I was surprised when a friend posted a link to Facebook profiling Hua Shan, a peak a few hours from Xi’an, reputed to have some of the world’s most dangerous trails.
Gauss and I climbed Hua Shan back in April of 1982, before the days of gondolas and tea houses. The peak was a popular destination for college students, but most of the other visitors were practicing Taoists and Buddhists who made the pilgrimage to the sacred mountain annually or every few years. Sometimes the trip is a once-in-a-lifetime journey to be made when one has tied up the loose ends of one’s earthly existence: paid off debts, resolved disputes, and made peace with one’s shortcomings. An important part of the pilgrimage is persevering in the face of the hardships of the journey. A steep, rocky mountain with an elevation of 2200 meters (about 7200 feet) Hua Shan has the reputation of being wild and fierce. The path to the top is about ten miles long, and once one reaches the summit, there are many side paths and passages leading to holy spots. Follow this link to see the trails highlighted in the Viralnova story.
Our 1982 hike began a couple of blocks uphill from the train station, where the dirt road turned into a wide, rock-strewn hiking trail. It was not the narrow, winding footpath I’d grown accustomed to when backpacking in American wilderness areas. Instead, it was a packed-earth boulevard interrupted in places by flights of stairs cut into rocky faces. As we gained altitude, shrubs flourished between the boulders, and the landscape became greener, but there were no trees to lend shade. Haze began to envelop the mountain. Although it compromised the view, we were relieved to be out of the hot sun.
Every now and again we’d come upon a makeshift refreshment stand: a couple of sticks jammed between the rocks holding up a sheet of clear plastic. Underneath it sat a case of warm qi shui (soda pop) in fluorescent green and orange, or perhaps a teakettle over a tiny fire. For a dime one could buy a drink or a piece of pan-fried flat bread. We’d tried qi shui on other occasions; the flavor was alarmingly sweet and vaguely reminiscent of bubble gum. I passed it by, knowing that it wouldn’t be thirst-quenching.
This footpath was the only way to reach the mountaintop, so the stands had to be stocked by young men carrying shoulder poles heavily laden with jugs of water or packets of food, hardware, or building supplies. Periodically one of these fabulously-conditioned guys would sprint uphill past us, clad in baggy shorts and a singlet, wearing the simplest of canvas shoes that reminded me of dime-store “tennies” from my childhood.
After nearly a year of bronchitis from breathing coal smoke, I was in poor shape, and I huffed and puffed as I slowly made my way up the trail. I was especially humiliated when a toothless little old man—he proudly told us he was 83, and that he made this trek often—strode past us carrying his belongings on his back in a bundle of black cloth.
After five or six hours of hiking, we approached a small monastery clinging to the side of the mountain. It looked like a Chinese painting come to life: straight brick walls and curved tile roofs stood in sharp contrast to the jagged, fog-shrouded rock faces. A couple of wind-deformed evergreens offset the buff-color of the brick and rock. An artist striving for the perfect composition couldn’t have done better.
The monks who lived there maintained some simple guest rooms and dining facilities, and it was our destination for the day. We walked into the small courtyard wedged between the building and the trail. It was the gathering spot for a bunch of old guys who seemed to know each other. Among them, now smoking a pipe in the shade provided by two precious trees, was the sprightly octogenarian who’d blown past us a couple of hours earlier.
Picturesque and primitive, the place had no electricity or running water. Doors lain atop sawhorses served as beds in the dormitory-style rooms. Each had a sand-filled pillow and a couple of quilts, one beneath to serve as padding and another for warmth. The toilet facilities, not for the faint of heart, consisted of a rickety platform cantilevered out over the cliff, with a couple of holes cut in the floor. When squatting down, one could catch sight of hikers on the trail hundreds of feet below—mercifully, off to the side. One simply let loose, and damn the consequences.
The next morning we set off again, this time among country women in their 70s and 80s making their pilgrimages: wizened ladies, often with bound feet, who dressed in black cotton padded jackets and carried their supplies in tiny cloth bundles. Modern adventure travelers speak in awe about the treacherous trails, but they’ve got nothing on the Badass Grannies who made the trip step by mincing step on feet that, from the side, had the size and shape of small horses’ hooves, shod in simple black cotton shoes with stitched fabric soles. They hobbled along aided by canes, a feat that I found amazing, considering the elevation and the difficulty of the terrain.
As we climbed higher, and the air grew thinner, I had to stop often and gasp for air. At one point, perhaps 6500 feet up, as the trail crossed a saddle between two peaks, it became a two-foot wide staircase that went down four stories and back up five. Some of the steps were only four or five inches deep, but the height of each step varied, some as much as eight or ten inches. There was little room to pass. I walked down with the rest of our group, but as we started up the other side, I reached my pulmonary limits. I would take one step and then stop and gasp for air for a few seconds, take another step and gasp, step and gasp until I arrived, heart pounding, at the second peak. It was hard to imagine that just a couple of years earlier, I’d hiked for a week in the Cascade Mountains of Washington with a forty pound pack and thought nothing of it.
