Hiking up mountains before the crack of dawn is something I have now gotten myself addicted to.
The heavy sleepiness of the 4:30am alarm. The silence of a 5am walk through town. The breathlessness at the beginning of the ascent. The sweat of the hike. The wide-awake glimpses of a view unfolding, bit by bit, step by step. The race against the sun for the last few meters. The breathtakingly rewarding view. The peace of soaking in a slowly starting day. And finally, the contented walk down, knowing a beautiful day is ahead. It all combines into an intoxicating effect that I find myself starting to crave.
My summer trip around southern China was not expressly for the purpose of hunting sunrises. The idea only occurred to me after I followed a group of local adventurers up a mountain one morning in Yangshuo and saw a view I will never forget. As I stood there, soaking in every inch of the scene unfolding around me, I knew once would not be enough.
I was also surprised to see so many Chinese around me obviously thinking the same. It was all I could do to drag a few of my Western friends up out of bed that morning, but here the Chinese were in their groups, ready with their cameras. I didn't hear one complaint about the hour of day or one wish for the comfort of bed.
An excerpt from Carl Crow's The Chinese are Like That explains what I noticed that first morning on the mountaintop:
[Unlike most Americans], almost any educated Chinese will talk to you about sunrises not only with appreciation but with enthusiasm. And around any Chinese city with any claims to scenic beauty there are certain to be one or more particular spots which are pointed out by local city boosters as places where one can see the sun rise to the best advantage...
It was decided. Every place visited on the trip would involve at least one early morning adventure.
TV tower, Yangshuo, Guangxi
This was the one that got me hooked. The mountain is actually situated right in town, only a five minute walk from the main roundabout. Not mentioned in any guidebook, it still manages to be rather well-known among both tourists and local residents. The climb is a little intense, but short.
At the bottom I always think I'll be the only one that day, but each time I find myself overtaking or being overtaken by similar minded individuals — some young tourists with all the wrong shoes, some regulars panting to keep up with their dogs, some aspiring backpackers, like me, whose disappointment on not being unique in this expedition grows with every person encountered along the way.
An old couple lives at the top handing out water bottles at an inflated prices as a sort of entrance fee. I wonder how they manage the climb at their age, but they inform me they take turns. The husband will go down and stay in town for a few days collecting supplies and then he will bring them up, while the wife goes down for her turn. My outrage at their prices quickly turns to admiration and then jealousy as I take in the view they get to see everyday.
On this morning, I was going to the roof to secure a prime seat for this natural light show, satisfied in my 'first to arrive' achievement, when I discovered a fellow Brit already sitting there in her sleeping bag. It turns out, she had climbed up the previous day and stayed the night on the roof trying not to roll off in her sleep. I guess I am not the only one who has fallen prey to this addiction.
Yangshuo park pavilion, Guangxi
As it rains quite often in summer, this pavilion is a safer option for sunrise endeavors, as it is easy to climb even in bad weather. It is set atop a little hill in the middle of the park, but still affords nice views in all directions.
The pavilion is frequented by the fit and elderly, and the fit elderly, but in the very early hours you are likely to find yourself alone with only these karst mountains rising sharply all around, seemingly interrupting the otherwise very flat landscape, for company.
A fellow sunrise junkie tells me, "Every sunrise is different". He has been here a few months already and climbs the TV tower every day that the weather affords, so he should know. I guess that adds to the addictiveness — if one day is too overcast to allow the sun to shine through, what the next day will be like holds the promise of redemption.
Longji rice terraces, Guangxi Province
The 'Dragon-back' terraces are a hush of peace and solitude all day long as it is, so I was interested to see how sunrise would be different. As the only access is by foot or horse, one feels secluded from the rest of the world, and the community is indeed very much contained.
A matriarchal tribe, they lead simple lives, working the fields from dawn till dusk and generally keeping to themselves. Even with the influx of tourists, apart from having to step aside once in a while to let a visitor pass on the narrow paths — and a profusion of new handicraft stalls and hostels — life is now much as it has ever been.
There are three major view points recommended by tourist maps and this morning we make our way to the easternmost one. The nature of these remarkable rolling terraces is such that we have to navigate our way along the edges of the steps in the fields to find a satisfactory viewing spot. We are joined by a few other sleepy-eyed tourists, but it doesn't take long for local life to spring into action once the sun is fully up. On our way back down we pass a lady firing up some bamboo rice for breakfast.
