Steps in the Sky
© Copyright 2010 by Meghan Fitzgerald
Three weeks in China. Three weeks of rain, fog, and toting body-size packs through streets swarming with more people than my college campus held at any given time; where public buses require everything short of a boxing match to get on, and cars drive on the sidewalks. We are on the brink of bailing, or considering leaping from a mountain ledge as Taoist monks had done hundreds of years ago, believing that by proving their devotion, they would be carried away to Heaven. If only we had a mountain…
Hua Shan, just east of Xi’an, is known to the Chinese as “The Number One Precipitous Mountain under Heaven.” The perilous and esthetic marvel of this natural wonder would stir in me an affinity for the land, a respect where there had been little. But it would take all 2,160 meters of its elevation to soften my growing grudge toward China.
In the lengthy description devoted to it, the Lonely Planet guide for China reveals Hua Shan as one of the five sacred mountains of the country. Housing several influential Taoist temples, it is considered the Holy Land of Taoism, a religious sect that focuses on “wu wei” or non-action, spontaneity, transformation and emptiness. With an emphasis on the link between people and nature as a way to better understand the world, it is not surprising temples were constructed on exhausting and risky summits.
Fresh from a six-month stint teaching in Bangkok, my boyfriend—Steve–and I decided on China for our month off between semesters, for financial reasons as well as the alluring chance to navigate the country that is the geographical, religious, and social antithesis of any location west.
Despite elaborate temples and other cultural gems dotting our trail across the first few weeks, each city seemed as dreary as the next. Every destination was a “small” city, population: four million, concrete buildings, hotel beds outfitted with the same white-striped sheets, and saliva shooting from local lips at every turn, giving sidewalks a glossy sheen.
A lifetime lover of nature and open spaces, I was skirting the brink of a meltdown, (Steve to become a casualty,) if we didn’t find some green somewhere, and soon. We settled on Hua Shan.
With the rare slant of sunlight piercing our hotel blinds, we’re up and ready to go. Outside the train station, we’re pointed to the correct bus and wait nearly two hours for it to crowd with enough passengers to fill the driver’s wallet. An hour and a half later, we’re delivered to Hua Shan Village. The town is quaint, flanking the steep street that leads to the Jade Spring Temple. Beyond the temple, the ticket booth marks the gateway to the grand peaks that loom overhead.
We will be getting a late start, 3:00 pm, so take a local’s advice to buy a thin pair of knit-gloves and rent a flashlight in town. We pay our way (100 RMB) through to the start of the Yuquan Yuan trail, and, catching a glimpse of a postcard showing a hiker ascending an all but vertical staircase into the clouds, I wonder if we shouldn’t have burnt incense at Jade Spring prior to embarking, to incur favor with the gods.
Hua Shan is named for its five peaks forming the shape of a lotus flower; “Hua” is Chinese for “flower.” Tourists can do a circuit of all five peaks, a 12 km journey, arriving first at North Peak, and on to the others from there, ending at South Peak. From the base to North Peak takes about 3-5 hours, and then an additional hour to each peak thereon. Our destination is the East Peak, famous for its tantalizing sunrises that draw travelers both foreign and local alike each season. We’ll put up there in a guesthouse for the night and rise early with the sun.
I must admit to swooning over the romance of the whole idea. A night together on a holy mountain, in the majestic mist of the Eastern horizon, and a sunrise a painter could only dream up. Bending under the duress of our travels these past weeks, what could be better for our relationship?
The first 4 km are easy on the knees, following a stone walkway around humble temples and over streams with foamy falls. We are lighthearted and grateful for lung-fulls of forest air and the touch of sun on our backs. Even Steve, who has taken his silent oath of masculinity designating himself the bearer of our bulging pack, is bouncing on his feet.
A few food stalls and enthusiastic Ni-hau!’s later, we arrive at Qing Ke Ping, a daunting rock engraved with Chinese characters. The translation: “the point where the horses turn back”. We are an hour and a half into our hike and high on endorphins and breath-taking scenery. All around us, pink cliffs frosted with spruce and pine, shoot up into the clouds. My mind flutters to a beloved childhood film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, feeling as though we’re trapped in the bottom of a cereal bowl left out on a picnic table.
Seeing not admonishment in the carved message, but yet another poetic title of which the Chinese are so fond, we continue.
The path ceases to ramble and births a set of stairs, endless to the eye, carved into the granite face of the cliff. Of course no horse could trod upward, lacking the digits required to grasp the chains on either side of the trail. The writing on the stone comes echoing back like laughter.
At moments my ear is all but pressed to the rock as I edge myself up sideways, one step at a time. I am grateful for the cheap gloves protecting my grip from the cold iron chains and applaud our clever investment; 1 RMB never went so far.
