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Xi’an—Hiking on HuaShan
This morning, our plan was to hike on HuaShan (Mt. Hua), one of China’s five holy mountains.
I initially learned about HuaShan a couple of years ago, when someone posted a fake story on the Internet about their “dangerous” climb on HuaShan. The story included some photos of a plank ledge sticking to the side of a rock cliff face, with chain link handholds above it. Does anyone remember this?
The written account relayed how the author was forced to traverse this narrow plank-way both up and back; supposedly it was the only route available, and it had also been icy. The story was so astounding that it spread like wildfire, and a link eventually landed in my email inbox. I was intrigued, to say the least.
Some cursory research, however, revealed that the story was fabricated. Although HuaShan does contain some paths that are narrow and carved into stone, this wooden plank-way is an optional feature that (a) costs extra money to walk on, (b) requires that you wear a harness that is clipped onto a chain so that you cannot fall to your death, and (c) merely leads to a dead-end spot where monks used to pray.
Nevertheless, the intrigue about HuaShan stayed with me, and I felt drawn to the mountain when planning our China journey. It was a mere 75 miles from Xi’an. After considerable research regarding the reasonable safety of the hiking trails on HuaShan, Ben and I decided that we would take a day trip there while in Xi’an. If we reached a trail that seemed too dangerous for the kids, then we would simply turn around at that point and head back. Some things you just have to see for yourself.
The drive was supposed to be 1 ½ hours. Given our long hours of traveling over the last two days, a 3-hour round trip was pushing the limits of what we thought the kids could endure today.
We had arranged for our guide, Jeff, and his driver to pick us up in the morning. After we were loaded into the van and on our way, Jeff told us that the highway going toward HuaShan was closed due to construction, and that the drive there would now be 3 hours on back roads. He added that the reverse direction was still open and would only take 1 ½ hours. (Let me say “ha!” in advance here.) Since we were already in the van, and the kids are usually up for a great hike, (and we were still trying to figure out the delicate dance in China of “tip toeing around the issue so the other party doesn’t ‘lose face’”), we decided to just take a deep breath and roll with the change.
Onward we continued to HuaShan.
In front of a Xi’an government building was a large plaza with people doing their morning exercises.
A figurative sculpture showed two men eating noodles and soup:
Some trees were decorated with blue and white lights:
The construction boom was definitely in full swing throughout China. Here were new tall apartment buildings being built in the back, with old buildings being demolished in the front.
Jeff described the sky today as “cloudy.” However, I would say that the sky matched perfectly the billows of smoke that puffed nonstop from all of the smokestacks.
The river on the outskirts of Xi’an was calm, and matched the grey murky sky.
The first part of our route to HuaShan headed toward the famous terracotta warriors (which we would visit tomorrow). The town of Lintóng is near the warriors and had this giant sculpture of horses and men emerging from stone blocks:
The main street was lined with Chinese-knot lights:
Our driver was slow. Painfully slow. I am guessing that he was easy on the gas pedal in order to conserve gasoline.
This photo shows us creeping along on the wrong side of the road—we weren’t passing the cars on our right, we were just moseying along beside/behind them.
During the drive, Jeff talked to us about the problems that college graduates are having finding jobs in China. He said that 3 years ago, the average college graduate made about $200 per month, but now it was only $100. Things are so bad that graduates are now lining up to take a test and compete for public toilet positions that pay $200 per month.
He also said that apartments were now selling at the rate of $8000 per square meter (10 sq. feet), and that the housing market in China had continued to increase, in sharp contrast to the marked decline in the U.S.
We passed field after field of a green plant with yellow flowers.
Jeff said that the plant was called “green vegetable.”
Small graveyards were mixed in with the crops.
Other fields contained plants such as kiwi, pomegranate, corn and wheat.
We never saw any tractors plowing the fields, only people with hoes.
Near HuaShan was a large coal-burning power plant, spewing thick grey smoke into the air.
Near the entrance to HuaShan was a small town called Huayin City, with these sculptures:
Jeff stopped in Huayin City to buy some thin cotton gloves for us to wear while hiking (while they were supposed to be good for preventing blisters when you are holding onto the chain railings, I found that them to be too slippery).
Until now, I have not mentioned the squat toilets for the women in China. Although a toilet with a seat can sometimes be found in places that cater to Western tourists, the vast majority of toilets require women to hover over them and hope for a good aim. And you must deposit all toilet paper (when you have some) in a wastebasket, even if the toilet has a seat. Here is an example of the toilet and wastebasket near the HuaShan entrance (you will just have to use your imagination for the accompanying odor):
This is actually one of the nicer ones. I have seen (and smelled) much much worse during my travels, but this was all new to Genevieve.
