China: Huangshan, What Equipment to Bring and On-Site Logistics (Part 4)
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.
© O. Robert
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
What Equipment to Bring
This chapter is undoubtedly aimed at beginners but could also be useful for the more advanced (I hope) because photographing in Huangshan is unlike any other location. If, however, you are accustomed to mountain photography in challenging humidity and weather conditions, you may skip these few lines (too bad)...
It's important to pay special attention to the photo equipment you wish to bring to Huangshan. As mentioned, the distances are long and the efforts significant. Therefore, it's better to travel light with only the bare essentials in your camera bag.
A tripod is also an important accessory to bring along. Long exposures are rare and often unnecessary for capturing the sea of clouds, but it quickly becomes indispensable for compositions. Traveling with a lightweight tripod (made of carbon fibers, for example) is a good idea.
Below are some examples of paths you will inevitably take. The weight of the backpack plays a crucial role in determining the distances you will want to cover each day. Bringing just the bare essentials for the day's photography without forgetting anything is a challenge!
© O. Robert
Camera Bodies and Lenses
From experience, I recommend planning for two camera bodies to which you can attach two different lenses. This is to avoid changing lenses and opening the camera bodies in conditions of high humidity. A wide-angle and a zoom lens are, for example, more than sufficient.
Although I'm not a fan of zoom lenses (working in medium format and therefore with fixed focal lengths), I have to admit that they are very useful in Huangshan. I also used them on a second full-frame body. They can often allow you to capture very interesting shots while greatly easing your task, where a fixed focal length may not be suitable.
Even though the national park is vast, it is difficult or perilous to approach the cliffs. Narrow trails, stairs, or slippery rocks also do not allow for much variation in tripod positioning. The zoom lens, therefore, proves to be very practical and allows you, without taking too many risks, to isolate distant trees or other details in the image by varying the framing.
Additionally, you will often have to make do with designated platforms to admire the landscapes. This is a limiting factor for creativity, and zoom lenses can again be of great help. Everyone will form their own opinion on this matter.
My Equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 3D Ball Head. The ultimate solution for landscape photography.
I now always travel with two tripods. My GITZO Mountaineer S3 carbon (above), which I acquired after my first trips to China. Then, specifically for Huangshan, I bring along a foldable tripod like the JOBY GorillaPod (below).
Even though a single traditional aluminum tripod is more than sufficient, there are often times when it's impossible to set it up, given the narrowness of the platforms. On the other hand, it's always possible to attach a GorillaPod to safety railings and thereby bypass these railings that ruin foregrounds.
Contrary to what one might think, this tripod is very effective and durable. I sometimes even attach a relatively heavy Pentax 645 to it with complete security.
My Equipment: JOBY GorillaPod 3k Pro with 3D Ball Head. The lightweight tripod that attaches anywhere.
Also consider bringing spare and charged batteries. You will find no opportunity to recharge them during the day unless you stop at a hotel for lunch, which means you haven't made much progress... And in winter, batteries drain very quickly.
It is impossible to predict the weather in the Huangshan Mountains. Conditions can change dramatically in a matter of minutes. The sun gives way to clouds, clouds to fog, and fog eventually turns into rain. This is precisely what we come to find in these landscapes worthy of traditional paintings. And I have never seen paintings that depict Huangshan under a clear and sunny sky.
On the other hand, as odd as it may sound, the rain is quite bearable. I don't recall experiencing gusts of wind and pouring rain during my visits. However, without a rain jacket and considering the year-round ambient humidity, you may have to return to the hotel to change clothes after just half an hour.
It is therefore essential to bring a rain cape or poncho that you can easily slip on over your backpack. As I mentioned, sudden and intense rains can easily ruin your day. And when you are several hours' walk from the hotel, the return quickly becomes cumbersome. From my perspective, photographing in the rain is something I particularly enjoy. The atmosphere that emerges from a light rain is particularly well-suited to my work.
The mists that form during these moments of intense humidity are often conducive to capturing the tranquility and timelessness that I seek. Therefore, being well-protected oneself and having the necessary protections for the camera equipment are non-negotiable conditions. It is only at this price that I can fully enjoy these moments of harmony with the landscape that I am photographing.
© Yvan Wu
In Huangshan, you will find kiosks along the way selling yellow plastic rain capes (like the one I'm wearing in the photo on the right above, minus the color). These fluorescent ponchos may seem amusing at first, but in terms of safety, they're not bad at all. The sometimes very thick fog makes it hard to see more than a few meters ahead, and the yellow is useful for spotting each other from a distance if you're traveling in a group.
Effective for one or two days at most, these capes that you have to put on over your thick jackets are not very durable and can easily tear after being taken off and put back on a few times. Fortunately, they are inexpensive. They came in handy during my first trip (photo above). But I later preferred to equip myself with a rain poncho that has a frontal opening and a designated spot for the backpack.
This is very convenient when you need to remove your bag multiple times a day and in very narrow locations. These rain capes cost a bit more than standard models but are much more comfortable to use.
