Friday, August 30, 2013

Hello from Huashan

30 August

My hiking glove waving hello from the top of East Peak.

Huashan. Well I am glad I did it, but I doubt I would ever be willing to do it again. Though they may never read this, thank you to every person who patently waited for me to stumble out a Chinese sentence, or who rephrased my bungled Chinese so that an attendant could understand me, or who took a photo of me to share here with you,  or who smiled at me and thanked me for visiting Huashan; my adventure would not have been a pleasurable without you. Huashan has been turned into a sadistic type of amusement park, no rides just punishing amounts of exercise and some perilous attractions. Like all amusement park, everything past the main entrance gets a 5x increase in price and if jammed with people. In America, you expect long lines and screaming children. On Huashan, you find the same, but with an added element of deathly peril because falling here might not just mean a scrapped knee.

I slept fitfully on the night train from Beijing to Xi'an. I awoke frequently due to loud noises, train jerks, overheating, or freezing. The adrenaline compensated a bit for the lack of true sleep, but it has still been an exhausting day. After arriving in Xi'an at 6am I had to find the train ticket office and the bus depot. Three tries yielded a 9:18am speed train ticket for tomorrow from Huashan North to Xi'an North. A bit earlier than I planned, but I should be able to make it down the mountain and make it to the train station in three hours. Finding the bus depot was easy enough, I just had to ask two people where the bus to Huashan was. I got there just five minutes too late to catch the first bus out. I tried to beg my way on with the reasoning that I am only one person ... didn't work. Oh well, I had some time, and my bus left within 25 minutes of the first so I didn't loose too much time. Mostly I amused myself by thinking of my parent's reaction to me loosing "My Plan" that super helpful piece of paper with directions, bus numbers, train times, and important Chinese words for my trip like "Bing Ma Yong" = "Soldier Horse Clay", read Terracotta Warriors. I imagine my father chuckling and telling me that is what makes it a real adventure while my mother glares at him and makes a remark along the lines of "That is what you said when ..." The infamous rafting trip and Iceberg mountaineer expedition come to mind. I definitely lean a bit more towards my Papa on this one. He and Tony and Boody really would have enjoyed Huashan.

My seat mate was nice enough. A Chinese man with a wife and child across the aisle. He kindly put up with my over stuffed pack taking up all of my leg room, and my subsequent encroachment into his leg room. Our bus driver and manager were a picture of opposites. The driver was extremely laid back, didn't push to hard or raise his voice while the manager never opened her mouth except to bark something out like I have only heard drill sargents do. The ticket cost me 36 kuai while the fast train cost me 34.5 kuai, go figure, because the bus is two hours and the train is forty minutes, but we shall see what the true differences are by the end. For those of you asking yourself, why I am not taking a bus or train from Huashan to the Terracotta Warriors well that is because there is none. Either the Chinese just don't feel like adding one, or they want all of the tourist dollars they can get and thus make us poor touri pass back through Xi'an.

As you can see, both Huashan (Mt. Hua) and the Terracotta Warriors are to the east of Xi'an, not to far from each other either. These are times when I almost want to just hitchhike or take a taxi and save myself the trouble. This map also shows every other attraction in Xi'an, probably more than most people know exist in the city. Xi'an is the capital of Shaanxi province and one of the oldest cities in China. Its history stretches back over 3,000 years. In fact, if you remember back to my post about the history of the Great Wall, and the first emperor of China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who decided to build the great northern wall; it is his tomb that the Terracotta Warriors were crafted for. Xi'an was not only his, but also the Zhou, Han, Sui,and Tang Dynasty's capital city. It is ancient name is Chang'an, and is one of the four ancient capitals of China. It is also the eastern end of the Silk Road.

