This post is by Leon Walker: Experienced China traveler, originally from New Zealand but in his 5th year as a Shanghai Expat. firstname.lastname@example.org
Huashan 华山 (Hua mountain or Mt Hua) is a fun, famous, potentially challenging and very rewarding mountain to climb in China's North Eastern Shaanxi province. It is one of the "big five" mountains of China, having a long and rich Taoist history and thus has been a significant place of pilgrimage or of just hanging out amongst generations of Chinese poets, nobles and the masses.
Pros: stunning landscape, awesome climb and close distance to burgeoning metropolis Xi'an (home to world renowned Terracotta Warriors et al).
Cons: its expensive. Total cost to do just accessing Huashan itself can easily be 400-500rmb per person depending on how you do it. It's also very popular, thus gets very crowded. This can to some extent be avoided e.g. by visiting on a weekday like I did and hiking up yourself (avoid public holidays!!! - I remember hearing the news during National Week holiday in first week of October 2013 that something crazy like 10,000 people were trying to get off the mountain after a particularly busy day; pandemonium broke out - some people even got stabbed...).
This August I had the chance to attend an Asia:New Zealand Foundation - Leadership Network Forum in Xi'an. (Read More about them and the great things they are doing here asianz.org.nz) After the forum I took the great opportunity to shoot up the road and tackle Huashan, one of my longstanding "to-do's " in China.
After the forum finished on Sunday afternoon I checked out of our hotel and headed straight to Xi'an railway station and got on the next slow train to Huashan village. Enjoying the nostalgic pace of the slow train, I reflected on the last few days forum and watched the countryside roll past, gradually steepening as the mountain range rises from Shaanxi's plains. I felt genuinely excited and optimistic about the future, especially regarding the NZ-China relationship, after all that we had discussed and learned.
Arriving in Huashan was a great sight as the sun settled and dark ominous clouds rolled over the mountains. Remembering the warnings about rain from the helpful concierge Kevin of the hotel in Xi'an, I thought "oh shit" and bought myself a plastic poncho for 10kuai from the nearest hawker outside the station, just in case.
Finding Accommodation & Preparing For the Hike
My plan was to stay the base of the mountain and hike up as early as possible. From the train station it's still another 15-20 minute drive to the actual base of the mountain, where I guessed there would be plenty of places to stay so I hadn't booked any accommodation in advance. Sure enough, after haggling down my taxi ride to 20kuai (and then him chucking in more guests in the backseat...) the driver drove me straight to "a good spot", which was his place, where his wife is running a restaurant & hotel. No surprises there.
Fair enough, I got a double room with shower for 100rmb which isn't terrible and had a good dinner of local yang rou po mo which is like a noodley broth with mutton, bits of dough and some other things for like RMB 20. Yummy and perfect carb loading for the next day. I went to bed with rain and thunder rushing down outside, thinking my walk tomorrow could be cut very short.
What many of the Chinese do, especially younger ones like groups of students etc, is climb up at 10 or 11 pm and climb through the darkness of night to see the sunrise from the top. Having seen a lot of stunning sunrises I decided on a slightly different option: Rising at 06.30am, grabbing half a dozen baozi (steamed buns), I headed to the gate (which supposedly opened at 6 or 7 so I was told by my hosts not to rise at 4am as I originally planned). It is possible to stay on the top as well if you prefer that option, just be prepared to pay premium price for budget quality.
The first hour or so is a pretty mellow slope. The path is wide and paved alongside a stream that has carved a deep valley into the cliffs. The scenery reminded me of the beginning of Huangshan (the Yellow Mountain).
There was not a cloud in the sky as the sun started hitting the peaks over head I was treated to gorgeous views, along with fresh mountain morning air and the sound of the stream bubbling away. Scored it! Looking up, I caught glimpses of Lotus Peak (photo above) and other famous 2,000+ meter high peaks in front of me.
After about an hour or so you pass a little waterfall and the predicted steps begin. One thing you're guaranteed with a mountain climb in China is steps. Lots of them. This is just like Huangshan. Even the scenery here is similar. You climb past several terraces and small shops and even a couple temples. Then you get to the 100 Foot Canyon which is intense! 70-90 degree steps, you are practically climbing up this narrow passage that was hacked into the stone several centuries ago by "some Chinese", according to the sign. Luckily I had passed most morning groups by now so could enjoy it with no crowds - it would have been horrible packed. Really fun and rewarding once you pop out the top.
Reaching The Top
After another steep sections of steps you pop out onto the North Peak. You've made it! And you are rewarded with awesome views of the valley you just climbed and lotus peak, still a few hundred meters higher. Now you are next to the top terminus of the North Peak cable car and can see the West Peak cable car (gondola) in the distance. At 09:15 I had made the climb quicker than expected in just under 3 hours.
