I’m off to China this summer for the first time in four years to pay a return visit to a few of my (many, many) favorite destinations in this vast, vastly frustrating, but incomparably wondrous country, and planning for the trip has led me to think about the many fantastic hiking spots that I’ve explored in the country. I thought I’d briefly describe the peaks and other hiking destinations I’ve visited so far in the hope that it convinces someone to look further than the standard tourist sites and explore more of the riches that China has to offer the active tourist. I’ll write in more detail about the main peaks I plan to revisit after my return, but in the meantime, here’s an appetizer of what you’re missing out on if you’ve never hiked in China beyond the tourist stretches of the Great Wall. And there’s so much more out there as well….
By the way, the photos on this piece are mostly scans of prints taken quite a few years ago, so the quality isn’t so great – most of my trips to China predate my buying my first digital camera!
Living in Taiwan for any length of time, it would be a tragedy not to take the opportunity to make the short hop across the Strait to pay a visit to the vast, mind-bogglingly rich behemoth of a country opposite. It’s probably fair to say that for many reasons China isn’t likely to be love at first sight for most people, but the many inevitable hassles and countless frustrations involved in any visit to this crazy, infuriating, yet utterly extraordinary country pay rich dividends. My first trip there, in 1997, was quite a tough experience, since I spoke little Chinese, plus it was a very different country in those days, but the mind-blowing combination of outstanding historical relics and local color has drawn me back another four or five times since. Above all though, it’s China’s otherworldly landscapes that make it – for me at least – possibly the most unforgettable travel destination in all my many travels.
What’s so immensely alluring about China is that the top drawcard sights – the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, Shanghai, Dunhuang, Guilin – are just the tip of a very, very large and magnificent iceberg. The country is a treasure-trove of mind-boggling wonders such as (among numerous others) the Hanging Monastery and the nearby Yungang Caves (both places are near Datong in Shanxi Province), Jiuzhaigou and Huanlong (Sichuan Province), Tian Chi and Kanas Lakes (both in Xinjiang), and a trio of places in Gansu Province: Maijishan, Bingling Si, and Water Curtain Cave (near Luomen). The great wonders are widely scattered over this huge country, and there are a lot of over-developed tourist traps to endure along the way, but China’s greatest ‘second-tier’ sights would be first-class tourist draws in almost any other country in the world.
Anyway, I’ve inserted a few photos of favorite places I’ve visited on my various trips around the country, but intend to focus – this is basically a hiking blog after all! – on the fantastic hiking opportunities available to casual (but active) tourists visiting the country.
Before I begin I must apologize for all the hyperbole that follows (there are a lot of ‘mind-boggling’s, ‘awe inspiring’s and ‘extraordinary’s’ coming up) but although I’m running the risk of appearing to exaggerate somewhat, there’s really no lesser adjectives I can find to describe places like Hua Shan, Jiuzhaigou and Zhangjiajie, and I stand by them. The photos here give a tiny idea of how magnificent these places are, but in the end the only way to find out what these places are really like is to GO!
It’s worth mentioning first that ‘hiking’ on most of the sacred or ‘tourist’ peaks of China , and in its great scenic areas and national parks, is a completely different experience from hiking in Taiwan. Most of the routes are wide and paved in stone slabs or even concrete. The peaks are scaled by thousands of steps, which are hard on the knees, especially on the descent (although richly worth all the discomfort!). Most of these places are also very popular with domestic Chinese tourists, and you’ll rarely be alone for long; in fact you’ll most likely will find yourself overwhelmed by groups of camera-totting, loud-talking, elbow-pushing Chinese tourists at regular intervals. Don’t expect the untouched wilderness of Taiwan, or the solitude that’s so easy to find here though, and you’ll be blown away by the awesome landscapes and scenic beauty of each of these places, and I’m sure many others that I’ve yet to see.