The road to HuaShan is permanently closed at Huayin City. Visitors are required to ride a bus on a winding access road up to the base of the mountain. (It is conceivable that you could walk the distance, but then you would be using up a good portion of your hiking energy.)
Buying our tickets was not a simple process. There were three separate tickets that we each needed—an entrance ticket to the mountain, a round-trip bus ticket, and a cable car ticket. We could only buy the entrance and bus tickets at this booth; the cable car had a separate office at the base of the mountain. The kids were different prices than Ben and I, with Genevieve being labelled as a "student" and Sebastian as a "child". And there was a rule prohibiting the sale of a child's round-trip bus ticket, so we would have to buy his return ticket later when leaving the mountain. None of the women behind the glass partition spoke English, but they seemed very nice. Even with Jeff translating, the purchase seemed to take a long time.
We then climbed aboard a bus and wound our way to the base of HuaShan on a 2-lane access road:
Looking toward the cable car after the bus ride:
A set of stairs called the “Soldier’s Path” was available if you didn’t want to take the cable car to the North Peak. However, the stair climb was supposed to take a “sweaty two hours” according to my Lonely Planet guidebook. I wanted to conserve our energy for the hike among the peaks on top. Starting from the North Peak, my guidebook said that it would only take four hours to hike to the Central, West, South and East peaks. Jeff had said, “Oh no, it will take much longer.” But I was optimistic.
At the base of the stair climb was a sculpture of some soldiers with machine guns:
Sebastian and Genevieve in the cable car, getting ready for lift off.
Looking up the mountain:
Looking back down:
Here we are on North Peak (also called Cloud Terrace Peak), with the steep face of West Peak in the background (above Genevieve’s head):
A view of the mountain in front of us:
When seen from a distance, the five peaks of HuaShan are said to be shaped like a flower, called “hua” in Chinese. "Shan" means mountain. Hence the name "HuaShan."
Along the path, small signs instructed us on proper behavior.
And my favorite: “No watching when walking. When watching no walking.”
Above some rooftops, we could see the path called the "Heavenly Stairs", and beyond.
Around this time, Genevieve started looking a little pale. She is normally an enthusiastic hiker, and I had been looking forward to exploring the mountain peaks with her. However, she said that she didn’t feel good and that her stomach felt a bit nauseous. I didn’t think that it was altitude related, as we were only around 5300 feet; we have been at much higher elevations numerous times without any ill effects.
She insisted that she wanted to continue a bit further, so we began climbing up the Heavenly Stairs.
HuaShan has a few hostels and restaurants on the peaks; the only way to get supplies up here is to hand-carry them. Today we would pass a number of men carrying loads on their backs. This man had the burden of a propane gas tank:
After hiking a short distance further, we reached an area with some picnic tables at the base of a steep climb. Ben offered to stay there with Genevieve while I continue onward with Sebastian and Jeff. Genevieve did not want to leave the mountain; she said that she just wanted to lay down on one of the benches and rest.
The steep climb ahead of us was called “Black Dragon Ridge” (also called “Green Dragon Ridge” on some maps).
We didn’t take a photo of the entire ridge, but I found these two pictures on the Internet:
Jeff, Sebastian and I started the climb:
Here we are near the middle:
Ben was watching and taking photos from below (wearing jeans, near the lowest railing):
The view was amazing. We could see the cable car stop under North Peak (the pointy peak on the far right).
At the top of the ridge—hurray!
Many of the minor peaks of HuaShan had small Taoist temples. Here is Sebastian (with Jeff in the background) at WuYan peak.
Here is a view of the West Peak from WuYan:
The larger peaks held more elaborate Taoist temples that once inspired Chinese emperors to make holy pilgrimages to this sacred mountain area.
Our path twisted and turned. We climbed higher and higher, often on stairs carved into the stone.
This cement path was sticking out of a sharply sloped rock face.
The Immortal Palm Cliff on the East Peak stretched high in the air.
After an hour of hiking, we finally reached the Golden Lock Pass (Tongtian Gate), which had paths that branched out to the East, South, and West peaks.
Thousands of red ribbons and engraved locks had been clipped onto the iron chain rails by visitors who wished for health, prosperity and other good things.
We stopped to rest here.
Looking at the trail map, I realized that it would take us a lot longer than 4 hours to hike to all of the peaks and get back to the cable car. We had hiked at a fairly brisk pace, passing most of the other hikers on the trail, and taking only a couple of short breaks. I had to wonder if the Lonely Planet author had actually done this hike.
