On Mount Hua (2)

Mar 19, 2003 1:35am
I’m happy to say I made it to the top of Huashan in one piece. With a sign at the foot welcoming “brave climbers from home and abroad”, it promised to be an interesting climb, and so it proved. Fortunately it seems I’m not faint-hearted; I could hear mine all the way to the top.

The day I climbed was very misty – I slowly ascended into the clouds, pulling myself up the stone ladder a hobbit-sized step at a time, holding onto the chains in case I slipped in the snowmelt. The views were splendid. Pine, moss, sky, soaring spurs and sheer drops. And always more stairs.

Apart from the ubiquitous porters, and the occasional dozing vendor, I was on my own. The porters are no mere mortals. Every day they make the climb, carrying (in at least one case) up to 80 kilos, slung from the beam across their shoulders or packed in the basket on their back. For their Sisyphean task they earn about US$10 a week. One I talked to had done it for 20 years. Some have aged quickly, but most had breath to spare, stopping to chain-smoke or play pipes.

Still, despite being reminded in more than one way how unfit I am, I managed to make the north peak half an hour under par. The ridge connecting the north peak with the other compass points took another hour or so. Green Dragon Ridge was little wider than the staircase, a ladder floating in the clouds. Incredible. As the twilight deepened into night I found a room at a temple nestled between the rear peaks. It began to snow.

With no heating, I put on some extra layers and crawled into bed. I’ve been having lots of strange dreams lately, perhaps unsurprisingly, and that night was no exception. I awoke to find dozens of tiny goblins perched about the room, staring blankly at me. They looked disturbingly like me. After a while they began to sing quietly in chorus, to a familiar tune:

“Paranoia, paranoia
We’ll get you, we’ll get you
Run away and hi-ide
Run away and hi-ide
We’ll get you you, we’ll get you”

It took me a while to get back to sleep.

The next morning I arose early to see the sunrise. A 25 minute climb later I was on the east peak. It was overcast, so there was no dawn over the cloud sea, but it was clear. Since it was mid-week in the off-season, I had the bleak beauty all to myself. The morning stillness was broken only by the occasional roll of thunder, the howling wind, and my expletives as I clung to the exposed rockface.

From the east I went across to the south peak, the highest, and picked my way up to the top, the fresh snow broken only by the pawprints of a squirrel that had found the path convenient. The top was only a few metres wide – it truly felt like you’d scaled a mountain.

Aside from the stunning vistas, I had a very interesting experience a short while later. I’d seen pictures of a cliffside pathway on the tourist brochures people were trying to sell me, and found the sign as I descended from the south peak. Mindful of all the admonishments to take care, together with – shall we say – my natural cautiousness, I wasn’t particularly keen to go for a stroll along it.

But, driven by the desire for a photo, I edged my way out onto the Indiana Jones highway. It was a foot or so wide, with a chain if you needed it. I needed it. After a few metres of hand over white-knuckled fist I hadn’t been sucked over the edge, so I kept going … it was easier than turning around.

I continued round the corner, and eventually arrived at a cave in the side of the cliff. Inside was a small Taoist shrine with a high ceiling and incense burning. I sat there by myself for about five minutes contemplating the world below / wondering if I’d make it back. Then a figure appeared in the doorway: a priest. His hair was held up in a bun with long pins. He came in and lit two candles.

Using my broken Chinese we managed to have a small conversation. He learned that I was a 25 year old unmarried English teacher from Australia, and I learned that the cave had taken 40 years to carve out by hand. Gathering my resolve (at least my death would be witnessed), I shook his hand goodbye. He grasped my hand firmly and turned it over, running his fingers over my palm and mumbling to himself in Chinese.

Suddenly his whole demeanour changed. He became very intense. He looked my directly in the eye and spoke quietly. I struggled, but understood nothing. When I said so, he gave me that universal symbol for “she’s apples mate”, the thumbs up. Hen hao, hen hao, he said over and over. Before I quite knew what was happening he was prodding my bare chest and grunting with satisfaction. I stopped him just in time from checking my belly button – at least, that’s what he said he was reaching for. Maybe it’s just my ignorance showing, but I was sceptical about the oracular insight which could be gleaned from knowing whether I was an innie or an outie.

Anyway, I got my photo. By the time I’d done the west peak it was mid-day, so I descended, my polluted city senses cleansed. Then it was a couple of days of trains and buses to Xiahe, where I am now.

Xiahe, a Tibetan monastary town, needs an email all to itself.


p.s. Sorry if the attachments were too big – bad net etiquette on my part. It seems I miscalculated somehow, probably because I had my mind on other things, like starting to pack…

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