I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published March 8th 2015
A thrill-seeking climb to the heavens
A few years ago a viral video depicting a wooden boardwalk shackled to a mind-bogglingly high cliff did the rounds on social media. Entitled "The Most Dangerous Hiking Trail in the World", the mysterious video barely looked real, but still managed to capture the imagination of keyboard explorers the world over, myself included.
So imagine my delight a few years later when, finding myself in China and planning a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an, I discovered that the location of the video was Mount Hua, and that Mount Hua was easily accessible from my hotel in the ancient city!
Plans were made, wills were drawn up, and something that had been only a dream for those few years was about to come true.
The easiest way to approach Mount Hua – Huashan in Chinese – from Xi'an is to take the train, mainly because the train station is easier to find than the bus station. Numerous trains run between Xi'an and Mount Hua throughout the day, with local trains and long distance K-trains taking around 3 hours to reach the mountain.
This is fine for those who want to spend a couple of days on or around the mountain, but for cash-strapped travelers like ourselves who wanted to be up and down in a day, we opted for the 'G' express train which takes half an hour and costs around 55yuan. From the station it is a further 50yuan cab ride to the foot of the mountain.
There are also buses, leaving from Xi'an Station and Xi'an Dong (east) terminuses. These are slightly cheaper (between 30 and 50yuan) and take you directly to the mountain, but the journey takes around 2 hours in total. In the end, we opted to take the train there and the bus back.
Before you set off, ensure that you have stout footwear (although we didn't), a flashlight in case you get stranded, and have checked the weather. The climate of Huashan is incredibly wide ranging and can be blisteringly hot in the summer and sub-zero in the winter, so be prepared!
Arriving at the East Gate, we paid our 180yuan entrance fee and entered the Huashan National Park area. Just beyond the gate is a pleasant little temple with an impressive reclining Buddha statue, representing the religious significance of Mount Hua to China's resident Taoist population.
After taking a look around, we crossed the temple courtyard and started up the valley towards Huashan itself. It's difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the vast mountains rising up on either side of you as you progress up the moderately steep trail, and it's even more difficult not to feel a little trepidation at the knowledge that – sooner or later – you have to climb that thing!
About three kilometers into the walk, we got our first taste of what was to come. Here the trail meanders from side to side across the valley floor to the head of the gorge, turns and continues directly up the face of rock. This is the first in a series of steep inclines, where visitors must climb with their hands and feet up precipitous stairs.
It's great exercise and very rewarding, but it's certainly not for the unfit! What's more, after climbing out of the valley you will find yourself at the cable car station, where you will be met with legions of fresh-faced Chinese tourists, fanning themselves, lighting cigarettes and enjoying the view while you crumple into a sweaty heap on the floor.
Don't let that deter you, the worst is now behind you!
We were now on the summit of the North Peak, the smallest of the five mountains in the Huashan Massif. From here, we pushed on beyond the crowds and onto the Heavenly Steps Ridge, an area of special significance for Taoists who adorn the posts and hand rails with red ribbons.
After stopping to refuel at some of the many drink stations you will find en route, we were ready for the final push up the trail which jack-knifes back and forth across the slope to the top of the East Peak.
The Changgong Zhandao Via Ferrata
The views from the summit were just as incredible as we'd imagined they would be. The rugged geography of Shaanxi province stretches out as far as the eye can see, and fluffy white cumulus clouds billow about beneath you like little lambs.
But there wasn't much time to stand and stare, the last part of our journey was upon us. After a bit of asking around, we joined a small queue of nervous looking tourists who were waiting in line for a chance to cross the Changgong Zhandao via ferrata.
A via ferrata – iron road in Italian – is a set of wooden board, chained together and attached to a cliff face, which brave mountaineers can use to quickly cross dangerous terrain. Changgong Zhandao is situated several hundred metres above the valley floor, but has become less dangerous since the introduction of safety harnesses in 2005!
Strapped in to our flimsy looking harnesses, we negotiated the ladder made from iron staples hammered into the rock and stepped out onto the wooden boards of the via ferrata itself.
Crossing Changgong Zhandao is a nerveracking experience, not least because the 10 inch wide boards also have to accommodate visitors coming the other way. You haven't lived until you've had a trembling Japanese tourist push you face first into the limestone as she tentatively tries to pass you 900ft in the air. It's scary, but the harnesses ensure that it doesn't quite live up to the hyperbolic tagline "Most Dangerous Hiking Trail in the World".
At the far end of Changgong Zhandao is a small Taoist sanctuary on a large rock ledge. This place is a sanctuary in every meaning of the word, and it's certainly a lovely place to take breather after such vertiginous exploits.
Elated, euphoric and exhausted, we stumbled back onto the summit of the East Peak and caught our breath. The whole climb had took a lot longer than we had planned, so a rapid scurry down the mountain was in order if we were to make the last cable car of the evening!
Our time on Huashan passed in the blink of an eye, but it's not an experience either of us will be forgetting in a hurry.