The rest of Huashan, including the distinctive West Peak in the far right, as seen from the side of the hotel on North Peak.
Huashan is one of China’s most historic and symbolic mountains, being one of the five “Great Mountains.” It also has a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous mountains, which you can easily find out by doing a Google search.
In reality, this is a bit of an exaggeration which I’ll point out later. I found Huashan to be really spectacular and a great mountain to hike. The views were great, the paths were challenging but easy to keep on, and the atmosphere was pleasant. There was very little danger at any point, other than going up near-vertical steps and foolishly slicing my thumb while climbing down a ladder alongside a boulder on East Peak. I spent basically one whole day – two half-days and one night – on Huashan, which is close to Xian and also in Shaanxi Province, staying the night in the North Peak “hotel”. It really was the highlight of my Xian-Huashan-Luoyang trip and yet I’d never planned to come to Huashan.
I’d only heard of Huashan a year ago, and at first, I thought it was a misspelling of Huangshan. Then I looked up Huashan and found several Youtube videos showing why Huashan is the most dangerous hike in the world. In the videos, people were walking along a sheer cliffwall on an extremely narrow walkway while clinging on to ropes, facing a sheer drop of over 2,000 meters. This was unbelievable and it didn’t look appealing in any way. The prominent bare rocky appearance and the sparse vegetation of the mountain contrasted sharply with the greeness of Huangshan, China’s most famous mountain, which is featured in many fine paintings and drawings. Yet last September, when I was set to visit Xian, I did a quick check on Huashan and seeing that it was only half an hour away by high-speed train (and just two hours by bus), I thought, why not. I wasn’t that interested in Huashan, but it was a famous site and so close to Xian. In the end, I’m very, very glad I did. It’s not the first time that I went somewhere I wasn’t particularly keen but ended up enjoying it a lot; South Africa being the biggest example.
I set out in a rush on a Monday morning for Xian North station, the high-speed station which is also the northernmost subway station on Xian subway’s line two. The day before, I had bought a high-speed ticket to Huashan. It was mightily convenient getting it since the train ticket office was literally minutes away from my hotel. From my trip to Shanghai in 2011, I know high-speed train tickets can be bought from ticketselling offices in neighborhoods and it was no different here or in Luoyang later on. The ticket office was surprising casual; an enclosed booth at the entrance in the narrow hallway of a building. Of course, that was no problem as it saved me the trouble of having to go all the way to Xian North station to buy it (it’s best to buy high-speed tickets at least one day before so I didn’t want to buy the ticket right before I wanted to leave).
I was actually running late since I had spent a little too much time at the supermarket getting supplies beforehand and I ended up missing my train by just a few minutes. I had been foolish in underestimating the time to get to Xian North from my subway station(9 stops away). This wasn’t helped by the fact that at the Xian North subway station, you have to go upstairs and exit at one door and enter at another door to get to the high-speed train platform. I almost barged through the security check at the entrance but the staff told me I had missed the train and to go change my ticket. This entailed getting out and going into another hall next door. I lined up, sheepishly told the ticketseller I had missed my train and needed the next one, and just like that, I got a new ticket. I also got a RMB20 refund since the next train was slower and hence cheaper (China has two types of high-speed trains). So basically, I was late but I ended up saving money. It was some good luck I really didn’t deserve.
The train ride was short and uneventful, taking less than an hour. Outside, the weather was overcast so I couldn’t see much. When I got out at Huashan North station, which was actually in Huayi City (the town right below Huashan), I was immediately approached by a cab driver. I steeled myself, but he seemed a decent guy and he offered a decent price – 20 RMB- to get to the Huashan Tourism Center, where visitors must pay the entrance fee. Then he suggested I go back to the station to buy my ticket for my onwards journey. As I had actually forgotten, I was grateful for his suggestion and this basically swayed me into accepting his offer. I bought my ticket for Luoyang, then walked with him to his unmarked car, basically an unlicensed taxi. Mr. Bao was all the way from Hangzhou, Zhejiang, but had come to Huayi to work. I thought it was interesting since Huayi and Hangzhou were worlds apart, but didn’t press him. Along the way, I noticed how wide and empty the street we were on was. On both sides of this boulevard were small apartment buildings and hotels; nothing really special. When we neared the Tourism Center, a giant lantern loomed in the middle of a roundabout. It was a “baoliangdang”, a light used by a person in a legend connected with Huashan, he told me.
