China: Descending into the Huangshan Canyon and Traveling Back in Time (Part 5)
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.
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
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Contents of this article:
© O. Robert
The Huangshan National Park has only been open to the public for a few decades and has quickly become one of the most famous wonders of the world among black and white landscape photographers. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the park attracts more than 3 million visitors each year.
In addition to its extraordinary landscapes, it also has unique botanical and faunal characteristics. If you are visiting Huangshan for the first time, it is important to prepare well for the trip given the immense size of this natural park.
These celestial mountains, which seem to come straight out of a traditional Chinese painting, span several hectares and offer visitors a multitude of photogenic viewpoints. But if there were to be one spot that should capture our attention as photographers more than the others, it is undoubtedly the canyon.
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and Ball Head S3. The lightest and strongest carbon and steel system for landscape photography.
Going Back in Time
The descent into this canyon allows you to observe the terrain in an entirely different way by penetrating into the heart of these forests of rocky peaks down to their bases. The journey takes several hours and requires good physical condition, even if it is only downhill. Most importantly, it makes you aware of the scale of these terrains, the inexplicable height of these peaks, and the millions of years that have shaped them.
The further you progress, the more you feel like you are going back in time. This geological time that escapes any human reference and gives these mountains a supernatural presence.
Closed in winter for safety reasons, this canyon will allow you to appreciate the enormity of these rock formations by getting a bit closer to them. You will be captivated by the twisted trees that have clung to these rocks, sometimes for hundreds of years, drawing their nutrients from the rock through an acid produced by their roots that slowly dissolves the minerals.
It is better to be prepared in several ways when descending into this canyon. Let's see why.
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A Dizzying Descent
As is the case everywhere else in Huangshan, the paths are made entirely of stone steps. And when I say steps, I mean thousands of steps. Naturally, given the unique terrain that we all come to capture in images, it is rare to be able to progress on flat ground in Huangshan (see photo on the left below).
I can't help but think each time about the people who built these staircases into the rock, taking considerable risks. While the Chinese have repeatedly proven their ability to defy imagination in terms of construction, I can only imagine the number of accidents they must have had to endure in these mountains to allow us to enjoy them safely today.
My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. The camera clip that safely frees up your hands.
As mentioned earlier, the canyon is not accessible year-round. If you wish to see it, you'll need to avoid going to Huangshan in winter as it is closed from November to March. The dangerous nature of the trail necessitates taking appropriate safety measures.
Also, in winter, a solid metal gate (see photo on the right below) at the entrance of a tunnel carved into the rock will greet you at the start of the trail. And it will prevent you from descending should you be tempted to break the rules, which I do not recommend. Not only for your own safety, but also to avoid ending up at the police station or in jail. Apparently, they take the rules very seriously.
© O. Robert
This gate cannot be bypassed. It closes off the entrance to a cave that leads to the canyon. And there's no point in looking for another entrance; there isn't one. Even though I am convinced that this canyon under snow must be fascinating, I've never had the opportunity to visit it at that time.
The descent begins from the spectacular viewpoint called the Pavilion of Scattering Clouds, located not far from the Paiyun Hotel. From this viewpoint, simply follow the trail that ascends to the right, along the mountainside.
You will then arrive at the aforementioned metal gate. Prepare yourself now to descend thousands of steps for several hours and to take hundreds of photos.
© O. Robert
A Grand Spectacle
At times carved directly into the rock, at other times made of granite blocks firmly anchored into the rocky walls, these steps in places overlook voids of several hundred meters. And it's better not to be afraid of heights. Be that as it may, the walk is breathtaking. Speaking of breath, you'd better not run out.
The extraordinary landscapes will leave you speechless, but the effort required is substantial, and turning back isn't really an option. Why?
Huangshan has become one of the favorite destinations for Chinese tourists who visit en masse throughout the year. Foreigners are also present, but are sparse in comparison to the Chinese. The canyon is evidently one of the favorite attractions of travel agencies offering day tours. Needless to say, you won't be alone in this canyon.
And when Chinese tourists travel in groups, it's not by tens but by hundreds. Navigating these narrow staircases while surrounded by hundreds of people in front and behind you can be somewhat unnerving. Under such conditions, it's difficult to stop and calmly take photos. And since these day-trippers are on a schedule, they don't really take their time.
Fortunately, numerous landings dot the descent and allow you to take a moment to rest while setting up your tripod without causing or experiencing any inconvenience. The rest of the time, it's better to be prepared to shoot handheld.
© O. Robert
A Haven of Peace and Silence
Descending into this canyon gives the impression of traveling back in time by a few thousand years. And if you're fortunate enough to find yourself alone there (it has happened to me), the silence is almost suffocating. But it is welcome when it comes to settling behind your camera and finally taking a moment for personal reflection on the beauty of this world.
