carbon and steel system for landscape photography. A lifetime investment.
The Magic of Snow
If you're lucky during your winter stay, you may wake up to find snow in the early morning. The landscapes then become magical and are radically different from the misty landscapes characteristic of the area. The trees are adorned with a thin layer of powder just sufficient to highlight their shapes and enhance the contrasts of their foliage.
Backgrounds disappear, the wind ceases to blow, making way for a veil of fog that weighs down and stifles the atmosphere. This significantly intensifies the feeling of progressing in a setting worthy of another planet.
I have never experienced this sensation anywhere else, neither in China nor in other countries. These conditions are highly productive for photography as they allow you to detach from the frame of reference for distance and altitude. Unforgettable memories.
© O. Robert
The Magic of the Sea of Clouds
The atmospheric phenomenon that causes clouds to appear as if they are overflowing from the mountains is commonly referred to as the "Sea of Clouds."
This phenomenon is due to a combination of factors such as altitude, temperature, humidity, and air currents. Particularly high and narrow mountains act as natural labyrinthine barriers that force moist air masses to rise. When this air reaches a certain altitude, the temperature drops and the moisture condenses to form low clouds, thus creating a sea of clouds.
The periodicity of this phenomenon depends on several meteorological factors and can vary. However, it is most frequently observed in autumn and winter, when conditions are more humid and colder. It can also occur after rains when moist air is trapped by the mountains.
© O. Robert
At certain times of the year, the sea of clouds seems to overflow from the mountain range like boiling milk. The clouds literally descend into the valley through convection and a sudden change in atmospheric pressure. It is possible to admire this spectacle from the peaks mentioned below (landmarks).
Unfortunately, this particular phenomenon is not common. It's a matter of luck. I have had the privilege of observing it only once during my stays. And believe me, I could have spent hours in front of such a spectacle. In fact, that might be what I did...
Regardless, the sea of clouds is also spectacular and much more regular in Huangshan. It's one of the most sought-after visual attractions by photographers and tourists alike. Two of the best points to observe this phenomenon are Bright Summit Peak and Cloud-Dispelling Pavilion.
My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. The camera clip that safely frees up your hands.
How to Plan Your Photography Days
Although one often wants to go everywhere on the first trip to Huangshan, it's unfortunately not possible. The distances are too great and photography takes time. Inspiration is present at every corner and time flies by.
Therefore, it's prudent to stick to a schedule. Having stayed for a week each time, and despite excellent physical condition, it has always been impossible for me to visit the entire national park in 7 days.
I recommend organizing your days around 5 sectors, allocating a minimum of one day per sector. This selection is personal and corresponds to the best photography moments I've had in Huangshan over several years.
1. Fairy Walking Bridge sector, passing by the Rock Watching Pavilion, starting from the Xihai Hotel
2. Greeting Guests Pine sector, the longest walking distance from the Xihai Hotel
3. Canyon sector towards the Paiyun Cable Station
4. Northern sector from Lion Peak to Purple Cloud Peak
5. Fascinating Pavilion sector towards Yungu Temple
My library: Huangshan - Photographs by Michael Kenna.
Be cautious, the distances are long and the terrain demands strenuous efforts. For instance, you should plan for more than 4 hours of walking to get from one entrance of the park to another. And most of these trails are made up of stairs.
These are also sectors from which you can regularly witness the magic of clouds and mists that transform landscapes within minutes. Being far from hotels, you will find the tranquility necessary for capturing your most beautiful photos of the celestial mountains in complete harmony with these timeless landscapes.
Everyone will certainly find along the way views and scenes that take your breath away, as this national park is vast and of infinite beauty.
© O. Robert
Landmarks and Important Spots
There are also specific locations (see the list above) that offer spectacular views and which one should visit multiple times depending on weather conditions.
These are the sites from which it is easiest to admire the sea of clouds or the mists that quickly rise from the valley, gradually enveloping the peaks one after another. This allows you a multitude of shots without even moving your camera from the tripod. I have mostly observed them in the late afternoon.
These landmarks make up sector 4 (list above) and can easily occupy an entire day that will be physically more relaxed. The peaks that make up these sites have evocative names such as Lion Peak, Monkey Watching the Sea Peak, Beginning-to-Believe Peak, Dawn Pavilion, and Purple Cloud Peak.
© O. Robert
These landmarks are located not far from the Beihai and Xihai hotels. Therefore, it's easy to quickly get there in the morning or evening to start or end your photo day beautifully. You'll also notice that many Chinese tourists visit for a day or a weekend at Huangshan. They then only stick to these landmarks, due to lack of time.
As a result, these are spots to avoid during the day. Indeed, the observation platforms provided and arranged at the summit of these peaks are narrow and do not allow for setting up a tripod without obstructing the crowd that rushes there. Plan to bring a mini-tripod or a flexible one that will easily attach to the barriers.
My equipment: JOBY GorillaPod 3K Pro with ball head. The flexible, lightweight tripod that attaches to anything.
The Chinese are (very) fond of selfies. Therefore, it will be impossible for you to stand along the safety barriers with your tripod (and even without a tripod) without bothering the ladies and young girls who are there to have their photos taken in front of this unique landscape.
This is why sunrise or sunset are suitable times when you are more likely to be alone. The last cable car to descend into the valley is at 4:30 PM, forcing day tourists to leave the area by that time. This will give you all the time you need to capture your best shots from these specific spots before nightfall. One more good reason to stay in one of the national park's hotels.
My library: Wang Wusheng - Celestial Realm The Yellow Mountains of China
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