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Living The High Life: The Climbing of Hua Shan (part 2)

So, where were we?

Huashan SunsetOh, 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.

Mountain view
Now, where exactly was that hostel again?

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:

Propergander DeskOh, yes! The bloke behind the desk clearly didn’t appreciate the irony, and I wasn’t about to tell him as he was armed to the teeth. Like all good Tourist Information officers.

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.

Looking down Dragonback Ridge
Looking back down the Ridge was even more dramatic!

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!

Huashan Hostel
Gateway to the central peak… where a dorm-bed for $20 is a ‘discount’!

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.

Huashan Hostel Dorm
Close Quarters; the 20 bed dorm maximizes the breathing-space-to-profit ratio…

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…

Crowds on Huashan
Dawn is a rare sight in China!

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.

Huashan Dawn
The sun rises above the… well, let’s call them clouds, shall we?

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:

Huashan Plank Walk at dawnThe 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…

Rungs down to huashan plank walkSo, 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…

Huashan Plank WalkRoo on plank walk rocks

Hua shan plank walk
Ever felt like you were flying?

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…

Hua Shan Steep Stairs

Climbing Hua ShanSteep Steps on Hua ShanUnsurprisingly, 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…

Huashan repairs
“Hey, if we smash these crappy old steps into gravel, we can use it in the concrete for the new ones!”

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.

Huashan PorterHuashan PorterFinally… 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.

Cable Car view Huashan
As we follow the other cars down, you can just see some of the Soldier’s Path below us!

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!)

30 thoughts on “Living The High Life: The Climbing of Hua Shan (part 2)

  1. The plank walk? No way in hell! And you actually trusted the “harnesses” they gave you? What were you thinking”

    1. Yeah… there was another video clip, which I didn’t use, where the harness slipped a little… suffice to say, I shit myslef right there and then! I REALLY wouldn’t want to test those things out by falling…

  2. I would have taken one look and thrown up.
    And I find it appalling that they are destroying their cultural heritage, the very thing drawing most of the tourists. How can they not understand that? I have this terrible cartoon visual in my head: throngs of tourists standing at the entrance to an ancient cultural site “We have come to see your wonderful, rich history of this place. Where are the ancient stones?” to which the official tourist information officer says “Ah! We have destroyed them and replaced them with wonderful imitation stone in hardy plastic!” At which point the excited tourists would seize up and faint. And then the official tourist information officer “You no understand! Is plastic!”

    1. Yeah, it’s the weirdest urge! We had a running joke as we went through China – the tour guides or info plaques would always say something like: “…the temple was constructed in 1200Ad, but was completely destroyed in 1400, 1750 and 1965. It was completely rebuilt each time, and restoration work continues even now…” (only in worse English). To sum up? It’s not ancient. It’s not even old! Pats of the Great Wall were most recently restored by Jeff, last Thursday… All of which is fine, if it’s sensitive work. But in the land where they’ve built a city containing scaled-down versions of all the world’s most famous landmarks… Yeah. Tacky, to say the least.

  3. Oh my God!! Terrifying! I could barely watch. How you lent over the side and put your trust in the harness is beyong me. I broke out in a sweat just watching. And as Rebecca above said, you are both either very, very brave or just totally nuts!

    1. What’s great is, I never even thought to question the quality of the harness until the comments on this blog started rolling in… Whew! Kinda glad, actually, or I might genuinely have wet myself during Gangnam Style…

  4. I think it’s great that you two are living life! I just wish you would post more often because I can’t get enough :o)

    1. Wow, thanks Renee! I keep promising (threatening?) to post more often, and I’m going to make a proper effort to do so from now on! I should blame it on writing Book 3, only… well, I haven’t been doing much of that lately either… Ahem! Don’t tell anyone else I said that. :0)

  5. That was amazing Tony. It sounds frightening and confounding at times, but such an extraordinary experience. 🙂 Way to live life to the fullest.
    Thank you for sharing.

