I first heard about Mount Hua (one of China’s five sacred Daoist mountains, not far from Xian in Shaanxi province) the best part of a decade ago, while planning a trip in central China. Back then the mountain was only really famous in China itself, and I had to look at Chinese language guidebooks to find out much about the place. Looking at the photos of smooth, soaring cliffs of granite, I was immediately determined to go. The photo that really struck my eye was of the Plank Path (長空棧道) on the sheer cliffs of the mountain’s South Peak; it looked so amazing I thought it couldn’t be real.
That China trip we did make it to Mount Hua, and found the Plank Path, but nothing would have made us walk along it – in those days there was no harness, no-one to control who went in, no nothing, and going down there seemed suicidal.
Over the next few years, photos of the path started becoming huge hits on the Net, and later videos of daredevils walking along it began to appear on YouTube (and can still be seen: Google ‘World’s most dangerous trail’ and you’ll find quite a few references to and videos of the place). Nowadays it’s become one of those spots that daredevils from around the world are drawn to.
Even if there were no Plank Path though, Mount Hua would still be one of China’s most magnificent and rewarding easily accessible hiking destinations. The place is quite simply awe-inspiring. The surrounding countryside gives absolutely no clue that it’ll suddenly erupt in the sheer granite towers that form Mount Hua, and hiking in from below, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s no safe way to get from the bottom to the top besides the cable car. If you’re reasonably fit (and determined) though, climbing Mount Hua is likely to be one of your most unforgettable China memories.
Getting to Mount Hua is really easy. Simply take a mini bus from the tourist bus park near the main station in Xian. Buses are common in the morning, the trip is cheap (a return ticket, valid for several days is a bit cheaper still) and the trip takes only about 2 hours.
The bus stops at the little bus station in Huashan village, a one-street affair. Simply walk uphill towards the big gates of Jade Spring Temple (玉泉院), at the main trailhead. You can’t miss the mountain, towering above.
The trail is a wide surfaced road for the first couple of kilometers, following a lovely cascading stream which forms lots of pools which are great for cooling off in – both times I’ve been to Mount Hua, it’s been boiling hot, and I’ve not been able to resist getting in on both times, but the water is literally icy cold!
At first it’ll seem as though you missed the ticket box at the entrance to the mountain, but after a spell there it is, beside the path nearly a kilometer from the trailhead, and paying the steep entry fee (RMB180) is painful. This time however two of our little group got a discount using a fake student card; it’s always worth a try in China….
The first 4 kilometers of the trail are steadily uphill but fairly simple and very scenic, with the granite cliffs of the mountain rising up from the deep gorge in which the path is trapped, beside the cascading stream. Then it starts climbing stiffly up countless steps, past the elegantly named Hairy Woman Cave (毛女洞), actually a temple. At the top of this first climb is a large flat area below the cliffs of the main mountain called Qinghe Ping. In clear weather by now you’ll likely be wondering how the hell the trail gets up those cliffs, which seem unassailable from down here. The answer is revealed a little further up when the trail dives into a crack in the cliffs, and climbs up through it on very steep steps, with chains to help. At the top there are marvelous views to enjoy, and a climb through a second, shorter but equally steep crack takes the path to the top of the first barrier of cliffs. After a short stretch through a patch of woodland perched on the brink, a final exceedingly long flight of steps (actually two, parallel sets) climb up through another natural cleft in the cliffs to deposit hikers – exhausted but very relieved – at the top of the sheer cliffs of Mount Hua North Peak. The first big climb is finally over.
It’s a shock arriving up here to find the area packed with tourists in their Sunday best, but that’s because the upper station of the mountain cable car is nearby. It’s just a couple of minutes from here to the summit of the North peak, but ignore it – there’s still a LOT of vertical ascent ahead, as will be obvious if the weather is clear: the North Peak of Mount Hua is a baby at 1,615 meters. The remaining three peaks are four or five hundred meters higher and are towering up in front. And the only way to reach them is to walk!
Several paths follow the granite ridge from the North Peak to the famous Blue Dragon Ridge; a trail on the left climbs the very steep, foothold-like steps cut into a cliff face called the Heavenly Steps (天梯), an easy but fun diversion if there’s still plenty of energy left.
