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 5.00am walk through town. The breathlessness at the beginning of the ascent. The sweat of the hike. The fleeting 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 adventurists up a mountain one morning in Yangshuo to see 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:
[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 阳朔, Guangxi 广西
This was the one that got me hooked. The mountain is situated right in town, only a five minute walk from the main roundabout. Not mentioned in any guidebook, it is still rather well-known among both tourists and local residents. The climb is intense, but short.
At the start I think I’ll be the only one that day, but each time I find myself overtaking or being overtaken by similar minded individuals – young tourists with all the wrong shoes, regulars panting to keep up with their dogs, 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 goes down for a few days collecting supplies and then he brings 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, who, it turns out, had climbed up the previous day and stayed the night, successfully managing not to roll off in her sleep. I guess I am not the only one fallen prey to this addiction.
Yangshuo Park Pavilion 阳朔, Guangxi 广西
As it rains quite often in summer, this pavilion is a safer option being easier to climb and under cover. It is set atop a little hill in the middle of the park, but still affords nice views in all directions.
It 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, 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 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, what the next day will be like holds the promise of redemption.
Longji Rice Terraces 龙脊梯田, Guangxi 广西
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 here. As the only access is by foot or horse, one feels very secluded from the rest of the world. The community is indeed very much contained – a matriarchal tribe, they lead simple lives, working the fields from dawn till dusk and generally keeping themselves 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 balance on 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 up. On our way back down we pass this lady firing up some bamboo rice for breakfast.
South Gate, Dali 大理, Yunnan 云南
Dali is a little town situated between a big mountain and an even bigger lake. The old town is still bordered by a city wall, which you can climb for a good view of all three, and very convenient for sunrise gazing.
As I walk the length of the wall I am joined by photographers and early morning exercisers and 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 茈碧湖, Dali 大理, Yunnan 云南
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 this man appreciating the beauty too – a beauty only ever beheld at this sacred time of day.
Tiger Leaping Gorge 虎跳峡, Yunnan 云南
A tough two-day hike up along the side of mountains, split by a rushing raging river below. The first day is seven hours of pleasant terrain, interrupted only by a thigh-burning 24-bend switchback that takes us up from the lower trail to the upper trail. This is an all natural trail – a nice change from our general experience of concrete-paved paths in China. This time our company consisted mainly of foreign tourists, and I later discovered that local tourists prefer the convenience of the paved lower road, which also leads to the rock the tiger alledgedly jumped off, but affords none of the views.
We spend a cold night at Halfway Guesthouse, not prepared for any temperature change with the gain in altitude. Rising as early as six in the morning, ready and willing, we are greeted by utter darkness. Too cold. 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 from the boiler, unwilling to be out of the blanket for more than a second. 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 in to our calculations and only occurs to us afterwards. The innkeeper, very amused by our avid efforts, informs us that the sun rises at 7.30am here. By then we were feasting on pancakes for breakfast mesmerised by this view.
Shangri-la 香格里拉, Yunnan 云南
The closest I have gotten to Tibet so far. Its true what they say, the air is different and the plains… they have a kind of vastness. Only one day here, so only one chance to see the sunrise and it 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 tibetan prayer flags which are webbed over the entire area. We notice people passing the entrance with dejavu-like 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 feels comforting.
Shaxi 沙溪, Yunnan 云南
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 splendour of the Chinese countryside, of simple daily rural life, is shown off for any hungry lens to capture.
These dawn expeditions have imprinted images of magnificent beauty into my memory and given me a little more insight into Chinese culture. Back at home I rub my sleepy eyes open, 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.
This article was also published by GoKunming on 31 December 2014.