Just like any Chinese kid growing up in the 80’s, I was addicted to reading Wu Xia fiction – a genre of Chinese fiction surrounding the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. I could often be found trying to emulate the martial art moves, imagining myself as one of the Kung Fu heroes, waving my sword and flying over the misty mountain. Fast forward twenty years later, I have finally been able to fulfil a childhood dream and climb one of the Five Great Mountains of China depicted in those stories – Hua Shan.
Mount Hua, or Hua Shan in mandarin, is a mountain located in the Huayin Prefecture of Shaanxi Province, located approximately 120 kilometres east of Xi’an. It has a long history of Taoism significance. The area became popular for Imperial and local pilgrims to climb one of China’s most challenging mountains to the Taoism temple on the summit as a way of reaching the god of the underworld. Today, Hua Shan attracts more than just pilgrims but also a growing number of tourists from abroad, particularly adrenalin junkies.
Apart from visiting the historic UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, another must-do for me was to conquer this mountain. Being able to speak Mandarin had its advantages in this occasion. I asked the staff at our hotel to book a day tour to Hua Shan which catered for the locals and Chinese-speaking tourists. Throughout the two hour bus ride, our Chinese guide was able to explain to us all the history and insights about Hua Shan. Along the way we noticed there were no unnecessary tourist stops at silk or jade factories, and our lunch stop wasn’t at any fancy restaurant but an authentic no frills all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. It was during our lunch stop we were encouraged to buy a pair of gloves with rubber grips for hiking later.
Before reaching Hua Shan, make sure you have your hiking route well mapped out. Let’s be clear you simply won’t have enough time to do the grand tour of the whole mountain within the day tour. To complete the whole journey around Hua Shan you will need at least seven hours. Our tour allowed us to have approximately three hours on the mountain which was sufficient time for us to hike around and make our way back down, and allowing a few pit stops along the way to catch our breath while taking in the magical view.
We took the more popular hiking route which is suitable for those with a moderate fitness level. A new cable car system that was opened in 2013 will take visitors all the way up to West Peak with an elevation of 2082 meters. Anyone who suffers acrophobia may not enjoy the ride as it takes approximately twenty minutes to ascend 894 meters up to the station on West Peak. Our little car swayed a little when the wind blew, but the silence was deafening when we were in mid air, interrupted only by the occasional squeaks and jerks every time we passed through the cable connecting stands. It was such a relief when we finally saw the West Peak and arrived at the top station. From here, we hiked up to the top of West Peak which offers unobstructed views of the East and South peaks.
Hua Shan is not only famous for the stunning scenery , but it has also gained international notoriety for the thousands of thrill-seekers that travel here to conquer one of the world’s most dangerous hike, lyrically named “plank walk in the sky”. This death-defying walk is definitely not for the faint-hearted. As soon as you set foot on the wooden plank which is bolted onto the mountainside complete with a 2000 ft drop, the only thing you’ll hold tighter than the safety handles is your own life. We were not in the mood to gamble with our lives so continued our descent to North Peak.
Even though the hike was descending along the trail most of the time, you would be a fool to think it was easy. The hike was actually quite strenuous and some would even say dangerous. Some areas consisted of chain-lined narrow paths where you will need to negotiate oncoming hikers along the way, and near vertical stairs where we literally had to crawl like Spiderman. That’s when the rubber gloves come in handy to have a firm grip of the metal chains.
There are many passes along the path where hikers can stop, rest those weary feet and actually enjoy the surroundings. Not far from the Middle Peak is Golden Lock Pass, a popular spot amongst young love birds. You will find thousands of golden “love locks” locked to the handrail chains and a sea of red ribbons placed to symbolise their unbreakable love. Some even believe that if a brave man is serious about true love he will never be afraid of risking his own life to put the padlock in the most obscure and dangerous spot on the pass. Because love is blind, right?
Further north is Canglong Ling (Black Dragon Ridge), the trail is long and thin like the dragon’s spine with steep drops on both sides. If you are not ready for the adrenalin rush there is an alternate route that goes around the ridge and heads towards Ca Er Yan (Ear Touching Cliff), another dangerous pass where your ear is almost touching the side of the rock face along the path to avoid from falling off the cliff on the other side.
It took more than two hours to reach North Peak and what a relief that the hike was finally over. I was absolutely exhausted but carried with me a sense of pride that I had just hiked one of the Five Great Mountains of China. It was time to head back down where we joined a horde of visitors lining up for cable cars that take us back to the base. The ride only lasted eight minutes but it was such a relief when both feet were finally touching the ground again. Walking back to the bus was now taking twice the effort, given our legs were like jelly after the hike. Once I was slumped in my seat I dozed off almost immediately, with the gentle hum of the bus back to Xi’an.