Meet Rabbit. She is a 18 year old English Student who is without a doubt the most independent 18 year old I have ever met, Chinese or otherwise. Why Rabbit? "Because I am curious, cute and funny" was the response. Who can argue with that simple logic.
About 2 months ago she approached me in Starbucks, boldly sat down, smiled and said "hello. You look like my father. He died in an auto accident when I was 5 and I miss him. Do you want to be friends". So we are now friends which may sound simple but that statement is very important in China culture. We practice English and Chinese together, explore the city, her family cooks me food and her grandmother is always sending me dumplings (Jao zi). Her brother is a freak for bugs and insects and as I am writing this he is in Inner Mongolia on some Creepy Critter quest. I also help him with his English and he shows me the latest in his bug collection which I have to say is fairly extensive and impressive. We do not spend to much time together but she has become a great help to me.
When I randomly told her I wanted to hike Huashan it took her about 3 seconds to tell me she would come with me. You read that right, she did not ask if she could go, she told me she was going. It was followed up with "I will arrange everything. The train tickets, the park fees and how we get there". We met at MacDonalds a few days before we left because she had coupons for Minions Nuggets and a drink and wanted to buy me lunch but I could not drink Cola because it was bad. I would drink cold tea with Lemon. How could I turn down that offer.
We sat down and she had prepared everything. Train times to Huashan and the return to Xi'an from times we discussed. The Free bus from the train station to the mountain, prices for the gondola down and different routes we could take. She then pulled out a palm size printer and from her notes she printed our itinerary on a sheet that was the size of a small shopping receipt. What time to take the subway, what time to meet at the train station, where to exchange our online ticket for paper ticket and so on. She did it all so "matter of factly" without missing a beat munching on her Minion Nuggets. I adore the positive glow of youthful optimism and enthusiasm
There are various ways to get to Huashan. We chose to take the high speed train from The North Railway Station which is at Beikezhan, the last stop on Line 2 of the Metro. Trains leave every hour and there are extra trains in the morning so you can walk up and buy a ticket unless it is a holiday then for your own sanity, buy it online. With ours already bought we still had to line up and get a paper ticket, which for me defeats the purpose of buying online but as Rabbit said, "China has so many people, it is just a habit to buy it online because they sell out". Smart girl because I experience that trying to go Hukou on the last holiday weekend and yes, it was "sold out".
Anyways, we stood in the fast moving line to exchange our ticket. We were running late so Rabbit just walked up to the front and just started talking to the ticket taker. That is how they roll here in the Middle Kingdom. If you have to you butt right in and nobody says a word. The thing is she moved directing in front of a young western guy who showed his traveling experience by just standing patiently waiting for his turn. I chatted with him a bit and as it turned out we helped him get his ticket. No harm, no foul.
Of to the train we go, climb aboard and after one stop we are in Huashan in 30 minutes. Price of the ticket was 54 Yuan, about C$11. The bus is cheaper at 34 Yuan but it takes a bit over 2 hours. Bear that in mind if you are undecided about spending the extra $4. From the massive yet empty train station we walked to the FREE Huashan bus that would take us the 20 minutes to the park. Yes, Free Bus. We climbed aboard and there was out Western Friend just chilling in the crowd. This boy did his research. His name was Dan King, he was 24 and he had just finished a 3 year teaching gig in South Korea. Now he was touring Asia for 4 months before heading to Canada (Chatham, Ontario) to meet up with his girlfriend, as these things go. We arrived at the park bought out tickets and I invited him to hike with us and he readily accepted. So off we went, Huashan was beckoning.
The start was easy enough. We passed through a large gate into a temple complex which none of us had any interest in. Sorry Buddha today was not about you and that big old belly of yours. It was hot with the temperature push 40 C and the canopy that covered us gave us relief from the sun but not the heat. Remember hiking in China is usually about stairs, lots and lots of stairs. These trails were functional thousands of years ago as access to high temples and other areas of worship. Rabbit lost all her enthusiasm about 15 minutes in and I thought this could be a brutally long day if she did not dig a bit deep. With that being said, having been a mountain guide in Nicaragua there is a pattern that most trail hikers follow if the climb is difficult. They struggle for the first 30 minutes or so, not so much tired because of weak muscles but usually lack of breathing rhythm. Once they get past the mental part of it "being difficult" the breathing rhythm kicks in and they find their groove. Speed is not important now, it is the ability to keep climbing and right on target Rabbit found hers. The complaining stopped and the talking and picture taking resumed.
There is great information about Huashan all over the web plus some spectacular YouTube videos of the insanity that is the South Trail. WikiTravel, and China Travel Guide are great places to start. We focused on the South Trail and the North Peak because at the North Peak was the gondola ride down, and that really appealed to me. There are multiple peaks and trails so you can come back often without trying to do it all and killing yourself.
We climbed wide stairs cut into the hillside covered with mystical trees. The higher we climbed the trees thinned out opening glorious views at each turn. There were ornate stone bridges hanging over deep valleys, curved stairways leading to well needed rest areas equipped with anything a good Chinese hiker would need. Food, water, snacks, well designed maps carved into wooden signposts and at places huge Plasma screens showing the surrounding countryside. People were staring at the huge screen oohing and ahhing when all they had to do was take 10 steps to the left or right and see nature in all it's slender. That moment of "our society is nearing it's end" is for another time.
Along the way we met only one other foreigner, a young guy from Colorado USA who hiked with us for a couple of hours. We had great attempted conversations with people every step of the way, hikers and vendors alike. Everyone wanted to say "hello" and take pictures which I am now quite used to. Rabbit jumped right in when any other Chinese wanted to take pictures. She would grab the camera, people would switch places, there were selfies and lots of high fives and hand shakes. It was all good fun. We started out climb about 10:00 am after catching the 8:30 train out of Xi'an. We were not near the top of the North Peak and it was pushing 3:00. That was 5 hours of hard and sometimes hair raising hiking and climbing. The closer to the top the steeper the stairs. Heavy link chains started appearing giving us something to grip. I used the sparingly having mastered the head down spider crawl using both my hands and feet. The chains were a comforting sight though. Chains being a comforting thought. Weird when you think about it. We reached the North Peak and the views were worth every grunt, groan and curse along the trail. We were resting and deciding what to do. To the left was the cable car down, to the right the 90 minute round trip to the West Peak up a long very steep ascent. My heart sank because the West Peak was calling but I have hiked enough to know that when my legs have had enough it is time to call it a day. I am sure I would have make the West Peak and it now sits there waiting for me. After sitting for about an hour we said good bye to the dude from Colorado whose name I forget (I think it was Eric) we jumped on the cable car (80Y) for the 5 minute smooth ride down. We noticed that there was a trail that ran the length of the valley down from the north trail. With that I decided that the next time I will take the cable car up the North Peak, Hike the West Peak and South Peak, return to the North Peak and hike down under the cable car.
I have eaten my share of noodles in the past 4 months, especially cold noodles from the street carts, it is really showing. That belly was not there when I was hiking 4 days a week in Nicaragua. It is time to get rid of 5 - 7 kilos especially with a trip to Tibet and the Everest Base Camp coming up in October. It did not effect my hiking in so much that my legs were strong but I do remember having the ability to be quicker when I was a bit lighter. So it goes. No more noodles for me for a while which means today is a sad day in Xi'an as the city is famous for it's variety of tasty noodle dishes.