I soon found out visiting Huashan was costly. I had to pay an entrance fee, the 2-way cable car ticket, and for a 2-way shuttle from the Tourism Center to the cable car station at the foot of Huashan. I wasn’t going to hike up to Huashan from the ground because I was carrying one small luggage plus I wanted to save my energy for the top peaks. All around me were tour groups and I was basically the only individual traveler. On the way to Huashan in the shuttle minibus, I overheard some older Cantonese men wondering whether I was Korean or from the North! I would have probably shocked them if I had spoken to them in Cantonese, but I was a bit tired and not in a mood to talk to strangers. As it got closer to Huashan, the minibus drove up winding roads with steep rocky slopes on both sides. I disembarked at the cable car ground station and got into the small cable car, which swiftly moved up. It was overcast and slightly raining outside, but I could still look out and see the mountain gradually become larger and more real as we climbed higher. It was a quick trip to the top, less than 10 minutes, and the view when I got out was amazing. The rocky peaks all around seemed beautiful, in contrast to how it looked in photos online. “Waaa, mo de ding! (Wow, nothing can beat this)” exclaimed a Cantonese woman about the view and I agreed.
I first had to get to the hotel to check in and leave my luggage. I walked up a steep flight of stairs and saw the hotel was right next to it, but there wasn’t any opening along the stairs to get to the hotel. I kept walking up, but somehow I lost sight of the building and ended up on a viewing area with some huge boulders- I know it sounds silly, but that’s what happened. I quickly asked a tour guide who pointed me in the right direction and I got to the hotel “lobby”. The staff showed me the prices and I almost did a double take inside. A double room was almost RMB700! I chose to bunk in a 16-bed dorm room, which was the cheapest, but still cost the same as I’d paid for my 2-bed hotel room in Xian. Of course, given the lack of choices on the mountaintop, it should have been obvious that prices would not be cheap. But a website I’d visited had shown prices were cheaper. On the other hand, it wasn’t that big a deal since none of the rooms had toilets, though the double room had running water.
The toilets for the entire hotel were outside and had no running water and weren’t flushable. I was taken to my room, which was filled with 8 bunk beds and empty. The view from the window was really good. I rearranged my stuff, took my luggage back to the front desk and then set out to hike. It was now about two o’clock; I hadn’t eaten lunch but I wasn’t planning to anyways.
This is the hotel I stayed in on North Peak. The cable car station is the white hut on the lower right.
Huashan has five peaks – North, South, West, East, and Central. The peaks are arranged like a four-point star with Central peak being in the middle. The shape vaguely resembles a flower, which might have led to its name (although Hua’s character used in Huashan is different from that of flower). North Peak is the shortest peak, and connects to the other peaks via a long and steep staircase- Dragon Ridge (canglong ling). This staircase was featured in the new Karate Kid (set in China) movie, when Jackie Chan takes the kid to a mountaintop to understand the essence of kungfu. The scene is mainly set in Wudangshan in Hubei province, which includes historic temples and a historic kungfu center where monks train at (including the snake lady), but the mountain staircase as well as a shot of a giant gray mountain are clearly Huashan.
Along the way, there were several stairs and trails going up, including a staircase cut into the rock that was almost vertical. I saw porters carrying loads slowly up the stairs across the mountain, including the vertical one. They carried bricks, cement, and food items on bundles slung across their back, that were most certainly at least 50 pounds. They would stop to rest briefly and passersby would give them water or juice boxes. It’s sights like these that show that kindness is still present in China, especially in subtle ways that many people and media probably aren’t aware of. Similarly the sight of these porters carrying heavy loads up stairs that were several stories high really brought home the fact that some Chinese do have it tough, not to mention resilient and hardworking.
