At its most beautiful, Huangshan (Yellow Mountain, in Anhui province) is like a place you could imagine, but not a place you’d ever think could actually exist.
It draws on so many associations, from every Chinese classical landscape painting you’ve ever seen – especially the vertical kind – to films about lost worlds, prehistoric islands, elvish paradises. The chasms are too deep; the crags too slender, sheer, high; the pines sprouting from rocky pinnacles are just too elegant.
And although it is horribly touristy, in some places – the Western Canyon, the Heavenly City peak – Chinese culture and commerce combined have wrought a near-perfect harmony of art and nature. When you look out across a huge vista, and right down at the bottom of the canyon is a hump-backed bridge, and far over the other side a vertical stone staircase winds between slabs and slivers of rock, and a tiny pavilion clings like a figment of an artist’s imagination to a remote high peak…
I started to love paintings like this in my teens. I wanted to be climbing those staircases. Chinese landscape paintings, I’ve since read, contain not three but four dimensions; they include time. There is always a journey to be made, up this path here, where the peasant is climbing with his yoke and swinging baskets, round this peak to the waterfall where a poet has just said goodbye to his friend and is composing a verse about it, under the pine branches to the pavilion from which two birds, symbolising something or other, have just flown, along to the final staircase, the one that leads up and up and up into the mist, the clouds, that for all we know has no end.
It’s a spiritual journey I guess, an artistic journey, a cultural and social one. I never thought it was one I would actually, physically make.
It was enchanting, but not in the way journeys in other high mountains have been enchanting. Huangshan doesn’t give any real sense of wild, living nature. It isn’t only because of all the other people you have to share it with. All the gardens in Suzhou have rockeries that are little representations of Huangshan. Huangshan itself is too perfectly what it should be. It hasn’t been idealised, it is the ideal of a thousand landscape gardeners and painters.
And strangely, entering into this living painting seems to forfeit the sense of time those artists captured with brush and paper. Huangshan doesn’t feel artificial exactly, and it is breathtakingly beautiful, but it feels fixed; unchangeable as ink.