Published in China
I woke up in the night short of breath again. I think the vents in the ceiling are pumping in air from outside so the air purifier has to work overtime. I got up and sat down next to my tea set in a room torn apart with clothes everywhere. At least my bags were packed for the trip I had booked tickets for only the night before. I boiled some water and made some lemon tea, which I drank religiously every morning.
I got into the taxi, and we drove to the Beijing west station early in the morning. The 150ppm smog enveloped me as I walked outside to the escalator to the long lines of the ticketing booth. I was happy to be finally leaving Beijing. The train to Xian is only 5 or 6 hours, and I had gotten a cheap seat on the train. The train tickets are reasonable for the high speed train. I spent the morning going through the train security at the and waiting an hour for the train to leave within the crowded train station.
Finally, I boarded the train, and spent most of the morning sleeping. I tried to do some work on my computer but eventually drifted off to sleep again and again sleeping. The train rolled by several hours through a thick smog. I left Beijing on account of the summer season’s unusually wet weather and smog. I felt depressed and trapped living in a toxic place. Although there are many other people suffering through the 150ppm smog, I felt glued to my air purifier. I had read several articles about the health risks, and after four years, I incur a definite chest ache and overall unease with being there. Sometimes the weather is unusually dry and holds as much smog in the air, which is traumatic day after day.
We got to the Huashan station after 5 hours and I saw the mountain from out the window. I contemplated jumping out of the train at that very moment. It could have been my chance to go early had I not hesitated too long. By the time I got to the door with my carryon luggage, it was too late. The door was beeping to close and I was on my way to Xian, which was another hour away. The weather was perfect that day, and the mountains looked incredible. I was planning on going to Xian to go to the hostel because I didn’t know that the train passed through Huashan station on the way. I was heading to Huashan the next day.
I arrived to Xian and went to the hostel I already booked. I finally got there, and realized how inconvenient of a location it was for me to only be staying the night. I went back to a hostel I had stayed at previously and luckily there was one bed left in the dormitory for around 6 or 7 dollars. It’s a nice hostel with reasonable accommodations and right next to the south entrance to the city wall which runs around the entire city. There’s a bar and restaurant that serves western style food downstairs and that’s also decent prices. I had stayed in the hostel when I worked as a tour guide for some high school students last year, so I knew it was a good place.
Although it was too late in the day to head to Louguantai, the place where Laozi transmitted the Daodejing… I still had some time to wander through the Muslim quarter of the city, which was a complete fiasco of people, mainly tourists. I enjoy the Muslim quarter of Xi’an because of the history, and the old mosques. I ate at a restaurant and got a baked eggplant and some of the naan bread. I also got some rice sweet on a stick that seems like a local food. I wandered down the shopping street and passed by many mosques. For some reason, despite having slept most of the day on the train. I was exhausted and went back to the hostel. On the way, an interesting guy approached me and started talking to me. We chatted in Chinese for around an hour on my walk back to the hostel. I had gone out of my way and he helped me with the directions. He also tried to show me the city God temple, which was unfortunately closed. He was telling me that they built the two subway lines in 2013 and 2014, and they are currently building more subway lines. He said the development was fast, but long overdue. He told me about his family in the country and that he moved to the city to work and make money. I asked him why he chose to live in the city when it was soo polluted, but he seemed to think that the country life was too poor and too slow. He wanted more opportunity in life so he moved to the city. I got back to the hostel and got on my computer to arrange the trip to Huashan, which I felt was cursed because I didn’t get off the train in time. I fell asleep and awoke the next morning to plan to leave. I went to buy a hat and some fruit for the trip and headed to the train station. I had to wait an hour and a half for the train, which would then take another half an hour to an hour to arrive to Huashan. It was a long wait, and I realized that I would be arriving at Huashan at the same time or later than the previous day. It felt like a big mistake to have missed the chance to hop off early.
