Saturday, December 5, 2009

Huà Shān

December 4-5th


From as far back as pre-trip planning in Canada I wanted to climb Mount Hua. Lonely Planet China describes it as "...spectacular. There are knife blade ridges and twisted pine trees clinging to ledges as you ascend, while the summits offer transcendent panoramas of green mountains and countryside stretching away to the horizon". Google image results seems to agree with this description.

In the initial excitement of arriving and seeing sights closer to Xi'an the trip to Huà Shān got pushed back a bit. After we settled in a bit the idea came back. Unfortunately co-workers, Lonely Planet, and the internet all describe it as dangerous when wet/slippery or crowded and the weather kept failing to co-operate on weekends, even going so far as to snow for a while! I found a co-worker, Jeff Fang, to go up with and we planned to head up as soon as we could find a day that was both sunny and preceded by a few sunny days to melt the ice and snow off. When it finally looked like a sunny stretch was coming it was timed such that we'd need to go up on Friday. Jeff and I decided to flex our time and skip Friday in return for working another day some other time.

There are three main ways to go up the mountain. First, and most popular, is to simply take a cable-car up to the North Peak. A bus drives an additional eight km from Huà Shān village along a winding uphill road to a cable-car. The cable-car carries you up 700-odd meters to the North Peak (1615m). Second, you can walk under the cable car. Known as the "soldiers path", this is reputedly very steep and according to Lonely Planet "two sections of 50m or so are quite literally vertical, with nothing but a steel chain to grab onto and tiny chinks cut into the rock for footing". The third option, the most popular with backpackers and the like, is to hike from the village of Huà Shān to the North Peak. The village is probably (some possibility of information lost in translation) something like 420m above sea level to the ascent is probably about 1200m. Lonely Planet suggests it should take 3-5 hours to hike to the North Peak from Huà Shān, and a minimum of 8 hours total if one wishes to carry on to all five (compass points plus center) peaks.

A popular strategy with Chinese is to hike from Huà Shān village at night (supposedly not seeing the fall makes you less worried about it and safer), reaching the east peak in time for sunrise. As climbing at night, even on stairs, sounded distinctly unpleasant we decided to hike up from Huà Shān village on Friday December fourth, see the sun set, spend the night on the mountain, see the sun rise, and then head back down in the morning via the cable car.

In aid of efficient climbing I decided to take my hiking bag, a Brio 70L, instead of my little day pack. Although this was gross overkill in terms of size - it could fit five times more than I took easily - it has the significant advantage of placing all the load on ones hips. In contrast, my day-pack targets load onto your shoulders and rapidly makes even a relatively small load seem heavy. As it turned out picking the Brio was a life-saver; having the day-pack eating away at my shoulders the whole time would have made the climb far, far harder.

Although the Xi'an office theoretically has full flex time, they are apparently not exactly encouraged to use it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the reverse is true. Co-workers seemed a little surprised we were taking off Friday and further surprised we'd be crazy enough to climb Huà Shān. We heard a LOT of comments about how cold it would be! The weather forecast didn't entirely back these claims up; sunny and -12C (night low) to 3C (day high) sounded pretty tolerable for hiking uphill. As we would later learn, this didn't factor in windchill!

December 4th
At 5am the alarm shrilled. After a quick shower, the usual admonitions to be careful (apparently Pavan thinks without her advice I'd jump off the nearest cliff...), and the addition of some final items to the pack it was time to go! Jeff and I took a taxi out to the train station and started trying to figure out how to get to Huà Shān. The options were:
  • Train, notoriously slow, crowded, and prone to delay.
  • Private bus, sketchy, more expensive, and prone to not leave until full
  • Government bus, relatively nice, less expensive, and guaranteed to not leave until full
  • Taxi, requiring a custom agreement with a driver and probably costing 5-10x more than any other option
We searched around and eventually found a government bus that was perhaps 25% full. For ¥66 we bought three seats (me, Jeff, my bag), and settled in to wait for the remaining seats to sell. We boarded at around 7:00am and the buss ultimately left at about 8:00am. In the meantime we began a hopefully productive discussion of some problems Jeff's team faces at work largely surrounded unreasonable expectations killing team motivation. Shockingly, it turns out that demanding more work at higher quality in less time is perhaps not the ideal way to keep a team motivated.

The bus ride to Huà Shān is roughly two hours. Once out of the city ("in China" as Jeff would put it), the surroundings quickly changed to more rural village style places. These tend to be half-knocked down, frequently windowless, and generally exceedingly unpleasant looking places. Jeff confirmed that life there is  "very hard". People study very hard to get a chance to go to school and win an opportunity to escape such life. Several of our co-workers fit this mold.

