Hua Shan (Shan is mountain in Mandarin) is a mountain I have seen posted all over the internet as ‘the most dangerous mountain in China’. A place where you apparently have to scramble over wooden planks nailed to the side of the mountain and you are at risk of falling and dying at any moment. There’s some link that often pops up on Facebook with photos of these planks and a story of hikers risking death to reach a tea house.
While we had an amazing day on Hua Shan and the scenery is absolutely stunning, some of the stories I had heard were more myth than fact. I had already discovered from the internet that those wooden planks and vertical ladder climbs on the side of sheer cliff faces are not really part of the journey (at least not these days. Maybe they were in the past?). Sure, you can do the plank walk in the sky and all kinds of crazy and scary things up there, but they are an optional, fun extras and you have to wear a safety harness.
This is not to say that Hua Shan was not an extremely dangerous mountain in the past. At various points on the mountain there is information that tells you how people used to have to crawl on their hands and knees to pass over perilous ridges. You can see how it would have been an extremely terrifying and risky climb before they put all the steps in! One poet apparently got so scared he stopped, cried and threw a letter down to asking to be rescued. According to the story, it was found and locals went up there and carried him down. This area is now called “Place where Han Yu throwing letter.” Catchy.
These days, although there are some very steep ascents and the usual risks of walking close to a mountain edge, I wouldn’t say it is particularly dangerous if dress appropriately, look where you are going and walk normally! Plus, there’s a cable car.
I had read about two options for hiking Hua Shan. The first is the regular mountain hike from the bottom to either the North or West Peak then hike or take the cable car down. It will take 4-5 hours or so to reach the peak. The second is to take the cable car up and then spend 4 or so hours hiking between the different peaks. This is still strenuous as you have to go up and down to reach each peak.
We took the first high speed train from Xi’an at 7.40am, hoping we would beat the holiday crowds. We should have been more concerned about the pollution. As we travelled from Hua Shan station to the mountain we weren’t sure if there was really a mountain there. We couldn’t see it at all through the pollution. We only realised there was one when the sun (which we could look directly at, the smog was so thick) dipped behind something… It was then that we decided, unless there was a huge queue, we had better take the cable car up and hike between the four peaks. Hopefully the pollution would be less up there and we would protect our poor lungs a little.
We got dropped off by the taxi and bought the first of two tickets. Warning- Hua Shan is an expensive trip. You have to buy tickets for all kinds of things. The first was a shuttle bus ticket to take you to the start of the trail/cable car and the second was an entrance ticket to the actual mountain! Of course, we’d already paid for taxis and trains just to get this far. There were very few people at the ticket hall and almost no queue, but that didn’t stop an impatient Chinese man waving his money at the ticket clerk and trying to get her to give him a ticket before she finished serving us.
We took the shuttle bus and eventually managed to see there really was a mountain. That is, once we were actually on it. Amazingly, there was no queue at all for the cable car. We bought a ticket and hopped straight on. After getting off the cable car, there was a short climb up some very steep steps and we were at the North Peak. Despite the pollution below, the views across the mountains were wonderful.
At first I felt like we had really cheated by taking the cable car up, but I needn’t have worried. The hike between the different peaks was more than enough exercise. We shed our winter clothing layers and definitely worked up a bit of a sweat. Some of the ascents were extremely steep with hundreds of steps. And, of course, once you got to the top of one peak you had to hike down some way before you climbed the next.
It took around 4-5 hours for us to hike between the 4 peaks, including plenty of photo stops (our own and other people wanting to photograph us), snack stops and general admiring the fantastic scenery stops. There were a few other people around, but not too many. Many times we found we were completely alone on a trail. It was wonderful. Yet again, we somehow got lucky and beat the crowds.
There were plenty of signs and some maps on the trail, so we never got lost or confused. We had our own snacks but there were plenty of places to buy food and drink. Not so sure that mythical teahouse exists but there’s a coffee shop not far from West Peak! We did, however, come across a beautiful temple. We even had it to ourselves for a few minutes.
There are plenty of (Chinese style) toilets too. I don’t mind using them at all but some were much cleaner and nicer than others. I got lucky and found a nice one! This being China, we saw at least one child peeing on the floor next to a sign directing them to the nearest toilet. There were a few children up there but none of them seemed too happy. They were either exhausted or being carried by a sweating dad!
Our final peak was West Peak. This was the busiest, probably because it was right next to one of the cable cars and by now it was later in the day (the 2 peaks with no cable cars had hardly anyone near them). The smog seemed to be coming up the mountain and we felt like we had done enough exercise to not be cheating by taking the West Peak cable car down. We bought a ticket from the stand (again, no queue but someone still tried to get in front of us!) and hopped straight on a cable car. We nearly had it to ourselves until some people came just as we were pulling off. Instead of putting them on the next cable car, the guard made them run and jump into ours at the last minute!
We were not sure why this cable car ticket had cost twice the price of the North Peak one. It didn’t take long to find out. The ride is the longest cable car ride I have ever been on. It didn’t just go down, it climbed back up and back down again! We passed over several mountain peaks and some huge ravines! It was totally amazing but also terrifying! Far more terrifying than the actual mountain.
We had a thoroughly fantastic day and saw some absolutely amazing sights. Although i didn’t like having to buy endless tickets (we had to buy another shuttle bus ticket to get off of the mountain reserve) and spend so much money on hiking it was absolutely worth it. Our first mountain in China!
How to get to and from Hua Shan
If anyone reads this and wants to go- here’s how we got to Hua Shan from Xi’an and back. We took the first high speed train of the day from Xi’an to Hua Shan. We bought the tickets at Xi’an train station on the Friday, ready for Sunday (you need your passport to buy train tickets).
The high speed train to Xi’an goes from different station to the one we bought the tickets at (and arrived at on the sleeper train). It goes from Xi’an Bei (Xi’an North) which is further outside of the city. We took a taxi there in the morning but there’s a metro too. There is apparently a bus that leaves from the regular train station and takes two hours, but there’s no need to take that now the high speed train is open.
We were the first off the train at Hua Shan and immediately went over to a green mini bus parked outside. Everyone else followed us. We had read that this bus takes you to the mountain (or at the least the place you buy tickets to get the shuttle to the mountain. Agh!). I’m sure it does but there was no driver in or anywhere near the bus! Instead we jumped in a taxi. Just tell the driver Hua Shan. He wouldn’t use the metre so we accepted his (far too expensive) price.. But it was still only a couple of pounds/dollars so it was worth not having to wait.
When he drops you off at Hua Shan entrance, you have to buy a ticket to get a shuttle bus to get to the actual park. Plus a park entrance ticket. Shuttle buses run to the North or the West entrance so you have to decided which one you want. After coming back down, you then take another shuttle bus back to the place you buy the tickets. We tried to get a bus back to Xi’an from there the lady told us there was no direct bus (at first she told us in Mandarin but she was speaking too fast we couldn’t understand. Then someone else translated). So we just got a taxi and then the high speed train back. We had to wait a while at Xi’an station for the next train but we entertained ourselves by eating instant noodles (every train station in China has hot water so you can make noodles).