Besides the porters, there was another common sight everywhere on Huashan. Hundreds of locks with flowing red ribbons with messages on them were attached to ropes slung across stairs and even trees. People bought these locks to lock them onto these ropes forever to bring them luck in romance, work, and even studies. They were being sold by vendors all over the mountain. I didn’t buy one though. Commercialism was in full force as photographers at vantage points and souvenir booths were at a lot of places. Besides vendors, Huashan was dotted with buildings. There were several hostels, especially at each peak, along with small temples and shrines. The hostels and food and souvenir booths were all manned by uniformed park employees, which was interesting. I found this highly reassuring as I felt that if something happened or I got lost, I could at least ask these guys for help.
After climbing up, I reached Jin Suo Guan (Gold Lock Pass), the gateway to all the other peaks. There was a giant gold lock here; and hundreds of locks tied along the stair railings, festively wrapped up in red ribbons. The path was also framed by giant boulders, some which had Chinese sayings inscribed onto them, and precariously perched pine trees atop some of these very boulders. A few small temples and cave shrines appeared here and there as well.
This is right above Golden Lock Pass (Jin Suo Guan).
I hiked towards the west, but I first went to South Peak and then West Peak, where I caught the sunset. The giant rocks gradually gave way to forest of towering pine trees in this part, a few of whom were hundreds of years old which little signs affixed to them said. One ancient tree, “Da Jiangguan”- the big general- was 1000 years old.
Climbing onto West Peak, I passed a hostel with Michael Jackson playing loudly. West Peak was nice, though I got a nasty little gash below my thumb while climbing down a ladder. It was a small cut but it couldn’t stop bleeding for a while. Anyways, bleeding hand aside, it was a peaceful experience watching the sun set vividly as a bright orange circle gradually disappearing into a dark purple horizon under a blue and yellow sky. West Peak faced towards some shorter mountains, and there was a cable car line under construction a little lower down. There were a few dozen hikers, all Chinese, most of whom seemed to be enjoying themselves. I got asked by people to take a few pics of them, and in return people took my pic for me.
I had to hurry back to my hotel after seeing the sunset as the sky became dark and I didn’t want to be lost on the mountain. As I reached the final stretch, the lights were gradually turned on along the path. Incredibly I met people who were hiking up. They were going to Eastern Peak to spend the night so they could wake up and watch the sunrise. I even had a few pleasant chats with people who asked me for directions and where I’d gone. I headed down part of the final stretch in near darkness since the lights weren’t turned on yet, but I saw the reassuring sight of the hotel in the distance ahead perched on North Peak, with a string of lights illuminating the path leading to it.
When I entered my room, there was a middle-aged Cantonese couple occupying one of the beds, and we talked for a short while. They had hiked up from the bottom of the mountain to the hotel, which took 5 hours, but for them, it was nothing. They would hike the rest of the peaks the next day. I thought that it’d only be the 3 of us in the room, when all of a sudden, a bunch of young Chinese burst in, with the excited chatter of a girl being the most prominent. She chose the bed next to me, and it turned out she was from Shanghai and had hiked up the mountain as well, with her friends. Lord, it seemed like I was a softy for taking the cable car. It was nice to know that there were young Chinese who’d come all the way to Huashan and take the strenuous hike up to the top. Even more admirable, these people were going to hike to East Peak the next morning to see the sunrise. They would later get up at 3 am to hike the two hours in darkness to East Peak from the hotel. It was hard getting to sleep and inexplicably my stomach started growling, so I had to get out and eat a granola bar. I went on a stairwell above the hotel and enjoyed the view of the nearby mountain in the darkness. Eventually, I went back in later and managed to sleep.
A map of Huashan from Jin Suo Guan onwards. Jin Suo Guan is the gateway to the rest of Huashan, which includes the East, Central, South and West Peaks.
A neighboring mountain, one of the first sights I saw as soon as I arrived at Huashan’s North Peak.