An adventure with Stuart (GBR).
Time to climb a mountain. Well, we’d been in two cities for a week and China really does come into it’s own when you get out into some nature.
Waking before dawn, we set off with Stephen a guy from Hong Kong who was staying in our hostel and got the bus from Xi’an to Huashan, a couple of hours away. On the bus we met Kristina, a Lithuanian girl who seemed pretty relieved to find other westerners. Once at the gate we got the chance to put our totally-still-in-date-and-didn’t-expire-when-we-graduated-in-summer student cards to good use, getting some hefty discounts. Unfortunately for Communist China, who’s country is supposed to belong to the people, its leaders have realised its natural beauty is a great money-spinner.
Another short minibus ride and we were at the foot of the mountain. Faced with a choice of paths up the mountain we opted for the steep-but-taxing ‘soldier’s way’, almost immediately coming across a large frozen waterfall. Having already seen a good number of pictures we prepared for the occasional near-vertical stretch of stone steps carved into the mountain, but weren’t prepared for China to have put ‘no entry’ signs over them and built a safer but much less interesting staircase off to the side. After passing the first of these stone ladders by though, we remembered that instructions on signs in China are really taken more as suggestions than anything else and hauled ourselves up the next flight we came across; steadying ourselves with the chains pegged into the sides as we went.
On we pressed, finally conquering the soldier’s way and reaching the North Peak in time for lunch. The view from the peak was incredible. We were fortunate to have a very clear day, free from the mist that sometimes clings to Chinese hills an mountains. Away to the west stretched lower peaks in the mountain range and directly in front were miles of green and yellow fields drawing the eye to a down in the distance. The only blemish was a layer of smog that hung in the air, either from the town or a nearby city, creating a second horizon - one between earth and smog, another between smog and sky.
After a quick lunch of Xi’an flatbread, we stuck off south, there were many more peaks to see before sundown and looking at some of the drops from this rather sheer mountain none of us wanted to still be walking in the dark. We headed over Green Dragon Ridge which fell away sharply on either side and headed through Golden Lock Pass, the railings crammed full of padlocks with names and dates engraved on them, some of the older ones beginning to rust, and interspersed with red streamers. By this point Stu and I had gotten a bit ahead of the others, and after a quick text to give directions, headed for West Peak. There must have been some communication problem however as the others ended up carrying on to Central Peak.
West Peak was no less spectacular than North Peak. A narrow ridge led up to the peak which fell away sharply on the other side. A little scramble up to the highest point led you over rounded rocks at let you peer as far a you dared over the low-slung chain that separated you from the drop. The view this time was not of fields nor towns but a vast sea of mountains rolling away into the distance.
South Peak was only a short hike away, less than an hour and although it was the least impressive of the peaks we visited it was also the highest and so warranted climbing right to the top. Up here there was snow and ice lying on the ground an I walked very gingerly to and from the summit. Right by South Peak is something we cam to call the ‘plank-walk’ an optional extra on the mountain for those brave (or stupid enough) to try. Wearing a harness with two clips which you constantly have to keep re-clipping further along a guide rope - making sure at least one is attached at all times! - you navigate down a set of iron railings, along a set of hollows cut into the wall and further onto a plank walkway just broad enough for your feet with a sheer drop we reckoned to be at least 1000m below. The views are stunning, best to look out rather than down, and although my heart was in my mouth at times concentrating on the steady clipping and unclipping meant I was able to get across without freezing halfway through. At the end you reach a small alcove temple which Buddhist pilgrims regularly used to visit via this route without the safety equipment.
This was also where we rejoined our climbing companions and with dusk approaching we moved to East Peak. By the time we arrived the moon had risen but the sun hadn’t quite set giving us a beautifully coloured vision of the skyline. Stu and I were grateful for our forethought to bring pot noodles as we sheltered from the cold that descended on this clear January night atop the mountain. With only a brief visit outside to see stars - an uncommon sight in the cities here - and Google Sky pointing out Venus and Jupiter we bunked down in in our frankly grimy and overpriced hostel. But there is a reason people want to sleep, or rather wake up, on the eastern peaks of mountains.
In the pitch black an alarm went off and the shuffling to put on multiple layers of clothing began. Hat, scarf and gloves completed the preparations and we stepped outside into the not-quite morning. My breath was immediately taken by the night sky. Where last night there had been a few dozen stars, now hundreds shone in the sky, whether through earthly rotation or my eyes accustoming themselves to the darkness I can’t say, but the sight was every bit as incredible as any view of the mountains and one I’m not likely to forget in a hurry. Still, it wasn’t the hundreds of stars we were here for it was the one very close one. As we climbed to the top of East Peak to wait for sunrise the wind howled fiercely and we hid behind a large rock to escape the worst of it. Gradually the blackness of night gave way to purple then blue, a distant mountain range remaining silhouetted against the sky. Warm though my gloves were, occasional removal to take photos was costing me the feeling in my fingers and my toes were going the same way as slowly night became day. After an hour or so yellows and oranges began to halo the distant peak and a long thirty minutes later brilliant light glinted over the precipice. As the full shape of the sun rose into view, it was difficult to tear your gaze away, despite the obvious damage it was likely to do your eyes. Feeling very fulfilled at having seen such a magnificent sunrise but desperate to get some feeling back in my extremities we set off down the mountain, concious of transport we had booked from Xi’an late that afternoon.
Going down was much easier than going up and after a pause for breakfast at North Peak we went down the mountain not by the soldier’s way, but by the ‘easier’ route. I’m not sure who decided it was easier though. Sure there were long stretches of very gently sloping roadway but also more than a few sections of very steep stairs only slightly more manageable than those we had encountered on the way up. Anyway it was a reasonably uneventful hike down and at the bottom we found a minibus to Xi’an pretty easily.
Having fully embraced nature on Huashan we were ready for another city.