Sebastian had been a super-trooper, climbing the steps with zest and a positive spirit. I was so proud of his accomplishment in hiking this far. (Jeff said that none of his other clients, or his friends, had ever hiked this far on the mountain.) The reality was that Sebastian’s legs were becoming weary—it was time to turn around.
Sebastian and I at Golden Lock Pass:
I will always treasure this time that Sebastian and I shared at HuaShan.
While we were hiking, Genevieve had started feeling better.
So much better that she wanted to hike up the Black Dragon Ridge! And she did!
Genevieve, in front of the West Peak.
Ben took this photo of their view, which was . . . “cloudy.”
This man passed by with a heavy load balanced on one of his shoulders.
The Black Dragon Ridge is a one-way, upward path. On the way back down, hikers are diverted to the right of the ridge, and down over the small bridge here:
Reunited again at the bottom of Black Dragon Ridge, we decided to add our own lock to the thousands of others at HuaShan. Nearby was a vendor offering locks of different sizes. We selected a modest size with a nice feel to it.
We carefully wrote down our last names on a piece of paper for the vendor, who engraved the names onto the lock while we waited.
Then we wandered around and found the perfect spot for it. Jeff told us that when a chain gets too heavy with locks, then all of the locks are removed, and people start filling the empty chain again. We wanted a spot with only a few locks so that our lock wouldn't be removed anytime soon.
Each of us held onto the lock and made a silent wish as we snapped it in place.
Genevieve and Sebastian then tied their red ribbons around the chain.
Our chosen spot was near a pine tree across from a massive rock with a door and window in it. Here are Sebastian and Jeff in front of the rock:
We climbed to the top of that rock from the other side. Here we are, feeling like we are on top of the world!
We had a clear view of North Peak, where we had begun our hike this morning.
We rode the cable car back down through the giant sheets of stone.
The stairs below might have been a fun option—but not today.
For a very late lunch, Jeff brought us to a restaurant located in the downstairs area of a hotel near HuaShan. We were the only customers in the large dining room. Four women who worked in the restaurant all stood near our table and watched us eat—hopefully, we were entertaining! We tried talking to them, but they just giggled at us.
Back on the road, we passed this construction site where a woman was manually shoveling gravel into a loader.
This torch-like sculpture, in the middle of a traffic circle, had dragons swirling around on the handle.
We took the freeway back, which was open (as Jeff had said) in the direction heading toward Xi’an. The road was in the process of being widened. Some of the buildings on the side looked as if they had been partially knocked down to make way for the new width.
The drive back was supposed to take 1 ½ hours, but took about 3. Road construction reduced large segments of the freeway to one lane, which caused a long back-up. Near Xi’an we came to a complete stop. Drivers got out of their cars and wandered around. A police car tried to turn around and escape down the side, but it just got stuck in the mess.
(During our time in China, we have noticed that the people don’t seem to move out of the way for police officers like they do in the United States.)
Waiting in the traffic wouldn’t have been terrible, except for the situation with Genevieve. She had fallen asleep in the van after lunch. When she woke up, she complained that one of her ears really hurt (the one she had been sleeping on). The pain escalated until she was in tears. She said that it was the worst pain she had ever experienced. Genevieve is usually very stoic, so we knew that she was feeling an extreme amount of pain.
We didn’t know what was wrong. And we were stuck in a traffic jam that was just beginning to inch forward a bit at a time. Our driver also revealed that the return trip from HuaShan had taken him 7 hours yesterday due to the traffic.
Ben and I discussed whether we should take her straight to a doctor. I was afraid that perhaps she was experiencing pressure behind her ear drum, and I didn’t want it to burst. In the end, we decided to get her back to the apartment, give her some pain medicine, and start her on antibiotics (we always bring some along when we travel). If things got worse, we would call Jeff and whisk her to a doctor.
For the next solid hour and a half, we crept toward Xi’an, with Ben and I taking turns comforting Genevieve, who quietly sobbed continually. It was just awful.
Finally, we arrived at the apartment. We tucked Genevieve in bed after giving her some medicine. I lay down beside her as she drifted off to sleep. She woke once, reached for my hand, and told me she was glad that I was there with her. Then she slept solid for 12 hours.
Neither Ben nor I wanted to leave the apartment to get anything for dinner in case Genevieve took a turn for the worse. We ended up munching on some apples and cookies that Clarence and his wife (the apartment owners) had generously stocked in our kitchen.
Our experience hiking on the holy mountain of HuaShan definitely had its ups and downs today. We went to bed hoping that we were on an upward swing.
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