My 36 kuai bus dropped me and my fellow passengers off at a hiking goods store where we could use the toilet, listen to a brief introduction to the mountain, and buy whatever we happen to be lacking. I out of courtesy for using the toilet bout a 1 kuai pair of gloves that every Chinese person who listened to the introduction bought. Yes, it is the one in the first picture, and it definitely saved both my hands and my butt on the mountain. The park entrance was still about a kilometer down the road, but I was able to find a Chinese family willing to let me share their cab. They turned down my offer to pay half the fare because they were happy I was climbing Huashan. The ticket office was a further ten minute walk up the road, and presents visitors with twenty-six open teller windows. I chose one at random, but the girl said wrong window, so I went to the next, wrong window again, but this time they sent someone out to guide me to the proper window --- and cut the line =) 230 kuai lighter, and five minutes later I was off to the bus.

Now the bus is one of those diabolical monopolies. Everyone has to use, but the only bus available is provided by the park; therefore, a one way bus ticket is 40 kuai. (My two hour bus ticket from Xi'an was only 36 kuai!!) In true American spirit, I protested this. If they wanted to steal my money, I would steal it right back. I handed over my very official looking US Drivers License and told them it was a Student ID card. I wound up paying 100 kuai for the one way West Peak Cable Car, 90 kuai for my entrance, and 40 kuai for the one way bus instead of 140 kuai for the one way West Peak Cable Car, and 180 kuai for the entrance. In total, this saved me 170 kuai (had to buy the ticket down the mountain) which paid the 80 kuai in bus fare, the 83 kuai dinner, and part of my 25 kuai noodles. A very successful protest if I do say so myself.

Looking back as I ascend in the cable car.

The trip to the cable way took about forty-five minutes, then you had to scale eight flights of stairs to get to the cable way which took around twenty minutes to ascend to the 2,082 meter high West Peak. The tree young Chinese in the cable car with me were exuding that fearless, near reckless excitement the whole way up. The girl would squeal every time we hit a tower and the car shook, then all three of them would laugh it off -- courage rising over fear in any manner. I can see them now if one of them happened to slip precariously close to the edge, the others would wait for their comrade to come back up to the path so that they could give hearty congratulations on his/her courageous spirit. I did encounter this all over the mountain, and a good deal of it is attached to history. During the civil war a group of young soldiers convinced a local farmer to show them a long forgotten (read treacherous and punishing) path up the mountain. In conclusion, this small group of soldiers surprised and overtook the platoon stationed on the mountain. Now given communist government's love of national propaganda I am going to say that these were Mao's troops. To honor these men, the trail has been renamed Soldiers' Way and young Chinese have started flocking to the mountain since internal tourism became a possibility to prove their strength and courage. The moniker "most precipitous mountain under heaven" doesn't exactly keep them away either.

Once I reached the peak, I hightailed it east to grab a room. In part, I wanted to dump some weight, but I also wanted to have a room secured so that I didn't have to worry about getting back from where ever I happened to be on the mountain towards end of day. Right next to the East Peak Hotel is Sparrow Hawk Cliff. The trail is chiseled into a sheer cliff face, but has a rather tricky turn going down. This is the only way to get to the Chess Pavilion though, so I was going. I lucked onto some good timing since I was able to go right down before a large group could start climbing up. This also left me completely alone on the Chess Pavilion.

Looking Southeast from the Chess Pavilion.

Going back up (the easy part)
Once again history plays a role here because I can't think of a rational reason why someone would designate a pavilion on a floating cliff for playing chess. Legend has it that the Taoists won the mountain from a Chinese emperor in a game of chess. And if you belief will stretch this far, it was said to have occurred at the present day Chess Pavilion. Personally, I can't think of an emperor who would be willing to risk his neck to climb down to that pavilion when there was a perfectly serviceable location, or six, on East Peak. In any case, it makes a good story, and for some death-defying fun!

Onward and Southward. With my adrenaline levels still quite high, I plunged straight back into another of the attractions available at Huashan. The Plank Walk. The Plank walk consists of a ladder descending about fifty feet down to a ledge where three wooden planks have been nailed into the cliff face. And since this a particularly easy thing to do, two way traffic is allowed.

