Stepping Up: The Climbing of Hua Shan!
Since I first saw a picture of Hua Shan (Hua means ‘Mount’), I was determined to go there. Because the picture I saw had to be seen to be believed…
And try as I might, I could find very little online about the place. Only THIS weird website (which people still send me links to), which babbles on about how dangerous the place is, and even has in-depth descriptions of accidents that have happened – or might have happened. On other mountains. In America. Oh yes; highly relevant stuff.
So I figure that, having actually BEEN to Huashan now, I owe the world a slightly more accurate description. Because forget all that ‘World’s Most Dangerous Hike’ crap – Hua Shan is great fun to climb, a fascinating example of ancient engineering, and absolutely, utterly, stunning.
So. Hua Shan is one of five sacred peaks of blah blah blah. Yeah, I know – I can’t be arsed with that crap either! But here’s Wikipedia, for those that do care. I know what you really want… it’s pictures of those crazy-assed stairs! They will come, I promise. But I had to wait for them… and so will you. :0)
We had to wait rather longer than anticipated, as it happened. We caught the bus from outside the Xi’an train station as planned, but just before we arrived, the conductor gave a long and angry-sounding lecture in Chinese. Roo and I just looked at each other, and hoped it wasn’t important.
Then we pulled up at a café – presumably the driver’s brother-in-law’s – and the rest of the passengers bolted inside and started chowing down on noodles.
Which was a bit of a bugger, as we were on a tight schedule to climb this mountain. We had a long way to go to, and the place we were staying in for the night – the only place we could afford – was on the top of it. So with absolutely no advice forthcoming, and zero English spoken in the immediate vicinity, we did what we usually do; we got lost. We passed a huge brown tourist sign (written entirely in Chinese) and headed through a big temple-style entrance into… a temple. I won’t bore you with the details, but we wandered on our own for over an hour, paid an entrance fee, and managed to climb a fair way up the mountain – before realising it was the wrong mountain.
Eventually we found ourselves (slightly more pissed off), beneath the same brown sign. So we wandered beneath it, and into the car park beyond, in desperation.
Luckily, this car park turned out to be the depot for the bus to the Hua Shan Visitors Centre. If only we’d read the sign!
Much frantic questioning and repeated pantomiming of cable cars finally conveyed the right impression (though why it was so difficult is beyond me. The staff there have exactly one job: ferrying customers to the cable cars. I think they just liked watching me wave my arms over my head like an idiot whilst making ‘whooosh’ing noises).
The ferry bus to the Visitors Centre was empty, because by this time no-one in their right minds was starting the climb. The rather expensive (but compulsory) shuttle bus from the Visitors Centre to the cable car terminal was similarly empty. Well, at least we wouldn’t be climbing in a crowd…
The second most popular route is the ‘long’ path – a steep, 6km hike, ascending the mountain via paved walkways. The third is the damn hard path, which is climbed only by the very dedicated, and the very stupid, because… well, did I mention it was damn hard? It starts right under the cable cars, and pretty much follows their line – except that in place of giant winches hauling six-man gondolas up the mountain in six minutes, there are just stairs. Lots, and lots, of stairs. Oh, and it’s compellingly titled ‘The Route Intelligent Take-Over Of Hua Shan’. Which is probably why they signpost it ‘Soldiers Path’.
Tell you what though – they weren’t kidding about the ‘damn hard’ bit. We’d been going for less than ten minutes when we had to stop, panting and wheezing.
“Thought we were fitter than that,” gasped Roo.
“Maybe we are – and it’s knackering us anyway…”
Few hundred steps down. Few thousand still to go.
We had to stop to catch our breath at every landing.
And trust me when I say, there are a lot of those…
Our timing was perfect. Despite everything that had happened that day (or perhaps because of it), circumstances had conspired to send us up this mountain at 4.30pm – entirely alone. The whole climb, we only saw three people – and they were right at the beginning, on their way down. I’d read that taking the more popular route could be like queuing up the mountain, especially at the weekends. Instead Roo and I had the place to ourselves, which gave us plenty of opportunity to muck about:
I had to marvel at the effort involved in creating this path. It’s one of the most inaccessible patches of mountainside in China, so ridiculously steep that only a staircase of stupendous proportions could get people up there – but then, how do you make that staircase? Well, with stone, of course. Massive great blocks of granite, which looked about as heavy as small cars. I had the same feeling I’d experienced standing in front of the Pyramids at Giza; that sense that, without modern technology, what I was seeing was just not possible. How do you haul stone up a mountain? With a donkey? What if the stone is heavier than the donkey…?
