It is six am and the world is just starting to wake up. Birds are calling, the street vendors are sitting outside, preparing breakfast for the morning crowds, and three sleepy figures set off uphill. The three figures walk past a large sleeping Buddha with some jealousy, heading up into a temple that marks the entrance to the Mt. Huashan scenic mountain. The ticket office is still a bit up the path, which winds through trees and crosses a bridge over a quickly moving river. The incline gets more and more noticeable and suddenly, from behind the rock, a mountain appears, glowing in the early morning light. Mount Huashan beckons.
If and when you hear of Mount Huashan, it is probably because of the plank walk on the cliff face which was the cause of the mountain being affectionately named ‘the world’s most dangerous walk’. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that this segment is approximately 400 meters long, and that the rest of the mountain is paved with concrete paths wide enough for two wheelchairs. There are endless steps, of course, meaning that anyone in a wheelchair would be better off taking the cable car, but there are also two of those on hand, if you’re feeling lazy. We weren’t. We wanted to relive our mountain climbing days, and while the Chinese had effectively taken the adventure out of the walk, we were still going to enjoy the physical challenge.
The early morning start was, in fact, a kindness we did ourselves knowing that the day was likely to be ridiculously hot and that we did not want to be climbing in the midmorning sun. So we enjoyed the cool breezes and advanced quickly in the slowly heating weather. What made the walk even more wonderful was that, at that time in the morning, we had it virtually to ourselves. Yes, we met more people than we would have done on a wet day out in the UK, but after the crowds everywhere, the twenty people we saw on route plus the twenty snack vendors felt like pure isolated bliss.
This was going to change on the summits, of which there were five, aptly named ‘North’, ‘South’, ‘East’, ‘West’ and ‘Central’. Due to the cable cars, we could hear the first summit before we could see it. Above us, as we drew closer and more people arrived via car, the world burst into yells, conversations, indistinguishable babble and music. As Michael Meyer notes in his book In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, “One rule of the Chinese countryside is that the more peaceful the surroundings, the more noise people make”. The mountain could have been extremely peaceful, but as we made our way from summit to summit, battling through crowds near restaurants and viewing platforms, yells, screams and songs filled the air, shattering any pretence we had of a ‘serene’ visit. Nevertheless the views were stunning, and little corners here and there provided hiding spots from all of the people for moments of peace.
To round it off, we splurged on the plank walk. The walk itself (on very wide planks with some very nice hand holds) ended up being the least frightening part. The frightening part was the other humans. They completely unclipped their safety devices to walk around us, they freaked out and “helped” each other, and they “helped” us. I nearly lost it when a woman thought she’d give me a hand and unclipped my carabeeners. I was standing solidly on a plank, but still, having someone else mess with my safety equipment made me very concerned. The main problem here was that we had a two-way traffic line on the planks and us Westerners were far taller than the Chinese, making it difficult for them to lift their slings over our heads and step around us. It was a much smaller problem on the way back, when it was us who got to do the stepping around and gave friendly encouragement to those tourists who were clearly terrified.
The day nearly finished, Luke and I decided to
walk run down the mountain, while Ruth saved her knees and met us at the bottom having seen the world from the height of the cable car. We all settled down for a quick ice cream before returning to Xi’an. The steps had been exhausting, the views beautiful, the weather gorgeous, and the walk- well, the walk was probably, as Ruth said, “the safest walk in the world”.
Do it yourself: Tickets to the mountain are sold all day and night, as people walk this mountain at any time. You can also stay overnight and enjoy sunrise and sunset, which was highly recommended by the other tourists we met. Buses leave regularly to and from Xi’an, and most hostels offer trips as well, if you don’t want to plan it yourself.