The five peaks of Hua Shan (华山, huáshān), 120km east of Xi’an, were originally known as Xiyue (Western Mountain), because this is the westernmost of the five sacred Taoist mountains. It’s always been a popular place for pilgrimage, though these days people puffing up the steep, narrow paths or enjoying the dramatic views from the peaks are more likely to be tourists.
There’s a Chinese saying, “There is one path and one path only to the summit of Hua Shan”, meaning that sometimes the hard way is the only way. This isn’t so true today, perhaps, what with a cable car running from the east gate – the ride doesn’t go to the peak, but does put you above the toughest climbs. The original, arduous old route begins at the west gate and Yuquan Si (Jade Spring Temple), dedicated to the tenth-century monk Xiyi who lived here as a recluse. From here, every few hundred metres you’ll come across a wayside refreshment place offering stone seats, a burner, tea, soft drinks, maps and souvenirs – the higher you go, the more attractive the knobbly walking sticks on sale seem. In summer, you’ll be swept along in a stream of Chinese, mostly young couples, dressed in their fashionable, but often highly impractical, holiday finest, including high-heeled shoes.
Known as the Eighteen Bends, the deceptively easy-looking climb up the gullies in fact winds for about two hours before reaching the flight of narrow stone steps that ascend to the first summit, North Peak (1500m). The mountain was formerly dotted with temples, and there are still half a dozen. Many people turn back at this point, although you can continue to Middle Peak next, then East, West and South peaks (each at around 2000m), which make up an eight-hour circuit trail.
Though the summits aren’t that high, the gaunt rocky cliffs, twisted pines and rugged slopes certainly look like genuine mountains as they swim in and out of the mist trails. It’s quite possible to ascend and descend the mountain in a single day, especially if you use the cable car. The going is rough in places and a few of the upper paths require a head for heights, with chain handrails, wooden galleries and rickety ladders attached at difficult points. Some people arrive in the evening and climb by moonlight in order to see the sunrise over the Sea of Clouds from Middle or East Peak. If you plan to climb at night, be sure to take some warm clothes and a flashlight with spare batteries.