Passing the thrilling knife-edge known as the Blue Dragon Ridge is still the only way to reach the main peaks of Mount Hua, and from a distance it looks pretty amazing. The path nowadays (uphill traffic only; descending hikers follow a new route hauled out of the cliff just below) while still a steep climb, is lined with good handrails and is absolutely safe; after seeing how great it looks from below it’s actually a bit of a letdown, as there’s none of the sense of danger or adventure passing through here that there once would have been.
Beyond the Blue Dragon Ridge the trail continues climbing at a mercilessly steep angle, the summer crowds are crazy, and its hot, hot, HOT work! Hawkers with tempting cool drinks line the trail at intervals, but the price for a simple coke or lemon tea up here is truly shocking.
Finally there’s a junction, as paths split off in different directions to the various peaks. Each peak has several places to stay the night (and you WILL need to stay the night if you just climbed up from Huashan village, unless you’re Superman – it’s far too tiring to even consider walking down again in one day). Staying the night on Mount Hua is absolutely the best thing to do when coming here – the crowds dissipate as evening draws in, the air, which got misty during the both afternoons we were on the mountain, was much clearer at dusk and dawn, and – best of all – there’s far more time to explore this amazing natural adult adventure playground – there’s a lot to do and experience on this mountain!
On both my trips to the mountain I stayed in places on the West Peak. There are several, and they’re very basic (bunks in bare rooms with concrete floors, toilets outside) but atmospheric, and there are bed sheets and duvets, so no need to bring a sleeping bag. There are also so many options that (at least midweek) there was no problem finding beds for the night – we were the only guests at our place in the height of the summer holiday season. The main problem is the shocking price of food up here, which has to be carried up on the backs of local coolies. If at all possible haul all the instant noodles, bread, cookies - whatever you think you might eat while up here – up with you, as the prices of food and drinks are little short of outrageous. Boiled water is free, although delicate stomachs might have trouble – the water on the mountain is mostly run-off as there’s no spring up here, and it has a delicate brownish tinge which isn’t especially appetising!
After the long and relentlessly steep haul up here it’s likely there’ll be little energy to do much more exploring on day one, but do make the short and gentle climb up the bare granite face of the West Peak (2.083 meters) to the summit for sunset – a magnificent sight as much for the spectacular nature of the pointy granite peak itself, dropping sheer, smooth and bare of greenery into the depths the better part of a thousand meters below, as for the sight of the setting sun.
Once up here it’s a fairly easy and short walk to the other peaks. Although the granite mountain rises tall and sheer like a tower on the outside, making access from anywhere except across the Blue Dragon Ridge quite impossible, the four peaks of the mountain gather around a small area of gentle, wooded slopes, and paths cross this to connect the various peaks, such as the highest point of Mount Hua, the South Peak (2,155 meters), with more indescribably spectacular views. A path continues down the flank of the South Peak to a junction just below the South Gate of Heaven (南天門), an essential landmark for all thrill-seekers as it stands in front of the short path out to the Plank Trail itself.
But first a short descent from the Southern Heavenly Gate and a very short trail on the right leads to the Sun Welcoming Cave, which gives a breathtaking view over the awesome and unbroken line of sheer cliffs that plunge sheer from Mount Hua into the valleys below. From here it’s a short, stiff climb to the third and last main summit of the mountain, the knobbly East Peak (2,096 meters); the nearby Central Peak of Mount Hua is insignificant, and there’s no trail up it).