After I arrived at the station, my cursed feelings intensified as there were indeed multiple hotels and lodging options to my dismay. I read on the internet that the lodging was hard to get, but here it seemed plentiful, and since I’m fluent in Chinese, getting a place would have been no problem. After arriving, then I walked outside to take a free shuttle to the mountain that I read about. It was a green shuttle service in front of the station apparently. I walked over to where I saw one bus drive by, and started to talk to the taxi drivers. The guy I was talking to wanted to take me for 20 kuai, and I declined and asked him about the free shuttle. He said I would have to wait an hour for the shuttle and others were also waiting. He said then it would take even longer to get there. He really was trying to get me to take his cab there. I talked and talked in Chinese with him about getting there and which buses go there, and was just about to cave and take the cab when another guy told me to walk 100 ft to the shuttle, which was hidden behind a bunch of trees. When I got to the shuttle then it was a long wait, and I had a feeling I missed the previous shuttle talking to the driver. The guy was heading into town or somewhere nearby and offered to drop me off for free, so I got in the taxi with him and the driver. Oftentimes, I worry about situations like that being a setup to kidnap me, but at a certain point China is safe and the guy seemed so totally harmless I would have been really surprised.
We took a five to ten minute drive and then I was at the base of the mountain. I went in and paid the 180 kuai entrance fee, which they do discount if you are an undergraduate student only, since I’m a phD student they would not discount the fee. I bought a map of the area for 10 kuai and headed to a shuttle to the spot to hike in. I met a nice young guy on the shuttle who had just completed the hike and went up and down in one day starting at 6am. He was so enthusiastic to share with me his experience of getting up and down the mountain and helped me figure out on the map where to walk and how to approach everything. He arrived and I departed the train, taking a small road to the right of the entrance to walk in around the big complex at the beginning of the trail.
I started walking up and crossed a river where there were many families taking rest in the water, and then began to reach the Daoist temples and caves scattered on the mountain. Since I started around 3:45 to climb, then some of the monks in the temples were reading the evening prayers. The first monk was there simply hitting a bell and reading. Then I got to the next temple and two young guys were chanting wearing gold robes. It was beautiful and something I had never seen before. I continued to climb the mountain on the designated trails, many of which were lined with chains covered in red ribbons and golden locks, which contrasted with the green. Cicadas were hissing loudly. I reached many of the steep cliff faces that Huashan is famous for. There are stairs on extremely steep mountains that are to be climbed carefully while holding the chains. The views started to get better and better. Since I was hiking alone, it was a great time to be in nature and readjust to hiking. The semester at school had finished and I was happy to take a break. I hiked up the stairs and slopes, sometimes stopping to eat fruits and snacks at the stalls on the way. There were many men running garbage down the hill. They would fill bags with plastic bottles and run them down. There are many small caves and temples along the way which seem to be cared for by ladies and monks. I would bow and take photos as much as I could. Here were Chinese characters carved into the rocks and painted.
I climbed up the stairs and hiked up the mountain admiring the views, and terrified of the heights. There were multiple drop offs which are terrifying to stand on the edge of. Standing on the edge of the precipice I’m reminded how insignificant my fear of heights really is. It’s one of my biggest phobias and being alone on the hike intensified what I felt as danger of falling. I enjoyed the rush and feeling.
Eventually, after three hours I reached the North Peak, and decided to stay there for the night before hiking to east peak. I heard that the sunrise at east peak is incredible, but did not have the energy to climb another two hours to the top of the next peak. I talked to the girls running the hostel and I got one bed for 100 kuai. I ate dinner there, which was a great mix of broccoli, yam, and rice, and made myself lemon tea. The water on the mountain is not free, unless you are staying at the hostel, and then they have plenty to offer. I talked to one monk about the chanting at the temple, and asked him if they had a service in the morning. He told me that they practice in the morning, but he doesn’t chant. He does taichi. I was told by the hostel that I would be woken up at 3:30 am to watch the sunrise, for those wanting to hike up the mountain to the top to watch it. I fell asleep in the 16 bed dormitory with the other foreigners. It was loud and crowded I thought. There were a lot of big guy is there who were snoring and it smelled bad. If I had more money I would have paid 200 kuai for a tent or paid for a private room. I also didn’t sleep well because of the stress from the hike. There is a 24 hour foot massage and café place that is great.
vPeople hike the mountain during all hours of the night and day. Students especially enjoy hiking at night and the entire trail is covered in lights. I took some photos at dusk and did some stretching and yoga on the deck. In the morning I returned to the same empty deck to watch the sunrise, while the others were all crowded on the main area. I was happy to have discovered such a secret place without others. The sunrise barely was visible because of cloud cover, so I went back to sleep for a few hours. I woke up and had breakfast in the restaurant for 25 kuai, and it was a simple dish of beans and celery and some soup, and a piece of mantou bread.