My Equipment: FERRINO Trekker. 100% waterproof, durable, and practical.
Ice and Snow
If you visit the Huangshan mountains in winter, you will also need to bring crampons for your hiking boots. With the stairs covered in ice, progress is impossible without crampons. Don't have any or don't know which ones to buy? There's no need to invest in expensive gear. Here too, you can buy pairs of crampons along the way (in kiosks) that fit all types of shoes. They are very useful and effective, but once again, not very durable.
Personal opinion: Some porters or national park employees try to sell you these pairs of crampons directly when you cross paths with them. I don't want to know how they acquired them, but these are exactly the same pairs that you will find in the kiosks.
Even though this type of sale is not very official, given the meager wages of these porters who toil all day carrying the waste generated by tourists on their backs, I have no problem doing business with them and buying my pairs of crampons from them.
Plus, they are quite friendly! They obviously know the mountains like the back of their hand and often give you good advice (especially in winter).
© O. Robert
Logistics in Huangshan National Park
Although the conditions described in my articles may give the impression that these mountains are largely inaccessible, that is not the case. And I apologize in advance to my readers if that's the impression they get. I strive to be as precise as possible based on the experience I enjoy sharing.
The daily challenges I set for myself and the distances I cover with my friend Yvan Wu often make me think that we are exposing ourselves to numerous risks, even if they are controlled. Naturally, this national park can be visited at your own pace. Nevertheless, there are some considerations to keep in mind and useful information to know.
My Equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. The camera clip that securely frees your hands.
It goes without saying that it is essential to bring your water bottles. It's not easy to buy them on the way, depending on where you go. A few meters from the Beihai hotel, you will find a small shop where you can get the essentials before your morning departure (drinks, food, etc.).
Otherwise, kiosks spread throughout the national park near hotels and frequented places usually also offer supplies (when they are open). Don't expect much more than hot drinks (much appreciated in winter) and water bottles (see below).
However, to optimize your movements and make the most of the changing weather conditions, I strongly recommend being self-sufficient and having enough water for at least half a day. Nothing is more frustrating than having to turn back and lose precious hours looking for a kiosk because you are dehydrated.
In spring or summer, the temperatures and intense efforts are often the cause of dizziness, especially if you are not particularly athletic. Also, don't forget that you are at altitude and water consumption should be adjusted accordingly.
Ma library: Capital of Heaven. Marc Riboud.
You will certainly encounter porters along the way carrying traditional palanquins. They are available for people with reduced mobility or who are tired. Or for those for whom walking under these conditions is too strenuous or who are affected by the altitude.
In short, there are many reasons why these porters are very busy. It is impossible to provide information on prices here as they obviously fluctuate depending on the difficulty of the desired route (distance, terrain, number of stairs, etc.).
This is what these chairs look like:
© O. Robert
Keep in mind that emergency services are very well organized. Even though I highly recommend not injuring yourself (see below), you will find first aid stations or relay points that allow you to send out a distress call if necessary.
The national park has several very efficient and convenient cable cars. They allow you to descend into the main valleys or into the canyon. Even though I don't see the point, as it's the descent on foot that allows you to enjoy the landscape... Naturally, you can also use these cable cars to climb back up in the evening and avoid thousands of steps. However, be careful of the operating hours so as not to find yourself stranded at the bottom of the canyon after closing, for example. (see my post N°5 devoted to the canyon).
Here are two similar views taken a year apart, in spring and in winter, so you can get an idea of what the stairs look like:
© Yvan Wu
In case of injury or accident
If you encounter physical problems or injuries, the park also has a medical clinic. It is also located across from the Beihai Hotel. However, it is not open all day, and it is advisable to be accompanied by someone who speaks Chinese as the doctor, competent as he may be, does not speak English.
It goes without saying that caution is essential when moving around. Falls are common and even if they are not too serious, climbing hundreds of steps for hours to reach the clinic while injured is not an easy task. Although there are porters scattered throughout the area who will gladly lend a hand in case of an accident or injury, it's best to avoid getting hurt at all costs.
It may seem obvious to say, but in the excitement and understandable anticipation of these long-awaited moments, it is very easy to become distracted or take unnecessary risks (I know what I am talking about). And the slightest mistake is unforgiving on these steep and slippery stairs.
Fortunately, I have never had any problems or accidents during my hikes in Huangshan. On the other hand, I have seen several people being carried away after a fall and taken on these sedan chairs. And I do not envy them at all!
Here's what the entrance to the clinic looks like:
© O. Robert
No matter when you visit the Huangshan mountains, you will undoubtedly be dazzled by their splendor. By following the tips in this post, you should have no problem capturing extraordinary photographs. But above all, I hope you take full advantage of all that this unique natural setting has to offer, and not just through a lens.
An experience in Huangshan generally leaves a lasting impression on any photographer for the rest of their career. And you will most likely have only one desire: to return in a different season. Also, if you are planning to visit the canyon (except in winter), you will find some specific recommendations in my post N°5.
My library: Celestial Realm The Yellow Mountains of China. Wang Wusheng.
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