Although it’s generally ignored by Western thrill-seekers who flock to the more showy and spectacular Plank Walk, the East Peak actually has Mount Hua’s most challenging (and in my view scariest!) trail - the Sparrow Hawk Cliff. Look for the guys near the summit with harnesses and you’ll find the place. Despite having a fear of heights I was determined to rise to at least this one challenge on this trip. I was disappointed at myself for baulking at the sight of the Plank Walk, which we’d passed earlier in the morning without summoning up enough courage to attempt, and so this time I walked straight up, money in hand, before I could chicken out (the money is to rent the harness, which is an essential safety measure here, as there’s a small but real chance of slipping or putting a step wrong here, which would be fatal if you weren’t attached to the cliff face!). The Sparrow Hawk Cliff is only perhaps 50 meters high, but just after launching yourself over the edge, it’s overhanging for a meter or two, and the only way to
survive get down is to put all your faith in your sense of touch and poke around with the feet (while holding onto the chain like grim death with the hands) for the next foothold. It’s absolutely terrifying. It gets a bit easier lower down, but not much. After descending the cliff, it’s an easy short walk along a neat, stepped path to the beautifully sited Chess Pavillion, which looks so lovely in photos, yet is such a bitch to reach (yep, the only way to it is down the Sparrow Hawk Cliff). On the way back a friendly local, no doubt noticing my petrified expression as I looked up at climbers dangling off the rock face high above, told me that this was actually much harder to do than the famous Plank Path.
Back safely at the top, I took one look at my fellow hiker Grant, who’d waited for me, and we agreed that after all we’d have to do it – tackle the big one – the Plank Walk itself.
Even if you’ve no intention of risking everything on the Plank Walk, it’s an essential part of any Mount Hua climb to see it at least from above. Walk through the South Heavenly Gate and just above it the cliffs suddenly plunge untold hundreds of meters into the canyon below. The trail, now cut into the sheer face of the bare granite cliff, suddenly becomes so narrow that in some places it’s impossible for two people to pass. In about thirty meters it stops, beside a shallow natural cave (used centuries ago as a meditation spot), and this is where the way down to the Plank Path (still about 30 meters below) begins.
Nowadays entry to the Plank Path is strictly monitored, and those that want to do it must part with RMB30 at the meditation cave and get kitted up with a harness. The harness here is more for psychological reasons than anything else – self-preservation kicks places like this and you’d have to be pretty careless (or else faint from shock) to fall off this trail, but it sure feels good to be attached to the cliff! Safely connected by a pair of carabiners to a sturdy wire, fixed into the granite rock, the way down is along a natural vertical crack in the rock, stepping on a series of iron spikes driven into the rock inside it. It’s a surprisingly gentle prelude to this notorious place, as the sides of the crack offer psychological protection, and block from view the dizzying view out over many hundred meters of nothingness.
At the bottom is the biggest shock of the route. The plank path doesn’t go all the way to the bottom of the crack. Instead the only way onto it is to place the feet into a short series of narrow ledges carved out of the sheer cliff. It’s pretty mind-blowing for someone like me who has a bad head for heights, being suspended five or seven hundred meters up a vertical cliff of smooth rock, with nothing but a couple of footholds and a chain for the hands, and I would never have attempted the Plank Walk if I’d known this was part of the route!
In a few meters the wooden plank, fixed into the vertical cliff, begins, and it’s steady work edging along the ledge, trying not to look down (it’s 90 degrees vertical, straight as a plumb line in a few places). And then there’s another unwelcome surprise – there’s no way off this path except to go back the way you came, and returnees have to lean backwards, out over the precipice and step around others to get past them, as they pin themselves to the rock face!
Anyway, after about 50 meters or so (it could have been a lot more or a little less – I was far too concerned with the simple tasks of attaching my two carabiners as I moved and the position of my feet every step of the way to consider such insignificant trivia!), the Plank Walk ends and a scrap of trail, cut into the rock climbs up to a tiny piece of flat ground, suspended in the middle of this vast, vertical cliff, pierced by a second tiny cave, also used for meditation many centuries ago. Now all that was left was to do the whole thing again in reverse, and to try to persuade people heading the opposite direction to swing round me as I cowered against the cliff face….
Is this the most dangerous trail in the world? Of course not. It’s actually pretty safe as long as the wooden planks don’t give way. It’s all in the mind. What’s for sure though is that this is one hell of an adrenaline rush. It’s an insane place the like of which I’ve never come close to experiencing anywhere else in my travels. It’s similar in some ways to those via ferrata laid out in the Alps, on Mount Kinabalu and other places, but what sets this place apart is the sheer height of the walkway. Who knows how big that sheer drop below is? It could be 500, 600, or even 800 meters vertical, straight down there. It’s a crazily exposed and precarious place to be.
Despite my fear of heights and all though, am I glad I did it though? You bet!