Chinese education, by both description and co-worker account, is very focused on memorization and ability to essentially recite information or reproduce a known set of steps to solve a problem. The result tends to be that we find China staff are much less likely to try to find new solutions to problems. When faced with a problem they can't deal with the response is generally to ask someone else for help without trying to find a solution themselves. Similarly, they will often apply a known less than ideal solution, realizing it is non-ideal, rather than look for a better one. This can be very frustrating as it wastes a lot of time (discussion of problems with North America is hideously inefficient due to time zone delays on responses) and doesn't get the best possible results. I asked about this a little and was somewhat surprised to discover that several people in the office recognize this problem. I thought it might be so ingrained in the culture nobody would even notice but evidently not so. We are trying to encourage the team to put a bit more effort into both solving their own problems and trying to consider what is the best way but it is rather slow going. There are some signs of improvement from a few people and I think all they need is a few key people moving in the right direction to put the team on a path to fairly dramatic improvement. Anyway, getting a bit off-topic here ;)

In addition to dilapidated, occupied, buildings we also saw several massive cooling towers for power plants. I initially thought these were nuclear cooling towers as I'd heard that Xi'an used nuclear power but this turns out to be bad data. Apparently these are in fact coal power plants. The use of numerous very dirty power plants is probably one of the reasons Xi'an hides under permanent smog clouds. A Xi'an blue sky isn't actually blue; the smog always tints it. A sunny day is one where the city is buried in fog/smog until a little after noon when the sun finally burns through a little.

On arriving in Huà Shān village the bus stopped to let off hikers. From a full bus there were four of us, Jeff and I plus one other couple. After disembarking the bus on some random street we had to ask a local for directions to the start of the hike. It is somewhat unclear why the bus couldn't drive the extra two minutes and drop us off right at the entrance. A short walk got us to our first view of the ascent.

The immediate start of the hike takes you through Jade Fountain Temple.

The temple is small but quite nice. However, if you've seen a number of Chinese temples you could be forgiven for feeling very much like you've already been there, done that. After walking through the temple we came to a gate that feels like the real start of the hike.

A short distance further was the ticket office. A minor positive of the delays in our trip was that December is considered off-peak so the ticket was about 50% off high season price. Just inside the gate we got our first taste of how the initial stages of the hike would be.

Lonely Planet describes the 6km hike to the North Peak as "The first 4km up are pretty easy going, but after that it's all steep stairs". The so-called easy part is actually surprisingly difficult. It is a steadily upward sloping trail paved with stones that are just irregular enough to require attention to not miss a step here and there. It may be a bit hard to tell in the photo but the trail is running steadily uphill.

Along the first section we made pretty good time. A short way in, perhaps 2-3km, we spotted our first locks. A popular tradition at Huà Shān is to purchase locks with things written on them in characters and leave them locked to some of the many chains around the mountain.

Shortly after the locks we passed our first human pack mules. For ridiculously (to us) low wages, these people haul loads up from Huà Shān village. Now bear in mind a cable car to the North Peak exists. That means it's so cheap to get labor that it's cheaper to have a person haul bags 1.2km vertically than to drive them to the cable car! We later heard from one chap that the wage for carrying a load up the mountain was just ¥15 ($2.5ish)!!.

Along the hike up there are fairly regular little stores that will sell you water, snacks, juice, and red bull. Based on the large collections of cans and the amount in stock red bull is rather popular on the hike. If I'd known these stores would be present I might not have packed so many beverages in my pack! Jeff felt that ¥10 (as opposed to ¥1 at a Xi'an supermarket) was a ludicrous markup; having seen how the merchandise was transported up the mountain (and feeling the effects of transporting my own liquids a little) I thought it seemed pretty fair.

Somewhere ninety minutes and four or so kilometers into the hike we got to the base of the stairs. The easy part had been rather harder than expected but we felt we were making good time relative to Lonely Planets prediction. As the stair-climbing kicked off the ascent got much steeper and much snowier. The majority of the stairs were clear but enough icy or snowy patches were present to require attention to each step.

In the early stages of the stairs we ran into a few other tourists. The first kilometer or so of stairs was relatively easy; we felt that while the easy part had been harder than advertised we were catching a break as the hard part was a little easier than expected.

A number of places along this stage of the way were popular lock-placement locations.

Looking back down the slope it was starting to feel like we were making some vertical progress.

As we proceeded the stairs gradually started to get a bit steeper.

After a bit more of this we were at 5km (there are markers periodically) and hit a nice flat spot with a rather ancient tree. I forget exactly how old but something like 800+ years I believe.

We were at 5km and it had been two hours so it seemed curious the total time to the top should be estimated at 3-5 hours. Our legs were a bit tired from stairs but we were generally feeling good. Then we found out that the cool tree represents the end of the easier-than-expected hard part. Fairly immediately after it gets a little steeper and narrower.

Then, as Jeff models, it got steeper.