I risk a downward peek. My loyal running shoes, my goose-bumped legs (so much for last night’s shave,) and below them Steve’s curly head, jut out over a gaping ravine that tugs at my ankles.
Above, a Chinese woman edges her way up in gold heels. Her toenails are painted orange, and the bitterness returns as I wonder, jealous to the core, how Asian women can wear their daintiness like armor and get away with it.
No, I think to myself, China will not do me in. And I hoist my big, American feet a step higher.
It takes us about three hours to reach the North Peak, and the view is rewarding, as are the multiple benches and food stalls that pepper its lookouts. We pause for just enough time to catch our breath, exchanging stares and confused laughter with our Chinese counterparts (a form of dialogue we’ve become quite adept at). Feeling our sweat beginning to dry in the wind, we get on with the last leg of our hike, to the East Peak.
This final stretch takes an additional hour, though it is a good idea to leave yourself about two. Dark descends quickly over these fierce, mist-shrouded peaks. The temperature also can drop substantially between the hours of five and seven o’clock in the evening. Often because of the exercise, your loss of body heat can go unnoticed until it has fallen too far to easily regain.
Heading to any of the other three peaks from North Peak, it is necessary to cross Gold Lock Pass. Steve and I stand, in the footsteps of a thousand bewildered tourists before us, to take in the narrow granite pass. Dropping sharply into the abyss on either side, the path is no more than four feet wide in sections. Thousands of golden locks dangle from the chains that line either side. Locked in by visitors, they are engraved with prayers for the health and safety of family. They are a marvel to see with their tiny red ribbons billowing in the wind. Red is the color of luck in China.
After the pass, one arrives at Jade Maiden Temple, where it is said that the daughter of Qin Mugong (569-621 b.c.), who fell in love with a skilled flute player and gave up her royal lifestyle to become a hermit, cultivated her spirituality2. You can also board here for the night, in the company of friendly staff and solemn monks.
After taking the thousand vertical steps needed to complete the “Ladder to Heaven”, the longest and steepest of the stairways cut into the rock face, Steve and I reach East Peak at about seven o’clock. Our calves are trembling from the trek of endless stairs and we are beginning to shiver. We check into a small place off the beaten track and haggle a double room down to 260 RMB. The room is humble with a concrete floor, a T.V. broadcasting one station, and two beds boasting modest but plump covers. Be warned, there is no heat or plumbing at the summit. The toilet at our guesthouse is a squat-style, out-house that drains off the edge of the mountain. Despite the foul odor, a walk out under a clear, silent night can offer an enchanting glimpse of the propinquity of Heaven that the Taoist monks must have felt centuries ago.
Perpetually worn out, we use our last energy to dig out every article of clothing from our pack, stretching layer over layer. Our foil-wrapped sandwiches are frozen, and the Snickers bar a proven task for our chattering jaws, but welcome given the alternative—Chinese instant noodles. This is the only food our guesthouse offers.
We huddle together in a cocoon of sweaters, hats, and blankets, with not an inch for romance of any kind. After what seems like hours, our bodies generate sufficient heat to sleep.
My alarm hails the morning: five-thirty. We rise in spite of stiff joints, the sunrise being the goal of our efforts. Outside, the sparse chatter of early risers tinkles through misty cedars. We clamber about to find the spot from which to absorb the spectacle. Arm in arm, we settle atop some bald-face rock to behold the pinnacle of our excursion. But it is chilly and overcast, and the rising sun leaves much to the imagination, typical of Chinese weather in April.
In spite of this, we find ourselves gazing out over the Eastern horizon, a never-ending sea of fatal peaks stabbing up through the fog, pink granite glowing like embers in the increasing daylight. A breeze ruffles a lone tree whose branches quiver briefly before recovering a still poise. The same wind tosses my unkempt locks, leaving them to settle once again, but differently than before.
And it dawns on me that Hua Shan has touched me as I had initially believed China would. Somewhere in the difficulties of communication and travel, the disillusionment of expectations, I had abandoned hope of being affected in this way. Now I am delighted to note that disappointment has flown miles away and the sweetness of redemption, rushed in to fill its place. This is the China I came to see, the China that could wrap me in a fascination bigger than myself. I’d had to work for it.
Steve and I savor a moment of solitude and snap pictures of our faces, humorously disproportioned like cartoons, in front of an indeterminate background of grays and lilacs. The photo leaves much to the imagination, but I like it. More than a view, this mountain is a story, unique to each who rambles along its stony passes; a splendor deserving of words.
By seven o’clock, we are ready to begin our descent, the destination this time around being the nearest shower. Clouds like swollen plumes dust the sun. It looks like rain again and I smile to think, at least it will wash the spit from the sidewalks.