Trekking Hua Shan and the “Most Dangerous Trail in the World”
All photos (aside from the ones where he's hanging off practically nothing!) by Josh Meister Photo.
Josh loves physical challenges. Not so much as in weightlifting 750 lbs or running an ultra-marathon, but as in overcoming something most other sane human beings instinctively find horrifying, like eating a tarantula (“Crispy!”), jumping off 60-foot cliffs into the ocean (“Fun!”), or walking along a very narrow wooden-plank trail hanging approximately 5,000 feet in the sky with nothing but air below. Yup, that was at the top of Josh's list for our round-the-world trip, and along with the Great Wall, the main reason we wanted to visit China.
There's not a ton of very clear information about Mt. Hua (or Hua Shan, “shan” meaning mountain) out there, as the website for the mountain is currently only in Chinese and also not entirely accurate. Even when you're there, you get mixed information. We were repeatedly told that two entrance gates to the mountain were open 24 hours a day, but found them closed, opening at different times two different mornings. But that's China!
Most people tend to day trip to Hua Shan from nearby Xi'an. It's about a 30-minute train ride to the area, plus about 20 more minutes to get to the entrance gates by taxi. We opted instead to stay in the little town nearby, renting an Airbnb room in a family house that was a great experience in and of itself, as they fed us some great meals, shared their one bathroom / shower room with us (and the six of them!), and let us play with their adorable baby. The close proximity made it incredibly easy for us to get to the mountain early in the morning, but that didn't necessarily matter since we had to wait at the “24 hours” gate for about two hours before they opened anyway!
Hua Shan is made up of five peaks, and there's two different cablecars to the top, one from the North Gate, and one from the West Gate. The West Gate cable car is farther away, newer, and more expensive (almost twice the price of the North Gate one). We opted to hike up, starting from the North Gate, just after the Jade Spring Temple (or Yuquan Yuan), which is worth an hour or two of exploration on its own. It took us just under three hours to hike up, up, up to the North Peak. And I'm not kidding when I say up. The first 30-45 minutes of the trek are on paved pathways, and halfway through, my calves were screaming. Then the steps begin, and they are absolutely relentless. There's several sections that are demarcated with a sign letting visitors know how many steps they are about to climb, and they range from the low hundreds to the high, high hundreds. We had no intention of keeping count, but we definitely made it well into the thousands.
The trek up was pretty brutal, and when we summited the North Peak, we were above the clouds, and it was one of the moments that you want to capture, hit pause on, memorize every little part of – it felt deep and beautiful and momentous. We took it all in for a while, and then it was time to move on, as there were four more peaks to hit, including the Plank Road in the Sky.
There's plenty of snack, drink, and souvenir stands (way too many according to some, including Josh!) set up along the trails by enterprising mountain-dwellers, so we shared a Snickers bar, chugged a Red Bull, and I willed my legs to take some more steps. From North Peak, we headed to Central Peak and the Dragon's Ridge, a path of over 500 steps perched on the knife-edge. Supposedly, before there were steps carved out, visitors had to climb it on all fours. Ugh! After making it past Dragon's Ridge and about an hour's worth more steps after that, we were at Gold Lock Pass, which is covered in thousands of gold locks and red ribbons mounded on top of one another.
From there, most of the hard climbing was over, and we headed towards the iconic Chess Pavilion, which sits prettily down below the East Peak. Then it was another 30-45 minutes of walking to the South Peak and the Plank Road in the Sky. This is the main attraction of Mt. Hua, and there was a line out the door (or, trough the temple pass!) to get on the trail. Josh stood in line for about one and a half hours for his turn, befriending fellow daredevils waiting with him.
Here's how the Plank Road works: Visitors get harnessed in when they get to the starting point. They then have to climb a ladder down the side of the mountain to get to the Plank Road. It's two-way traffic on the four boards anchored to the side of the mountain, aka“road”, and outbound hikers clip in to a lower cable while returning ones attach to a higher cable and have to shimmy around the outbound hikers pressed flat against the mountain in order to pass them. Not my idea of a good time, but Josh loved it! He made it across the wooden boards and back just before the sun set and was able to see perfectly clearly just how far above absolutely nothing he was.
After a very exhausting day, we opted to take the closest cablecar down, the one from the West Peak. I'm sure it's a magnificent view on the ride, but sadly, it was dark by the time we were careening down. Then we hopped on a bus to get back to our starting point, made it back to our room in the town, and collapsed in a very, very, very deep and well-deserved sleep.