On the plus side, a short distance further (about 5K+400) we got into the sun for the first time.

Over the last few hundred fairly vertically oriented meters we were really starting to feel the effects of rather more stairs than either of us was used to. I'm not sure about Jeff but I don't think being lazy for basically all the last month helped me much either.

2:40 from starting at the gate we hit the North Peak (1615m). It is magnificent. There is the requisite display of locks, a fantastic view out, blue sky and clean air. The last two are more important in Xi'an than they might be back home. At +1.6km from sea level on Huà Shān the sky is blue. Real blue, not smoggy bluish but genuinely blue. The air is clean too. The rather chilly breeze whips it around you and it's a delight just to sit and breathe real air! How great this is really makes one wonder what a couple of months in Xi'an does for the respiratory system.

After sitting for a few minutes at the initial landing for the North Peak we walked up towards the actual peak marker. Along the way was a fairly neat place to take a load off.

At the top is another patch of locks, plus a nice view out over the path from the North Peak towards the "main peaks". To get from the North Peak to the other peaks you have to walk along stairs frequently cut into raw stone running generally along the top of a ridge. The cable car drops people at the North Peak so from here on it was somewhat more populated. It would be far less pleasant if it was packed with people so probably coming during the off-season worked out well for us.

Next we set out for the main peak area. A short distance southwards toward the ridge path we heard a man yelling something that sounded roughly like "yahk-a-she". This was repeated in a rhythm of first two short yells then a longer, more drawn out version, something like "yahk-a-she ... yahk-a-she ... something something yaaaahk-aaa-sheeee". The final yell would be accompanied by a substantial volume jump, then a short break, and the cycle repeated. On rounding the next corner we discovered the source. A fairly small man was carrying the heaviest looking load we saw the whole trip.

The yahk-a-she routine seemed to be some form of self-motivation. It doesn't mean anything in Mandarin that Jeff recognized. After a brief stop to gawk at this we proceeded. Yahk-a-she warned us that the trail ahead was a bit icy and we should watch our step. He then self-motivated his way up a rather steep staircase with very narrow stairs carrying the enormous load all the while. About halfway up the steep and narrow stairs the load apparently became tiring for the left shoulder so he bounced on his feet, pushing the burden briefly off his shoulders and into the air, and spun the carrying stick around to place it on his right shoulder.

The path continued along the side of the ridge.

After a short distance along the side of the ridge we hit Green Dragon Ridge. This runs along a narrow rock ridge with sheer drops on both sides.

Green Dragon Ridge also happens to lie in the middle of an otherwise open path for wind. Extremely cold short gusts of wind periodically howled across the ridge while we ascended. These were strong enough to force you to close your eyes if you were looking into the wind so during these periods you either turned away from the wind or proceeded with your windward eye shut. Progression up Green Dragon Ridge gains you a decent amount of elevation over the North Peak.

After Green Dragon Ridge the elevation of Huà Shān starts to be sufficient to get a nice view out over neighboring mountains.

It was mid-afternoon by this time so we set off to find the East Peak (2100m), where we hoped to stay at Dōngfēng Bīnguǎn, described by Lonely Planet as "The best location on the mountain for watching the sun come up and the best restaurant." (they also noted that no good restaurants or accommodations were available so "best" is very relative!). Along a brief wonderfully flat section we caught up with yahk-a-she again, still plodding along and yelling away!

Just below the entrance to the hotel we stopped to enjoy some sun and the view out towards the Xiaqi Pavilion. This probably means chess-playing pavilion.


The stairs to hotel were cut directly into the rock.

We got the "deluxe" double-room, which consists of two beds in a small room without heat for ¥520 (slightly discounted from ¥320/person) and then headed off to the restaurant as we were a bit chilled and very much ready for some real food instead of nuts and Gatorade. Food was by local standards just as ludicrously expensive as you could hope. Rice, normally ¥1, was ¥10. Eggs with green pepper and a dish of Chinese cabbage were ¥38 (normally ¥10-15; ¥38 would normally be the cost of a good meat dish) each and Shǔi Zhǔ Rò Piàn (spicy pork in water) was ¥68 (normally perhaps ¥30). For hot food on the mountain top it didn't seem too bad. However, when we ordered a very curious practice ensued. First we were told we'd have to wait perhaps as much as thirty minutes. We said OK. Then they brought out a big dish of Shǔi Zhǔ Rò Piàn and put it on another table in the room.

Then the entire staff of the hotel ate - first! Now we're not 100% sure, but we suspect that our Shǔi Zhǔ Rò Piàn was basically from what was left in the pot after the staff had served themselves. This is the weirdest practice I've ever seen when ordering food. However, it was quite tasty so ... whatever.


We wanted to get to the Xiaqi Pavilion but the path was closed and looked rather icy in any case.

