Mount Hua is one of those places that I had no idea about prior to my trip to China. However after one arduous day conquering three of its five peaks and surviving Plank Walk, the memory of Huashan will forever be etched in my memory as a time when I really meant it when I said “I seriously can't believe I'm doing this”.
Surviving Huashan – A Visual Journey
Known to locals as one of the five sacred mountains in the country, its legend has only been exposed to the outside world recently thanks to sites like ViralNova and Buzz Feed. While the views, engineering feats, and its peaks are no doubt impressive, Huashan gets its acclaim by being home to one of the world's most dangerous hike trails.
Roughly 120 kilometers away from the main city of Xi'an, Mount Hua (going to use this interchangeably with Huashan) is one of China's few Taoist mountains which is not to be confused with Buddhism. Composed of steep drops and exposed stone that veins off the cliffs, the mountains are distinctly Chinese and simply enormous as I felt like a little ant climbing up the stairs to the heavens.
A mountain of many entrances
What I didn't realize when we first got the park was that the parking lot and the visitor center/ticket hall is on a completely separate site from where the entrance to the mountain is. From there, there are quite a lot of steps involved because first you have to figure out what tickets to buy, then you hop on a bus which then drives halfway across the town and the finally enters the mountain pass before dropping you off at the entrance gate. If that wasn't enough, you then have to climb up a bunch of stairs before you finally get to the gondola/cable car.
Thank goodness we had our guide Michael with us because once we parked, he ran inside to get all the tickets we needed. There was no guess work on our part or any confusion. We just waited for him and once he was done, he told us exactly how it was going to work and went from there. We ended up with these 5 which wasn't confusing AT ALL. 1 for the park entrance, 2 for the bus ride and 2 for the gondola.
Probably the most ridiculous gondola ride I've ever taken
Traditionally, the only way to access the mountain's summits was through ancient paths built during the Tang Dynasty (3rd to 4th century AD). These trails were deliberately left to be tackled by the strong-willed or those who had found “the way”. Luckily, we didn't have to test our resolve thanks to opening of the second cable car to the West Peak (opened in 2013).
I've done my fair share of cable cars over the years whether its from exploring mountains or shredding the slopes on my snowboard but Huashan has them all beat. Like a perfectly scripted movie of highs, lows, and reveals, it ends with a dramatic twist that you'll just have to scroll down to see. Huashan made Peak2Peak at Whistler, BC look like child's play.
The one thing I realized when you talk about “hiking” or “climbing” in China, you're usually talking extremely well groomed trails that make it easy for anyone to do from kids to the grandparents. So while Huashan has one of the most ridiculous hikes in the world, most of it is actually quite manageable and I would say not even as physically demanding as Angels' Landing.
South Peak climbs up 2,155 meters and is the highest peak of Huashan. It's from the summit that you truly feel like an ant amongst giants with views of the surrounding landscapes.
More importantly, around the corner from the summit is where the infamous Plank Walk is laid out.
Mentally preparing yourself to cling to the mountain side with only 3 planks of wood sitting on top of metal stakes isn't exactly something you just do but it's the kind of thing that you don't even have time to think about. After finishing the South Peak Summit we made our way back down and around to the back side of the peak. There's a small rest station and once you pass underneath, you're propelled straight into a narrow walkway of no return. Barely able to accommodate back and forth traffic, my legs already start to turn to jello at this point. There was a considerable line building up and in playing a little broken telephone we figured out that there was a 30 minute wait because they were waiting for people to finish.
Not wanting to wuss out, we stuck to it and eventually we made it to the harnessing area. Luckily I had my GoPro harnesses ready to go because once we were in front of the line, the guy took our backpacks and laid them on top of everyone else's bags and gave us our top body harnesses. They're the kind of harnesses that you wear like a backpack and connected to the torso area are two climbing ropes that end with carabiners.
After that they threw us right in with no any additional instruction. And no that's not because they said it in Mandarin. Learn on the job right? :) You quickly understand that you should always have at least one carabiner clipped in as you go from one section of the safety cable to the next.
The Plank Walk itself is composed of two parts. There's a sharp descent right after harnessing up and you end up basically shuffling your butt down make-shift ladder steps while clipping in and out and trying your hardest not to think about SPLAT! This part is slow because there's a lot of traffic and remember you're also coordinating with the folks that are coming back up.
The second part is what most people have seen in the photos. It starts off with foot platforms carved out of the mountain that are deep enough for half your shoe. The road opens up to the 3 planks of wood. It's here that you'll find the photographer. The traffic eases up a bit after his section.
Again, you have to remember that Plank Road is a two way street so not only are you trying to make it out to the end but there are folks trying to get back to the starting point. I'll let that simmer for a bit. 3 planks of wood. Two bodies going opposite directions. Everyone clipped to safety cable on the mountain wall. Yeah. Sounds crazy right? Somehow it all worked out because there are two safety cables – top for inbound and bottom for outbound. In order for two way traffic to work, those going outbound stand still and hug the mountain while those going inbound have to side step around the wall huggers and make sure they have enough footing on the planks. This probably violates a bunch of safety codes back home but “when on Huashan” right?
