Three hours from Shanghai, Daming Shan is a smaller, less touristy alternative to Huangshan or Yellow Mountain, Anhui's most famous mountain peak. Blessing Waung takes a hike up its peaks with tour organisers OK Deal!
If you’ve ever wondered where the hordes of Chinese tour groups first congregate with their matching neon caps, the answer is the Shanghai Museum. It’s 6am on a chilly Wednesday, and we find ourselves in a mess of tour guides with red flags and megaphones, and nondescript buses – we have no idea where to go. We’re here for a tour organised by OK! Deal to Daming Shan, a mountain three and half hours away in Zhejiang province, known to locals as ‘Little Huangshan’ due to its resemblence to Yellow Mountain,one of China’s most famous peaks.
Our bus, located after surreptitiously following a group of English students (who, we guess, are part of our tour), seats a mixture of local Shanghainese couples and sleepy expats. On board, we meet Chris Wu, our Shanghainese tour guide, who favours sleeveless black singlets for leading tours in sub-zero temperatures. His perfect English is dotted with British exhortations and odd Dutch colloquialisms as he tells us that we’ll soon be forgetting all about Shanghai and the stress of our day jobs.
Our first stop is in Linan City, where we take a quick lunch at Big Mountain Company Restaurant, a family-run joint with iron pots full of questionable mountain meats and mushrooms. After gorging, we mingle in a veritable Chinese winter wonderland with vistas of twisted icicle formations and half-frozen waterfalls before setting off for the nearby Tianmu Canyon.
On most Chinese tours, there’s a grim determination to cram as much as you can into a day. Not so on this trip, thankfully. Instead, we leisurely wander the canyon, stopping to admire sites such as Nine Straight Waterfall. Tianmu is serene in the wintertime, with any plans to explore the rock faces literally put on ice. In the summertime, though, it’s an adventurer’s utopia with activities including dry-run toboggans running down a gradual incline toward a defeated-looking mattress.
Despite the snow and ice, we take the path up the slopes of the canyon. Part way up, we cross the water on an unwieldy jungle bridge. It’s a treacherous trip and the crossing takes the schoolboys 15 minutes to accomplish, before they are embarrassingly overtaken by a nine-year-old local girl. By the time we reach the top of the canyon, everyone is exhausted and longing to head to our nearby accommodation for the night.
Unfortunately, the Daming Chuntian hostel that we’ve been booked into isn’t great. We’re told before the trip that it’s three-star, but all signs indicate otherwise. Heaters are faulty, making sleep impossible, and the showers have no curtains. Worse, many of the rooms are without hot water. But there is some charm, such as the hostel owner’s chubby baby, who bumps around the small building in a mock People’s Liberation Army truck with red laser machine guns aglow.
The hostel’s saving grace is the delicious, piping hot food. Each morning, a truck laden with fresh groceries arrives from a nearby town. The younger sister, wife and mother of the proprietor serve dishes that can’t be found in Shanghai, such as long-stemmed cauliflower and buttery mountain potatoes, cooked with tender pork soup bones.
Entertainment at the hostel is non-existent, but one of OK! Deal’s trademarks is the ‘social party’, which is predictably awkward at first, as most forced social interactions with bushed strangers are. As the bottles of cheap alcohol provided disappear, however, conversation becomes more fluid. A crate of a dozen Snow beers costs a mere 60RMB, the same as a single cocktail at some bars back in Shanghai, and the ‘social party’ soon becomes much more enjoyable.
When the weary head upstairs to bed, the carousing begins. Chairs are brought out from the dining room, beers bought by the dozen, and more and more fodder thrown onto the fire.
Wake-up calls for climbing Daming Shan the next day come at 9.30am, unlike the unholy 4.30am call that most tourists endure for Huangshan. The difference between the two sites is that the former’s vistas include more pools and waterfalls, as well as flat meadowlands atop the mountain.
It’s rarer to catch the coveted yunhai (sea of clouds) here but in the summertime, with the renshan renhai (Chinese for ‘people mountain, people sea’, or ‘hordes’) flooding Huangshan, Daming Shan is much less claustrophobic. It’s also less sanitised; you won’t find photos of Hu Jintao and Deng Xiaoping plastered everywhere.
At the top, though, having slipped across icy patches and around infinite bends, we come across a clearing that is precisely what people seek in Huangshan: a jagged peak overlaid with trees, their branches heavy with snow. There are no local visitors snapping away on their cameras, no obnoxious snow fights and no angry Shanghainese banter. Just unsullied silence and spectacular views.
By the time we’ve hiked up and sufficiently explored the peak, the prospect of climbing all the way back down the icy paths is too daunting. Our normally intrepid tour guide Chris is happy for us to opt for the 50RMB cable cars in this instance too – on our journey to the top, he’d attempted to walk on a sheet of ice, cracking it and plunging into the water beneath. For the rest of the day, his jeans are soaked through, rolled up to shorts in the chill.
Back at the hostel, dried off and warmed up (relatively – there’s still no hot water), we assemble back around the campfire, this time with abandon since there’s no hiking on the horizon. Snow flurries melt into our hair and into the fire.
The next day, we end the trip with a visit to the Moon Lake Open Skies hot springs resort on our way back into the city, just a few miles from the Moganshan cluster of retreats. Owned by a Shanghainese 20-something who studied in New Zealand, the facilities at Moon Lake are less crowded than those at popular destinations such as Tangshan near Nanjing. Fuchsia-coloured rosewater, Cleopatra-style milk baths and skin-eating fish pools are all available for weary travellers to recuperate in.
When we arrive bleary-eyed back in Shanghai, the weather’s predictably grim with sporadic drizzle, and the natural beauty of Daming Shan seems a world away. The area is the perfect antidote to the city slog and, given that the actual Huangshan can sometimes feel every bit as crowded as the People’s Square metro station at rush hour, this Zhejiang ‘little’ alternative comes highly recommended.
OK! Deal organises a group trip to Daming Shan on Friday 16 March to Sunday 18 March and monthly after that.
For the three-day package, including two nights at the Daming Chuntian hostel, all transportation and meals, the total cost is 990RMB/person. Time Out readers can enjoy a special discounted rate of 850RMB/person for the march trip only. Visit www.okdealclub.com, call OK! Deal organiser Josie at 15001791355, or email email@example.com for full tour options.
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