Drifting Part Two

Area we got stuck

Before we get started, here’s some rules about canal boat conduct:

  • Always pass other boats on the right.
  • Always pass other boats at walking pace.
  • Do not intentionally ram other boats at top speed.

And while we’re at it, here are a few facts about the boats themselves:

  • They are long and narrow. Kind of ram-shaped.
  • They are bastard impossible to steer. Impossible!
  • They have absolutely NO BRAKES. NONE.
  • They hate you.
  • They want you to die screaming.

Putting all that together, you might gain an insight into the first few minutes and hours of our boat stewardship.

Read the rest of this entry

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!)

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…

Hua Shan Crazy StairsAnd 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.

Huashan from below

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!

Brown Sign

Don’t know HOW we missed this!

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…

Empty shuttle busEmpty Hua Shan Shuttle BusNow, there are three ways up Hua Shan. The vast majority of people take the cable cars – even though a round-trip costs $32 per person, in addition to the $20 Scenic Area entrance fee.

Not a bad option, really!

Not a bad option, really!

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…

Hua Shan endless stepsOur 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:

Roo messing aroundTony messing around

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hua Shan Quidditch

Quidditch!

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…?

Discarded stone step

Discarded stone block – with foot to scale!

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.

Log effect bench on huashan

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?

Anyway.

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…

Hua Shan crazy stepsHuashan crazy steps

 

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?

Huashan Crazy Steps

Halfway up…

Huashan Crazy Stairs

Little bit higher…

Hua Shan Crazy Stairs

Squeezing under the barrier…

Hua Shan Crazy Steps

And the view back down!

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!

Huashan Broken Steps

Ancient steps underneath the new concrete landing.

Hua Shan Broken Stairs

I couldn’t climb to the top – some cheesy ‘log-effect’ concrete supports destroyed the top of the original staircase, with ‘bark’ made from painted cement. Ugh!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

Hua Shan crooked stairs

MORE Huashan Stairs

Hua Shan Secret Steps

Yet More Hua Shan Steps

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!

North Peak, Huashan

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.

Well:

Dragon Back Ridge Hua Shan Mountain

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…

Dragonback Ridge Huashan

See! People!

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.

:0)

Eat, drink, be merry! Then get fat.

A measure of good healthToday I started a new fitness regime with ‘MyFitnessPal.com’. It was recommended by one of the staff at the gym, where Roo and I have been slaving away trying to achieve our dream bodies. (None of those dream bodies are looking at us though, so we’re stuck with each other.)

So, feeling a bit lazy today I thought I’d make a move in the right direction by signing up to the website. It has an online calculator where you put in the food you’ve eaten for each meal and it tells you how much of it you shouldn’t have eaten. Then a giant hand comes out of the monitor and slaps you across the face, whilst a shrill voice in an American accent shrieks at you about the dangers to your health.

I was amazed at how comprehensive the food lists were. Search for ‘Crunchy Nut Corn flakes’ for example, and you get ten different variations – different bowl sizes, types of milk, even brands of corn flakes. Woo! I was excited, of course.

Then, less than halfway through the process of recording my food for the day, I cheated. What is that they say about best intentions? Well, wherever that road is headed, I’m going there. I knew the food records were private. At least, I was fairly sure they were. But even so, there was just something so wrong about admitting – even to my computer – that I had whisky for breakfast. I didn’t dare search for a listing.

The software also records exercise. So far today, sneaky snifters none withstanding, I’ve done alright. In fact I seem to be eating about 600 calories less each day than I should be doing, which probably means I should drink more. For compensation.

Today there was no exercise to record. Or was there? Next to me, Roo was also working on her fitness program. “Should I put ‘sex’ under exercise?” she asked.

I laughed. Then said, “yeah!”

The only trouble was, after an extensive search under ‘Cardio Exercise’, we couldn’t find it anywhere.

One advantage of this particular site however, is the ability of casual users such as myself to add to the foods and activities on offer…

So feel free to go now to ‘MyFitnessPal.com’. Should you be interested enough to register (free) and start recording your progress (also free), you could choose to browse the exercise categories, where now, under ‘Sex’, there is the following:

1) Sex, quickie in the kitchen, 8 minutes, 0 foreplay: 150 calories

2) Sex, gentle spooning at 8am. One or both partners still asleep: 85 calories

3) Sex, ‘taken roughly from behind’, 300 calories

4) Sex, toe curling, multiple screaming orgasms, 500 calories (handcuffs optional)

5) Sex – imagination only, as bed is now broken: 35 calories

Well, it doesn’t look like I’m going to get fat. Food for thought  :0)