I started out on the hike to the east peak. This is the part most people climb because there is a cable car from the bottom to this north part of the peak. Most people then climb to the east peak. So it’s the main part of the complex, with many scenic areas to see and temples along the way. The first temple I visited was the dragon king temple, and I had never seen this particular deity before. Then there was a very steep area to climb for several hundred meters of stairs. There were chains on both sides hanging so the climbers could easily grasp the handles. I found myself wanting to turn around and take photos of the view, which got better and better until I reached the top and witnessed the view. It was incredible. Along the way a Chinese family grilled me with questions when they realized I was fluent in Chinese, and that’s always fun and annoying. I got to the top to the east peak and it had gotten very cloudy and overcast due to the weather. I felt again disappointed that I hadn’t started out a day earlier. The most spectacular views are seen from the top, and a lot of it was covered in fog. Regardless of that, the fog was gradually receding and I could still see a lot of the cliffs and steep desents. It was incredible and terrifying from the top. The cliffs are straight drop offs and looking down into the valleys below really brought me deeper into the Taoist philosophy and religion overall. I didn’t realize that height and hanging over the precipice was such an integral part of their sacred mountains. I enjoyed standing at certain spots and feeling as though I was free falling over the edge. The feeling was like flying and falling, but I was going no where. Certain spots seemed to pull me into a vortex from which I could barely move forward even a tiny bit. Overall, the place is very safe with plenty of hand holds and chains. There were parts of it where it required a bungee cable connected to the chain and a guide to go down further. I declined these parts of the mountain, unsure of the climb. I had my bags and wanted to head back sooner than later to ensure a timely arrival to the base of the mountain where the old Taoist Yuquan Jade spring temple was. They only held the afternoon ceremony there, and I wanted to be sure to see it. By the time I went to descend the mountain, it was perfect timing. I had taken my time wandering through the various temples and caves, seeing the deities. I wandered to the various lookouts and looked over the edge and snapped a few photos. Part of the novelty of being there were the wooden plank walks and being chained to a bungee cord. Since it had become increasingly overcast, I had given up on trying to feel the dropping. Instead, I got into the cable car from west peak back to the bottom. That was the most terrifying part of my entire trip. I felt like I had done something crazy and stupid by riding in a cheaply made Chinese cable car. I thought I was surely going to fall to my death with the others in the car. It was so high up, and we went over huge valleys off the mountain. I was scared for my life and so was the family in the car with me. The young girl was only about 6 and nearly started crying when the car stopped for a second because of the winds.
Finally we reached the bottom, and I was relieved. Afterwards I caught the shuttle back to the temple area, and arrived around 4pm thinking I was late for the ceremony. Luckily for me it really started at 4:30, so I got to have tea and chat with one of the monks who was there. He was trying to tell me about the deity statue that was there, and he was the founder of QuanZhen Taoism, or something about he was the one who started the Huashan branch of Daoism. I hadn’t seen the majority of the temple at that point. I rushed to the ceremony and the monks all arrived. I had never seen the Daoist chanting before. It was sweet. I took some photos and videos excited by the experience. Afterwards I wandered throughout the temple and noticed that the monks who were the guardians of the temples had similar appearances to the deities. I think the abbot of the temple does it on purpose. It was almost comical at certain temples how similar the priests or priestesses looked in comparison.
On my way out, I missed the chance to visit Xiyue temple because I hadn’t planned enough to know where it was. It’s closer to the town of huashan. It was closed by the time I had gotten there, but could easily be included in an iterinary first before visiting the mountain.
I got on the train and headed back to Xi’an where I had booked a hostel for the night. I checked email and went to sleep.