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Stairway To Heaven

Huashan from the east peak
Huashan from the east peak

One of the most stunning views you'll ever see is said to be the sun rising over the mountain peaks at Huashan. It was a damp, cold evening when I arrived in the village at the base of Huashan and the locals told me the sun wouldn't be visible for days. Having not gotten sufficient rest in several days I decided that rather than start climbing that night and spend a tortured time at the summit hoping to see the sun, I'd get a room and set off first thing in the morning.

The trail up Huashan increased in slope to the very end, gaining about 2k of elevation over the 6k path. I was very surprised to be nearly alone during my hike up the mountain. Alone that is, until I reached the summit and joined with colonies of Chinese tourists who had taken the cable car up the other side. Huashan is actually a cluster of five connected mountain peaks and once you've reached one of them it's relatively easy to access the others. I had brought a bar of Ritter Sport chocolate with me to enjoy at the summit as is my custom when climbing mountains. Given the unique layout of Huashan I decided to split the bar up and eat just a portion at each peak, rewarding myself as each summit seemed somehow higher than all the others.

Me and my friends from Huashan
Me and my friends from Huashan

Perhaps due to the extra climbing it takes to get from the north peak where the cable car drops off to some of the other peaks, I again found myself alone. I sat for a while at the east peak and carved up the whole pineapple which comprised most of my sustenance for the day. I took in the beauty of the mountains. If Huashan isn't the most beautiful place I've ever been it's certainly in the top three. White granite peaks with gray and black vertical stains stab holes in the clouds. Green life seems to impossibly cling to their inhospitably vertical faces. Uncommonly viscus clouds rise up from the valley but come to rest as if in fear of approaching the peaks. I was nearly breathless at an elevation where breathing isn't trouble.

On my descent from the mountain I walked past some young Chinese men taking pictures and one of them asked if I wouldn't mind posing with them. I told him I didn't mind and after taking a few photos we began the descent together. We went down "the soldiers trail" which shadows the cable car and takes a more direct route to the base of the mountain than the path I had gone up. I divided my remaining four squares of chocolate amongst the group on our way down. One of the men mentioned that he and one of the others were leaving for Xi'an when they got back, the exact place that I was off to next. We arrived in Xi'an and went straight to dinner, before even finding a place to stay. The food was delicious and we followed it up by a short walk to the Big Goose Pagoda where we were perfectly on time for the nightly water fountain show which is choreographed to lights and music. The whole scene reminded me of something I think I saw in an old Carmen Sandiego cartoon and when the music was classical Chinese I became transfixed in one of those moments where all senses come together and take in nothing but the present. Magical.

The 3 stages of the bread soup
The 3 stages of the bread soup

The next day my new friends and I went sight seeing which actually involved spending most of the day eating. We stopped at one famous restaurant near the end of a busy street lined with nothing but food vendors. We each received a bowl with two circular unleavened pieces of bread. We were instructed to tear the bread into tiny piece and then return it to the restaurant, which we dutifully did. A little while later a mutton soup with our little pieces of bread was brought back to us. It was a delicious albeit salty broth with a slight hint of anise, a flavor which seems to be quite common in China. As the sun was beginning to set we ascended the old city wall and rented bicycles so we could trace it's 13.7k perimeter. Being on the wall was another near magical experience. All of a sudden I was above the chaos of a crowded Asian city. All the noises lessened. The stench from the sewers didn't rise up that high, just the fragrance of the blooming lilacs at the tops of the trees. The cloud of smog transformed into a filter for the sun making it beautiful and able to be stared directly into..

When the night was dark and we were again at the level of the common man I collected my things and we walked to a different nearby hostel, one which my recent friends from Chengdu had told me they just checked into. We met them in the hostel lobby and all went out for a few drinks. The next day my Chinese friends from Huashan had to go home so I went with my Chengdu friends to see the terracotta warriors. Having already been prepared for disappointment I was somehow still let down when we arrived. My disinterest was evident when I was going through my camera and found 187 pictures from Huashan and only 4 from the warriors. No matter, I was in good company and we made the best of it. The weather during my entire time in Xi'an was perfect. I felt as if I had been transported from first the blazing heat of Venus when I was in Southeast Asia, to the icy surface of Mars in lower China, and then perfectly placed on the crust of earth. Huashan was beautiful and Xi'an was a blast.

Soundtrack: Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)


April 28th, 2013 at 9:11 AM

Fascinating stuff Beau! Just got caught up on some of your adventures. Good Sunday morning reading!

April 30th, 2013 at 12:39 AM

Are you planning to scale all 5 sacred mountains? I hear climbing Tai Shan will assure you live to 100...

April 30th, 2013 at 9:46 AM

I'm very likely going to come back to China and I'm hoping to check out the five mountains then.

May 3rd, 2013 at 1:21 PM

This is one of my favorite posts of yours

If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com