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Climbing the sacred Taoist peak - quickly.

April 26-27, 1998

My stay in Xi'an was broken by a two day trip to the top of one of China's five sacred Taoist mountains, Huashan. Depending on what book you read, and which of the four summits you climb, the mountain is between 2000 and 2200 meters (6550-7200 feet) high. Guidebooks have generally favored this mountain as being less touristed than the other sacred mountains. It was still a little crowded, but the crowds were no worse than what I often encountered back in Virginia when I spent time exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park, and certainly nothing like the mobs that descend upon Old Rag Mountain there every weekend.

China's sacred mountains usually have paved paths with steps all the way to the summit, lined with souvenir and refreshment stands. There will be numerous places to stay, though the cheapest are often off limits to foreigners. Huashan even has one rather pricey hotel built at its summit. Yeah, it detracts from the experience, especially the bright neon light from the hotel that sits on the edge of a cliff several thousand feet above the valley floor, but there is still solitude and spectacular views to be had.

There is a gondola that goes up the east side to about the 1600 meter point. Most Chinese opt for this route to the summit, so much of the climb is pretty quiet. Many of the vendors live on the mountain. Provisions are carried up on sticks by porters who lug fifty-kilogram loads up the mountain for a few dollars a day. Despite the fact the trail is paved with steps, it's not always an easy climb. It's still a 7000-foot mountain, and if anything the stairs make it more difficult, especially when coming back down. The trail itself is 7.5 kilometers from base to summit. Huashan is, depending on the route, the bus, and the traffic, anywhere from two and a half to four hours east of Xi'an.

We left as a group of six having all met each other at Mum's over the previous few days. Two of the six were local Chinese acting as our 'tour guides', Melanie, a manager at Mum's, and her boyfriend, both of whom were entirely unprepared, physically or otherwise, of climbing a 7000-foot mountain. The remaining four of us were an interesting assortment of people. After myself, then a reasonably fit 34-year-old, there was Paul, 32, from England, who had once been a missionary in West Africa. He was a month or two into an expected nine to twelve-month tour of Asia and had come from Europe by land through Russia, Kazakhstan, and western China. There was Margit, a 30-year-old woman from Austria going solo through China for maybe two months. She spoke near perfect English. And finally Daniel, 21, also from Austria and fresh out of a stint in the Austrian military, mostly on border patrol. He had been in Asia about a month and would stay until his money ran out. He was hoping to last about a year. He spoke very good English, though not nearly at the level of Margit. Though two of our four were Austrian, neither knew each other until just a few days before. We planned to spend the night on the top of the mountain in an old monastery now converted to dorm bed lodging.

We met at the bus station to catch the 8:30 a.m. bus to Huashan. One foreigner attracts stares, four foreigners attracts a complete Terracotta Army of Village Idiots. I commented on this to Margit.
"We're on display again," I said.
"No problem," she said, "you just stand up on the sidewalk, smile and stare back at them."
On cue, all four of us stood in a line and began shamelessly staring at our audience, moving our gaze from person to person. This caused half the crowd to start laughing and pointing at the other half who had been staring at us. I don't know what they were saying, but I got the impression that the joke was definitely on them and not us. Most of the Village Idiots turned their heads away or simply walked off. The whole scene was replayed when Melanie came out with our bus tickets necessitating each of us produce money to pay her.

We ditched the crowd and located our bus. It was, um, interesting. The bus looked to be a Ming Dynasty model with tires and brakes last checked when Chiang Kaishek was still hanging around the mainland. The interior was mighty grotty as well. The floor was covered with spit stains, there were cigarette butts and garbage everywhere. The seats, three across on one side, two across on the other were covered by a single piece of fabric. I think it used to be green. Most of the passengers boarding were men. Despite the 'no smoking' sign they all smoked. You can't tell a Chinese man he can't smoke. Even the driver and the attendant smoked. When they weren't inhaling drags off their cigarettes they were spitting on the floor or out the window. Trash is routinely thrown out the window and nobody looks first to see what's outside before tossing their garbage or firing a missile of phlegm out the window.