    All my best to you and Roo. 🙂

    John

  6. jesus bloody Christ Tony. if you fell , do you really think that harness would hold you? no it wouldn’t. you should have a full body harness ffs. but you didn’t really want to worry about that did you? cos you knew you wouldn’t step off the plank. well done to you. i’d love to have a go at that. including wetting my pants.

    1. I had the thought only when I was leaning out – I tried to trust the harness and stretch further, but my mind just froze my arms where they were. Then it occurred to me – I was leaning at 45 degrees… and suspended from the waist. If I leant too far out, I might go over the tipping point and flip upside down… at which point there’s not a chance that belt would hold me! It’s the little things that make this sort of event more interesting!

  7. Hehehe, I did rewind the video to see if you had a wet patch 😛
    Utterly utterly bonkers.
    I would have forgiven you the lack of updates if you were saving them for Book 3.
    Keep up the stupid work 🙂

    1. I’m on it, I promise! Slated for a Christmas release again, but I’ll make sure you get an advance copy, so you can tell me what bits are rubbish! And there should be a few more updates now that we’re out of China – where WordPress and Youtube are blocked completely… Damn those commies!

  8. Amazing! Wonderful!! Scary!!!

    I can’t believe you did it. But you must have survived because I can’t imagine you could edit in music and load all this up from the top of the mountain… then again, Tony, maybe YOU could.

    The most treacherous point was when you had to unhook to let the others by. Thank goodness you’re taller than most and could take the “high road”!

    My brother’s on his way to China in a few days. I’ll suggest he check it out. 😉

    P.S. What a charming accent you have! You would make a great international trekker television host. Are you in talks about it? “Tony and Roo Rome the World”…

    1. Why thank-you Patrice! I used to try to speak ‘properly’ in videos, and it was a disaster. I just sounded even more like an idiot than normal! I was never very comfy in front of the camera (even whilst trying – and failing miserably – to be an actor). I’d love to do some kind of travel presenting gig though. Who knows? Maybe if I get spotted doing something REALLY stupid, there could be a job for me… :0)
      Your brother should TOTALLY check it out! Warn him there’s no Facebook or Twitter in China though, so it’s email-only communication. If he wants some advice on places we’ve been to, send him my way.
      Oh, and the scariest part of the walk wasn’t on the video (sadly) as I needed both hands. The fools running the thing let too many people down at once, so we couldn’t get back up the ridiculous rungs we’d climbed down! I had to unclip completely and climb back up over the top of about 20 Chinese tourists… Fun!

  9. I’m pretty sure I held my breath through the entire video!
    You certainly got over your jitters quickly.. from getting nervous about holding your foot over, to ‘Gangnam style’!
    Such a goof.. and Roo must love you very much to go on these adventures with you. But sounds like you worry after her like a hen, so that’s pretty sweet. Me? I love my husband, but I’d be on that tram up and down the mountain!

    XO

    1. Well you know, I love her enough to try to push her comfort zone… She was far from thrilled with me beforehand, when I kept insisting we were going to climb the staris, and she tried to refuse the plank walk completely, but… I think she’s happier now that she did it! How we’re going to top that though, I don’t know!

  10. Ooooh watching the video makes my heart race all over again! Its funny, i was nervous before hand (very really) but once I saw a harness I thought, “Oh it must be safe…” But truly the harnesses leave a lot to be desired! And they dont show you how to clip on and off safely, so oncr there were about 30 people crowding the planks and ladders it got crazy! It might almost have been safer when a couple of people a day did it carefully!
    It was an amazing experience, so glad we did it! 🙂

    1. Wow, that’s great! You’ll have an amazing time, it’s SUCH a beautiful place. The hardest part was getting dumped off the bus in some random coach station on the way home, instead of at Xi’an train station where we expected! We just sat there and refused to move from our seats, and eventually the conductor found someone that spoke English, and they led us out of the coach station, over the road and around the corner, and put us on a regular bus to the train station! So easy, if only you speak the language… so borderline impossible for us! Have fun!

      1. Just wondering.. a couple of other sites say that the plank walk was ‘optional’. Was there another route to wherever the planks took you, or did you have to come back the same way?

