So, where were we?
Oh, that’s right. We’d arrived at the top. Except, it wasn’t the top. It was the beginning of an immense, circuitous route which visited each of the five peaks of the sacred mountain; from the North Peak, where we were now, over the much-higher Central Peak, to the West Peak, where our hostel was, and to the notorious East Peak, where we wanted to go tomorrow. I forget what the other peak was called.
Owing to the slight delay in our starting time, it was 7pm, and the light was already beginning to fail. It made for some gorgeous pictures of the valley below, and the lights of nearby Xi’an City were very nearly visible through the smog. But not quite. We gazed up at the ridiculous ribbon of the Dragonback Ridge payed out above us, and resigned ourselves to another epic stair-climbing session – but not before a brief comedy interlude:
And so to the stairs! Forgotten those, hadn’t you? Or blocked them out… Sadly, we didn’t have that luxury. Dragonback ridge followed the barest knife-edge of the rock, a path at times less than a meter wide, with sheer cliffs plunging down on either side. Not a great place to be drunk, I thought, or to meet anyone coming the other way… At first I thought we were lucky with this, our lateness meaning most visitors had already left the area; but later on we discovered it’s a strictly enforced one-way system, as it is simply too dangerous to allow people to try to pass each other on the ridge.
Beyond the ridge we came to an unexpected guesthouse, that wasn’t listed on any of our maps (Ha! Maps? We had a 2-inch line drawing on the back of our ticket. Labelled in Chinese.) The manager offered us a discount, but Roo and I had been in China long enough by this point to expect a scam of some kind. We pressed on, hauling ourselves up the ragged stone steps, until a gap in the foliage allowed us a glimpse of our destination.
“Bugger that,” I said to Roo. She agreed. The West Peak shone in the distance, the last rays of sun picking out a tiny building clinging to the slope facing us. It was bloody miles away.
So, steps retraced, we booked into the cheapest dorm, and spent the night with eighteen other people, packed in so tight I could feel tremors in my bunk whenever the guy at the far side of the room scratched his arse. We’d scored some free hot water from the manager to make our noodles; in China boiling water is always freely available, in hotels, on trains, in libraries… cold water, though, was an issue. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convince the manager that it was safe to give me any. I had a bag full of water purification pills and a state-of-the-art UV steriliser in my bag, but still I spent two hours decanting boiling water from cup to cup until it was cool enough to pour into our plastic drink bottles!
Then we settled in for some sleep. We didn’t get any of course, but what were we expecting, really?
It’s one of the eternal mysteries of the universe: how do people who snore like a drunken sumo-wrestler, always get to sleep before everyone else? Within minutes of the lights going out, a fat bloke two beds over started moaning like a water-buffalo with its balls caught in a barbwire fence. His vocal range was impressive; from squeaks to ecstatic sighs, he covered every noise the human body is capable of making – all with the volume knob set to 11. None of it sounded healthy. Every so often, he would lapse into silence for up to a minute, and I would have the happy thought, “At last! He’s died!”
But no. After an hour, I got up and shook him awake. He jabbered at me in Chinese, and I gave him my best pissed-off look, and went back to bed. He sat up, hacked and coughed for a few seconds, then spat a massive gob-full of phlegm onto the floor. And went back to sleep.
I don’t think anyone else in that dorm slept. Three other people got up and woke him throughout the night, and each time he was snoring again before they climbed back into their bunks. One girl on the opposite side kept throwing her pillow at him. I spent at least an hour contemplating tipping him out of bed, and making some kind of scene so that the whole dorm could tell him what he was doing to them – but then, the faintest stirrings of light in the room made me realise than dawn was on the way. My alarm was set for 5:00am anyway, so it hardly seemed worth bothering.
At 4:00am the room came alive. All these people were eager to see the dawn, but they still had an hour and a half for that. I think they all just wanted to get the hell out of there, and a few stern words were directed at the snorer as the room emptied. This ended rather abruptly, when he stood up and pulled on a police uniform! It made me quite glad I hadn’t physically assaulted him in the night.
So, dawn it was – we ate our last instant noodles on the darkened deck, and slowly, feeling every step in leg muscles still burning from the previous day’s climb – we headed upwards.
As we went, we passed hundreds of people waiting to see the dawn; they thronged the path, making it more of a shoving match than a hike. There was no sign of dawn, as we moved up past them; nor would there be, as a dense curtain of vegetation shadowed most of the route. But hell, they were the ones who’d invested all this effort in seeing the sunrise. Let them stand wherever the hell they wanted! I was far more concerned with something else just up ahead…
As it happened, we did see the dawn. By not waiting for it, we’d already climbed higher than most by the time it arrived, and emerged onto the crest of a bare ridge. It wasn’t as impressive as the crowds suggested; even this high up a sacred mountain, we were still only an hour from the city. As a result, it was more of a smog-rise than anything else.
But there were other benefits to being up early. After following a series of very helpful signs (WARNING: sarcasm), we managed to find our way to the East Peak… and THIS:
The plank-walk, notorious around the internet as ‘The Most Dangerous Hike In The World’ ™ – is not actually part of the trail. It’s an optional extra that, sadly, now requires the wearing of a harness. I know! How rude. But Roo was having a few last-minute nerves, especially after seeing the metal rungs we had to climb down just to get there…
So, maybe the harness was for the best! It certainly gave us the freedom to have a little fun (more of which later…) And because we were the first there, we had the entire Plank Walk to ourselves! We spent about 20 minutes traversing slowly around the cliff face, alone with the spectacular view, and each other. We took so long that other people started to arrive; on the way back we had to pass several tourists, a particularly scary experience involving one party unclipping their safety straps while the other squeezes around them…
And then, the excitement was done. There were of course a vast number of stairs still to climb, as we hiked the circuit between the peaks – another 8km in total, that took us over four hours. Some of it was crazy-steep, some utterly-ridiculously steep. And then there were some…
Unsurprisingly, I climbed this last one a few times too! I just can’t help myself. There’s a video of it HERE, if you’re interested (it’s the one that’s been floating around on Facebook). It wasn’t too difficult; a tiny old Chinese woman did it just after I’d finished. But, um, let’s pretend I didn’t say that. Yes, hero-type-stuff, this climb was… :0)
We were on the way down now, and I couldn’t help noticing the ongoing Disneyfication of the place that had bothered me on the way up. We watched a gang of workmen with hammers chipping the ancient stone steps into gravel – while another gang set the formwork to pour concrete replacements! I think the plan is, by 2015, to turn the entire mountain into a multi-storey car park…
Far more interesting – and amazing – was the labour they were using to facilitate their ‘repairs’. We passed porters on the way up – carrying everything from huge granite blocks, to vast lengths of metal reinforcing bars – on their shoulders! Having climbed the Soldiers Path yesterday, I could hardly believe these guys were doing it for a living – presumably several times a day – with at least thirty kilos of stone on their backs! Incredible.
Finally… at long, long last… we were done. Utterly spent! We’d never planned to hike all the way back down, as it would only be torturing ourselves to cover the same ground; instead we shelled out $15 each, to enjoy the view from the cable cars.
And of course, the bus ride back to Xi’an was fraught with the usual problems. Such as when the driver kicked us out at a random bus stop on the edge of the city, leaving us lost yet again…
But I won’t bore you with details. Instead, here it is – the video from the dreaded Plank Walk… with a twist! Enjoy!
(And please, let me know what you think in the comments!)