Surviving The World’s Most Dangerous Hike

Contrary to what the name of this blog suggests, some trips just don’t work out. I’ve had a few of those by now and it’s about time to start sharing them. Introducing Trips That Didn’t Work – a brand new section of my blog.

This particular trip was a hike to mount Hua, one of the five sacred mountains in Taoism. And even though the trip didn’t entirely suck per se, it was a hardass day that almost cost me my marriage. But let me start from the beginning.
Located about 100 km away from Xian, mount Hua is a popular day trip destination among locals. It is known for gorgeous views, Taoist monasteries at the top, thousands of prayer flags, and especially for its famous accessibility issues. In fact, if you google “most dangerous hike” right now, you will get pictures from Hua.

Two staircases that are now closed for business

Imagine giant granite rocks sticking out from the ground – that’s Hua. There are four peaks and the way to the top is by walking up the stairs cut from the rock. At times these stairs are so vertical that you have to hold on to old, rusty chains attached to both sides of the staircase and literally pull yourself up. These passages gave the mountain its bad reputation because in bad weather and when it’s too crowded, they become dangerous. Luckily, the worst sections are now officially closed and wide cement staircases are built to go around. So the climb is not THAT dangerous anymore.

Don’t want to climb at all? Chinese tourism industry thought of that too! There are cable cars on the mountain to take tourists to two different peaks. Just as a comparison, it would take you 10 minutes on a cable car or two full hours by foot to get to the North peak, the lowest of the four. But hey, lifts are for senior citizens, children and wimps. What kind of adventure would it be if we took a ride, right? So we didn’t.

At the time of this shot, I clearly didn’t know what I was getting myself into…

The plan

So my plan (and I have to admit: it was solely my decision, and Jonny was up for a big surprise) was to:

  1. Climb to the North peak. In my mind it was supposed to take us under two hours coz we are young and awesome, duh!
  2. Make our way to the famous Plank walk, which was supposed to be about 1.5 hours away. The Plank walk was going to be the highlight of the hike. It is an optional side trip where you walk on wooden planks nailed to the rock and pretty much hanging in the air. I couldn’t wait!
  3. Retrace our steps and take cable car down to make sure we catch the last train to Xian.

The reality

Our trip coincided with the worst heat wave in China in 140 years, so all my plans were a bit affected by the unbearable temperature and 100% humidity. Let’s leave it at that.

The way up to the North peak is called Soldiers’ Path for a reason. It’s a grueling two-hour walk up-up-up. Imagine walking up the stairs for two hours in a sauna… That’s how it felt.

One of the vertical staircases that we had to climb

The fact that I made a BIG mistake of not taking a cable car dawned on me about five minutes after the start. Jonny was getting noticeably quieter – never a good sign. As we were climbing, he went through a swirl of emotions all of which were not in my favour. He wasn’t that pumped about climbing a mountain to begin with, he wasn’t handling the heat all that well, and most importantly he wasn’t entirely informed about the details of the adventure. Let’s just say he was under impression that it would be a walk in the woods…

Luckily, forty minutes in we found a nice cool waterfall. I was so excited to splash some water on my head! Strangely enough no Chinese people were using it. Did they know something that we didn’t?

An hour later we came across the first food stand and sort of a resting area. Water there was five times what it cost in the city, but I get it – supply & demand…

I should say we weren’t alone on that path. There were people going in both directions and there were even families with kids. I remember sweating like a pig passing by a family on their pit stop drinking steamy hot water from their thermos… What??

The North peak is measured at 1615 m, so in two hours we climbed three times the height of the CN Tower. That’s if you count the antennae too! It was, no doubt, the toughest walk I had ever had in my life and by the time we got there, we both were wasted.

Despite all the struggle, the view from the top is beautiful!
Prayer flags and love locks
Yay! People!

But imagine our disappointment, when after all this work we found ourselves among thousands of people that already got there before us thanks to the convenient cable car. Everywhere we looked there were people: old, young, toddlers, babies. It was the reality of traveling in China even further aggravated by the fact that it was a weekend.

If you, like me, romanticize mountains, Hua will be a disappointing experience unless you find a hidden cliff to sit down and relax. But chances are you won’t. People are everywhere and those hidden cliffs or open platforms are virtually nonexistent. Any relatively open space is occupied by sellers offering hot noodles, drinks, ice cream, and more noodles. Other open spaces – especially the ones with the best views – are taken over by makeshift photo studious; and they won’t let you sit there unless you use their services. It’s pretty commercialized up there.

We started moving in the direction of the Plank walk but it wasn’t that easy. Because of narrow paths, and with all the people around, we were literary walking in line and often even standing waiting for the bottlenecks to clear. Whatever average hiking time the guide book suggests should be multiplied by at least two because you can be only as fast as the slowest person in that line. I won’t lie, it was damn annoying. To happily travel through China, you have to be really patient and we are so not.

A line is forming…

So we gave up… It was a hard decision for me because I’ve been fantasizing about the Plank walk for months, but we both weren’t enjoying the experience and, most importantly, if we continued, we would definitely miss the last train back to Xian.

Happy with the decision, Jonny on the fly offered to take the Soldiers’ Path down. He predicted a brisk 45-minute walk… Yeah, right! The way down turned out to be not so much shorter – 1.5 hours with barely any stops. But this time we actually got to enjoy the scenery.

Happy faces because the decision is made
If you take the Soldiers’ Path down in the afternoon, there are barely any people and you get to cheer up those few who are walking up

How it should have been done

  1. First off, if you ever thought that climbing a mountain in a 40+C weather was a great idea, think again and then don’t do it.
  2. Never go on a weekend. In fact, no sightseeing in China should be done on weekends or holidays. Period. Everything is just so unbearably crowded.
  3. Get to the train station waaay in advance to get the train you want. Better yet, stay in Huashan city overnight and climb the mountain first thing in the morning before the day-trippers arrive.
  4. It makes sense to take the cable car to the North peak and walk from there (there will still be plenty of stairs, I promise). And maybe on the way back you can choose to walk down the Soldiers’ Path. Some say walking down is worse than going up, but I don’t buy it.

Finally, if you follow all these suggestions, you may be better off physically, but would you remember this day as the stupidest adventure of the year? A decade down the road, would you laugh with your partner at how hot, pissed and exhausted you were and how you were fantasizing about strangling her for all the suffering? Probably not…

Overall, despite a torturous day, I enjoy having the memories of this trip. We were the only internationals at the top and Chinese people were really friendly to us, approaching for pictures and just saying “hi”.

We came across this this very energetic group in cowboy hats and they enjoyed posing for us

How to get there

  1. From Xian’s North railway station a bullet train will get you to Huashan city in 30 minutes. We met people who took a two-hour bus from the main train station – that’s another option. Though I don’t see a reason why you would. Train schedules are available online. Just be careful – I noticed some slight discrepancies with exact times. One way ticket is Y35-54 depending on the type of the train.
  2. From the train station at Huashan you can either take a cab or get on a bus parked outside of the entrance. It’s only Y2 because it’s a city bus and may make a few stops on the way. But it still takes no more than 10 minutes to get to the visitor center anyway.
  3. When buying tickets, you have to tell them whether you are taking the cable car or walking – prices and transfers depend on that. If you have a student card – use it! It will cut the admission price in half. For what we had to go through, I would hate to pay the full price – Y180. But the ticket is actually good for two days and you have the option of staying at one of the monasteries on the mountain overnight. One way ride on a cable car is Y80 and a transfer from the visitor center to the foot of the mountain is Y20 each way.
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