HUA SHAN (華山), near Xi’an, Shaanxi Province
Xi’an is famed for a wealth of ancient monuments, including several groups of imperial tombs (such as the Qian Tomb, with its impressive lines of life-size animals, carved out of stone), and the huge, still-sealed tomb-hill of emperor Qin Shi Huang (it’s said that canals of mercury flow inside, emitting poisonous vapors which could prove deadly for archeologists seeking to get inside!).
It’s also one of China’s nicest big cities, with an exotic, distinctly ‘Muslim’ atmosphere, which makes this a much more appealing place for me than say Beijing or Shanghai. The main reason most tourists come to Xi’an, of course is for one of China’s most famed ancient wonders, the Terracotta Warriors, the guardians of Qin’s tomb, and the sheer scale of the enterprise is mind-boggling (only a tiny proportion of the warriors are thought to have been excavated – be sure to invest in one of the guides waiting near the ticket box when you visit – the true wonder of this place lies in all the background info and details you’d miss on a solo visit).
Just a couple of hours from Xi’an though is one of China’s most outrageously scenic and rugged mountains, Hua Shan. Although only about 2,100 meters high, this is an astonishing geological wonder: a cluster of granite towers that rise vertically for many hundreds of meters above the surrounding hills. To the Chinese they resemble the petals of a lotus flower about to open, and Hua Shan is one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains. Although it can be done as a day trip if you absolutely can’t allow more time for it, you’d be well advised to allow two, ignore the cable car that speeds the vast majority of visitors up to the North Peak, and take one of the trails up instead.
Hua Shan has become famous the world over after photos (and later videos) on the web were circulated of one of the mountain’s most famous attractions – the short, but incredibly terrifying length of plank walk fixed into the sheer, smooth granite face of the forbidding South Peak. (Look Here, Here and Here, or do a search for Hua Shan on the Net and you’ll find loads on this notorious dead-end path, which ends at a small cave where ancient Chinese hermits apparently used to meditate!).
Those Chinese hermits (and the many dare-devils who get photographed dangling off the chains over five or six hundred meters of nothingness) are far more brave than me – I couldn’t bring myself to climb down the death-defying crack in the cliff face (with iron pitons as footholds) which connects the end of the rock-cut path above with the beginning of the plank path, but the plank trail is far from the only reason to come here: everywhere you look on Hua Shan the scenery is utterly spectacular .
To comfortably climb the mountain without making use of the cable car, you’ll need two days – it’s probably possible to clamber up, do a quick circuit and head down in one day, but afterwards you’ll probably also not be able to walk for days. In any event, the rustic rest houses on the mountain make for a memorable – and atmospheric – night’s stay.
The first part of the hike, beside a beautiful rushing stream, is fairly gentle and already very scenic, and there’s ample to time to try to work out how the trail is going to scale the huge bastion of sheer cliffs ahead, which looks quite unscaleable. Pass a small temple, and the way on is revealed – up very steep steps crammed into a lofty crack that pierces the otherwise sheer, smooth granite cliff face below the North Peak. The steps are so steep that in places you need to haul yourself up the fixed chains. Nearer the top the path emerges onto the cliff-face, and there are a couple of exposed places (with a vast, vertical drop below) that will give vertigo sufferers nightmares for months.
Once at the North Peak, the crowds suddenly appear, as this is the upper terminus of the mountain’s only cable car. From here the trail – steep and exposed in a couple of places – follows the narrow rock ridge up towards the three main summits of Hua Shan, passing along bottleneck of the Green Dragon Ridge, where the path follows a very narrow rock knife-edge with sheer drops on each side, although it’s not nearly as scary or dangerous as it looks from below!
