Wednesday, July 16, 2008

China Report #2 - Mt. Hua Shan

Hike on Sacred Chinese Mountain Becomes Script for Cheap Hollywood Horror Flick

When most people go to China as tourists, they see one of the expected sites like The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the burried terracotta warriors, Shanghai or similar. Interesting to say the least, but predictable. We did these things. But, no matter where people go on vacation, they usually don't build in an aggressive, super-steep 6,500 gain-over-six-kilometers hike up a sacred mountain.

But we did this too. Or rather, our 14-person REI Adventures group did. And as it turned out, the climb and overnight stay on top proved to be memberable for two very separate and unanticipated experiences - one physical, one sureal.

Act One - The Hike
First, let me say that in a trip of favorite destinations and experiences our hike up Mt. Hua Shan took the crown as the best thing we did - at least for Diane and me. Mt. Hua Shan is one of five sacred mountains of China. There are three ways up to the top - really steep trail number one, really steep trail number two and...gondola. On this warm sunny day, most of our group took steep trail number one.

The trail is actually paved with stone the whole way, and it's only six kilometers, but it's just that for a very long section of that 6K it's so steep that you have to pull yourself up with chains over miniscule steps.

Why would anyone want to do this you might ask? Well, several reasons. First, the views from this mountain are spectacular...jagged, ragged peaks jutting up around you. Second, the rock is a sacred mountain to the Chinese, so you're experiencing something of their culture. Third, the great workout and sense of accomplishing something most people don't do.

As we made our way up we came to two firm conclusions: 1) wow, this is an incredible hike, and 2) ice cold Red Bull is the nector of the gods! We bought these at a number of small family run store huts on the way up the trail. Invaluable. We also enjoyed the number of small beautiful temples and pagotas built alongside the trail.

After about two and a half hours of solid "up," we reached our first goal - the north peak pass. This is where we rested, met our friends who took the gondola and had lunch in a restaurant way up there - a good, solid Chinese lunch of soup and noodles. And beer.

From here it was another hour and half up to another peak to our hotel. Yes, there are hotels up there. Most of them were built before the gondola, and have since fallen on hard times as tourists can now easily get up there and back in one day.

Act Two - Through the Looking Glass
After another hour of hiking, we neard our lodging. This is where the venture took a turn for the sureal. Somewhere, somehow at this moment our existance at that top of the mountain latched onto a parallel narrative fromm an alternative bizzaro universe where a hack movie script writer was sweating out a cliched horror screenplay.

It started when we realized our hotel was clearly one of those "fallen on hard times" places. Looking like some sort of half baked attempt at a European style min-resort, the hotel presented itslef more like the movie set for a cheap Hollywood movie. Some of us even made the crack that it looked like "that hotel from the Shining" or some haunted mansion from an episode of Scooby Doo. We even decided we knew who the murder would be in this scenario - Chaz. While the rest of us wanted to call it a day, fellow hiker Chaz, age 11, was the only one of us who wanted to continue hiking into the evening. He really wanted to do this, and I think we let him down bitterly by overuling and packing it in. So, motive - "I-wanted-to-hike-to-the-west-peak!"

After seeing our dank little rooms with no hot, running or sanitary water we hapily left the premisis for dinner at the next building down the trail. As we sat outside eating at tables set in a courtyard among the trees, the roll of thunder started and the sky closed up with thick low clouds. At this point, eyebrows were raised and more jokes were made about how a thunderstorm was right on time and just perfect to add to the ambiance of the hotel. Chalk another one up for the script writer.

Soon, it dawned on all involved that we needed to cut this dinner short and get back to the hotel before the heavens opened up, lightnight starting stabbing its way around the moutaintop or worse. So, off we went in a hurry. Our guide sayed behind to pay the bill.

Then it started raining hard.
Then the thunder and lightning commenced.
Then it got dark.
Then the power went out.

At this point, the horror movie cliche we were now living was driven home to all of us. All the elements were there and openly discussed:
  • A group of relative strangers stranded and isolated on top of an exotic mountaintop - check
  • Dilapedated and empty old hotel that had seen its glory days pass by - check
  • Thunderstorm complete with lightning and driving rain - check
  • Power outage to the whole mountain top, making candles are the only light - check
  • Cut off from our guide, the one person who could speak both Chinese and English - check
  • Spooky hotel manager creeping around in the dark - check
  • A small group of "other hikers" spirited off to another part of the hotel - check

The perfect set for murder. Somewhere in bizzarro universe, that script writer had hit all the right buttons. The only thing left was one by one we would start to dissapear so that by morning we had all met our violent ends atop this mountain. Who would be the killer? Chaz? The creepy hotel manager? Someone from the other group of hikers? The hotel itself?

With this playing around in our minds, the group sat up, huddled together in one corner of the hotel hall way holding our candles and, well, yes, driking beer one of our members procured and talking about the spookiest nights (other than this one) we had ever spent.

Act Three - Dawn Breaks

Eventually the huddle broke and all went to their respective rooms for a fitful night. When morning broke, slowly everyone exited their rooms. One by one we realized we had made it through the night. One of our group, Marcus, however was suspiciously missing. His traveling buddy, Kirk, calmly and convincingly announced that while he himself had live through the night "Marcus is dead." We all laughed except Kirk...then he relented. Marcus soon joined us at our dark, dank breakfast. After that, we departed the hotel in once again warm sunny weather and made our way back down to the gondola station where we stepped aboard for a quick and easy desent.

So, one hike, two experience and one lesson. That lesson is, if you're going to sit out a thunderstorm on top of a remote Chinese mountain, make sure to have a supply of beer. No, kidding. I think the real lesson is that sometimes unexpected challenges you encounter actually can create better memories than if everything went smoothly.

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