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

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?


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!














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.


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.

Here’s PART TWO! Where the going gets really tough… 🙄

Now go back and watch that video. Seriously – you owe it to yourself.


22 thoughts on “Stepping Up: The Climbing of Hua Shan!

  1. My calves are hurting just looking at those pictures.
    I’m enjoying reading your adventures. I hope you are enjoying suffering them for us 🙂

    1. Are you kidding me?? I LIVE for this sh*t! I’m rather less comfy with some of the other ‘adventures’ I have in my blogging queue – like 26 hour bus journeys with kids peeing in th aisles, and nearly getting arrested in Chinafor trying to carry a knife onto a train (who knew it was wrong?). Climbing stairs – that I can handle! Although I won’t say I wasn’t sore afterwards :0)

  2. I need a very cold beer afterreading all that. and my legs ache from watching it so i’ll have to send hubby to the fridge. hard life innit.

    1. Yes, indeed! In fact it took me most of a bottle of vodka just to write this post! But then it did take me about 20 hours in total – the vast majority of which was spent drunkenly swearing at the compuuter whenever the internet died (which was roughly once every three minutes…)
      Enjoy that beer!

  3. Holy cow!!! Dude that staircase is a sight to behold. I had no idea this sort of climbing apparatus even existed. Job well done traversing such a ridiculous incline.

  4. Mental! I’m not sure if I mean the stairs of the pair of you but I have never seen stairs like it before.

    Seriously though, thanks for sharing the photos, and it’s nice to see more of Roo too. Looking forward to the next blog already.

    1. Poor Roo! She had to BEG me not to use a great picture I took of her with a huge bead of sweat dangling from the end of her nose! She was really pleased she did it though – especially the part that comes next, which was apparently the most scared she’s been in her life to date… fun!

  5. Well, holy hell. You did do it. And Roo too….. in the image (7th up) .. I swear, you are laying down and dragging yourself.. which, of course, is what I would be doing, while cursing the alien stone masons that concocted that nightmare in the first place!
    I’m a bit afraid to see part 2.. but you survived that, how bad can it be……….? [cue Hitchcock-esque music……]

    1. Oh, there was dragging! That climb was more about arm-strength than legs, as I hardly dared trust them on the tiny little ledges that passed for stairs. That was one reason why I climbed them so many times actually – the adrenaline rush from pulling myself up, hand-over-hand, to such a height – it was addictive! Ahhh, I do love adrenaline… which probably means I’ll never be an old man, but what a ride!!

      1. I finally went back and watched the video! Man, really pretty view, but yikes, what a climb! It was amazing when you kept turning back and it looked like a cliff!
        I was glad to see the ‘alternate route’ for descent, that would be scarier, I think, than the ascent.
        Or is that Part II?
        Can’t wait! – Or can I???

        1. Luckily you can also go up the descent route… all the really crazy bits now have alternate, safer steps – most wth those lovely fake log handrails! No, part two is about something else entirely… :0)

    1. Cheers Tracey!
      My posts aren’t normally this long and waffly, but I’m working on the second part now…
      And then I’ll be back to the funny stuff.
      Man, we had a lot of fun on Hua shan! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  6. still can’t believe that you actually gave it a go. Hua Shan has been known as the world’s most dangerous hiking trail! I wonder how many hours it would take me all the way to the top! Keep posting good stuff.

    1. Well, depends on what you call the top! We reached the pinnacle of the North Peak in three hours (plus a half hour for potos and being silly!) – but this was only just over halfway up the whole mountain…
      Cheers for stopping by Nico!

  7. This is absolutely fantastic to read. Had fun reading this and did not want it to end. Super excited to see there is a Part 2. My fav part about this is how you write as if your having a conversation with the reader. Makes it feel very personal or like the reader is the most important person in the world. Glad I just clicked on this and now for Part 2. Let me go get munchies & drinks first. I’ll be back in a sec……

    1. Hiya! Glad you enjoyed it! It was a crazy adventure – so crazy in fact that it ended up becoming a book, all about our travels (and struggles) through China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia! If you get the urge to check it out, it’s called ‘Shave My Spider’ (for reasons which will only make sense when you’re reading it). Thanks so much for visiting! This blog doesn’t get much love these days, since I started writing books instead 😉
      Hope you’re well (and enjoyed your munchies)!

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