The rest of the road goes on for just a little bit until you reach the end where you start climbing up just a little before you can fully unclip and walk freely around a flat area that even has a little temple.
The road back is the same except even more harrowing. The safety of the mountainside was no longer on our side as we coordinated with the people going the other way to let us pass. Somehow we came out unscathed.
I'm working on an extended version but for now, jump straight into the action with the highlight video:
What we didn't plan so well was how long it'd take to do the Plank Walk. By the time we got out, it was close to 5PM, taking 1.5 hours to complete. Determined to see East Peak, we gathered our strength for one last push.
At this point, we were getting a bit worried about how much time we had left. In the back of mind, we knew that the last gondola ride down was 7:00PM so we were in bit of a race against time.
Pressed for time, East Peak was super rushed and all I did was grab a few quick snaps before heading back then. Fear started in a little when I found out there was no quick way to get directly from East Peak to West Peak. Looking at the map, it looked like the fastest way was just to double back and go to West Peak via South Peak. It didn't help that the crowds were incredibly thin at this point. We saw a bunch of students taking their time but it sounded like they were going to camp out and watch the sunrise.
Overall, I was pretty happy with how our day at Huashan went. While we didn't get to do East Peak as thoroughly as I wanted to nor did we get to do Middle or North Peak, we got to see pretty much all the main sights. If we got up the mountain a lot earlier, say 8AM, I think the full circuit might've been possible.
Know Before You Go
- Entrance fee (good for 2 days in case you're staying overnight) = 180 RMB (Mar – Nov)/100 RMB (Dec – Feb)
- West Peak cable car = 280 RMB round trip (Mar – Nov)/240 RMB (Dec – Feb)
- Bus transfer to West Peak cable car= 80 RMB round trip
- North Peak cable car = 150 RMB round trip (Mar – Nov)/80 RMB (Dec – Feb)
- Bus transfer to North Peak cable car = 40 RMB
- Plank Walk = 30 RMB (laminated photo is 30RMB)
- Both cable car services starts 7AM – 7PM (Mar – Nov)/9AM – 6PM (Dec – Feb)
- Plan Your Hike
- You're going to need to decide what your route is because once you buy those cable car tickets, you won't be able to change them.
- If you're not a serious hiker, I'd recommend doing a similar itinerary as us which means going up and down on West Peak. Starting from the bus ride, it'll take 7 hours to do West Peak, South Peak, Plank Walk and East Peak.
- read that some have done West Peak -> South Peak -> Plank Walk -> East Peak -> Middle Peak -> North Peak. If you plan on doing this, you're going to have to start way earlier than us (at least 8-9AM) and you will have take way less breaks.
- Sunrise and sunset is certainly possible at Huashan. To do both, you will most likely have to stay night in one of the many “hotels” on the mountain. We passed by a few of them and they looked like hostels at best. This way though, you'll be able to stay late to watch sunset on Day 1 at West Peak and then wake up super early to catch sunrise at East Peak
- What To Pack
- Hat and sunscreen – There's not much cover up there.
- Food – Make sure to bring a hearty breakfast. I recommend buying a bunch of Chinese buns, fruits, and small snacks in Xi'an the night before.
- Comfortable shoes
- Headlamp if you plan on staying overnight
- Food options on the mountain
- At several rest stations, food was served so if you manage to forget, you do have options. I took a few photos to give you an idea:
- Plank Walk
- Make sure you bring your own gloves (ones that cover your knuckles preferably).
- Bring cash with you as you pay for Plank Walk and the photo right where you harness up.
- You cannot do Plank Walk with any backpacks.
- If you're traveling with others that aren't doing the walk, get them to hold onto your bags. Our bags were relatively safe with Plank Walk operator but it would've made more sense to get my parents to hold onto them.
- Account time in your schedule for a line up for Plank Walk. It took us a total of 1.5 hours to complete the back and forth.
- Private Guide
- Our guide didn't come up with us as it wasn't necessary but it was definitely handy to have him give us some tips in terms of how to tackle the mountain.
- As I mentioned above, it was helpful to have him purchase all those tickets for us. Saved us from any miscommunications that could've occurred at the ticket booth.
- Pick up at 7:30 AM
- 2.5 hour drive from Xi'an to Huashan
- Take the bus from the visitor center to the West Peak cable car at 11AM
- Reach West Peak at 11:30AM
- Quick lunch at the rest station
- South Peak
- Plank Walk
- East Peak
- Rush back to West Peak and catch cable car down at 6PM
- After the bus ride back, we finally reach the visitor center at 7:10PM
- Drop off in Xi'an at 9:30PM
- Accommodations: ibis Xi'an Heping Gate Hotel
For more on the rest of this trip throughout China where I start in Shanghai and work my way up to Xi'an see the full itinerary as I journey to see the Terracotta Warriors.