Because it was a public bus and not a private minibus it left as scheduled and not when it was full. This was good, it wasn't full. Better yet, it didn't stop every hundred meters to drag more passengers on board. It still took nearly four hours to get to Huashan thanks to slow traffic getting out of Xi'an and a massive construction related traffic jam outside some town about halfway to Huashan. Apparently, now it's a big highway all the way to Huashan, cutting the drive time in half.

At Huashan we had lunch at a noodle stand in the bus station parking lot before going to the mountain. Along the road are scores of restaurants, souvenir shops, and minibuses. All beckoned us in, even the minibus operators tried to hustle us on board their buses back to Xi'an. "Excuse me, we are walking *to* the mountain." At the gate we found out we had to pay twenty yuan ($2.50 US) to enter some temple we didn't care to visit that happened to stand between us and the mountain.

We came to climb the mountain, not visit a temple. Melanie and her boyfriend paid anyway, leaving us four foreigners to seek an alternative. We located an alley running parallel to the mountain. After a few hundred meters we were past the buildings and into a vacant lot. A small stream was in front of us. To the left were train tracks, and behind it, the mountain. We crossed the stream and turned left towards the tracks. I saw across the tracks a trail running up the rise in front of us. No problem, we crossed the tracks, waved at a group of railway workers, "ni hao!", they reply, and started up the trail. From this point we could cross over the stream and be past the temple. Though past the temple we continued up this side of the mountain anyway.

The trail was extremely steep for several hundred meters. The stream had now disappeared in a ravine. We could see a sheer cliff across the way and rightly assumed we were standing on one as well. There was no visible trail on the other side. Our assumption, which proved correct, was that the official trail was down in the ravine and it was only a matter of whether or not we could meet up with it again, or would we dead-end into a wall of granite somewhere. We climbed further. The trail continued steeply until we came across a nice flat area, we probably had climbed up about 1000 feet.

We had company. A group of eight children, around age ten to twelve, were sitting under a tree. They were having a birthday party! Off to the side sat two older men under another tree, no doubt fathers of two of the children. We waved at the kids, "ni hao", "hello", they giggled in response. The fathers waved us over to join them in the shade and rest for a few minutes. They spoke no English but were extremely friendly. Through sign language and phrasebooks Daniel determined we were walking into a dead-end and would have to go back down to get to the top of Huashan. While Daniel was doing that I went over to the group of children and asked, again through sign language, if I might take a few photos. No problem. I then returned to my own group but was tracked down by one of the kids and offered a piece of cake which I gladly accepted. I tried to share it with my group but nobody wanted any. Good, more for me.

Despite knowing we were on a dead-end we continued walking higher anyway for whatever reason. Another hundred feet or so and we came to another clearing. Paul and Margit decided to give up, but Daniel and I were driven. Higher we went, now mostly climbing over boulders. Sure enough, we soon dead-ended into a granite wall rising several hundred feet above us. We peered over a large boulder. It was straight down over one thousand feet to the stream and proper trail below. "Looks like we found the free way in," I said.

Descending back down the trail, we reached the birthday party just as it was breaking up, but not without being treated to a little juvenile fun. A chubby boy dressed only in shorts snuck up behind a very nicely dressed girl and smeared a healthy quantity of cake and cake frosting across her face. But being rather chubby he had no hopes of outrunning the girl now seeking swift and severe revenge. They both got themselves pretty messy. The children accompanied us on the way down alternatively running ahead and behind us.

We crossed the stream successfully avoiding the temple and its fee. But there was still the mountain fee, 50 yuan, plus some silly five-yuan "registration fee".

It was now three thirty in the afternoon and we hadn't even started our climb. Could we make the summit by sunset, around seven o'clock? Hmm, 7.5 kilometers, 7000-foot mountain, and three and a half hours. No problem. And we were off. The first three kilometers (there are distance markers every 200 meters; 2 + 400, 2 + 600, etc.), were relatively easy. It was a gradual incline with only a few stairs. On each side of us sheer granite cliffs shot up several thousand feet. Directly ahead stood a huge granite cliff the top of which was to be our destination. I guessed the vertical to be about 4000 feet above from where we were standing. I did some quick math deducing we'd be climbing about 1000 feet for every kilometer hiked. Ouch. This was going to get steep.

