I built up the “idea” of hiking up Huashan for months on end. Weeks leading up to the climb, my palms would start sweating every time I thought about hiking in Huashan. Walking on a plank suspended hundreds of meters in the air was most terrifying. The fact the Huashan is an internet sensation did not help calm my nerves. Huashan appears on countless blogs and websites and it is often hailed as the horrifying mountain climb up dangerous passes, through planks suspended hundreds of meters in the air all just to reach a tea house. The first time I learned about Huashan was at least 5 years ago when I was randomly browsing the web. The story I first encountered was about a treacherous hike to a tea house. I’ve read accounts of supernatural weather change, of ruthless fellow hikers who will kick you off a deadly cliff and of daily casualties that pile up in a ravine. Even Lonely Planet wrote the hike up Huashan is incredibly strenuous and not for everybody. The amount of “deadly” in all the article titles made me wonder about the actual body count. Everyone would say “oh, they would never tell you the actual figure”. The ambiguity of this deadliness made my palms even sweatier.
After all this build up I was finally within walking distance of the mountain. The only thing between me and the dreaded plank was a six hour hike, so says the Lonely Planet. The highest peak at Huashan stands at 2100m. The mountain range may not be tall but it is breathtaking, supposedly. Unfortunately, we climbed the mountain during an awful smog and the views were mostly hidden behind the AQI of 400. No wonder my lungs were burning by the end of the day.
We were dumb enough to climb Huashan on a national holiday. When we got to the ticket office, we stood in line for over an hour. While in line our ear drums were treated to a deafening roar and treble of a cultural performance of pot banging. The volume was not loud enough for the authorities so they increased it ever so not slightly until the speakers were blown later in the afternoon (probably). There must be a Huashan speaker budget. Most of the “hikers” in line were out buying gondola tickets. We planned to start the hike at the West entrance and when our shuttle bus brought us to the west gates, we realized that our efforts were in vain. There was a ticket office at the start of the trail. Rats! There is absolutely no information about this. Frustration aside our climb was steady and steep. There was a fun stair section that was 80 degrees, but you can avoid it by taking the detour for pussies. Oh yes, there were families doing this hike with their toddlers. The higher we went, the more kids acted out. No kidding! I would act out like a motherfucker if my parents dragged me up Satan’s stairs when my legs were only 20 cm long. What part of their body do these parents think with? We made it to the North Peak in about 2 hours (suck it, Lonely Planet!). Since the climb wasn’t strenuous we decided to do the plank walk that day. I knew I had to get it out of the way as soon as possible, otherwise my fear of heights would completely immobilize me.
On the East Peak, I wanted a little warm up act before the “Plank Walk in the Sky” and we made a detour to the first adrenaline section of the peak. The Chess Pavilion involves a 90 degree 20m descent. I was pretty terrified but with another 20 climbers quickly descending above me I had no choice but to proceed. When my feet touched solid ground, I was elated! With adrenaline pumping through my veins I was ready for anything. I was ready for the plank walk! No more sweaty palms, it was time to get serious.
While reading about other people’s experiences it seemed like the ladder descending down to the plank walk would be absolutely petrifying. In reality, it wasn’t bad at all. I was even able to see the rock ledge underneath and if I were to fall, I would probably land on the ledge 10m below and not the rocky cliff somewhere 400m below. The worst part for me was the actual plank walk and the fact that we were the last ones in our group and we spent a lot longer than most on the plank since we had to let everyone make their way around us to come back. Seeing the plank in real life felt like I was meeting a celebrity. After months of looking at pictures of the plank walk online, it’s easy to recognize every nail in the wood.
I could feel wood flex under my feet and at one point I imagined the wood breaking due to the amount of people and everyone tumbling to their death. I kept thinking that on the way back I would have to pass the oncoming traffic on the outside of the plank. I was petrified! After about 10 minutes of shuffling along we reached the end. The sun was already setting and the “plankies” were yelling at us to make our way back. Thankfully, the last group of the day wasn’t being let onto the plank until we made our exit. I shuffled along the plank, happy that the terror was almost over but Jonathan kept insisting that the hiker ahead of take a picture. I didn’t want any pictures, I wanted to get to flat ground. Jonathan boosted ahead and hung a camera on a hiker’s neck who took a picture of us. Then Jonathan got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. Considering that he was standing between me and salvation that was flat ground, he could have asked me to eat pig’s anuses for the rest of my life and I would have said yes. Jokes aside, it was a wonderful proposal and it could not have been done in a more Jonathan style.
We spent the night under the stars listening to the wildlife sounds that is the “Chinese Mountain Yelling”. Even with the General Mao coat rental it was still freezing. Trying to fall asleep under and above walking paths we gave up around 4am. The sunrise was underwhelming so we had no qualms about making our way down early. This being a mountain resort in China we had to avoid a few piles of human shit that were inconspicuously planted in the middle of the walking path. I feel most sorry for the people that have to clean that up every day. Is it really that hard to shit in trees? Not like you’re surrounded by them!
Now that the “plank walk” chapter of my life is finally complete, I wondered about all the bullshit that is told about Huashan. Among the many lies is that to reach the summit of Huanshan you have to first do a plank walk. I would really love it if it were true. The plank walk is nothing but a fun 10 minute section to play with your fear of heights. It is not dangerous unless you decide to see how fast you can sprint through it. Also, what is up with that Tea House? There is no Tea House, not even a mention of one at the mountain. Who came up with that idea? The climb up Huashan is really not THAT strenuous, I’ve done harder climbs in my life. Considering the types of people that do the climb I would understand where that perception of difficulty comes from. My lungs did burn after hours of climbing the mountain but I will credit that to pollution and the soreness in my legs is mostly due to the trek down on the world’s longest and most unpredictable staircase, the Soldier’s Path. I climbed Huangshan weeks before this hike and both these mountains have a lot of similarities. They probably have been planned by the same committee or maybe I just feel this way because both mountains were packed with national holiday’s worth of people. Regardless of the mountain, the people and the human turds I came away with probably the most memorable and original Huashan Plank Walk experience (and hell of a rock too!).
Getting to Huashan
Now that there is a high speed train link between Xian and Huashan, getting to the mountain is so, so easy. It costs 60RMB to get to Huashan’s new train station within 35 minutes. From there you can grab the free Bus 1 or 2 to the base of Huashan. You can also take the 2 hour slow train for 29RMB but why would you? Trains that disgusting don’t even run in Russia. You can also grab a bus from Xian, but again why? Interestingly enough, the high speed train that goes through Hua Shan continues another 5 hours all the way to Beijing. If you live in Beijing, you don’t even need to visit Xian! I advise you not to visit Xian for another 10 years. The whole city is the process of being torn down and rebuilt. It also seems like everyone in Xian eats stinky tofu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.