Travel Essay: Hiking Huangshan helped me conquer the mountain within


It was a warm spring in Huangshan, Central China last year. Home to China’s famous “Yellow Mountain,” the city welcomes adventure-seeking tourists every year who are drawn to the region’s breathtaking sights. After six hours of travel on train and then bus, in late afternoon, I finally arrived at the youth hostel I booked online.

I came to Huangshan because I wanted to challenge myself. Climbing the mountain, which has an elevation of about 1,864 metres or 6,115 feet, will not be easy, and I was nervous. Hearing about my plans, my family and friends suggested that I take the cable car up instead of making the hike on foot. I was used to these comments. When I decided to travel to St. Petersburg just a few weeks after the deadly metro explosion caused by terrorists in 2017, or when I went backpacking and trekking in Northern Xinjiang’s chilly, muddy Kanas Lake – most of my friends and family also disapproved and told me I shouldn’t go, citing “security reasons.”

As a traveller, I really enjoy staying in youth hostels. Not sure if it is a habit developed when I was a college student who could only afford bunk beds, but it is still one of my preferred choices of accommodation particularly when travelling solo, even though I am no longer budget-constrained. It is in youth hostels where I often meet people of a similar age, who share the same silly dreams I have of exploring the world on foot.

With a lovely smile, the receptionist handed me the key and told me that I have one roommate. “Perfect,” I thought. “I’ll have a companion to talk to, while there won’t be too many people cramming in one small room.” When I opened the door of room 204, a six-bed female dormitory, there was not a single person in sight. But there was stuff everywhere on the three lower beds: clothes that were washed and unwashed, a sunhat, a wash bag, a cosmetic bag, two pairs of trainers, an alpenstock and a very big mountaineering backpack. She must be a veteran hiker, I said to myself.

I might as well just leave my bag on the floor and see which bed I can take after coming back from dinner.

Two hours later, after a wonderful dinner with three local dishes just for myself (ordering and eating by oneself in proper restaurants is always a challenge for solo travellers, but who cares), I “swaggered” back with a full stomach and in a jolly mood, wondering what sort of girl my roommate would be. Is she going to climb the mountain tomorrow? Perhaps we can go together? Looks like she is also a young women travelling on her own; we may have a lot in common.

Soon after, I returned to the hostel and went up to my room. There was no light on. I was a bit disappointed, as it probably meant that I was still alone. When I opened the door and walked in, however, a middle-aged women was sitting on the bed around the corner, playing with her phone. Honestly, this was unexpected, as I thought only young people stayed in youth hostels (what a stereotype!) She raised her head from the screen and said “Ni Hao (hello).”

“Ni Hao.” I nodded and noticed the rest of the two lower beds had been cleaned.

“Do you mind if I turn on the light?” I put my bag on a bed and asked.

“Oh, no. Not at all.” She said softly. “Are you here to climb the Yellow Mountain?” She asked me the question I had in mind for her.

“Yes. Are you going to the mountain tomorrow too?” It was an obvious question for me to ask. Who staying here isn’t climbing the mountain the entire city is famous for? I was just trying to continue the conversation.

“No,” she said. “I already did the mountain…well…a few days ago.” Right at the moment when I intended to ask when she was leaving, she gave me the answer. “Tomorrow, I am going to Wuyuan.”

Then she started to tell me how strategically this city is located and how she has used it as a base for travelling to spots nearby for the last ten days.

She sounds like a very savvy traveller.

“I don’t want to go on a holiday just for one place. If I pack my bag, I want to maximize my time away from home.”

“Are you here just for one day or two? That’s a pity. You should stay here longer.”

“You see – I came prepared. With all my protections from the sun: over sleeves, sun-hats, sun cream, sunglasses…”

While she was talking (very chattery!) I looked at her, not just because it was polite to do so but also to satisfy my curiosity. She was about my mother’s age, mid-fifties I reckon. Although she has a few grey hairs and wrinkles on her face, she seemed quite energetic and cheerful.

