The last time Karl posted we were relaxing in Pingyao. The Pingyao hostel that we were staying in as Karl mentioned was quite nice. The owners had obviously traveled abroad and knew what westerners expected and wanted -- traditional Chinese courtyards and decor but with all the modern conveniences of home like espresso from a real espresso machine, ultra-clean and new bathrooms, 24-hour hot water, and banana pancakes and bacon for breakfast. The contrast of Pingyao from Datong and even Wu Tai Shan in these western comforts had me enthralled -- at least for the first day or maybe even two. What we discovered quickly was that Pingyao was like a little Chinese Disneyland. Pretty on the surface but not much underneath:
Before we took off on an overnight train to Xi'an, we rented bikes and rode out to a temple outside the old Ming city walls. In the first mile we had the usual chaotic roads full of pedestrains, mopeds, tuk-tuks, bicycles, cars, trucks and anything else that could be pushed, pulled or prodded. But then the road let up with only a few trucks passing by and we made a left down a very, very pleasant tree-lined road to a temple. I write, a temple, because I don't remember the name, because it was a truly typical temple, and because we rode out there to just get out and enjoy the countryside.
For the return trip, Karl decided a different route was in order. This included riding on narrow dirt paths, through village alleys full of school children just out of school for the day, through fields of cut bamboo and corn, under an expressway, etc. For most of the ride back I was totally lost...could not even tell you which direction was north let alone where Pingyao was. But, as usual, Karl's internal compass got us home safe and sound.
So while idling my time away in Pingyao while Karl was busy blogging, I noticed in the Lonely Planet a description of Hua Shan. It is one of 5 sacred mountains here in China. Words like granite, hiking, sunrise, mist, etc. popped out of the page and I was hooked. At first, of course, I thought we could still go to Louyang and see the Longman Caves but Karl reminded me that we can't plan things here in increments of a day (let alone my usual fifteen minute increments)...so we punted the caves for the mountains.
To get to Hua Shan we took a little of a circuitous route: an overnight train from Pingyao to Xi'an arriving at what was suppose to be 6:30am but in reality 8am (nothing is on time in this country, but in this case I did not mind the extra sleep), a minibus ride to the Xi'an hostel we were going to stay at in 2 days time (so that we could drop off stuff we did not want to lug up the mountain), a minibus ride to the bus station, and then a bus to Hua Shan. Circuitous because our train passed by Hua Shan sometime early in the morning (not stopping at Hua Shan but in a nearby town about 15km away) but we were told it was easier to stay on the train to Xi'an and catch a bus back.
The bus to Hua Shan took 4 hours to make the 120km journey because it made many stops to pickup and dropoff passengers along the way. At one lengthy stop I just had to hit the little ladies room. Having experienced bus station/stop restrooms during the ride to Wutai Shan, I set my expectations accordingly. Hmmm...ok, don't expect a toilet seat, running water, toiliet paper, voilins, perfumed hand towels, spritzers...oh sorry, I was just daydreaming of the bathrooms at Vail. Yep, the usual...an alley with a concrete floor and a series of rectangular holes spaced 4 feet apart of about a foot long and a half a foot wide with a shallow pit dug underneath. The dirtiness, the smell, the lack of privacy...you get the idea. I won't describe anymore in case you are eating, have just eaten or plan to eat in the near future. After bathrooms in China, I will never complain about dirty, smelly gas station bathrooms in the middle of Nevada again!
Ok, Hua Shan. Incredible. Just stepping off the bus you could feel huge warm tan granite peaks spotted with green foliage towering over you. I can't seem to find the elevation of the town of Hua Shan but these mountains definitely rose sharply from the town. So our original plan was to arrive in the town of Hua Shan, to immediately start the hike to East Peak, and to stay at the hostel there. However, by the time we arrived in Hua Shan, the time was after 3pm. So we decided to take it easy...after all this is a vacation, right? We found one of the nicer hotels on this side of Hua Shan, splurged a little, and relaxed for the day.
