I am not an adventure-seeker or a thrill-seeker type of a traveller. I just want to take landscape photos and learn about new places. So, packing my backpack for a weekend vertical climb in one of the holy mountains in China is not my typical getaway. I do short hikes and long walks but a vertical climb from 9 pm to 2 am is not something I would ordinarily enjoy doing. We were not prepared and trust me, I did my own research before the hike! But, still, it was one hell of a surprise.
We stayed in Xi’an City (famous terracota army) for one night then travelled straight to Louyang in Henan province for the 5th century rock carvings of Longmen grottoes (see photos). This is a UNESCO world heritage site showcasing impressive artworks of the Tang dynasty (watch the epic war film Lady of the Dynasty for introduction to the grandeur of Tang period). Cost was 85CNY for more than 2 hours via the Xi’an North Railway.
At 4pm, we took the train back to Huashan for 45CNY. We reach North Huashan train station by 6pm. This started our most difficult hiking adventure.
I am usually lucky to meet amazingly kind locals in almost all my travels. This is not an exception. We were looking for the free green bus that ran from the train station to the foot of the mountain (entrance gate). But, the last bus was 6pm and this was not in any of the blogs I read! I didn’t know! The struggles slowly started! Locals who do not speak and understand English started hounding on us offering expensive transport plans. After 30 minutes, I started discussing plan B with my friends – to stay within the area and head off early in the morning for our mountain climb.
Luckily, Ping was standing outside a blue-white bus. I asked if she understood English, if she’s going to the mountain and if we could tag along. She said yes to all three! Found out she’s a law student in the capital and doing a weekend hike to pass off some steam. We paid for the bus (5CNY each), stopped by somewhere, walked and got lost for 5 minutes! Ha. Ha. It started drizzling and charming Ping approached a police camp to ask for directions, who then offered to drive us off to the entrance gate. At this point, it was still rainbows and unicorns. My friends bought a plastic rain coat and gloves for 10CNY. I didn’t as my black parka coat that looks like a garbage bag is water proof and I had prepared for 2 hiking gloves.
At 9 pm, we started our ascent after paying 180CNY for the preservation of the national park. Dessa started having second thoughts because the trail was at least 6 km going uphill with narrow zigzags and vertical stairs. Plus there could be no lights with toilets and houses extending far from one point to another. I was banking on Ping’s presence rather than waiting for another day without a guide. Besides, 180CNY would go to waste if we decide to quit. So, we steered forward.
After 2 kilometers, I was ready to quit. It was easy to say 6 kilometers would be doable but we forgot to take nature’s elements and our physical state. We came from Louyang where we spent one whole day of walking! We were carrying 3kilos of backpack going uphill! What pushed me to move forward (actually at this point, it was a moot point to turn back) was the presence of many people (including kids and seniors) going up or down. It seemed a common weekend activity for the locals. The trail was paved and lighted with shops opened 24 hours selling fruits, water (hmm beer) and hot noodles. Not sure if the 20C temperature was good or bad. Good because it helped the body for a refreshing feel. Bad because I was carrying 2 jackets on my arms. Once you stopped brisk walking, the winds and damp conditions sent chills and shivers so have those layers ready on hand.
After 3 kilometers of up and down, we all got separated. Dessa was a fast walker leaving us behind while I joined a Chinese family (who do not speak English) on their leisure walk. We left Mary and Ping because of their toilet breaks. Walking 3 kilometers on a daylight with no bags (my training) is not comparable on a night hike strapped with a heavy bag going upward on steeps stairs with wet and slippery metal chains for pushing one up.
There was a crossroad where we almost beg one of the forest rangers to find us a hotel! We were exhausted and with no one knowing the exact number of hours and distance remaining, we were ready to stop and find a shelter. It was 4.5 kilometers. I was ready to collapse.
After another hour, which I lost track of distance, we arrived at a steep vertical staircase carved out of the rocky mountains with heavy chains to lift one body up and blue and pink side lights (as if to make it appear easy but actually just taunts you). At the top was a small hole to climb over. We all got reunited on a chirpy and happy mood without knowing we still had 1.5 hours of grueling and intense night hiking. Needless to say, at this point, this was my hardest hike in my entire life.
We arrived at the lowest peak of the mountain (North peak) at past 1 am with fully booked hotel and tent spaces! We were informed it should have been booked a week in advance. Luckily, there was an open cafe that would let you stay until 5 am for 50CNY. They served free hot water and relatively high priced coffee. Ping left us as she had planned to walk up to the East peak for the sunset and sea of clouds. This was not an option for us. We slept on a sitting position after eating cup noodles and drinking hot coffee.
The next morning came a beautiful sunrise viewed from the glass cafe on the edge of the cliff. Last night, we were unable to appreciate the mountain but daylight revealed mesmerizing and scenic panoramas. We first asked the nearest hotel for vacant beds (40USD/bed), dropped our bags and went out for breakfast. Breakfast meant cup noodles, hotdogs, tomatoes and fried chicken. Always ensure you have enough cash as there was no atm or money exchange counters.
After having our fill, we decided to sleep! haha This took our time and instead of going further up the peaks, we decided to bunk and snooze. At 2 pm, we finally got our energy back. We decided not to hike further and just enjoy the north peak area. We took some photos, checked out the stalls and watched a tv shooting for a local production. We were hyped as the place was definitely ruggedly beautiful with streaks of autumn leaves peaking along the trail lines. At night, we climbed a big mountain overlooking the silent mountain and stayed for half an hour with beers and eggs. We talked about life, what adulting meant and why 3 crazy friends decided to fly overseas just to experience this.
The next morning (our last day) proved to be the highlight. We may have missed the sunrise and sea of clouds in the East peak but we continued up to the South Peak for the most anticipated deadly wooden plank walk. We had the sweet time hiking uphill this time with no bags, enough water and great amount of sleep.
I had never experienced cold sweats with that funny feeling of rushing to the toilet except when we were queuing for the safety harness (30CNY). We were on the carved edge of the rock mountain looking over the first batch of brave people. It was really crazy. On going vertically down, there were big holes that you need to step over into a small stone resting between the rock edges. On the half part of the plank route, the wood had decreased into a foot size! You had to move the harness one at a time while carefully moving one foot at a time. We made a local friend who agreed to take our photos while dangerously perched on a hanging wood plank supported by chains. We also availed of the 70CNY group photo as a souvenir for this bold once in a lifetime epic adventure. (Shoutout to those beautiful ladies wearing (4-inches) high heels! WTF)
After that 20 minutes of bravery, we went back to our hotel and eat basic lunch. We were starving for a good meal but at the mountain, food choice was limited. At 2 pm, we took the cable car down the mountain (no more hiking!) from the North Peak (80CNY) and met Nan Chang. It was by coincidence, we sat infront of him inside the cable car and turned out he was also going to Xi’an City and to the airport. Same route with us. Again, a local helped us secure train tickets and bought us bread snacks for free. Travel makes you appreciate the world and local people.
Total actual travel cost: 415 each USD for 3 days including flights and visa.
Landscape photos of Mount Hua –> Mt Hua