Published: March 1st 2007February 28th 2007 Religion, history and tradition are all inextricably linked in China.
The view back from Green Dragon Ridge over the lowest of Hua Shan's five peaks
Although officially an atheist nation, there is some tolerance of China's indigenous, and imported, religions. You still have to be a professed atheist to join the Communist Party (and therefore get into any position of power), but things are a lot rosier for China's Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists and Christians than they were in the tradition-wrecking days of the Cultural Revolution.
Hua Shan, a stunning mountain not far from Xi'an, is one of Taoism's five sacred peaks. Taoism is generally agreed to be China's one true native religion, as Confucianism is considered more of a philosophy, and Buddhism originated in Nepal. I can't tell you much about Taoism, except this: the whole basis of the religion is the tao
(the way), and it cannot be expressed in words. The tao that can
be expressed is not the real Tao. Therefore, I have told you absolutely nothing about it. I am as confused as you are.
Hua Shan attracts a huge humber of Chinese tourists, as well as the odd Tao pilgrim. The natural beauty of the mountain is mind-blowing, yet the authorities have still done their best to Disney-fy the
A Taoist temple carved into a rock on the way up to Hua Shan
area, as seems to be the case with all Chinese tourist attractions. A swish cable-car has been built along the side of the mountain, capable of transporting '1000 tourists an hour' to North Peak, as the sign proudly announces. I was up for a more strenuous experience, so I joined a French couple for the three hour ascent from Hua Shan village up to North Peak. The trail passed crystal-clear streams, cave temples, and pathways literally carved into the hard granite of the mountainside. There were hundreds of Chinese tourists sharing the way with us, including the odd honeymooning couple who wanted their photo taken with the French girl, Laurence, whose blonde hair was quite the novelty. There were a couple of sections which consisted of narrow steps cut straight out of the cliff, and it was pretty nerve-wracking clambering up them with an 80-metre drop right behind us.
North Peak, at 1600 metres, was quite wonderful, but the cable-car crowds were swarming around it, so we pushed on to the four higher peaks: East, Central, South, and, you guessed it, West. The next section of Hua Shan was the beautiful but narrow, and steep, Green Dragon Ridge, about
The stunning view from East Peak (2100m), with General Zang's pavilion visible at the bottom
two metres wide, with a huge drop on either side. A Tao temple at the bottom of the ridge allowed people to burn some incense before ascending - probably for good luck.
Every now and again, a porter carrying a massive payload of beer, instant noodles and other necessities would scurry past us as we clambered up the mountainside. They carried their loads in the traditional Chinese method - two piles hanging from either end of a staff, which was slung over the shoulders. I tried picking one of these things up and it nearly broke my back. Imagine carrying it 2100 metres up, on steep mountain paths, day in, day out.
Above the ridge was Jinsuo, or Golden Lock Pass. Here, Chinese pilgrims have placed thousands of brass padlocks engraved with messages, for good luck. After Jinsuo, the hard granite gave way to beautiful pine forest, with the occasional glimpse of the sheer cliffs below the West and East Peaks. Another hour or so's walk got us to the hotel atop East Peak, where we intended to stay for the sunrise next morning. We were put into a filthy dorm, replete with stained sheets and sawdust-filled pillows,
to endure the bitterly cold night. It was so cold inside that we spent a few hours in the relatively warm dining room drinking cheap Chinese spirits - I say relatively, because even in there, frost formed on the insides of the windows.
Dressed in three layers, with two blankets, I survived the subzero night, as a blizzard howled outside. At 6.30 we awoke for the sunrise that never came. Banks of cloud rolled up the valley, enveloping the surrounding mountains in fog. But the ascent and cold and early wake-up were all worth it: the view over the now snow-dusted peaks of Hua Shan was quite sublime.
After a chilly hour of taking photos, we headed back. This time, the steep stairways were coated in ice and snow, which made for a treacherous return journey. Ange, the French guy, slipped a few times, but luckily we all made it back to North Peak in one piece. And then? I'm ashamed to say that, cold and famished, we grabbed the cable-car back to the bottom. It got us to Hua Shan in ten minutes, which beat the three hour trundle back via the original pilgrim's route.
A very tired guy, carrying a chubby bub, up some very steep stairs...
not an obvious stop for every tourist in Xi'an, and certainly not a must-see like the Terracotta Warriors, Hua Shan is the greatest place I have visited in China yet, and indeed is one of the most beautiful alpine areas I have ever seen. For a slice of the China from the picture-books - pine trees, pagodas, incense, craggy mountains, birds and squirrels hoping along snow-dusted tree branches - Hua Shan is the place to go.
PS: Just to give you a bit of a laugh at the end of a rather serious post, here are the three funniest bits of Chinglish I saw at Hua Shan: signs reading, 'No Tossing' and 'No Striding' - and, on East Peak's menu - Five Flavor Dog. I proudly refrained from all three things, although I might have strode by accident just once.
There are more photos below