I just returned from an amazing two-day excursion to Huashan Mountain. I'll begin from Wednesday evening.
Immediately after I finished teaching my last class Wednesday at 6:45, I rushed out of the office, hailing a taxi to bring me to the bus station in time for its 7:30 departure en-route to Xi'an. I got to the station with plenty of time to spare, and boarded the bus without difficulty or delay.
As always, the bus departed on time exactly at 7:30pm; China's buses (unlike the trains) are wonderfully punctual when it comes to their schedule. The ride lasted about 5 and a half hours for me (the bus continued on to Xi'an, another 150 kilometres west from Huashan), with one rest-area stop about 3 hours in.
When the time came for me to disembark, the ticket man came to fetch me from my seat. I was dropped off at the side of a turnpike leading to Huashan. Evidently, the bus driver didn't want to pay the toll that would be required to go all the way to Huashan. So, at 1am I found myself walking along a quiet Chinese road, heading towards a village I could only hope was nearby. I ran into a taxi about 20 minutes into my walk, and I bargained the guy down to 15 Yuan to drive me to the hotel I'd decided upon. The ride took about 15 minutes, and the taxi driver made sure I got into the hotel safely before taking his leave. I fell asleep soon after getting settled in my room, which was quiet and cool (even with the windows open) – a real treat for me!
I was up at 8am the next morning, and out the door at 8:30. I had a breakfast of sweet soymilk with two long pieces of fried bread. It really was delicious. Around me at breakfast on the street were men and women wearing dark-coloured Chinese robes with hair done up in tight buns at the back of the head, chopsticks holding things in place. To my surprise, I didn't see a single foreigner in this most famous place. I spotted the first one, besides my reflection in the cool mountain stream the path up Huashan periodically followed, in the afternoon.
I began my ascent of the mountain at 9am, fog obscuring any view of the mountain's entirety. Maybe that was a good thing, because climbing those 2200 metres required effort, to say the least.
And the highlight of the climb? The part that endangered my life, of course. To get to one of the more enchanting areas of the mountain, one needs to ascend and descend several sets of truly vertical walls of stone. The ground, which I couldn't see at times because of the clouds below me, must have been at least 500m below me. Hugging the side of the smooth cliff face, I had to carefully lower one nervous foot at a time, placing my feet in carved-out chinks in the granite rock, using a rusty chain to keep me in place. First you descend about 50 metres in this fashion, then you have to inch along sideways another 20 metres until you get to solid ground again. There haven't been many times in my life when I've thought I might die, but this was one of them. I and three Chinese friends I'd met on the mountain did this stretch of the trail together (there weren't many doing it), and we were all damn scared. I didn't realize how crazy it was until it was too late to turn back. When I first noticed the deadly plunge awaiting any mistake I might make, my hands started quivering a bit. I had to take a deep breath before continuing. My Lonely Planet Guidebook really understates what it's like; literally one wrong move, and you slip off the shallow chink your foot is clinging to and disappear into the fog. Anyways, it was awesome; I hope to do it again sometime. Nothing like imminent death to clean your nose and mind after reaching an altitude of 2.2 kilometres.
I left Huashan that same day at about 7pm. I took a bus destined for Xi'an, and at Xi'an I bought a scalped ticket for Zhengzhou leaving at 10:30pm that night. And imagine my luck! The ticket I happened to buy second-hand turned out to be a sleeper! So I had a lovely sleep on the train, arriving back in Zhengzhou at 6am this morning.
And here I am, with still a whole day to rest and reflect on the past few days.