Sure enough it did. Between the third and fourth kilometer there are alternatively flat spots and series of steps, usually twenty to fifty steps in a series, but never at an arduous incline. We definitely did not climb a thousand feet on that kilometer. Hmmm. The next kilometer and a half was something else. Already feeling the effects of having climbed a thousand stairs we turned a corner and saw a narrow opening between two huge boulders that someone had cut stairs into. The incline was at about sixty, maybe even seventy degrees, and we could not see the top. There were to be four more like this, some having several hundred stairs at a time. Between these agonizing climbs was the occasional flat spot and a lot of lesser sets of stairs. In that kilometer and a half we probably climbed 2000 feet.

We finally came into a wide open area. This was where the gondola arrived. We were at the 5300-foot mark, only 1700 feet to go and two kilometers to do it in. It was around six o'clock. We had got this far in only two and a half hours. We praised our strength (or our foolishness). We resumed walking and surprise! There was Melanie and her boyfriend!

They weren't doing too well, especially the boyfriend. I had noticed earlier that they didn't look too prepared for this climb. I was right. Her boyfriend was dressed in the standard blue-collar Chinese attire. There's a virtual 'uniform' that many Chinese men wear: dark pants, shirt, and dark jacket that's two sizes too big. It all looks like it was purchased at a Salvation Army store back in 1966. They even dress their children the same way. But the clothing wasn't his problem, it was his shoes. Shoes are part of the 'uniform'. Not sneakers, not hiking boots, but cheap dress shoes that were also probably purchased used in 1966. This poor guy could barely walk. Melanie, though wearing sneakers was on the brink of exhaustion. But they insisted they could continue to the top and refused all offers of assistance.

We didn't have the heart to tell them we had set out only two and a half hours before and had climbed up and down one smaller peak already. But we were a considerably more athletic bunch. Paul was probably the least fit and was struggling near the end. Margit had the legs of any Austrian hiker, skier, etc. and Daniel was exactly what you'd expect from someone 21 and fresh out of the Austrian army. The fact he was a heavy smoker seemed to have little effect on him. As for me, well, I was 34 at the time, but I still had the legs of a 21-year-old, just not one from the army, and I didn't smoke. So Daniel and I were neck and neck all the way up, frequently stopping to wait for the laggards which we mercilessly teased. Though Margit was just as fit as anyone she worked at a slower pace. Paul was really hurting for the last thousand feet and threatened to either camp on the trail or stay at the first dorm bed he found regardless of whether he made the summit of not. At the end Margit carried his pack along with her own and thus Paul made the summit with us.

The group separated a bit towards the end with Daniel and I charging ahead, Paul and Margit in the middle, and Melanie and her ailing boyfriend way behind. We reached the top right at seven o'clock as the sun disappeared behind the mountain. There were three accommodation options, a hotel that charged about 450 yuan a room, or one of two dormitories that cost 30 yuan a person for a bed. Easy choice.

Unfortunately, this being China the whole process of acquiring lodging had to be made as complicated as possible. When you get to the top, the trail splits off to each of the respective facilities, touts for the two dorms wait at the junction. This should be a simple procedure: you ask: "Do you have rooms or beds and how much are they?" Then you get an answer and make your decision. But this is China and we have Melanie and her boyfriend who are Chinese. An endless conversation ensued. Meanwhile we're starving, or at least Paul, Daniel, and myself are starving. For food there were bland but cheap noodles at the dorms, or a real but slightly pricey meal at the hotel. Tired of waiting for this utterly pointless conversation about accommodation to finish, the three of us make a beeline for the hotel restaurant. "Tell us when you make up your mind," shouts Paul as we walk away. He wasn't in a good mood.