Next stage was to circle around the East and South peaks to get a view and maybe a taste of the famous Sky Plank walk. It took about an hour and a half to get there and there was still a considerable climb. The best views of the whole hike were found on this section!
Got to the Sky Planks at 11am and paid my RMB 30 to give it a go. Now this is quite silly. It's basically a two-way climb and then walk out on these planks that don't really go anywhere and then you turn back to the same spot. It was busy and with the waiting and hassle not really worth it, except for getting the cool photo. You're attached to something like a fat rubber band so it looks really safe if you fall as well. But you can get the same view from the viewing platform above and save your money if your not that keen or short on time.
Next I boosted straight down to West Peak which is essentially the back of Lotus Peak. This is where the gondola comes up so the whole section was super crowded and unmemorable. A one way ticket down is another hefty 140rmb but the ride was actually better than I thought since it crosses a couple of valleys and another peak on the way down - really nice scenery by itself.
Similar to Huangshan which has 3 cable cars now, most tourists take one cable car up, walk around to another one and then down. So like many places in China if you go the extra distance and put in a bit more effort you will get away from the crowds.
I like hiking up because a) Ifind it way more rewarding and fun and b) walking down steps for 3-4 hours is horrible on the knees.
From the bottom of the gondola you have to take another bus for 30kuai down to the foot of the mountain (takes about half an hour). There is a free bus from the base back into Huashan village and I was comfortably at the shiny new Huashan North station by 14:00 (where the gao tie go, different from the other station). What the gao tie lacks in nostalgia it certainly makes up for in modernism, convenience and comfort. Time and again I am impressed by China's impressive infrastructure build up. I'm not even Chinese yet I am still proud.
That's pretty much the end of the Huashan story, although there was another slight episode to this story.
Flight Cancellations and Capsule Hotels
Arriving back into Xi'an I started making my way to the airport. My 8pm flight back to Shanghai had already been delayed till 11pm according to a txt message I received. Apparently it was raining heavily in Shanghai and we all know that leads to flight chaos.
Now I had plenty of time so chose to try the public transport and budget option. From Xi'an North Station you want to hop on the city's shiny new subway into Zhong lou station from where there runs an airport bus (in front of the "Xi'an Hotel", 25 kuai one-way, leaves from 6am till 11pm every 40 minutes, takes about an hour).
On the way I get a call from trusty Ctrip, the best travel company for foreigners in China, that my flight had been cancelled. With no other option than rebooking to a flight the following morning, I sat down and using Ctrip's app looked into the nearest hotels.
I looked in my wallet and had 200kuai left so challenged myself to make this last back to Shanghai. Ctrip threw up a few good options, the one catching my attention being the Shangjian Capsule Hotel for 48RMB for one night! Amazing! And the place was hilarious. Check out some snaps below.
Do bring a towel and ear plugs (as the curtain to your "pod" is pretty flimsy and offered no sound protection), neither of which they provide. Nonetheless I was knackered from the epic day and after a shower had a solid sleep. I just finished reading "Physics of the future" by Michio Kaku so imagined I was in some kind of space pod flying off to distant galaxies... When I awoke I was still I'm familiar China, however.
So my trip home broke down as follows: dinner at local restaurant 25, capsule hotel 48, street food breakfast 7, airport bus 25, Starbucks coffee 15, subway home 4 = RMB124. Stoked!
How To Get To Huashan From Xi'an (~160 km)
Train: Your options are the high-speed (gao tie ， 高铁, ~40 mins, 50RMB）from Xi'an North Station (西安北站， Xi'an bei zhan) or the normal, old school 火车 （huo che, 1hour30mins, 20RMB) from Xi'an Station (西安站，Xi'an zhan).
Car or bus: if there's a group of you or you value comfort and convenience another option is to rent a car with driver to take you there directly. I guess this would be around 600rmb for the day. There's also a bus but I didn't look into the details, prices would be similar to or cheaper than the train option.
How Much Does It Cost To Climb Huashan
Like I said earlier, it's not cheap and can be quite expensive (for what it is) depending on how you do it. The price might be 10-20% lower in the off-season. I.e. Winter.
• Entrance ticket (incl. RMB10 insurance, thanks Huashan): RMB190
• Cable car / gondola: RMB140-160 each way (so ~300 both ways. That's like a day ski pass in many places!) - optional
• Sky Plank walk: RMB30 - optional
• Food and beverage at the top: RMB35-50 (small water bottle RMB8, beer RMB10, cucumber RMB4, fried thing RMB10) - optional to some extent
• Bus at the bottom of West gondola: RMB30 - optional I guess
All-up for me it was about RMB400 excluding 1 nights accommodation, taxi and train tickets (all that was another RMB220).