China: Huangshan, the Celestial Mountains Between Mist and Granite (Part 1)
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
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Contents of this article:
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History and Origins of the Huangshan Mountains
The Huangshan Mountains, also known as the Yellow Mountains, are located in Anhui Province in eastern China. They have a rich history that dates back several millennia. The first documented mention of these mountains dates to the period of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). They have been the subject of numerous poems, paintings, and literary works over the centuries, notably during the Tang and Song dynasties.
In 1990, UNESCO inscribed the Huangshan Mountains on the World Heritage List, both for their cultural and natural value. They hold several titles: World Cultural Heritage Site, World Natural Heritage Site, and World Geo-park. These three major recognitions immediately set the tone. We are indeed in a site unique in the world where geological, botanical, and climatic characteristics leave visitors speechless.
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Characteristics of the Huangshan Mountains
The Huangshan Mountains are primarily composed of granitic rocks formed during the Cretaceous period, approximately 100 million years ago. The current landscape is the result of a process of wind and water erosion that has sculpted the peaks and valleys over these millions of years. Tectonic movements have also played a role in their formation.
The Huangshan Mountains cover an area of approximately 1200 square kilometers. The highest peaks are Lotus Peak (Lianhua Feng), Bright Summit Peak (Guangming Ding), and Celestial Capital Peak (Tiandu Feng), which reach altitudes of 1864 meters, 1840 meters, and 1829 meters respectively. The mountains are famous for their spectacular rock formations, granitic peaks, and "stone forests."
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The flora of Huangshan is varied and unique, with over 1450 species of plants recorded. The site is particularly known for Huangshan Pines (Pinus hwangshanensis), which grow directly from the rocky cliffs by absorbing nutrients from the rock through acid production at their roots.
These pines are often depicted in traditional Chinese art for their twisted and improbable shapes. The area also hosts species of rhododendrons, magnolias, and orchids, making it possible to visit these mountains in any season and enjoy a remarkable natural spectacle.
The fauna is also rich and varied, comprising about 300 species of animals. Among the mammals are the rhesus macaque and various species of shrews. The Huangshan Mountains also host a variety of birds, including the revered pheasant and the oriole bulbul. The site is also rich in species of insects and reptiles.
These specific characteristics of the Huangshan Mountains contribute to their World Heritage status and their importance for both geology and biodiversity. Furthermore, the thousands of tourists who visit each year have varying expectations.
Scientists come to observe the fauna and flora, painters and photographers come to soak in the characteristic atmospheres of the granite peaks mingling with clouds, while others simply come to find a place conducive to reflection and meditation.
Naturally, autumn and winter are the most optimal conditions for black and white photography. This is also the time when mass tourism slows down, allowing for more time in the specially designed corners, which are naturally very narrow and sometimes dangerous.
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Historical Temples of the Huangshan Mountains
The Huangshan Mountains have long been a site of spiritual and religious importance in China. Over the centuries, several Buddhist and Taoist temples have been built in the region. Among the most well-known are Xaioxi Temple and Ciguang Temple, which date back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). These temples were centers for study and meditation, as well as destinations for pilgrimages.
Numerous temples have also been erected in the Huangshan Mountains throughout history, notably during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Only a few of them still exist, but most are now desacralized.
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Influence of Buddhism and Taoism
Buddhism has had a significant influence on the religious culture of the Huangshan Mountains. In addition to Buddhist temples, the region was also an important center for Taoism. Monks and hermits often retreated to these mountains to meditate and seek spiritual enlightenment. The majestic landscape of the Huangshan Mountains has often been interpreted as an earthly Taoist paradise, and numerous Taoist writings have mentioned their mystical beauty.
Today, a few of these temples still exist, although many have been destroyed or damaged over time, notably during the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The remaining temples are often restored and maintained, both as tourist sites and as active places of worship.
The Chinese government and various organizations have invested in the preservation of these historical religious sites. Buddhism and Taoism continue to influence local spirituality, and the mountains are still a pilgrimage site for followers of these religions, although they are no longer officially considered a sacred site of national interest.
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Current Tourist Situation and Consequences
The Huangshan Mountains are a major tourist destination in China and attract millions of visitors each year. According to statistics, approximately 3 million tourists visited the site in 2017.
The site is especially popular for hiking, wildlife observation, and photography. Several hotels, hostels, and cable cars have been constructed to facilitate visitor access and accommodation. Numerous climbing routes and hiking trails have also been established to facilitate access to various peaks and viewpoints.
Mass tourism has environmental and cultural consequences. The pressure on local ecosystems, including flora and fauna, is increased by human presence and tourist activities. There are also issues related to waste management and soil erosion. From a cultural perspective, the influx of tourists can sometimes threaten the integrity of the region's religious and historical sites.
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To mitigate these impacts, several management and conservation measures have been implemented. Being a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is subject to strict conservation regulations. Visitor quotas have been introduced during peak periods to reduce overcrowding.
Additionally, educational programs on environmental conservation are often organized to raise awareness among visitors about the importance of preserving this natural heritage. Investments have also been made to improve waste management infrastructure and to restore damaged areas.
Although tourism is an important source of revenue for the region and contributes to the site's renown, it also poses challenges in terms of conservation. Measures are therefore continually updated and implemented to balance the needs of visitors and the preservation of this exceptional site.
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The Huangshan Mountains are more than just a collection of rocks and vegetation; they are a symphony of shapes and textures, a canvas where nature has painted its most complex and elegant masterpiece.
Through my lens, I have attempted on each trip to capture these moments of natural perfection, these subtleties often drowned out in the frenzy of our daily lives. The sculpted granite, the sea of clouds, and the twisted pines evoke for me a serenity and depth that words struggle to describe.
My black and white images are also a personal reflection on humanity's impact on this natural sanctuary. The striking contrast between the permanence of these mountains and the fragility of their ecosystem speaks volumes about our relationship with nature. I like to think that each photo is both a tribute to their beauty and an act of preservation. It is an attempt to capture not only light and shadow but also the sacred character and ecological importance of these places.
My work on the Huangshan Mountains aims to eliminate the superfluous in order to refocus the message on what is essential. It invites, I hope, contemplation that goes beyond the surface, a call to reflect on our place in this complex and interconnected ecosystem.
Through this long photographic project, I simply aspire to be a silent messenger of these universal truths, a passing traveler who captures the solemnity and silence of these mountains, so that others may also find inspiration and, perhaps, a form of wisdom.
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