We had a huge and rather tasty meal but it set us back about 80 to 100 yuan each ($10-12). At the bottom it wouldn't be worth that much, but somebody had to hand-carry every supply up there. We didn't care, we were too hungry to care. On our way out someone at the hotel desk stopped us and handed us a note. Margit sent down a note to us about where we would be staying. But she was very slick. Figuring that if the hotel read a note that would take away potential customers they'd throw it away, so she wrote it in German. I handed it to Daniel. Meanwhile the hotel tried to get us to stay anyway, I told them if they'd give us a room for 90 yuan we would stay.
"Room 450 yuan, sir, you like to stay?"
"Uhh, nooo, we get dorm bed for 30 yuan each up the hill."
"Sir, room very nice, look at picture, 450 yuan."
"Okay, there's three of us, you give us room 90 yuan, we stay."
"Room 450 yuan, sir, you like? Stay here? Room very nice, sir."
"Up the hill, dorm bed 30 yuan, room very cheap, I stay."
"450 yuan sir, very nice."
"Bye bye."
"Sir, have very nice room, you stay?"
"Lovely meal, though, goodbye."

We climbed to the dorm in darkness accidentally stopping at the wrong dorm facility. The people there were very nice and two of the women guided us up to the proper dorm rather than trying to make us stay at theirs. Our facility was an old monastery. We sat in the courtyard relaxing with a few beers. Melanie and her boyfriend had collapsed instantly upon arrival. The once ailing Paul, now fed, was rejuvenated. The rooms weren't exactly airtight, they were downright cold. Up on the peak it was probably 45 to 50 Yankee degrees and very, very windy. But unlike my Great Wall trip this time I remembered my sweater.

The plan was to wake up and see the sunrise. We all overslept. I awoke about 7:30 and walked out to the courtyard, across was the room where the Buddha image was kept. It was probably worth a look but I didn't see much of it. The mere fact I had a camera in my hand brought out the full wrath and fury of the old man in charge of keeping the room clean. He chased me out of the room calling me all sorts of colorful Chinese names.

I went up to the highest rock and had a spectacular view indeed. To the south were clouds about one thousand feet below me completely obscuring the ground. The wind was still very strong, clouds were speeding across the sky but once through the peaks they quickly disappeared into nothingness. To the north was clear sky and closer to the ground, haze.

Thirty minutes later we prepared to climb down. Not surprisingly, Melanie and her boyfriend were only going as far as the gondola. We walked across a ledge that provided a spectacular view to the west where clouds raced in between the peaks and disappeared. I stopped to take a few photos telling the other three I'd catch up momentarily. A group of six young Chinese, all around eighteen to twenty years old, were doing the usual Chinese thing of taking a zillion pictures of each other. They insisted I pose with them for a few photographs. This happened a lot in China; complete strangers whom I've never met or even spoken a word to would invite me into their photographs. I always obliged, never feeling the least bit bothered. In a way it's no different from the candids I shoot, I carry around pictures of foreign people I don't know, they carry around pictures of foreign people they don't know. It's just a different approach. They like stiff, posed photos, I like natural, candid photos.

It was an uneventful trip down the mountain. We didn't work at the same rapid pace we had when we climbed up, and with all the steps, the way down was actually more difficult. We reached bottom in about four and a half hours, quickly meeting up with Melanie and her boyfriend.

The search for transport to Xi'an got silly. Expectedly the minibus operators pounced on us. Neither Daniel nor I wanted anything to do with them. We wanted a simple dirty public bus that wouldn't stop every ten feet to yell at someone. As on the mountain the previous night Melanie got in a long conversation with the touts. Daniel and I complained and headed for the bus station, which was really just a room and a parking lot. We hit the restroom only to emerge minutes later to see parked in the street a minibus with everyone on board, waiting for us. Marvelous. Daniel and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and joined them. Sure enough the bus stopped constantly to yell at people. Neither Daniel nor I wanted to be on this bus, but be careful what you wish for. The bus broke down. Luckily, we only had to sit for about fifteen minutes before a regular public bus came along and took all of us stranded passengers promptly back to Xi'an, journey paid for by the minibus operator.


Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.