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Holy mountains in China are the stuff of lightly brushed scroll paintings. Airy landscapes show man as small and insignificant compared to the towering misty peaks, as beautiful as they are mysterious. This is the vision of China that I grew up with, that is, through coffee-table books, calendars, and the stylized blue and white set of dinner plates on our table each night.

I wondered if such beauty remained today on Huashan, one of China’s original four holy mountains and now a UNESCO World heritage Site. Close enough to the ancient capital city of Xi’an, China’s first emperor, QinShihuang could worship there. QinShihuang is known mainly to the west for his terracotta burial companions. The modern day mountain rises above a valley in which hovers a different kind of mist than was known to painters of yore. A white, toxic mist sours the air, a phenomenon that scientists have recently connected to diminishing rainfall on the mountain.

Rising more than 7000 feet above sea level, there are 12 km of footpaths from the base to the top but you can take a cable car and join the path mid-way. The mountain has five peaks laid out like the petals of a lotus, hence its name “hua” (flower) “shan” (mountain), literally, flower mountain. Unlike many folksy names given to famous places, I can actually see the lotus shape in most aerial pictures. But given that the airplane is a modern invention, what monk two thousand years ago in China would have had that perspective?

These days, mountain climbing in China is a weekend pastime. It’s not about ropes, harnesses, belays, or hot picks. Rather, it’s an upward stroll, typically along stretches of paved paths separated by long stone staircases. Chinese men and women of all ages pay an admission to spend the day walking and chatting, many wearing normal leather walking shoes. And if there’s one place where the Chinese respect a queue, it’s on a mountain where single file is broken at one’s peril. I see some men stopping long enough for a cigarette at rest points in spite of a sign that warns, “No smoking. Other lives might be pinched between your fingers”.

Travel literature talks about the views being awe inspiring but it’s truly the climb itself that is the reward.

The trip starts out easy if you choose, like most people do, to take the 20-minute bus ride to a cable car at mid-mountain. But after a near vertical ascent on the car, the real work begins. Narrow paths and stairs carved out of the rock wind their way up and over one ridge and peak after another. The map we carry is not helpful and we frequently lose our way and must briefly turn back, looking for an important fork we had missed. If there’s one complaint I have about signage at these kinds of tourist sites, it is that a map will be rendered artfully, rather than functionally. It doesn’t help to show stairs that whimsically disappear into the heavens. I want to know where to turn off “Black Dragon Ridge” in order to reach “One-Thousand-Foot Precipice” and whether there’s an alternative path that avoids the “Cloud Ladder”. No wonder there’s several Taoist temples along the way. I can manage my fear of heights, but without a good map in hand, I feel the urge to pray.

I am amazed that a 16th century traveler and diarist, Yuan Hung-tao, recorded the same details as I see today. He tells us that dangerous steps were cut into the rock so that visitors needed to climb in a single file with the help of iron chains nailed into the rocks. The chiseled steps and the chains are still there today, although many chains are afixed with inscribed metal padlocks. The custom has various origins and is still practiced but now there are thousands of locks, colourfully festooned with flowing red ribbon.

The crowds are thinning as we climb higher and there are fewer padlocks. Since we are travelling independently, it is common that we find ourselves the only Westerners on the mountain. People smile and give us thumbs-up at hearing our poorly pronounced, but sincere words in mandarin like “Shi piao liang” (It’s beautiful). It also leads to requests by other climbers to have their photos taken with my husband, the bearded man. Normally he’s happy to oblige this very common request of westerners, but now he’s holding on to a swaying chain for dear life and his mind is elsewhere.

Visitors who stay for the sunset have booked overnight accommodation on the mountain like we have. I am already concerned about descending these stairs in daylight so I can appreciate that people would not want to do it after dark. So I’m shocked when a fellow pilgrim at our hotel tells us that we can join his group tomorrow morning to reach the sunrise viewing peak. Since it will take about 30 minutes, we’ll leave at 5 a.m. in total darkness!

The next morning we await the party, meanwhile saying our goodbyes to four resident kittens. Since neither my husband nor I thought to bring a flashlight, our strategy is to attach ourselves like Velcro to the leader.

Our first challenge is the “Cloud ladder”. We had climbed this near-vertical ladder yesterday in daylight. Now in the dark, we carefully place our feet into a lip of the sheer rock face and pull ourselves up by grabbing six-inch loops of chain. The pre-dawn chains are ice cold and our hands are going numb from the wind and night air. Concerned that someone up ahead might slip and bring everybody down like a human avalanche, we waited until everyone else had made it up before we started our climb and hauled ourselves up.

Thankfully a warm, clear day dawned and we were rewarded at the top of “Inverted Cliff Peak” with an expansive view of misty distant mountains and white cliffs studded with ancient, gnarled pines. A few crazy souls climbed under the safety chain at the rock edge to look down the sharp edge of the inverted cliff. The 20 Chinese tourists who had braved the dark and cold with us shouted aloud and clapped. A few broke into song, and then the cameras started clicking.

Euphoria is wonderful. It’s a sensation that is a well-deserved reward at the end of a challenge. However it’s short-lived. In fact, there’s something of an emotional crash that follows when you now realize you need to do the “Cloud Ladder” again, but in reverse. In the morning light, I see a sign that says “No watching when walking. When walking, no watching.” Yes, that sums up just what I intend to do… I think.

The chains were still cold and several of the steps were only three inches wide and angled, which meant you had to look down to see where your feet were placed. Somehow my husband managed to lower himself on the strength of one hand gripping the chain. The other hand he used to hold onto my hand as I shakily inched my way down.

Climbing a holy mountain in China is the kind of travel experience that changes a traveler. Something felt different to me on the way down. While we had ascended as individuals, single file; we were moved to descend Huashan holding hands, as one.

(photos: courtesy of Dan Cooper)

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