“Are you a frequent traveller?” She must be, I thought.

“No, it is my first time to travel by myself. I have planned this holiday for months. So far it has not disappointed me.”

I was shocked.

I was definitely not as organized as she was the first time I travelled independently. “You are very organized and it seems you have done a lot of homework.” I said admittedly with an admiring smile.

Then, she spent the next twenty minutes explaining how she had prepared for the trip, very proudly. From searching for information online on various spots to designing her own programme, from booking transport and accommodation to packing her bags smartly, she enthusiastically shared what she did in the past few weeks to prepare for the trip.

I was bewildered.

She was explaining everything she did in the last months but didn’t mention any family or friends. No husband, nor children or parents. More importantly, a woman at her age would normally travel with family and friends. But she was alone.

I didn’t want to be rude, so I tried to hold my tongue, in spite of my curiosity.

But I failed.

“You are very brave to travel on you own for the first time and for a long trip. Why don’t you travel in a group or with families?” I knew I was being annoying and intruding on her privacy.

“Group tours are so boring! I have done group tours in my whole life. Now I want to try something different.” she continued.

“My family is boring too!” I replied. We both laughed out loud.

“My husband only goes on group tours and never enjoys the sceneries but is always whining. My son and daughter are even ‘worse’ – they are so slow! When I said we should leave hotel at 8:30 in the morning, I would be grateful if we can get downstairs by 9:30. They have every ‘tactic’ to stall. Mum, I don’t want to get up. Mum, I can’t find my socks. Mum, can we leave later? Mum, how far is this place? Mum this and Mum that. I literally want to ‘abandon’ them and leave the hotel without them. But I didn’t,” she said.

“You did it this time.” I grinned.

“Yes!” She raised her voice, and it seemed as if something had been switched on. She went on eagerly. “After my recent retirement, I finally realised that I should do something for myself. I have been a dedicated mum and wife for the past thirty years. It is now time to dedicate my energy to myself. I have always wanted to go hiking but my husband and children don’t like outdoor activities. When I decided to take the trip on my own, all my families tried to talk me out of it because it is unprecedented to them. I have always stuck to them, travelling or not. Now I want to be away for days and travelling to mountains and villages. It is unacceptable to them. But I am determined. I am going anyway. So…here I am. I love them, but I need to love myself now.”

I didn’t expect to hear all this, but was very pleased I did. It was exactly the type of conversation I was looking for – a conversation with someone who shares the same passion for travel and life.

“You are very courageous.” I broke the brief silence and looked at her, respectfully.

She burst into laughter and tried to play it down. “Nah…I am just being myself. I have shelved myself for others my whole life. Now it is time to be myself and live for myself.”

Then she went back to checking her phone.

The next day, when I got up early to be ready for mountaineering, she was already gone. But her luggage was still there. I imagined she must be at another spot close by.

Betty hiking Yellow Mountain. Credit: Betty Xiao.

On the bus to the foot of the mountain, I was thinking about her.

As a young woman who travels frequently and independently, my friends and family members often label me as adventurous. However, it is this woman who taught me the definition of being adventurous and true to oneself. Being adventurous and true to oneself is choosing to do something even when everybody else believes you cannot and should not do that one thing.

My friends thought that I couldn’t and shouldn’t climb all the way up to the top of Huangshan. That I needed to take the cable car. But after eight hours of hardship, I finally finished scaling Yellow Mountain, and stood on the top. I didn’t just conquer Huangshan – I also conquered the mountain within me. And the view was everything I thought it would be.

About the author

Betty is a frequent solo traveller who has met a number of interesting people during her many trips both in China and abroad. She shares her travel stories in the WeChat account “蒲公英行旅” or “Travelling Dandelion” to keep a record of the beautiful moments in her life. Betty is also a co-producer and co-host for the Chinese-language version of the Beijing-based Environment China Podcast, an audio programme that discusses China’s environment and energy matters with academics, researchers, entrepreneurs, and more.