It is now July 6.  The weather has been hot, 90-100 F, though not humid.  We have gotten out to the mountains on two of the last three weekends.  We went to Hua Shan (Flower mountain) on June 19-20.  On July 3-4 we went to Tai Bai Shan (Extremely White Mountain).

Hua Shan

Hua Shan is the highest of China’s five sacred mountains.  It is 120 kilometers east of Xian.  It has five peaks that resemble the petals of a flower.  The highest peak is 2180 meters (7085 feet).

 

We had had discussions about going to Hua Shan with some graduate students from Computer Science.  That didn’t work out due to changes in schedules on both sides.  Also, they were planning to do the climb at night to be able to reach the peak at sunrise.  That did not appeal to us.  We wanted to spend a night on the mountain.  Fran’s department arranged a trip for us, making reservations at the simple hotel on the North Peak.  They sent two graduate students to accompany us, though they had not been to Hua Shan before.  We met them at 8:00 on Saturday morning and took a taxi to the train station.  There we asked around and located a mini-bus.  The bus made a couple of stops.  One was to see a presentation about the traditional medicines grown on the mountain and a chance to buy some of them.  It probably would have been interesting if we understood Chinese.  Our guides gave us the general outline about what was said.  The other stop was a quick lunch stop.

 

There are two approaches to Hua Shan.  [Chinese proverb: “There is one road and only one road to Hua Shan,” meaning that sometimes the hard way is the only way.] The west entrance involves 10 kilometers of walking on a road before you start climbing.  We went with the east entrance, where the bus brings you to the base of a cable car that goes up to the 1500 meter North Peak.  Our plan was to walk up to the North Peak, then climb to the four other peaks the next day and take the cable car down.

 

We started the climb in the early afternoon. The path consists of stone steps with rough chain link handrails in the narrowest areas (we wore our bicycling gloves for hand protection).  Physically, it is more like climbing the steps of a skyscraper than trails at home.  However, the temperature was about 95 degrees and there was not much shade.    We brought lots of water, including some bottles that we froze and some Gatorade that we got at the fancy department store in downtown Xian.  There are plenty of refreshment stands along the way where you can buy bottled water, the Chinese equivalent of Gatorade, and other drinks or snacks at a premium price.

 

We reached the North Peak before 4:00 PM and rested at the hotel.  Our room was basic, but comfortable and clean enough.  Because water is scarce on the mountain, there were neither showers nor sinks available for washing.  In that sense the experience felt like camping, but we were sleeping in a big tent!

 

After dinner at the hotel restaurant, we spent some time talking with our guides.  We were a bit surprised to find that they both think of Japan negatively, but like the U.S.  It seems that Japan’s WWII behavior in China has not been forgotten, and is emphasized in school. 

 

We saw a beautiful sunset and watched the sky become resplendent with thousands of stars, including the Milky Way galaxy.  This was the clearest sky that we have seen in China.  The fresh air at Hua Shan is a treat!

 

Our guides had both been planning to get up at 4:00 AM to watch the sunrise.  Fran and I made sleep a priority.  We did happen to wake up a bit before sunrise (our room faced east) and went outside to watch the  sky become rosy.  Ironically, our guides missed the sunrise because they had stayed up late watching the European soccer championships on the television in their room.

 

The plan for the day was to climb the other four peaks, but we reserved the right to shorten the route.  The first part was a steep climb to Middle Peak.  After the low North Peak, all the others are at roughly 2000 meters.  There were crowds on the way to Middle Peak – mostly Chinese hikers but we did see a few other wai guo (foreigners) as well.

 

We visited two Taoist temples en route to Middle Peak.  Each one had an altar with incense and offerings of fruit.  The friendly monks invited us to say a prayer or to send blessings to loved ones.  Fran accepted their invitation.  At the first temple, she lit incense sticks and knelt on a cushion in front of the altar saying a silent prayer for our safe journey to the various summits of Hua Shan (the prayer was answered).  At the second temple, she knelt on a cushion in front of the altar and sent silent blessings to several friends who are experiencing challenging situations in their lives at present.  After each  blessing, she leaned forward and the monk struck a drum.

 

After Middle Peak, the crowds got much thinner.  The next was East Peak, which had a steep ladder climbing rock.  Fran was dubious about this ascent, but realized that the ladder wasn’t so bad and went for it.  That was a good decision because we were then able to do a loop and the trails got almost empty at this point.  After skirting the top of a cliff with a steep dropoff on both sides, we had a pleasant walk to South Peak and West Peak.  There was even a small amount of dirt trail!  The summit of South Peak was the highest point on Hua Shan, so of course we asked another hiker to take a photo of our guides and us.  The views from the tops of each peak were beautiful.  Hua Shan and the surrounding mountains are very rugged and remind us somewhat of hiking in the southwestern United States or the Sierras.

We took a route that eventually brought us to the main line returning down from Middle to North Peak.  We were happy to have ascended each of the five peaks (petals) of Flower Mountain. 

 

By cable car (the longest in Asia), it was just 7 minutes down to the park entrance.  We caught a shuttle bus into town, then transferred to a bus for Xian.