Once across the Green Dragon, a fairly uneventful climb (through trees if I remember right) leads to a junction, where paths lead off to the West, South and East Peaks of the Hua Shan – all offering fantastic, gobsmacking views. The main attraction of the East Peak is the oft-photographed Xiaqi (chess) Pavillion. It’s a highly appealing place, but getting there involves tackling the mountain’s second most dangerous trail – the first few meters involves putting all your faith (and your life!) in the fixed chains as you lower yourself over the sheer cliff-face, trying to locate the footholds carved in the granite face. There’s a huge drop below, and on my visit I completely freaked out after the first couple of footholds and clambered back up, badly shaken.
The West Peak is another especially often photographed view on Hua Shan, especially the final approach to the top of the bare granite tower (with steps cut into the rock seemingly perilously close to the sheer precipice where the mountain plummets into the surrounding lowlands).
The accommodation options nowadays may well be more comfortable than on my visit a decade ago, but staying up there was a highlight of the month I spent in China on that trip. The rest house we stayed in was basic, dark and perched close to the prodigious cliff face of the West Peak, and watching the sun set behind the great bluffs is a profound experience.
The second day there’s time for another exploration of the various paths that link the summits before retracing the long, spectacular route back down to earth. There’s an alternative way down of course – taking the cable car – but unless your knees are absolutely killing you, you’ll not want to miss out on following that wonderful, spectacular trail once again – especially if the weather is clear. If you haven’t had your fill of excitement yet, there’s a second route connecting the North Peak with the lowlands far below which starts near the cable car station and drops straight down the cliffs below the summit. One look at that though and I refused point-blank: the first part at least looks more like a rock-climbing route (with chains and footholds) than a path – not for tired, shaky legs.
HUANG SHAN (黃山), Anhui Province
While Hua Shan would probably win first prize in any rundown of the Chinese mountains I’ve so-far climbed, for the Chinese Huang Shan (1,783 meters) has long been one of the most celebrated scenic spots in the whole of this vast country. It’s utterly spectacular, at least in good weather. On my one visit to date, the mountain was swathed in thick mist all morning, and it was only on the descent along the fabulous Western Steps route that the sun burnt off the all-smothering fog and revealed the astonishing landscape of countless rocky pinnacles, great domed masses of bare rock, and deep, sheer precipices with ancient, absurdly picturesque pine trees hanging over the brink.
Once again there’s a cable car (in fact a couple) to the summit ridge of the mountain, and since the weather was so crap on our visit, we stood in the long, long queue, to be whisked to the top in a few minutes. A trail called the Eastern Steps roughly follows the route of the cable car, apparently taking about three hours.
At the top a loop path winds through the trees to railed-off viewpoints which would have offered breathtaking panoramas over cloud-kissed pinnacles and yawning precipices if thick fog hadn’t blotted everything out. One famous sight that can be seen in the thickest mist is the extraordinary Fei-lai Rock (‘the rock that flew here’) a slim, towering boulder perched precariously on the edge of a great cliff.
Unless the knees are seriously allergic to descending steps, it’s WELL worth taking the second ascent route on Huangshan, the Western Steps, back down. This will make for a long day if you’ve already climbed up (and yes, Huangshan can just about be done in a day, although there’s plenty of accommodation on top if you want to spend the night), but the pain is well worth it, as this route is utterly spectacular, with the path clinging onto the most precarious-looking cliff-faces and running over slim, rocky peaks.
Not far from Huang Shan, JIUHUA SHAN (九華山), one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, offers some great rocky scenery as well, and although it’s not as spectacular as Huang Shan, the relative lack of crowds on the mountain trails are really refreshing. It’s a relatively short climb up to the ridge, but from there trails run along the mountains for hours, and I only just made it to the last peak (gloriously free of other people) before having to turn back to return before nightfall to the lovely village of Jiuhua at the foot of the mountain, where visitors usually stay.
