Writing this from the top bunk of a hard sleeper on a K series train to Chengdu (which translates to a smoke-filled, slow moving train with many stops). After our first experience on the ‘hard seats’, we upgraded to ‘hard sleeper’ – still not the top of the line for sleeping, and there were no other train lines between Xi’an & Chengdu.  We couldn’t be further away from where we spent last night, except for the fact that I’m once again on the top bunk.

Yesterday morning we woke up bright and early for a trip out to Hua Shan mountain, about a 2 hour bus ride from Xi’an. Not a normal bus, we grabbed a mini bus full of Chinese people.  The two of us were squished into the backrow between a chinese person who’s obviously popular because his phone is ringing off the hook and he likes to talk loudly, and on the other side, we have a man we literally picked up on the side of a major highway, carrying a large rice bag (the preferred luggage choice in most train stations in china) that’s sitting quite comfortably on his lap.

We pass the country side and a few cooling towers of nuclear power plants.

Side Note: Kristine is next to me, we’re at the end of train car #8 and everybody likes to smoke between train cars (so right below us at the door), never mind the no smoking signs.  So our hard sleeper is a bit smoked filled, no matter how many glaring looks Kristine throws them.

Another Side Note (I write like Christopher Nolan of Inception,  so please keep up) – Human/Body language translates incredibly well between the west and China.  Thumbs up is still a thumbs up, and head shanking still translates to yes/no in the appropriate direction.  The one thing that throws us off in China is number counting on the fingers.  I typically start with my thumb for 1, then index for 2, etc.  In China, your pinky is 1, and by the time you get to 3, it looks like a big OK sign and that throws me off.  They count using one hand instead of two, so five is a fist, 6 is a hang ten, and 8 looks like a pistol.  Don’t mistake a big ‘X’ of ‘no-no’ using two index fingers, that’s just a 10!

Back to the original story

So we pull up to Hua village and they drop us off at a beat up Chinese restaurant.  Everybody gets off, so we follow.  They all go to the back, down a hallway, so we follow.  Soon we get to the ever so familiar smell, ahh, squat toilets.  After taking a leak, I come back out to the front of the restaurant and Kristine is playing Charades (I prefer Pictionary and draw little images in my notebook) with a local on a wall map to find out where we are now and where the mountain’s trail entrance starts.  A few mintues later, our course is set to due south (always travel with a compass).

Hua Shan Village and Mountain in China

Making our way towards the mountain, we here the famous chinese proverb, “Sir, sir, Water? Gloves? Good Price!”.  We previously read that gloves were needed on this mountain and we could buy them on the trail.  So after inquiiring how much, we say “Thank you” and walk away – that’s how you find out the real price in China. (One fellow Irish traveller recommended coming back with 10% of their asking price, and at first, I thought that was insane, but it has indeed proved true.)  We bought 2 pairs of mesh cotton gloves for 1Y (15c) each a little up the way.

We knew Hua Shan was a big hike, 5-8 hours the long way or about 2-3hrs if you cheated with the cable car.  But we read about he beautiful views and hermit caves carved into the mountain and we choose the longer scenic route. To our surprise every path was dotted with independent vendors every few hundred meters, water, apples, cucumbers, ramen, red bull, flash lights, and gloves.

Mid November is a bit of an off season for the mountain but it was still filled with hikers, some for a day trip halfway up, others for an overnight journey like ourselves.  It’s one of 5 sacred mountains in Taoism – which is also why I belive people lived on the mountain, even today:

House on Hua Shan, China

It felt a bit Princess Bride’ish with hermit caves litteraly carved into the side of the mountain and ladders hand carved into the rock.  Could you imagine living here all alone 200 years ago?

Hermit Cave in Hua Shan mountain

Sign for 'Hairy' women on Hua Shan mountain

The first 4km weren’t so bad, a little steep at parts, but nothing compared to the hoofing up some of San Francisco’s steeper hills.  Then it quickly changed to rock climbing, not full on, as there were hand carved stairs and chains – or as one blogger put it, “not dangerous but strenuous“.  It was an awesome challenge and we felt great all the way to the first peak at 6km.  It was full of challenges, but it was so fun, and unbelivible views – and we never had done anything like it before (remember, we’re “urban” hikers, not “hiker” hikers.)