Stepping out into air
There are more of these too, by the way. I had two different people ask me if I wanted my picture taken up here. The second was a family that asked if I would take a photo with their little girls. So out there some where is a picture of me doing this with two little Chinese girls. That has to look hilarious.

Two way traffic stops for photos

All I have to say is, at least she wasn't using her iPad. Though you could give me the same grief for touting my Pentax up and down this thing. And then handing it over to complete strangers on a foot and a half wide ledge over a 2,000 meter drop ... heart starts beating wildly just thinking about it.

Well, it was now about 14:00 so I decided to take a rest from my training to become a stunt woman. I grabbed some instant noodles for 25 kuai which is a 6x increase from flat land where they sell for around 4 kuai, but once again a 6 to 1 conversion rate makes you shrug some of these things off as minor inconveniences. In the US, theme parks generally have a higher percentage increase than mountainous areas, and while this is a combination of both, the significant hike is mostly due to the terrain more than anything else. Think back to the last ski resort you went to. At the base is the ski rental, parking lot, a huge lodge and the lifts. The lifts take you up to the very summit in a series of levels, and generally at the division of each level is a flattened space with a small lodge where skiers can take a short rest without going all the way down to the large lodge at the base. Prices up the mountain are higher than at the base, but to my recollection never 6x what you would pay off the mountain. Finally, China has a reasonable explanation for this, though better described through a photograph.

Unbelievable tough work. There is no way to drive goods up to the peaks because they are too steep. Everything has to be carried up and back down. In the photo, the man is hauling empty water bottles, but I saw 50lb sacks of food goods, and huge water canisters attached to these sticks during the day. They also keep a good pace and just make tourists look like they are snails. I will mention as an aside here that while eating my noodles, my seat mate from the bus that morning and his family not only saw me, and acknowledged me, but came over and asked me how I was doing. I showed them the photos from the Plank Walk, and I got a thumbs up ... I have gotten myself a courageous Chinese spirit.

Onward and Southupward. I headed for South Peak, the highest on Huashan, and of the five holy mountains in China at 2154.9 meters. Unfortunately, the mountain was now full of people. I took one look at the traffic jam heading up to South Peak from its base and headed for West Peak. I was in no mood to make another treacherous climb at the moment, sorry. To get to West Peak one has to cross Blue Dragon Ridge. I have to say, I got off pretty easy in terms of weather. Partly to mostly cloudy with a 23 - 30 degree Celsius temperature and a light breeze. If the wind is high on Huashan, look out, Blue Dragon Ridge is probably more hazardous than either the Plank Walk or the Hawk Sparrow Cliff because there is no harness, just you, some chains, some very shallow steps, and nothing to break the wind from slamming into as you climb up the rounded spine of the slope up to West Peak.

Blue Dragon Ridge seen from the south

Oh, but don't worry, they made the path idiot proof by placing these helpful signs just off the path.

Because everyone needs to be told not to go striding off a cliff
I doubled back down to the West Peak Cable Way to confirm the time of opening, you know, one of those helpful bits of information on that piece of paper I left on the train. Well, the cable way starts up a 6:30 so I will plan to leave East Peak by 6:15 to get to the cable way at open and hopefully avoid the crush. I now had four options:
  1. throw in the towel and head back to East Peak for a nap
  2. go back up the 1,000 stairs to South Peak and see if it is any less crowded
  3. figure out where Central Peak or North Peak were
  4. stay on West Peak for sunset
I took option three, but headed for Central Peak rather than North Peak because you have to go down a considerable ways to get to North Peak --- and then go back up. An unmarked staircase led to Central Peak, and had very few people on it. I therefore decided to take a nice rest with a peanut butter sandwich. I even met a nice feathered friend, and saw a monk before continuing on my way.

the entrance to Central Peak Hotel

this is just funny, he scaled the character on the cliff for a photo

I am leaving this one here. Hopefully, I will get another one up by Sunday now that I am settled in Shanghai. Orientation starts next week, and it will be busy, busy after that.

But I leave you with this:

Huashan at sunset, facing east

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