If you have time for only one or two hiking experiences while in China, Huang Shan and Hua Shan would be my first two picks from all the places I’ve visited so far, but tons of other destinations within China’s vast boundaries offer up some of the planet’s most photogenic landscapes. Here are brief descriptions of some of the places I’ve got to so far:
TAI SHAN (泰山), Shandong Province
The most revered of China’s five Taoist sacred mountains, Taishan is usually scaled in a day, ascending via the traditional Central Route, then descending by the Western Route, although this latter trail is now largely road if I remember rightly, so on our visit we simply took the cable car down from the summit, connecting to a bus that sped us back to Tai’an City, at the foot of the mountain.
Tai Shan is another very scenic mountain, although not in quite the same league as my first two choices, but it’s the wonderful combination of scenic beauty and cultural/ historic attractions (old gates, temples, rock-carved inscriptions etc) that make it so richly memorable a hike. It’s quite a strenuous hike, and the moment when, half-way up, the famously steep final steps to the summit (the Path of Eighteen Bends) finally comes into view (still seemingly far away) is a tough one to take, but climbing Tai Shan is an easier proposition than either Hua Shan or Huang Shan.
EMEI SHAN (峨眉山), near Chengdu, Sichuan Province
The 2-day return hike up Emei Shan (3,099 meters), another of China’s four Buddhist sacred mountains, is far and away the hardest hike I’ve done so far in China! This was my first major hike in the country, and going all the way to the summit is extremely tiring, since (assuming you start, like I did, from near the bottom, it’s a 2,000 meter vertical ascent to the top: far more than any of the other popular climbs on Chinese mountains). Once again there are two main routes – the usual way up begins at the Long Life Monastery, and I remember it as an endless and rather dull slog through the trees, at least up to the Elephant Washing Pool and temple. The route is haunted by large and notoriously aggressive monkeys, one of whom ripped the pocket right out of my jacket (!) when it thought I was hiding food from it. Almost everyone that’s climed Emei Shan seems to have a story about these blighters!
The later part of the ascent is glorious, mainly for the old and exceptionally atmospheric monasteries and temples on the route, and for encounters with fellow hikers, many of them quite elderly, whom I remember put our group to shame.
The summit is at the top of spectacular plunging cliffs, although while I was there there was no view, and only occasional views of the cliffs, as the summit was cloaked in thick fog during both the evening and the following morning. Even fifteen years ago, the summit of Emei Shan seemed like a small town, with several imposing temples with golden roofs and a cluster of hotels and shelters and the beds all had electric blankets like the one I had as a child in England, as it’s really, really cold at over 3,000 meters, even in summer. It’s also pretty crowded up there: a motor road and then a cable car leads directly to the summit of the mountain, so it’s one of the most accessible of China’s famous mountains – if you want to cheat.
Descending, the usual route down follows the ascent as far as the Elephant Washing Pool, where we turned right to take the longer and more scenic alternative route, carved in places into sheer cliffs, and finally dropping to a beautiful gorge. It would have been magnificent if the fog had only cleared….
Not too far away, closer to Chengdu, QINGCHENG SHAN (青城山, about 1,600 meters high), sacred to Taoists, is a much easier proposition, and makes for a very attractive day’s walk (it can be done as a day trip from Chengdu). This is a gentle mountain, and after taking a short boat ride across a small lake at the start of the trail (a cheap ploy to get extra money from tourists, as a path could easily skirt the lake) the stepped path is through forest almost all the way.
YANDANG SHAN (雁蕩山), Near Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province
On the east coast about midway between Shanghai and Xiamen, Yandang Shan is more of a scenic area than a summit climb, and it’s not so often visited by foreigners, but it has a handful of awesome natural wonders (it’s now a UNESCO Geopark) chiefly amazing waterfalls, towering crags and rock formations. The 700 foot free-fall of Big Dragon Pool waterfall is one of China’s highest falls. Nearby a trail climbs up past a further series of three seasonal waterfalls. The first is quite small and unexciting, but a climb to its top reveals a far higher one above (well over a hundred meters sheer), that has carved a deep, vertical ‘tube’ in the cliff face, through which it falls.
