The land was vacant for more than a thousand years. Then the people came back. They walked out of mists, through bamboo groves, then up the granite steps into the heavens. They looked down on seas of clouds where ancient pines grew from rock faces and waterfalls poured past pagodas.
For centuries, this scene of Huangshan – the Yellow Mountains of Anhui, China – was the privilege of emperors, and painters and poets sanctioned by emperors. Huangshan is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a much visited one.
It is easy to understand why. There’s a folk saying that goes something like this: one will not want to visit any other mountain once you are here. Huangshan does possess a sacred beauty even though its highest peak is a little under 1900m. The spectacle of Huangshan lies in fifty plus kilometres of paths that wind through thick pine forests, humpbacked bridges, vertical rock faces with thousand-foot drops, and tiny steps carved into granite. With most mountains, you enjoy their magnificence by looking up. In Huangshan, you look down, upon the peaks and cottony clouds. Like scenes captured in ink, distant hills pop out of the mist, hugging the sky as if defying gravity. Now and then comes a mountain wind, tearing the pines, your clothes and hair. Capes snap, fingers freeze. But the wind shifts the clouds, and before long, there is that astonishing landscape again.