I wrote about hiking Huangshan earlier this month and Hua Shan, many hundreds of miles to the north of Huangshan and a short bullet train ride from Xi’an, is comparable in both challenge and terrain. Not an earthen hiking trail but stone stairs set into steep mountainsides. This time, we reversed our tram+hike strategy by hiking the 7 kilometers up, completing the mountaintop circuit of five peaks and taking the cable car down.
Critical differences and benefits when comparing to Huangshan: Hua Shan is one of five sacred Taoist mountains, and there are temples dotting the trail and scattered across the cliffs. There were crowds here for sure, but nothing like Huangshan and zero loudspeakers on the hips of the few tour guides. The frequent ups and downs around the circuit still present a strong challenge, but it's easier to manage than the long continuous downhill and then uphill we chose at Huangshan.
Hua Shan’s five peaks are soaring cliffs of sandstone with stunning views of the valleys and mountains all around them. The rock is sandy colored and in some areas looks liquid, like it was poured from the heavens and took shape as these incredible exposed mountains. Of the five peaks, I like East and Central the best – the fewest people were there. Central Peak’s view wasn’t the most expansive but the temple there felt quiet and secluded. East Peak was one of the few areas on the mountain where we walked on the actual rocky mountain itself, instead specially installed stone steps, and as you stand looking out at the massive views you have low slung conifers at your back.
A few bummers, intrinsic and extrinsic: I was still sick and hiking triggered a few violent coughing spasms – not pleasant for me or anyone around me, though Andy said it made me easy to find when we got separated. Also, there are few areas of Hua Shan that earn it the reputation as the “most dangerous hike in the world.” This includes a ‘plank walk’ of narrow wooden boards affixed to a sheer cliff, where walkers are given safety harnesses to dull the fear of nothing but air below you. Part of me is thrilled by this idea and part of me is repelled by the gimmick of it. That stretch of trail exists only to scare thrill-seekers – it serves no utility in getting you from one place to another. There can be moments in adventures that require a steel spine – crevasses must be spanned, the icy rivers must be fjorded. But this seemed like a carnival attraction to pay several yuan for a harness and meaningless bragging rights.
On the trail, I met some Russians! They were assessing the start of the steep ladder climb through the 1,000 Foot Gorge - a set of nearly vertical stairs with chains on each for balance that sneaks up through a tight crevice in the rock. Frequently on this trip when people speak to me in Chinese, my impulse is to answer back in Russian. This time it was actually useful! Turns out they were from Belarus, a small group of older teenagers who were surprised but delighted I think to hear a familiar language from a stranger.
[Hua Shan: September 28, 2017]