Xi’an, China: Running Down a Mountain after Dark

Xi’an is an ancient city in central China famous for its terra cotta warriors, Muslim Quarter, and historic wall that still surrounds the original citadel.  We saw all this and more (read here), but what really stands out in my memory from this part of our trip occurred not in Xi’an itself but in a small town a short train ride away.  There we completed “the world’s most dangerous hike” (a dubious, but catchy title) at Huashan (Mount Hua) and found ourselves stranded on top of the mountain with a night train to catch!

Mount Hua’s West and South Peaks

Mount Hua was definitely one of the highlights of our entire trip, but we definitely made a few mistakes!  The first thing we did wrong on our Huashan adventure was start our day late.  We were embracing vacation-mode, and let ourselves sleep in before catching the subway, then the train, then the bus, then the park shuttle… Not realizing how many transportation steps we had and how long they took meant that we didn’t get to the mountain until about 2 pm.  We planned to take the cable car up to the top of the West Peak (bypassing a steep 4-6 hour hike up the North or East peak) and hike down the North Peak (about 3 hours, according to our hostel).  The cable car ride was a stunning 30-minute ascent, taking us past dramatic golden cliffs and shrub-and-snow-patterned mountain faces.  The ride up cost more than the park tickets themselves, but it was completely worth it to have a birds-eye view of the incredible surroundings.

From the top of the West Peak, we hiked to the South Peak and admired more stunning views.  The park was fairly quiet because of the winter weather, so we were able to enjoy the paths without the infamous Chinese crowds.  At various points of the park there were thousands of red ribbons tied to the railings, each symbolizing a specific wish of the visitor who left it there.

World’s Most Dangerous Hike: Sky Plank Road

Finally it was time for the famous “Sky Plank Road,” one of the main reasons Mount Hua is nicknamed “the world’s most dangerous hike.”  First, we descended a series of metal rungs with nothing but sky below us.  There was a large group of Chinese tourists exiting the plank walk, and since it is a round trip attraction they had to pass by us on the rungs.  We waited patiently, wedging ourselves against the mountain as they gathered the nerve to climb over us.

From the rungs, we transferred ourselves to the plank via some tiny footholds carved into the mountain face.  Because a large group had just exited, we had the plank walk mostly to ourselves.  Words can’t describe the feeling of being against the mountain, held up by a harness and a few pieces of wood, looking out onto a panorama of peaks each more breathtaking than the last.  It was an incredible moment that we’re sure to remember for the rest of our lives.  We went to the end of the plank walk, where there was a cave with a statue, and reluctantly turned back to continue our hike to the North Peak.  I wouldn’t recommend Sky Plank Road to anyone afraid of heights, but both of us felt safe.  We’ve since heard that parts of the climb up the mountain are more dangerous, since there are fairly steep ascents that can become overcrowded during the warmer months.

Nighttime Scramble Down Mount Hua

After exiting the plank walk, we dawdled on our way to the North Peak.  We had spent enough time on the West and South Peaks and on the Sky Plank Walk that we figured we didn’t have time to hike down the North Peak and decided to take the cable car down instead.  Since we were anticipating a quick trip down, we spent our time enjoying the views.  Eventually, we arrived at the cable car station… to find that they had closed a mere 12 minutes before we arrived.  The operating hours are shortened during winter!

An Asian couple had arrived at the same time as us, and we watched with hope to see what they would do.  Miraculously find an employee and convince them to make an exception and reopen the gondola?  Instead, the girlfriend threw a mini-tantrum and the frustrated boyfriend led them to the hiking path down.  This was the path our hostel had told us would take three hours.  Our hearts sank as we looked at the clock and thought about our train back to Xi’an which would leave in the same amount of time.

Just before we started walking down, a Chinese hiker coming up stopped us an asked if we needed help.  He confirmed that there was no other way down the mountain, and said it would take about four hours.  He advised we stay at a hotel on the mountain for the night, and questioned whether we had warmer clothes as it was going to get cold with the sun going down.  We were not feeling hopeful.

Nevertheless, the thought of our early morning flight the next day spurred us on.  Missing the train was one thing, but missing the flight would be costly and would throw our trip schedule off.  We literally sprinted down the steep stone stairs.  Thankfully, the trail was lighted!

1 ½ hours later, our legs burning, knees aching, and lungs gasping we reached the park exit.  We gave a quick victory shout, ran to hail a taxi, and made it to the train station with 30 minutes to spare.  We are so thankful the Lord gave us the speed to make it in time and lights to keep us safe on the way down.  We did absolutely destroy our legs, and spent the next three days painfully and slowly hobbling around like we were 100 years old.  If someone offered me a cane, I gladly would’ve taken it!

So that’s the story of our Huashan adventure.  I 100% recommend visiting, but learn from our mistakes!  Start early, check seasonal closing times, and if you hike down do it before the sun goes down so that unlike us you can actually admire the views. 😉 Stay posted next week for our photos from the world’s largest ice and snow festival (update: read here)!

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