Aliens. Got to be. :0)
We also saw evidence of a much more depressing aspect of Chinese culture – specifically, their desire to destroy it. Since Chairman Mao told his followers that the Great Wall was basically just a big pile of free bricks, the Chinese have been happily pulling apart their heritage whenever it suits them. Only this strange phenomenon called Tourism – where crazy people from far-off lands pay vast amounts of money to come and goggle at all their old shit – has saved it. Suddenly, with a whiff of profit in the air, the Powers That Be have mobilized The People, galvanizing a nationwide work-force with one aim in mind: to rinse the maximum possible dollar-value from every attraction they still have left. And so, entrance fees skyrocket (for none-Chinese), and gangs of workers are tasked with taking all that naff old crap and making it look shiny and new for the tourists…
Yes, exactly. FAIL! I even shouted it at this guy – who was deadly serious as he transformed this stone bench into a cartoon-log version of itself.
And yes – it’s depressing. Perhaps the third most depressing thing about China, after 1) the horrendously disfigured beggars, and 2) their blocking of Facebook.
What? Okay, so maybe I overreacted to the Facebook thing. But seriously – they also block Twitter, YouTube, and every major blogging platform. And there’s over 500 million internet users in China! What the hell do they do all day?
About halfway up, WE SAW THEM!!! This was it – this was the bit that had attracted me, first to find out about, then to climb, Hua Shan. This was the scene of that most infamous of internet pictures – the stairs that scared Roo so much it had taken me three months to convince her to come here! And so, feast your eyes on… oh, what the hell am I waffling on about? No-one’s still reading this are they? Go on then – have a look at the pictures…
Unbelievincredimazing! To coin a phrase. They were vertical. They were insane! They were… chained off? It seems some anal-retentive, bureaucratic individual with health-and-safety on his mind, has just decided to close the most famous staircase in all of China. What a douche canoe! Of course, I climbed it anyway. But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?
Well, I have to admit, I went a little crazy. There’d been some discussion online about whether I’d end up using the video camera, or leaving it with Roo to film me, or… somewhat predictably, I took the third option and did both. I climbed all the staircases several times, running mostly on adrenaline, until Roo asked me to stop. I’m so glad I have her! Otherwise I’d probably still be there. Or, bits of me would be.
Climbing them was actually much easier than it looked. Each step was like a tiny, narrow shelf cut into the rock; space for the toes to rest, no more, but that was all that was needed. Because the steps were so tiny, each one only raised me a handful of inches, and the chains on either side could easily hold my weight. A couple of meters up, the steps were caked in dust, suggesting that it was a long time since anyone had bothered to climb this far. I dunno – maybe everyone else took the ‘CLOSED’ signs seriously? Ha! More fool them then. I made several ascents, to the top on the biggest staircase but only halfway on the other one, as the top section had been obliterated by a landing for a new set of Disneyfied concrete stairs. With faux-log handrails! Oh, China. For shame!
And then, right when the novelty had almost worn off… there were stairs. And there were more stairs. And there were STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS!
Don’t believe me? ‘Course you do. But here’s some proof anyway:
And, just when you think you’re there – when you can almost dare to believe that you’ll never have to look at a single stair picture again…
There was video. Noooooo……….!!!
Let’s just say, we made it. In little over three hours of relentless, leg-busting, lung-bursting, Oero-consuming (what? Try climbing a mountain on ‘healthy’ food. I dare you!) fatigue-inducing, crazy-making, carved stone steps – Wow. We both felt the urge to sit down for a bit.
And this is the view from the top!
At least, we thought it was, at the time. Because until then, we hadn’t seen a single sign in English. Now though, we could read an interesting plaque noting the relative heights of the different peaks – and we couldn’t help but notice that the north peak, where we’d just arrived, was the lowest. By some 600 meters… oh, yes! This might have looked like the top – hell, it might even have a cable car station and a swanky hotel and a pair of ‘This is the top!’ style posing pillars… but this wasn’t the top. This was the North Peak, at 1,614 meters… and we were a little over halfway up.
Next we had to ascend the infamous Dragon Back Ridge…
“But why is it called that?” you ask.
Yes – those are people over there. Those are stairs – and they go ALL. THE. WAY.
Let’s take a closer look, and you’ll see what I mean…
And THAT is where we were headed next.
Sooo… to be continued! I’ll post Part Two in less than a week, and put a link to it right here.
Now go back and watch that video. Seriously – you owe it to yourself.
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