A steep climb from there leads to the third and highest of the waterfalls, which has also carved a bizarre ‘tube’ out of the rock; standing inside, at the foot of the fall, feels a little like standing in the bottom of an enormous pothole.
A short drive up the valley leads to the trailhead of a path cut into the Divine Cliffs, a marvellous walk with spectacular views. There are lots of amazing-looking hiking in this area – sadly we had only a day and two nights there, and were limited to the main places.
WUYI SHAN (武夷山), Fujian Province
Another Unesco site (this time on the World Heritage list), Wuyi Shan seems to have become enormously popular in recent years, although for all its undeniable beauty I was strangely disappointed by it. A visit is likely to be a very touristy experience – the only way to see some of the best scenery is to join the crowds in taking a bamboo raft on the Nine Twists River. That over, there’s a good network of trails, including a really fun climb up the Heavenly Tour Peak, a sheer mass of smooth rock into which the Chinese somehow managed to carve a safe path. It’s great fun (if not great for vertigo sufferers), as long as you don’t end up behind a coachload of tourists, which can really slow the climb down.
SONG SHAN (嵩山), Henan Province
The ‘central mountain’ of the five Chinese peaks considered sacred by Taoists, Song Shan is famed above all else as the site of ‘the’ Shaolin Temple. The temple, with all its martial-arts-demonstrating monks seemed a bit of a tourist trap to me, but nearby trails climb onto the craggy side of the mountain itself. There’s no route to the top of the mountain that I could find, but better than that, a trail cut into the sheer cliffs (in places on a wide plank path suspended over hundreds of meters of nothing) gradually climbs higher onto the great cliffs, culminating at a temple and a small suspension bridge spanning a yawning chasm (it looks quite innocuous until you’re almost on it and see the depth of the gulf below). From here the only way is back the way you came, but it’s a great hike, and, together with a short visit to Shaolin Monastery below, will take the whole day.
LUSHAN (庐山), Jiangxi Province
One of China’s more famous mountain resorts, Lushan is yet another stunning place with plenty of great shorter hikes to some very impressive cliff and mountain scenery, a high waterfall, and plenty of fascinating cultural relics – Chiang Kai-shek (among several other top figures in recent Chinese history) had a house here. On the other hand, the crowds here seem to be especially huge (Lushan is enormously popular with the Chinese), although as usual its easy to get away from the worst excesses on the longer trails.
ZHANGJIAJIE (張家界), Hunan Province
China has a long list of places that dish up superlative natural scenery, but UNESCO World Heritage site Zhangjiajie (part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area) is without doubt one of the country’s most breathtaking places, and an absolute must-see if you have any way of fitting it into a China schedule.
It would take at least three days to explore all the main trail and see the best sights here, but by far the most interesting area is the one usually accessed from Zhangjiajie village. Towering rock formations already loom above the village, and once inside the gate (get there as soon as it opens to avoid the worst of the crowds!), the scenery is magnificent, following a wide, fast flowing river between the lofty peaks. Next you need to find a way up the awesome cliffs – several paths climb up to the top, where a series of paths thread along the edge of the huge precipices, affording mind-blowing views over a unique landscape of prodigious vertical cliffs, deep canyons and free-standing stacks of rock many hundreds of meters high. Look out for one of the world’s tallest natural arches (a popular trail passes over it, but take a look at a good map to find the unfrequented path that gives a viewpoint of it from below). There’s also an amazing rocky peak that once served as the hideout of a group of bandits. The way up there even today is pretty thrilling (although basically safe), so it’s easy to see why they chose this place as their headquarters.
Pick up a good map of the area and all manner of long walks are possible. We pieced together a huge loop connecting all the main sights in the southern part of the park, and it took 13 hours to complete – one of the best day hikes I’ve ever done.
