When an e-mail landed in my inbox showing pictures of Chinese people climbing up a very steep, granite cliff face, along a thin wooden plank, nailed to the rock, I was intrigued. The caption read: “If you make it to the top, there’s a restaurant serving free food.” It looked really exciting, so I made a point of finding out exactly where this mountain was. A little research uncovered the name Mount Hua Shan, located near a place called Xi’an (pronounced She-Ann), not too far from where the Terracotta warriors live. As it just so happened, my friend Boris was living in Beijing. So this was a great excuse to go to China, the mountain all the while in the back of my mind.
A few days into our visit, I mention to Boris about wanting to climb this exciting mountain adorned with planks and chains. I show him the pictures from the email. Boris looks a little worried and says there is a far more beautiful mountain called Huangshan near Shanghai. My partner agrees that Huangshan sounds like a much better idea, so I end up admitting defeat. I think they just don’t like the look of the planks and chains. When it comes to booking the train tickets to get there, however, it turns out that Xi’an is the cheaper destination, and since we all have a budget to stick to, my mountain wins! The next evening, we head to the station. It’s roughly a 10 hour overnight journey on the sleeper train. We sit on our bunks eating pot noodles before the gentle, steady motion of the train rocks us to sleep. It was a comfortable ride and we all spelt well, but the toilets in the morning are a sight for sore eyes! I decide to hold my pee until we reach our destination…
Today is Boris’s birthday, the sun is shining bright and we have woken up early for the long trek up the 5 peaks, the tallest of which is over 2,000m high. Boris isn’t a fan of climbing mountains, but today is as good a day as any for him to change his mind! The entrance to the mountain is packed with domestic tourists. Not a Westerner in sight. There are giant incense sticks billowing smoke everywhere and there is a buzz of excitement from the crowd. I can see a lot of well-dressed people in smart hiking gear and women who have taken the effort with their hair and makeup. Flight after flight of steep stone steps carved into the rock lead us upwards. We hold onto chains laden with thousands of engraved golden locks, blessings inscribed in tiny mysterious Chinese characters. I forge ahead, leaving my partner and Boris lagging behind, sweat dripping from their brows. I can hear Boris moaning in the background as my partner films him for our holiday video “Who’s stupid idea was this anyway?”… “Happy Birthday Bozza!” my partner replies. I knew they would enjoy this too!
As we near the top of the first peak, I notice there are people with flashy medals round their necks resting near some huge boulders with large Chinese characters carved into them depicting tales and poems. Apparently, you can obtain a medal for each peak you conquer. This mountain also comes fully equipped with a photographer, ready to print your portrait on the printer he has hauled up here. I now see why people have made an effort to look their best! From the top of the first peak, we look out across the rugged mountain range and into the far away distance. It looks just like the delicate Taoist paintings I’ve seen at the British Museum.
Half way through the day, we come across the plank walk. The 3 of us look on dubiously. Its real! It really exists! I was worried that someone would have shut it down for health and safety, but its still here. Boris announces that he “doesn’t need to walk a plank to feel alive” and promptly does a disappearing act. It’s not possible to take our bags on the plank walk and my partner decides it’s probably a bad idea to leave our bags unattended. A likely excuse! My bag is of little importance in comparison with the challenge ahead. I pace back and forth building up courage. I have a massive fear of heights and seize up just from climbing small trees. Of course I told everyone at home I was going to walk this plank and it will look pathetic if I back out now. When I notice a small girl strapping her harness on, I decide that if she can do it, then so can I! So I take a few deep breaths and chant ‘Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō’ – a handy little phrase I learned at a Buddhist meeting which helps steady the nerves. Within minutes, I’m harnessed up and hoisting myself down the rungs hammered into the cliff face. As I descend, I feel the fear lifting away, like a weight being taken off my shoulders. Standing on the plank looking down at the steep drop, I feel wonderfully free of my fear and can fully appreciate the beauty of this place. My partner, I see is clinging to the chains, face almost pressed against the rock. We shimmy along the wooden planks for a few minutes and round a corner, we find a safe ledge and remove our harnesses. Trees protrude from the side of the mountain and somehow, people have managed to tie red ribbons on the outermost branches… Here on the ledge, there is a small humble shrine with a carved wooden monk seated behind some candles, a few donations and yet more incense. The carving has been placed right in front of what looks like quite a good cave painting.
As the sun starts to set, the pale rock takes on a golden hue, and the pine trees cast long shadows across the smooth boulders. The restaurant certainly wasn’t free. The price of a pot noodle increased proportionately with the rising altitude. A lot of people climb the mountain overnight, so they can view the sunrise (and avoid the hair-raising view) but since we have chosen to stay at a small lodge at the top of one of the peaks, we still get to enjoy the sun rising in the morning. Its freezing in our dorm and the only thing keeping us warm is the sunburn we picked up in the blazing afternoon sun and the last drops of sweet, strong Baijiu (an alcoholic drink of 40% which is similar to vodka, but the brown version I had purchased was sweeter). The 3 of us huddled together under one blanket to try and keep warm, shivering until we fell asleep.
The next morning we woke even earlier for the glorious sunrise over the mountain range. After a splash of cold water to the face followed by a cup of green tea, we joined the small crowd huddled at the edge of the rocks, protected by the chain fence. Excitement buzzed through the crowd again and we basked in the golden light, soaking up the unique energy created by this amazing location. Today was less intense, we enjoyed the other peaks and then made our way down. On the way down, we encountered a group of local male students, who insisted that they take us to their favourite restaurant in Xi-an, followed by a spontaneous trip to Tang Paradise cultural theme park. The main attraction here is a lake where an animated history of the Tang Dynasty is projected onto waterfalls, together with a glitzy procession of dancers, vehicles and musicians. Picture Gallery