The cliche is unavoidable: it's like climbing into a work of art; Oriental art to be precise because that's where you've seen this place before. Ginko trees and wizened pines, azaleas and rhododendrons, the seamless hulk of the Purple Peak: it's idealised China brought to life by the whispery hustle of a terraced waterfall and the shouts of stallholders peddling sedan chair rides for those who've bitten off more of the western steps than they can chew. Up ahead, strung along the trail, a necklace of panting tourists trudge ever nearer to the heart of Huang Shan, China's fabled Yellow Mountain.
All we need to complete the archetype are some serene-faced monks - and once upon a time the spiritually inclined would have been a common sight on this iconic slab of southern Anhui province. These slopes played host to Taoist pilgrims, who came in the belief that the region's unique environment presented a perfect balance between the opposing forces of yin and yang. The abundance of chi, or life force, generated by this equilibrium was said to have restorative powers. Mao's Cultural Revolution put an end to all that and the 21st century finds the vibe less reverential. Nowadays, Huang Shan is a Unesco world heritage site welcoming 1.5 million visitors each year, many of them in groups of 200.
A scrimmage of cameras swells into focus through the fog. The tourist paparazzi are taking aim at a particularly asymmetrical conifer with two boughs stretching out to one side like arms going in for a hug. This is the Welcoming Guest Pine, the most famous of the many so-called Huang Shan pines that contort out of every cranny. It could well be the most painted tree on earth, one of countless Huang Shan motifs of Eastern art that have shaped conceptions of rugged China for centuries. Today isn't the best for watercolours, however. Engulfed by the low cloud, the 1,500-year-old celebrity looks more creepy than hospitable: a decrepit spectre cowering from the flashbulbs.
The pandemonium continues at Jade Screen Pavilion, termination point for the cable car that ferries the less energetic up from the forests above the town of Tangkou. It marks the start of the circuit over and around some of the national park's 72 peaks of more than 1,000 metres.
According to legend, it was among this forest of pinnacles around the third millennium BC that the mythical Yellow Emperor, Huang Di , bathed in the hot springs at the base of the western slopes before taking a swig from an elixir of immortality and rising up to heaven. More than likely the founding father of the Han Chinese nation selected the 1,864-metre Lian Hua Feng (Lotus Peak), the range's tallest, as the departure point for his celestial ascent, but there'll be no similar stunts performed today - the authorities have closed the peak to help it recover from the ravages of the tourist hordes.
Starting to resent the all-encompassing clouds, I remind myself that in Huang Shan they're part of the attraction, providing a fluid backdrop that accentuates the ageless stasis of the landscape about which they eddy and swirl. The tiptoe down the sheer staircase known as the Ladder in the Clouds is like descending into a netherworld.
In reality the world at ladder's end is an idyllic one. Beyond Turtle Peak the crowds disperse as the path jackknifes uphill under a shadow of knotted pines, each slab dappled by spokes of light that cut through branches soaked in dew. I'm starting to understand what the Taoists were on about. Compared to the manicured feel of China's urban parks, where things are controlled by shears and pesticides, Huang Shan offers unfettered greenery in a country where natural respite can be hard to find.
That's what brought Ho Chi Minh here for a spell of recuperation at the height of the Vietnam war; Deng Xiaoping too - China's erstwhile leader, cantered up to the summit in 1979 at the venerable age of 75. The park was opened to tourism the following year and the superhuman efforts of thousands of labourers have since extended the millennium-old pilgrimage footpaths into a vast network comprising 60,000 steps throughout the park's 154 square kilometres.
The environment seems little spoiled by this vast spaghetti of stairways. Much of it looks sculpted by the elements and judging by some of the rock formations such environmental alchemy is common. For three hours the circuit takes me past extraordinary products of erosion and fracture. Most staggering is Flying Over Rock, a 12-metre-high oblong shard perched near a cliff edge, angled slightly as if leaning forward for a better view of the canyon below.
At Bright Summit Peak, beyond a man sitting cross-legged on the ground, eyes tight shut and hair sparkling with beads of condensation, the plateau falls away into a grey void. A chain-link fence bedecked in padlocks jangles in the breeze. Starry-eyed lovers come to this spot to affirm their affections, clamping a padlock to the chain and launching the key over the edge. The tradition goes that a bond sealed this way cannot be broken.
I reach the top of the eastern steps, my path down, just as the skies break into a torrential downpour. My only company now is a steady stream of porters, more leg muscles than men, climbing the trail from the opposite direction. Each carries a yoke across his shoulders, their ends suspended with wicker baskets carrying back-breaking loads: supplies for the hotels and restaurants that speckle the mountain's loftiest climes.
Halfway down, I stop to share water with one particularly enervated soul and together we watch as the rain starts to clear. Slowly, a gauze of cloud disintegrates over the ridge to reveal the landscape that led Ming dynasty traveller Xu Xiake to proclaim this the finest of all mountains. 'Huang Shan has no equals,' he wrote. 'Once on top, one finds no other match. This is the pinnacle.'
It's a bold claim, but not altogether unjustified: the proud spears of granite that serrate across the crest of Begin-to-Believe peak are enough to convert the most mean-spirited cynic. Closer to us, a splay-branched pine sits alone on a rock. They call this one the Immortal Pointing the Way - in popular myth one of the Eight Immortals conjured the tree to direct travellers to the summit after the views left him so sidetracked he missed a conference with his seven counterparts. I sympathise and walk back up the hill to explore some more.
China Eastern Airlines (flychinaeastern.com) flies from Hong Kong to Hangzhou, from where you can catch a bus to Huangshan City. From Huangshan City there are regular shuttles to the peaks and cable car.Topics: Asia World Heritage Sites in China