Kristine on Hua Shan Mountain

vinnie on hua shan

Kristine on some steep Hua Shan stairs

vinnie on steep hua shen stairs

We were both impressed with how steep the climb was and needed to refuel. After the first peak, the North Peak, I had to engergize with some red bull, snickers, and a precooked packaged hot dog cooked in chile peppers.  Kristine had to turn on Lady Gaga to keep her spirits high (she also stated, “This is a sacred mountain” repeatedly to remind herself why we were doing this).

After ascending a bit more, the signs weren’t clear to us if we were heading to the correct peak, East Peak, as there are 5 peaks. We spotted another white couple and asked them.  They were headed to the same place, so we joined forces, they were an engaged couple from Isreal, he had 10 years of miliarty training behind him, so a good person to have on the ascent up.

We had hoped to catch the sunset from South peak, but had to settle with an obstructed view from another mountain peak – still, that was beautiful:

Sun Set behind South Peak on Hua Shan Mountain, China

After the sun set, I threw on my headlamp and we paired up with another couple, this one from Shanghai, China, and they spoke excellent english as well as chinese.

A strenuous 45 minutes later and we made it to the top though we could only see our feet in front of us, and the tempature changed from t-shirt & shorts weather to fleece lined jacket and thermals.  The last 2 hours of the climb was brutal for us but the views and other people were really motivating.

Vinnie climbing up stairs carved into the mountain

Beauitful view from Hua Shan

Our chinese friend booked our beds (he got the best possible price) and we shacked up in an unheated ten-bed dorm at the top of the mountain.  We grabbed some hot nooodles & pork soup from the cafe, lots more H20, then retired early with a handful of hot sipping water in our room.  (Funny to note is that through our travels through China we’ve taken a kind liking to cups of hot water).

Kristine tucking into the top bunk at the top of Hua Shan Mountain, Xi'an, China

We booth woke up at 12:30am fighting the urge to pee – it was damn cold and there was no indoor plumbing.  Walking out the door to the “outhouse” I realized it was freaking snowing!  It felt mother f’ing freezing in the unheated dorm, but I didn’t realize it was actually freezing!

Our alarms were all set for 6:30am to catch the sunrise.  The whole room woke up to each other’s shuffle, we booted up and packed up to head outside.  There was about an inch or two of snow on the ground and we carefully climb up steep icy stairs to rerach the viewing peak. Since we’re not “real” hikers, it didn’t dawn on us that you can’t see a surnise when it’s snowing out! Instead we saw the white sky brighten and called it a sunrise.

From there, we decide to start the trek down with our new friends, the Israelis.  The first 1km down is all snow and zero visiblity with slushy and slippery conditions:

Slush and snow on Hua Shan Mountain

Kristine & Vinnie at the top of Hua Shan East Peak

Winter on Hua Shan

Kristine and I opted out of hiking the full trek down (you can’t see much anyways) and snaged tickets for the cable car, which unfortunately didn’t provide us beautiful views because of the snow.  At least Kristine’s screams still made it exciting – she’s scared of heights, (don’t take that girl on a ferris wheel!)

Hua Shan Cable Car

We took a cable car to a tourist bus, to a taxi, to a mini bus (which made us wait 1 hour till all the seats were filled), drove 2 hours to Xi’an, then hopped on a public bus back to our hostel, Shuyuan – which btw, is the hands down best hostel I’ve every stayed at.  It has 2 bars, one filled with wealthy locals, and the other with travelers.  Super friendly staff, a dog, a cat, and now, 1 turtle.  I met a bunch of interesting folks, including Paul from Belgium, who is biking around the world!

We’ve been having a great time and maybe now we have earned the rights to our URL, ‘Urban Hikers’

See all of our Hua Shan photos here.

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Cut back to ‘now’: Now we’re on a 13 hour overnight train to Chengdu, it left at 10:18pm, and again, we find ourselves on the top bunks of another crazy adventure – the overcrowded, smoked filled, economy K series trains of China!