As evening began to fall, we came to our destination for the day, another temple and inn near the top of the mountain. The place was built around a courtyard, with two stories of rooms on one side and the shrine on the other. A group of young guys had lugged a boom box up the mountain, and they propped it in the center of the yard. Gauss and I cringed as it began to spew forth saccharine Asian pop music for the evening’s entertainment. Chinese batteries, thankfully, were short lived, and within half an hour the bubble-gum music lost its bounce, the polkas lost their perk. The warbling vocals sounded increasingly like a chorus of tired old men, and before long the thing quit altogether.
With the canned music gone, and no electricity, the place took on a medieval feel. I experienced the magic of being transported back in time. As the light faded, the yellow glow of oil lamps and candles shone from the windows and hung from the balconies. Periodically a weary traveler would pass through the archway into the courtyard, drop her bundle to the ground, and sigh, relieved to be safely at her destination.
I was impressed by the stamina of the elderly pilgrims. They quietly padded into the temples, opening their bundles to remove perhaps a little food, some candles, fake paper money as a ritual sacrifice, or a couple sticks of incense. They kowtowed and burned the incense and money at the altar, their faces briefly illuminated as the paper money flared in their hands.
The atmosphere was festive, friendly, and intimate. The air filled with the singsong voices of elderly women greeting each other and trading stories. Young men hung over the balcony railing, smoking and teasing their friends below. Off in the distance, someone sang a song on a pentatonic scale a capella.
Coal smoke, the clattering of dishes, and the metallic sound of spatulas clanging against woks drifted up from the kitchen as the cooks prepared meals for the late arrivals. In a halo of lantern light, steaming bowls of food were passed around, and diners squatted on the packed earth to eat. Laughter and singing punctuated the human symphony, the sound muffled by fog that had settled over the peak for the night.
I sat on the balcony outside our dormitory-style room, writing in my diary by the dim light of an oil lamp. Word got around that there were foreigners present, and soon a crowd gathered around, fascinated with watching me penning words using the Roman alphabet.
The population pressure and environmental degradation that plagued all of China came into sharp focus at Hua Shan. We were told that it was considered good luck to watch a sunrise or sunset from a mountain peak. We gathered at the peak as the sun dropped lower and lower in the sky. Just as it was beginning to turn orange, a gray cloud of smog swallowed it up, and that was that. No bands of pink or purple, just—out—as if someone had flipped a switch. Sunrise was similar, the sun abruptly poking out from a sludgy haze, even 75 miles from the city.
Before daybreak, Gauss took a flashlight and ventured from the inn to another peak, which he reported was as crowded as Xi’an’s central market. More visitors had arrived during the early morning hours, joining the throngs of young people who’d stayed up all night. Their boom boxes were well-supplied with batteries so that the music blasted nonstop. They celebrated the arrival of the new day by throwing bottles over the cliff and listening to them smash on the rocks below. While we never witnessed any friction between the two groups, I wondered what the elderly pilgrims thought about the hordes of giggling schoolgirls and swaggering young men, and the boisterous behavior they exhibited at the holy site.
On our third day on the mountain, we managed to get away from the biggest crowds. Scattered around Hua Shan are numerous small grottoes and shrines, and many of these are accessible only by navigating inches-wide ledges cut into cliff faces, or climbing ancient ladders made of metal rods driven into the rock. Neither Chris nor I feared heights, so we set out to explore a couple of these hard-to-reach spots.
We began by baby-stepping our way around a bulge in a rock face on a twelve-inch ledge. The only “safety device” was a chain anchored with metal spikes driven into the rock every foot or two. We estimated the dropoff on the other side to be about 1500 feet. At the end of the ledge was the entrance to a small grotto carved out of the solid rock, perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. Somebody had been tending the shrines inside: incense burned, and fruit was piled before a small altar.
It’s sometimes hard to convince Americans that overpopulation could really be a problem. If you live in the rolling forests of West Virginia, or the High Plains of the American West where you can drive for forty minutes between towns, it’s difficult to picture what overpopulation looks like, or imagine that it could ever happen here. Americans should be required to see what we saw in China: The single-file line of people going up and down Hua Shan as far as the eye can see.
For 80 yuan one can now ride a cable car most of the way up Hua Shan. The arduous climb can be bypassed, and along with it, the humility and discipline that were central to the spiritual journey up the mountain. Capitalism may accomplish the destruction of Hua Shan more completely than the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution ever could.