To this day, I have not encountered a more inspiring place to ponder the meaning we give to our lives. Every time I revisit one of the books in my collection on Chinese culture or Taoist philosophy, I can't help but mentally visualize these landscapes of the Huangshan canyon. It's no wonder that these mountains have inspired generations of poets, philosophers, and artists across the country. The magic and energy emanating from these places are unparalleled and conducive to meditation. Perhaps this is also the timeless power of black and white.
My library: Taoism An Essential Guide | Vitality, Energy, Spirit A Taoist Sourcebook
You will understand, to appreciate these privileged moments, it's better to stay away from the hordes of tourists. My friend and Chinese guide who accompanies me on each trip makes it his mission to find out about the groups that are going to descend into the canyon. We therefore always start more than an hour ahead of them. And despite this precaution, we are inevitably caught up.
These groups generally complete the descent in a little over an hour. And when the Chinese are in groups, they don't talk, they yell. So, don't expect to extend these moments of silence or introspection under these conditions. It's better to wait a while...
© O. Robert
An Intense Physical Effort
As I've said and allow me to emphasize once again, descending into the Huangshan canyon requires intense physical effort. Especially if you are carrying a backpack loaded with equipment.
In several places, you will find pavilions to rest for a moment or take shelter. They are so well integrated into the landscape that they almost resemble the small, typical temples abundantly depicted in traditional Chinese paintings (see photo on the right below).
Once you reach the bottom of the canyon, you can finally enjoy a welcome break and head for the trail that leads to a cable car (photo on the left below). We had almost forgotten the pleasant sensation of walking on flat ground.
© O. Robert
From the bottom of the canyon, the spectacle is not lacking either. Strong winds that funnel between the mountains carry the fog at high speed. As a result, the scenery changes constantly, offering well-deserved ideal shooting conditions.
Be warned, you will not find any kiosks during your day in the canyon, unlike other hiking routes in the national park (see my post n°4 on this subject). This means that you need to be self-sufficient in terms of water and food for the day. You also won't be able to purchase a rain poncho, and rain can catch you off guard at any moment.
My equipment: FERRINO Trekker. 100% waterproof and very durable. With backpack protection and front opening.
Of course, it's not cold in this canyon since you'll be going down in the spring or summer. But rain can easily ruin your day. I strongly recommend coming well-equipped. Nothing is more unpleasant than having to exert all this physical effort while being soaked.
Once you're satisfied with your haul of images, you can continue along the path following all the tourists towards the cable car that will take you back up to the top of the opposite slope. You will arrive in the Baiyun Hotel area. So, you'll need to plan for more uphill and downhill walking to get back to the starting point of the canyon, the Pavilion of the Scattering Clouds, if that's your destination.
© O. Robert
Preparing to Climb Back Up
However, I strongly recommend not taking this cable car but rather walking back up the canyon the same way you came down. This is for two reasons. First, you will discover very different landscapes in the opposite direction. Simply because you didn't notice them while descending and because the light has changed over the course of the day.
Next, because on two occasions you will be able to bypass the canyon's most significant peaks by taking another staircase that goes around these rocks and offers new, unprecedented viewpoints. If you choose to walk back up, plan your time well and don't linger too long at the bottom of the canyon. The effort required to climb is substantial. You're set for hours of exhausting but highly rewarding walking. This ascent is particularly strenuous on the knees.
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The steps are high and do not conform to our European standards of 15 to 17 cm. Furthermore, they are irregular, making the climb especially difficult when carrying a backpack that begins to feel very heavy by the end of the day.
But clearly, it is during the ascent, as the light begins to fade, that I have been able to take my best photos. This is also the time when I have most enjoyed being alone in this majestic setting. To have the Huangshan mountains to oneself for long minutes is a moment of absolute fullness that is truly appreciated. One wishes these moments could last forever.
With or without a camera, the exceptional spectacle that unfolds before you does not leave you indifferent to the environmental and ecological questions of our time. These moments are unforgettable and remain etched in the memory of all photographers who venture there.
© O. Robert
Descending into the canyon of Huangshan National Park offers unique viewpoints just a few meters from the towering peaks that proudly stand before you. It is also, at the cost of much effort, a way to establish a different relationship with your photography by truly valuing each well-deserved moment of capturing images.
And even though the entire national park is phenomenal, the canyon is by far the most effective way to appreciate its grandeur. It is a major stop that should not be missed during any trip to Huangshan.
My library: Celestial Realm The Yellow Mountains of China. Wang Wusheng.
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