As it was approaching sunset we raced off to get a decent view. We figured we didn't have time to reach a peak, and didn't really want to come back down one in the dark, so we headed off to the cliff side path. The name is very apt.

After the sunset we rushed back to the hotel to avoid having to walk around in the dark too much. It was fairly dim by the time we got back.

After a total of roughly six hours of climbing up stone stairs it felt very nice just to take a break for a bit. The Internet said sunrise was 5:30am but was unclear on whether at 5:30am the sun was risen or was just starting to rise so we set the alarm for 4:45am to ensure we were up early enough to see the sunrise. Before crashing for the night I called Pavan to notify her we were alive still, as she had requested. At the time of the call, about 6:45pm, she was heading off to start her evening hanging out with a girl from Active! On the mountaintop we settled in for the night. It was not warm and the room was not heated. Wearing a heavy sweater, multiple socks, and gloves it was still quite cold. Any movement was prone to locate a new cold spot or allow in another puff of rather chilly outside air. As an added bonus the wind is apparently nocturnal; it got much more enthusiastic in the dark. Huddling under the not-quite-sufficient blankets listening to the howling icy wind we got a not-so-restful sleep.

December 5th
At 4:45am the alarm went off. The first thing one became aware of after waking up was the wind howling over the mountaintop. A quick walk outside revealed not a sign of the sunrise. For the next hour or so we kept popping outside for a few minutes to check for signs of sunrise, discovering no sun and plenty of cold, then coming back inside to at least get out of the wind. Somewhere in the process it became apparent the heaviest gloves I had brought were insufficient and my pinkies were going numb.

At about quarter to six some other people showed up, having hiked over from another peaks hotel. They joined us in our room to escape the wind. After another half hour another group showed up, also having hiked over. At about 6:45am the first hints of signs of a sunrise showed up. Even an eight second exposure couldn't gather too much light.

The sun crept over the mountain at about 6:55am.

The pictures don't do it justice. Curiously the howling, freezing, wind stopped essentially just when the sun rose. For the first time in twelve hours or so we felt warm. Feeling began to return to my pinkies.

Our plan for the day was to visit the South, East, and Central peaks then take the cable car down and bus back to Xi'an. As we headed for the first peak of the day it was rather apparent that a single chilling night doesn't fully recover your legs. First stop was south peak. At 2160m this is the highest point on Huà Shān.

The south peak is also the highest feeling peak as it comes to a distinct point with everything around it substantially lower. The next peak was the west peak. This is essentially downhill from the south peak, which was fairly welcome. The west peak is reached via a cool walkway along a raw rock ridge with a drop off on one side.

The west peak has a pretty good high point. It's not as good as the south peak as it's clearly not the highest thing around.

After the west peak we set off for central peak. To get there we crossed over into a trail marked closed. It rapidly became apparent that the trails that are open get manually cleared of snow; the closed trail was a great deal icier and snowier than the others. However, it led directly to where we wanted to go and the alternative was a good deal of backtracking uphill so we stuck to it.

A short time after we reached the central peak. Central peak is basically just a flat area that somebody noticed was vaguely central to the other peaks. Jeff was reporting knee pain and we were both pretty tired so we decided to rest a bit at central peak before going down.

To take the cablecar down we first had to descend to the North Peak against the flow of cable car riders heading up to the higher peaks.

After one last stop to admire the locks we boarded the cable car for a ~750m descent. The cable car runs directly over the "soldiers path" so we could see a little of it from above. Perhaps one day we'll have a chance to come back and try it!

At the bottom of the cablecar we learned it was still 8km to Huà Shān village and the busses to Xi'an. The only way to reach the village was a fleet of buses run by the same company. Walking the distance is forbidden and cabs cannot come up. This is a pretty good little monopoly for someone.

We took the mandatory bus back to Huà Shān and picked up a taxi to take us to the bus to Xi'an. As before we preferred a government bus as they are both cheaper and nicer. Unfortunately the only government bus was completely empty and didn't leave until full. To avoid waiting for ages for the bus to leave we took a corporate bus instead. This left about fifteen minutes later. It was dirty, in poor repair, and had a driver of minimal competence. On the plus side the A/C was very effective: the rear window was missing and had been replaced by a sheet of some sort of semi-rigid plastic taped into place enough not to fall out but not enough to block the wind.

On arrival back at Xi'an we had trouble getting a taxi. One finally stopped, seemingly mostly out of desire to try to speak English to me. Through cabbie engrish, Jeff's Mandarin, and my few words of Mandarin we gathered that the cabbie was very interested in English, had picked up a few words on his own, and tended to try to pick up foreigners to try to talk to them. Along the way home we had to stop for gas. We were all required to exit the taxi, which was then filled up through a somewhat linkage at a very different location than we typically see at home.

Shortly thereafter we got home. It was quite tiring but immensely enjoyable.

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