Hua Shan’s “Path in the Vast Sky” is a poetic name for a harrowing wooden walkway 1000m above the ground.
Matt Colautti/for the Toronto Star
SHAANXI, CHINA—The trail seems to have vanished.
I scan the rocky surroundings, my headlamp cutting through the shroud of darkness. The light is just strong enough to illuminate some decorative Chinese characters cut into the rock wall on our right: Shang Tianti. Heavenly Stairs. On closer inspection I notice a near-vertical series of steps cut out of the wall of rock that disappear into the night above. Perhaps Heavenly Ladder is the more accurate translation.
It’s some time around 2 a.m. but I feel wide awake, buoyed by the adrenalin of the hike. Far below are the twinkling lights of the rest of Shaanxi Province, safely asleep. Eugene, one of my hiking partners on this night ascent, bravely grabs the worn chains flanking the stair. Carefully, one step at a time, he pulls himself up the cliff and toward the next obstacle that lies between us and the East Peak of China’s Hua Shan Mountain.
There are many holy mountains scattered throughout China, most of which are not described with the word ‘dangerous’ nor climbed through the night. Then there’s Hua Shan.
One of the five sacred Taoist mountains, Hua Shan rises abruptly from the plains, not far from the city of Xi’an. Peppered with several important Taoist temples, it is braved by thousands of tourists every year. “Dangerous” is a term that is up for debate; though Hua Shan would be a downright treacherous climb in the winter or in a rush, the trail has been greatly improved over the past decade and still requires no technical expertise. Perhaps that is the problem. Nevertheless, it remains clear that Hua Shan is not for the faint of heart.
The street called Yu Quan Yuan serves as a base camp, populated with hotels that have midnight checkout times and shops selling flashlights, incense, and gloves. Setting off at 11 p.m., long after the dancing and tai chi in the main square have dissolved for the night, it quickly becomes apparent that we are not trailblazers. There is a decent lineup at the ticket counter and we pass a steady stream of people on the wide, illuminated walkway that characterizes the first hour of the hike. At rest stops along the way, we see huge piles of Red Bull cans and every age demographic of the country. There are a few high heels.
Why embark on the hike at night? I posed the perplexing question to several Chinese friends and the truth remains elusive. One told me that the dry, sunny climate of Shaanxi was murderously hot during the day. A second theory was that without any shade, a day hike would lead to terrible sunburns. Another explained that the hike was simply too scary to attempt during the day when the scenery was visible. I like to think that, like many popular things in China, the night hike of Hua Shan has achieved a sort of cult status as the accepted way to go up.
The hike abruptly takes a turn for the steep at the Qian Chi Chuang — Thousand Foot Column — a name that doesn’t exaggerate. The steps are small and easy to climb, so we progress quickly up a fissure in the bare wall of rock, instinctively using the parallel sets of chains as handholds. It’s only when I stop midway up the section and look down to take a picture that I notice just how high up we are. I grip the chains a little tighter, realizing that a fall would be disastrous.
The path narrows and eases as it follows the spine of Canglong Feng, or Green Dragon Ridge. Without much of a map, we follow the trail of headlamps that look like ants going up a slope. It’s true that you can’t see much at night, but you can comprehend the height. Looking down over the guardrail, the rock drops off several hundred meters. In the faint moonlight I can make out other dramatic walls of rock, and I realize that the landscape we have climbed up to is distinctly beautiful.
We pass a few holy sites, but my prevailing memory is the locks. All over the trail, the handrails are covered with golden padlocks, reaching epidemic proportions on the approach to Jinsuo Guan, also known as Gold Lock Pass. Here, hikers traditionally place a lock as a prayer for the health and safety of family and friends. It’s a nice thought, even though it goes against the “leave no trace” principle that we celebrate back in Canada.
Perhaps the most terrifying part of Hua Shan is the optional Changkong Zhandao, which translates along the lines of “Path in the Vast Sky” but is more commonly known as the Plank Walk. Once again, Chinese naming has never been more poetic nor more accurate. Two wooden planks, supported by steel rods hammered into the rock, traverse a cliff face 1000 metres above the rocky chasm below. The climb down to the planks, on an unpredictable combination of footholds and steel rods, certainly verges on the dangerous. We gladly accept harnesses that keep us clipped-in to a safety line, all the time wondering about the strictness of the maintenance schedule.
At 4 a.m. we crest the more-than-ninety-degree-angle of the Yunti or Cloud Ladder, and find a quiet spot within sight of the cairn marking the East Peak. We have conquered it! The crowd, restless and eager at having reached their long goal, is already sizeable when we arrive. By 5 a.m., when the first rays of light cut through the morning mist, the peak is jam packed, looking more like a Chinese Woodstock than a quiet morning among nature.
On the walk back to the cable car station, where our weary legs will finally have a break, we witness in full glory the vistas that were obscured during the night. Jagged bare rock punctuated with trees surround us, dropping off steeply to the patchwork of farmland below. Snaking impossibly up with no apparent consideration for hiker comfort, we trace the trail that we had ascended the night before. Perhaps from this dizzying height, it could be called dangerous.
Matt Colautti is a freelance writer based in China.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING There are several daily non-stop flights from Toronto to Beijing, from where there are affordable connections by rail or air to Xi’an. Buses to the mountain cost $7 and leave from the bus stand near the railway station in Xi’an.
SLEEPING There is a range of comfortable lodgings in Xi’an from the plush Sofitel at $170 per night ( www.sofitel.com) to the cosy Hai Tang Inn for $35 per night ( www.itisxian.com). At the base of Hua Shan there are numerous hotels offering cheap rooms for resting during the afternoon and early evening.
DINING If you want a big dinner at the base of the mountain, there are plenty of options in the $5 per dish range. Once on the mountain there are plenty of vendors selling drinks and snacks, but it’s always wise to carry your own just in case.