It started about five years ago. On the internet I saw a picture of a really janky looking pathway that was nothing more than some two by fours bolted high into the side of a mountain. I immediately wanted to go do it. I did some searches, but came up empty handed. The name and location of the mountain was a mystery.
A couple years later I saw another picture of the mountain, and this time it had a name. Hua Shan. I looked it up, and it was in the middle of China, two hours east of Xi'an.
When I booked a three week trip to China a few months back, I didn't have any good reason or any definite plans except for one-- get to Hua Shan and climb it.
So last Friday my friend Carl, who I'm staying with here, and I took a fourteen hour overnight train ride to Xi'an. Immediately after arriving, we wandered around until we found a bus going to Hua Shan. A two hour ride later, we walked up a hill to the ticket gate. We thought it would be free, and hadn't brought much money, so we walked back down the hill, found a bank, and came back to the ticket gate. From there we began our ascent.
The first four or five hours weren't that exciting. The pathway is paved with stone and has rest stops every fifteen or thirty minutes. The scenery was nice, but not truly breathtaking. Just a nice mountain scene. The apples from the little rest stop vendors, on the other hand, were extraordinarily good. We ate a bunch of them on the way up.
As we neared the top, things started to get more interesting. We'd occasionally see a Do Not Enter sign with a really gnarly set of stairs behind it, and we'd step over the chain and claw our way up. At first these sorts of detours were strenuous but easy, but as we got higher they tended to be covered in ice. That was a good thing, though-- we were at Hua Shan partly for its natural beauty, but more because it was billed as the "Most Dangerous Trail in the World". We'd read that the government had made it safer, but we didn't know the extent.
We finally reached the top. For the first time, the view was really incredible. Mountains as far as the eye can see, each one tan with black stripes, and the five peaks of Hua Shan surrounding us. The only problem was that other than the general difficulty of doing a 5 mile hike with over 1000m of elevation, the trek was pretty easy. We came for the most dangerous hiking trail in the world, and hadn't found it yet.
By the time we were at the top, the sun was beginning to set. We walked around and, in my broken Chinese, asked people if they knew where the dangerous part was. One would say that it was the West Peak, the next would be sure that it was the South Peak, and yet another told us it was the North Peak. We continued hiking up towards the South peak, which was also near the East and West peaks.
Eventually it was totally dark, our legs were pushed to their limits, and we stumbled across a hostel charging around $12 for a basic bed. We gladly paid. The bed was in a giant unheated room, and had no mattress. It was a piece of plywood, a sheet, and a blanket on top. Carl noticed that there was a restaurant on the second floor of the hotel, so we gorged ourselves on mediocre quality Chinese food. Most vendors along the way sold nothing but noodles in a cup, so at the time we felt like we hit the jackpot.
We were up by seven the next morning and continued our hike until we got to the point where we had to choose between three peaks. Thanks to China's amazing 3G phone coverage, I was able to pull up a picture of the dangerous part that we were looking for and show it to an old man sweeping the path. He assured us that it was at the South Peak, so we headed that way.
As we neared the South Peak, the patches of snow and ice became larger and more connected. It was cold, but the steep incline worked our muscles enough for us to stay warm. Eventually we'd get fatigued, take a break, and then get going again once our sweat started to make us too cold.
We finally found the cliff walk near the South Peak. It was a small portion of the old cliffside path, now outfitted with metal cables and a harness to keep you safe. As soon as we were out of sight, I unclipped my harness. I came for the authentic experience, or at least as close to it as I could get.
The view from the plank walk was easily the best we'd seen so far. We had an incredible view of the pointy mountain range across from us as well as down into the valley below us. Sliding across the boards while holding onto the metal chains was fun, too. It may not be the old authentic trail, but it was at least a piece of it. Carl had the idea of hanging from the chain, so we did that, much to the amusement of the others walking along the plank. At one point I found a broken chair that had been pushed into a crevice and I sat on it to admire the view. The father and son duo in front of us was really slow, giving us plenty of time for shenanigans.
The walk goes to a dead end vista point, so we had to go back the way we came. This was really fun because a dozen or so people were now coming towards us, so we had to pass over them. Near the end it was so jammed that I held on to one of the cables and climbed up the rock face to pass a lady coming down. People generally thought that we were crazy for our weird poses and maneuvers, as well as my sandals and refusal to use the harness.
Even though the actual plank walk, the part that I'd wanted to do for years, lasted only twenty minutes, it was well worth it. The scenery was amongst the most beautiful I've ever seen, and I like to be in positions where there's no real chance of death, but where I can stare directly at the possibility of it and thereby appreciate life even more.
If you want to do Hua Shan, here are some tips
1. There are two routes up to the top of the mountain. We took the one on the right, which was the worse of the two. On the left side is the original one which goes through a really incredible valley. You can also take a cable car up this one, which isn't a bad idea. The scenery at the top is a lot better than the scenery at the bottom, so your time might be better spent visiting the various peaks rather than hiking up to them and only doing one or two.
2. The fun plank walk is to the left of the South Peak on the maps. It's called "Cliff Walk" or somethng like that. You can do the South Peak afterwards, which is the highest one and gives you a nice view.
3. No one will notice or care if you unclip your harness once you get to the middle of the initial descent or so. Not saying you should, just that you can...
4. It's cold in mid-November (when we went), but not unbearably so. I had sandals and no long underwear and was comfortable.
5. To get to Hua Shan, take a train t Xi'an and ask around for a bus to Hua Shan. They're all over the place.
6. I wouldn't bother going to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, which are nearby to Xi'an. We went and I found it underwhelming. Usually UNESCO World Heritage Sites are really great, but you can't get very close to the Warriors, two of the three pits are just crumbled ruins, and even the main one has a bunch of the warriors moved out. I think it would have a lot more impact if you could somehow walk amongst them, or at least be on the same level.
I was planning on filming the 2012 gear video while I'm here in Shanghai, but I need to make a last minute change that can only be done in the US. I promise it will be in before Christmas, though.
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