Bright and early the next day...for me that was 7am...we headed out, got breakfast and started the hike. We were told by some Irish guy we met in Pingyao that the first 4km are easy and then it gets hard. Well, the first 4 kms were not what I expected. Though not bad overall, it still climbed at a steady pace. Made me reset my scale...if this is easy, then hard is going to be...really hard. So while we're huffying and puffying our way up, we see these locals porting goods up the mountain...I won't describe it because in this case a picture tells it all:
Later in the middle of the hard 2km, I hear a beautiful Chinese melody being played in the distance. Hmmm, I thought...one of these shops along the way must have turned on the radio or is playing some tape. Taking a break, I looked back and what do I see? Up the steep steps comes an elderly Chinese man carrying goods attached to both ends of a stick balanced on one shoulder and playing the flute.
What also amazed us was just the sheer effort put into the construction of this trail. I always think of the volunteer trail folks that maintain the trails in the national parks and forests in the US and think how hard that work is...but the making of this trail is in a totally different dimension...a dimension where you ask how many people died building this. The trail is made either by: cut granite from nearby rocks/walls, steps cut into the mountain itself, or concrete.
At one point when we reached North Peak, you could see the Green Dragon Ridge trail up to the other peaks and we just stood and stared. For a couple of reasons: this trail ran along a narrow ridge with sheer cliffs on either side, steps were cut into the granite the entire way and the incredible amounts of people on the trail. The latter reminded me of the ant trail up Half Dome on a weekend day:
Speaking of Half Dome, this place was like a mini-Yo...West Peak was like a mini-El Capitan:
There was even a mini-Half Dome looking rock formation.
After a stop for an early lunch at 10am on the North Peak, we made it to East Peak around noon and called it a day. We wanted to see the sunrise the next morning and since the sun rises in the east, the East it was. We checked into the only hostel on East Peak, packed books, a journal and a deck of cards, and headed to a small pavilion just beyond East Peak for some quiet and relaxation (and hopefully, to crush Karl at a game of gin rummy):
(And though I won several initial battles I ended up losing the war:
The next morning we got up early to catch the sunrise. 5am. Unfortunately, high clouds had moved in overnight and hid the sunrise. It was still beautiful. Mystical. During a breakfast of ramen noodles, we did see what a Hua Shan sunrise was suppose to look like:
I remember some time last year someone sent out a pic of a hike in China where Asian tourists are walking along planks hanging on the side of a vertical wall high up...especially remember that the females were dressed in nice dress clothes and wearing high-healed shoes. Well, I don't remember if this was the exact place but it was close enough. And though in the picture I remember, there were no harnesses, this section, thank god, required it:
It was cool, albeit a bit cheesy.
So we made a loop to South, then West and back to North Peak before heading down the Soldier's trail underneath the cable car. This was steep. Steps the entire way. One section was more than vertical and required the the aide of steps and chains to descend. Karl and I breathed a sigh of relief as we took our last steps down off the mountain.
So to get to back to Xi'an we managed to catch a bus just pulling out of the Hua Shan bus station. Sweet! No waiting and the bus had air conditioning! But then the excitement faded as we found out there were no seats left. Ahhh...I guess we'll get the next one. But no, Karl said let's stay on...they'll work it out. Working it out was sitting in the aisle on a 6-inch high plastic stool. I don't know how Karl managed. I got through it by pulling out the iPod and Karl's noise cancelling earbuds, cranking Green Day as loud as I could, and moving my numb ass to the beat of American Idiot.
We are now in Xi'an planning our next adventure. First we're going to meet up with Pat (a friend from Colorado on a whirlwind tour of China with a group of dermotologists) tonight for dinner so, jeez, we are already late...must get moving! Catch up with you in the next entry!
For more photos, slideshow and comments hit the link below.
|Pingyao to Hua Shan, China|