TIGER LEAPING GORGE (虎跳峽), Near Lijiang, Yunnan Province
This place was already a renowned hiking spot when I went there back in the 1990s. At that time they were still blasting the road through the gorge, and there were a few really dicey spots, either because the workers would set off dynamite charges without warning (the year I was there, a party of hikers were buried alive after they got caught in a blast), or because the trail was obstructed by steep slopes of crumbling debris.
Many foreign China travellers regard this as one of the greatest hikes in China, yet even then, on my first trip to China, I found myself a little disappointed with the place, maybe because of over-anticipation. There’s no doubt the Lonely Planet (in those days at least) heavily over-played the danger of the hike (it’s not really risky at all, now there’s no chance of being blown up) and the wildness of the terrain. It’s a really beautiful place, but it’s nowhere near as spectacularly precarious and exhilarating as the finest trails on Hua Shan, or even Jhuilu Cliff Trail in Taroko Gorge, here in Taiwan. Now the road runs right through the gorge, the adventure of getting there (and in 1997 it was still quite an adventure!) is probably also lost. Maybe I’ll go again one day and see what it’s like these days (one piece of good news is that there are apparently many new hiking routes in the area to follow now), but there are so many other spectacular places in China that I have only heard about, it’ll probably have to wait!
JIUZHAIGOU (九寨沟), Sichuan Province
OK, finally, there’s no way of discussing China’s fantastic countryside without including the fairytale landscape of Jiuzaigou (yet another UNESCO World Heritage site), although I’ve heard it’s becoming over developed these days. Jiuzhaigou consists of a pair of high mountain streams running through deep, pine forest-clad gorges. Minerals dissolved in the water mean it takes on a variety of extraordinarily vivid shades of blue (the photos, I can guarantee for once do not lie – in sunny weather the water color is at least as vivid as in any photo you’ll see of the place). The minerals have also dammed the streams up into a number of stunning lakes, and the water falls from one to the next via a series of magnificent waterfalls of great beauty and extreme width.
Jiuzhaigou is surely one of China’s most beautiful places, but it’s also unbelievably crowded. On my second visit (I love it so much I’ve been twice!) we realized the only way to enjoy the place is to be at the ticket counter well before it opens, get through at 7 am when the gate opens, and get on one of the first shuttle buses (cars aren’t allowed in the park), getting off in one of the most beautiful areas. I’d suggest concentrating first on the Rize River, which has the most beautiful sights and longer trails of the two rivers, and starting the walk down at Panda Lake or Arrow Bamboo Lake. It’s almost impossible (except perhaps at opening time) to beat the crowds at the breathtaking Pearl Shoal and Shuzeng Waterfalls, but they’re both richly worth the hassle. Below the lowest waterfall, the crowds soon magically thin out, and the last couple of hours are a relatively peaceful and still very beautiful hike down past Huohua Lake, to rejoin the road for a bus ride back into town.
Jiuzhaigou is often coupled with HUANGLONG (黃龍), the most famous of a cluster of scenic areas that have been opened up in this stunning northern corner of Sichuan Province. However while Jiuzhaigou is large enough that it’s usually possible to get away from the crowds, Huanglong features (or at least it did when I was there) just one loop trail, and on my visit the whole loop was one single, long jam of people. In most places it’s not even possible to pass by dodging around them, because the trail is raised on wooden boardwalks above the river. There’s lots of beautiful spots on the way up, but the big payoff is at the end, around Huanglong Temple, which sits in the midst of a series of broad, rounded natural limestone terraces, holding back shallow pools of water in various, piercing shades of blue.
Huanglong is higher than most of Jiuzhaigou, at around 4,000 meters, and the altitude makes the walk a bit uncomfortable. The majority of the Chinese carry oxygen canisters on the trail for a quick fix when they get giddy (the hawkers near the entrance do great business), and watching the poor, unfit souls draw desperately on the gas as they plod along makes for a little light relief on this deeply beautiful, but often extremely frustrating walk.
Blog entries on other Chinese mountains:
Mount Sanqing (Jiangxi)
More info on this blog about these places::