Tuesday, February 07, 2006

They Go Up

Ah, the new year. At least the new Chinese year. Fresh in the heat of the dog, the time had come to leave the comforts of Xi'An and undertake the most physically rigorous leg of the vacation: scaling Hua Shan.

I believe I shared the story of Pan Gu and the 5 holy Daoist mountains of China back in May when i climbed Tai Shan. Take a look, if not, I'll have to post it here soon. But of the 5, Hua Shan might be known as the most rigorous climb, but as I've been working quite a bit lately (191 pounds! 191 pounds! Thats approx 30 lost since coming to China!) I was personally ready.

Hey, who's that handsome devil? That brave climber from abroad ready to tackle Hua Shan?

After being stared at during a bus ride and through a smal village, we entered the Jade Fountain Temple, open to the public for free for the holiday. This place, a rather run of the mill Daoist temple, simply swarmed with those taking advantage of the free entrance fee. Once we moved beyond it, and the ticket price jumped to 50 RMB, well, we were pretty much alone.

The climb started easy enough: as with all other Chinese mountains, they've prepped to accomodate a ridiculous mass of people at any one time and thus have lain a walkway/stairway to handle all the traffic. On this particular day, traffic topped around 7, which we'll get to later. But the mountain itself, right from the beginning, offered majestic and drastic cuts of rock face on all sides. Still hovering around freezing, many small waterfalls had become tumbling ice flows. The fog was still in full force, however, so we were unfortunately robbed of certain vistas. All the pity, but what are you gonna do? In fact, I actually kinda liked the fogged out heights, as it left what lay beyond to my imagination. As Hua Shan is not the holiest mountain of China, its often considered "the first," probably as it lies well within the cradle of the nation. Artists have painted an infinite number of pictures of Hua Shan with monks sitting in contemplation upon the peaks as dragons danced in the void beyond; its easy to see why that might be the case when you can't even see whats in that void beyond.

Hey, who's that handsome devil perched in front of that ice flow?

Now, as mentioned, the mountain was pretty empty as most Chinese were home gorging on dumplings and scaring away the evil monster Nian through red banners and fireworks, but we did meet a few fellow travelers on our climb up. 4 were from GuangDong, in the south of China: 2 young women and their boyfriends. The girls were English teachers, one for tykes and one in a university, which was great as we taught each other back and forth as we climb. One of the guys was a professional photographer and a weathered mountain hiker, the other shared the same name with a hero from "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," another Chinese classic. I actually mentioned this as he introduced himself and it blew all the Chinese away. For some reason Chinese can't fathom why any foreigner would ever have any interest in their culture/history. (While I am working my way through that book, I didn't tell them I was first introduced to the story thanks to a fantastic old-school 8-bit Nintendo game.) The last traveler was a middle aged man who also has climbed many a Chinese mountain. He spoke no English, and we would become roommates later in the evening, but he gave me a lot of advice towards visiting China's most scenic natural wonders. All together, foreigner blokes included, we number seven, and agreed to stick together to negotiate the cheapest possible hotel rate once we reached the summit. It was a fellowship. This correllation ws beaten to death by the time we eventually headed back to Xi'An.

Now the climb itself was a bit harrowing at times. As mentioned, Hua Shan is steep, and at a few instances we were pulling ourselves up by chains or risking plummets that most certainly would end in nothing but death. From the base we kept hiking up and up, only taking a considerable rest to warm up with some "douzhou" or bean drink of some sort which is a bit like milk but not. A few stretches were incredibly narrow, forcing me to guffaw in disbelief that anyone would get anywhere on this mountain during peak travel times. But through cave and cliff, the North Peak was eventually reached. From there it was the East Peak and a night's rest.

Hey, who's that handsome devil hawking the merits of good, warm "douzhou?"

Waking up the next morning the fog decided that no sunrise would be seen, but by 8 AM one could see far enough to take in the surrounding peaks and mountains. Quite majestic, as the fog and cloud still drifted in and out of the ravines; and, even more so, it had snowed during the night and so everything was a pristine and delicate white. I might go so far as to say I've never seen anything so gorgeous.

Once we set out we hiked around to the other peaks, foregoing only the West Peak, only accessible by a 500 foot walkway barely wide enough for two people, frozen over, and lacking a protectionary chain on one side. Heading back down I got stopped by many more Chinese than we had seen the previous day, all asking the same questions: "Do you speak Chinese?' "Is it safe to continue?" Due to the snowfall most of the steps had a dangerous layer of black ice acorss their tops (hence chickening out of the Western Peak) so their questions were certianly validated. My companion had had enough of the climb by this point though, so we cheated and took a gondola down and made our way back through the village to a bus and back to Xi'An. Another day done, and another unforgettable China experience.

Who IS that handsome devil? Really now?


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