        1. Oh yeah, the plank walk was certainly optional! In fact, they charge you extra – if you want to do it, you have to cough up another $15 each for renting the (compulsory) safety harnesses! The walk itself goes nowhere, just around the cliff to a rocky ledge with a small cave, and then you come back the way you went – hence, passing everyone else…
          REALLY worth doing, especially if you get their REALLY early – we were there before 6am I think, and they were just opening, so we were the first people on the walk. By the tie we got back up, there was a massive queue, and everyone was be thronging it, pushing and shoving.. argh. Not nearly as much fun!
          The plank walk itself is one of two crazy exposed bits, which are ogten confused – the other leads to the ‘Chess pavilion’, a small temple on a pinnacle. It’s less intense, being all on steps and iron bars in the rock, but you have to pay AGAIN to do that one – and with two of us, it was starting to add up! In total it cost us well over $200 to do Huashan, including the bus there from the nearest city Xi’an, and our overnight accomodation. WELL worth doing, but certainly not cheap!

  11. Yep the stories on the net are a bit confusing. I initially started reading the story at http://www.ssqq.com/ARCHIVE/vinlin27d.htm which sounds like it refers to two boardwalk areas, one which sounds like it’s closed off now: “which one can head onto the perilous path on which the older lady (in your pic) is standing by herself. It is sheer down almost 2,000m beyond that fragile-feeling chain railing. It is now a photo-op dead end; one can no longer pass on to the plank walk and somersault ladder in the chimney described.” The story teller describes walking along a foothold path (presumably different to the boardwalk), up a cliff , and then to reach the summit. Maybe this was a different way (separate to the boardwalk) that’s now closed off? The climb to East Peak sounds pretty intense as well: “Close to the East Peak is another ladder ( Cloudy?). Nowadays an almost 80 degree metal ladder about 25m is another option; but the original route remains up a stone cliff, which actually surpasses the vertical to about 100 degrees in its mid-section. Steps are cut into the rock, and a chain hangs down. One grasps the chain and leans out holding the majority of one’s weight in one’s arms even as you grasp the chain ever higher. .”, and the Playing Chess pavilion looks awesome in the photographs. I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated to read more abou this, but it is interesting 🙂

  12. Yeah, that article has been the no.1 reference on the internet for Huashan for years! It’s how I found the place, actually. It IS quite misleading though, as it’s written by a bloke in Texas who has never been to China! He set up the page with a story he’d heard, passed on to him like a Chinese Whisper through so many other people he couldn’t find the original source. He admits on the page that since the story first going up, lots of people have mentioned the inconsistencies to him. But basicaly, the plan-walk/boardwalk is optional. It’s the same bit as was being discussed in the article – after the plank part comes the ‘foothold path’, which is the same chain for support (now with added safety line), but with holes cut in the rock to put your feet in! And in some places, metal poles sticking out of the rock to stand on. All very precarious, but of course much safernow because of the harness. Although… as some friends mentioned above, those harnesses wouldn’t hold you if you fell. They only go on around the waist and legs, so as soon as you tip upside-down, you’d slip right out of the buggers!
    The plank-walk/foothold path just leads to a cave and a viewpoint. All the other elements, the crazy Heavenly Stair’ and the assorted precipitous stair routes up to the temples are on the mountain – just in different places. As far as I know the plank walk never led anywhere else, at least as far as tourists are concerned, but perhaps back in the day it was possible to scale the cliff by climbing from there? Certainly there are no more carved steps or paths leading onwards.
    Same deal with the Chess Pavilion – a crazy, hair-raising climb down to it (and back up again afterwards!) – but you can’t go anywhere else from it, as it sits alone on a pinnacle. And unfortunately, you have to pay another $15 just to go to it! We’d paid for the plank-walk already, so didn’t bother as te Chess Pavilion is not quite as scary.
    If you’re still interested, I’ve got loads more photos, and can advise you about how to get there – just send me an email with any questions if you like, to: Tony@TonyJamesSlater.com
    I wrote this blog hoping to be entertaining as well as a bit informative, but I didn’t want to cram it full of details that would bore the casual reader! So, yeah, let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to know!
    Cheers!

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