 

Our guides told us that we had walked up and down a total of 4000 stairs!  We were glad that we did not have this information when we started.  For three days after returning home, our sore leg muscles instructed us to take the elevator to our fifth floor apartment rather than climbing the stairs.

 

Tai Bai Shan

We had considered inviting our guides from Hua Shan to join us, but decided that we could get by on our own.  The guides had been kind and helpful, but took their responsibility for our safety a bit too zealously and were particularly over-protective of Fran.  The constant reminders of  be careful”, “don’t go too fast”, “it is dangerous” got old!  Fran told them that she was an experienced hiker on much more difficult trails, but they were not convinced.  Hence, our decision to hike at Tai Bai Shan without guides was a good one. 

 

On the morning of July 3, we took a taxi to the Xian train station and looked for buses going to Tai Bai Shan or Bao Ji (the town beyond the park).  Tai Bai Shan is a similar distance from Xian as Hua Shan, but in the opposite direction (west rather than east).  We wound up just missing the Bao Ji bus.  Someone helped us out by leading us back to the area where we had previously found that there were no buses for Tai Bai Shan.  Then he took us back to the Bao Ji area where we waited a bit.  After a while, he led us a block or two to the bus station and got us on a local bus for Bao Ji.  It turned out to be a very local bus and took all back roads. 

 

They eventually let us off in a village, where we took a taxi a short distance to the village at the entrance to Tai Bai Shan National Park.  There we got on a minibus and ate a picnic lunch while waiting for the bus to start its journey.  When we finally entered the park, it was lovely.  The hot lowland weather gave way to a shaded forested canyon with a real mountain stream running though it.  The bus made a few stops, one at a waterfall and another at a pool and cave temple.  At the park entrance, we were surprised that we needed to show our passports.  We have rarely received this request since arriving in China over two months ago. 

 

The scenery from the bus was beautiful, and it took between 90 minutes and two hours for the bus trip up the mountain.  We arrived at the top at about 5:00 PM and checked into the hotel which was similar in style to the hotel at Hua Shan.  We are at 2800 meters and considered taking the cable car to 3200 meters this evening, but found out that there is another 4 hours of walking after getting off the cable car.  We did an evening walk along a paved trail in the direction away from the cable car and enjoyed beautiful views of the tree-covered Qinling Mountains. 

 

Tyler got up about sunrise the next day and went outside for a look.  Our room has a good view and is facing approximately east, but there is a mountain ridge that blocks the sunrise.

 

We had breakfast at the small hotel restaurant, then got an early start on the cable car.  Our July 4 hike was really great!  It felt like being back in the Cascade Mountains at home.  Not crowded, lots of green forest, views of ridge after ridge.  And refreshingly cool, with clean air.  Of course, the trail is board-walk or concrete, and we did pass a few Taoist shrines.

 

We got to the 3500 meter (11,375 feet) level sooner than expected and had just a short walk to the summit.  Unfortunately, the last stretch is prohibited to foreigners.  Apparently there is some kind of military facility on the top.

 

We wound up getting back to the day’s starting point sooner than expected.  We decided to try to get on to Famen Si, which is about the same distance from Xian, but on the north side of the river.  We took a minibus down the mountain; the bus went so fast through the hairpin turns that it felt like a whip ride at an amusement park.  Fran’s face was a fine shade of green when we arrived at the village, so she spent some time recovering while Tyler researched travel options to Famen Si.  There were no buses and a taxi would cost 70 to 100 yuan.  A friendly woman in the village told us we could take a bus part of the way for 20 yuan.  The bus left us off at a highway junction where they said it should be easy to get a taxi on to Famen Si for another 20 yuan.  Of course taxis do not cruise highways looking for stranded people to pick up.  We stood beside the road in the hot sun for a while, then walked a bit to a toll booth, figuring that that could be a good place to hitch a ride.  No luck, but Fran went to the building serving the people working at the toll booth.  We wound up getting their driver to take us to Famen Si for 50 yuan.

 

So what is this place we were trying so hard to reach?  The Famen Temple has a Buddhist relic: Buddha’s finger bone, a gift from King Asoka of India.  The Tang emperors (800 AD or so) organized great processions where the relic would be brought to the capital.  They made many gifts to the temple of objects in gold, silver and silk.  All this survived the Cultural Revolution since the pagoda had collapsed and the relic was forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1980 and the pagoda and temple complex were rebuilt.

 

We toured the temple, going down into the vault where the relic had been kept and where today’s monks keep a close watch on it.  A friendly guide showed us around the temple, encouraging us to pray at the Buddhas and explained the different statues.  Unfortunately, this was all in Chinese and we could only understand an occasional word.

We managed to lose our guide at the entrance to the museum.  It has the gold and silver nested caskets that held each of the three finger bones.  It also has the precious gifts that the emperors presented to the temple.  Overall, Famen Si was an interesting place to visit.

 

We found a tourist bus with some empty seats heading back to Xian and had a fast and comfortable evening return trip.

 

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