South Gate, Dali, Yunnan
Dali is a little town situated between a big mountain and an even bigger lake. The old town is still bordered by a rebuilt city wall, which you can climb for a good view of all three. This suited my sunrise hunt very nicely.
As I walk the length of the wall I am joined by photographers and early morning exercisers. Together we watch the sun slowly spread its gold across the lake in front of us, until it has us completely enveloped in its riches, before moving on to tackle the giant mountain behind us.
Cibi Lake, Dali, Yunnan
Camping by the lake, an hour or so's drive from the old town, we get up early for some sunrise yoga. This isn't too difficult, what with a bed time of about 9pm the night before – there being no electricity, so no lights, and strong pull of sleep after a tiringly active day volunteering with children. This area is not so densely inhabited but it was nice to see a gentleman appreciating the beauty too — a beauty only ever beheld at this sacred time of day.
Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan
A tough two-day hike up along the side of mountains split by the rushing, raging Jinsha River below. The first day is seven hours of pleasant terrain, interrupted only by a thigh-burning 28-bend switchback that takes us up from the lower trail to the upper trail. This upper trail is all natural — a nice change from our general experience of concrete-paved paths on other hikes in China so far.
This time our company consisted mainly of foreign tourists, and I later discovered that local tourists prefer the convenience of the paved lower road through the gorge, which also leads to the rock the tiger allegedly jumped across, but affords none of the views.
We spend a cold night at the gorge's halfway point, not prepared for any temperature change with the gain in altitude. Rising at six in the morning, ready and willing, we are greeted by utter darkness. Too cold. So back down to the dorms to fumble about for blankets, mumbling apologies while figuring out the flashlight function on our phones.
Tea. My freezing hands pour it hastily, unwilling to be out of the blanket for more than a second. Ouch — too hot! Burnt tongue. An hour later and still nothing The time it takes for the sun to scale the height of the mountains has not been factored into our calculations and only occurs to us afterwards, as we are setting off on the next hike. The innkeeper, very amused by our avid efforts, informs us officially that sunrise is at 7:30am here. By then we were feasting on pancakes for breakfast mesmerized by the view.
The closest I have gotten to Tibet so far. It's true what they say, the air is different and the plains...they have a kind of vastness. With only one day here, we have a single chance to see the sunrise and the weather turns out to be heavily overcast.
Nevertheless, we climb up a small hill to a temple at first light, and find it already alive with activity. The temple staff are preparing alters and rearranging prayer flags which are webbed over the entire area. As we look around the temple we notice people passing the entrance with deja-vu regularity. Upon closer inspection they appear to be walking around the outside of the temple in a clockwise direction. Later I read this is called circumambulation and is practiced in many religions.
The weather is too overcast to get any distinct rays of sunlight, but I actually quite like it. It gives credence to the use of the word 'blanket' to describe cloud cover, and has a kind of comforting feel.
This small village is the busiest at sunrise of all the places on my trip. The valley is lush with crops, and there is a rather iconic bridge over a little river to which photographers often flock.
Arriving with iPhone in hand, fully charged and ready, I meet two Canon-touting photographers crouching at the foot of the bridge. When my eyes follow the direction of their lenses, I quickly crouch down next to them.
The bridge is en route from the village to the fields and gives rise to numerous picture-perfect scenes — villagers carrying tools on their way to work, women with hand-woven baskets going to fetch the harvest, the elderly meeting up for a smoke. In every direction the splendor of the Chinese countryside, of simple daily rural life, is shown off to any hungry lens ready to capture it.
These little dawn expeditions have left me with images of magnificent beauty imprinted in my memory and with a little more insight into Chinese culture. Now back at home I rub my sleepy eyes open after a long lie-in, and, wincing to take in the full glare of midday, I am reminded that the sun will go on rising, whether we are there to appreciate its beauty or not.
Editor's note: This article was written by GoKunming contributor Melanie Patching. She lives in Xiamen and studies at Jimei University, trying to wrap her hear around the Chinese language. She also writes about China in her spare time and travelled extensively around Yunnan in the summer of 2014. For more from Mel, check out her website, A Piece of China.
Images: Melanie Patching© Copyright 2005-2019 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.