Thursday, October 4, 2007

Mt Huashan

Huashan: 10/4-5/2007

[Check out the "Taoist Mtns of China Intro" blog-entry if you have not already]

Throughout Taoist history, pilgrims have come to pay their respect to Huashan, or 'Flower Mountain'. Chinese Emperors Tang Gaozhu and Tang Taizhong (Tang Dynasty) made famous journeys here. Taoists including Zhong Liquan, Lu Yan, Liu Chao, Wang Chuyi, Hao Datong, Tan Chuduan all once lived here. And, Chen Tuan, one of the founders of Taoism, spent 40 years on the mountain writing Taoist philosophy and reflections. The mountain is scattered with Temples and shrines, but at nothing near the density of precommunist time. Here and there you can spot a hermitage cave where a sage would sit and meditate, drink only spring water and eat gathered herbs, and live to be 500 years old (so they say). These caves are in the most difficult to reach places. Steps (little niches) carved into the vertical cliff faces climb up 10 to 30 meters, and there is a cave opening, or a long chain dangling from a little door high on a precipice. Interestingly, the princess Jinxian, the daughter of emperor Rui Zhong (Tang Dynasty), once came to Mount Hua to pursue Tao. I guess she lived in a cave, because afterward, emperor Tang Xuanzhong ordered the construction of Woman-Immortal Temple and Silver Cloud Monastery, making a specific space for women to study on the mountain.

Our pilgrimage to the sacred flower mountain began with a flight to Xi'an city, Shaanxi Province. Xi'an, once named Chang'an, is the fabled beginning and end of the Silk Road. In those days, the city was thriving with emperors, courtesans, poets, monks, merchants and soldiers; a place where many of the world's great religions coexisted and Chinese culture reached an apogee of creativity and sophistication. Today, inside the ancient city walls, it is a stimulating mix of rich historical buildings, the bright neon lights of modern china , antique shops, art studios (called "factories"), and too many people. Our favorite section of the city is the Muslim quarter, where remnants of the Silk Road past are clustered inside street vendors and honking motor carts. The best food in the city can be found here, by far!

Unfortunately for us, we are here, and going to Huashan during the national holiday week. Many students and families are on vacation this week, and it seems like they are planning to do the same things we are. Everywhere we go, every restaurant, street, taxi stand, ticket office, coffee shop, everywhere is CROWDED with people.

We catch a train to Huayin City, 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) east from Xi'an City. We have to bump and push to get seats, but we do, and are soon bumping along the countryside. "E-Ex-Excuse Me" says a vary nervous and embarrassed young man. "We are 1st year students in university." OK, that's nice... I'm thinking. "Will you come and talk to us?" A group of 3 women giggle and make a spot for me. I spent most the ride talking to these students who were just so excited to meet a real live foreigner! Everyone took pictures.

The next day we began our assent with a visit to the Yuquan Yuan (Jade Fountain) Temple at the base of the climb. In the morning grey, groups of men and women doing Tai Chi Chuan on its plaza. The temple's gardens have the architectural style of the classical gardens in south China; with a pond in the center and several pavilions around it. Beside the 'Huixin Rock' are the precipitous 370 rock steps called 'Qianchi Zhuang'. These are considered to be the primary "breath-taking path" of Mt. Huashan. It is called this because when walking up it, the narrow sliver of sky above the high walls makes you feel like you are at the bottom of a well.

Huashan is really a group of 5 rocky peaks high among the knife-blade ridges of the Qinling Mountains. Standing in a circle around the central granite dome, Huashan East, South, West, and North Peaks resemble a colossal lotus flower in full blossom. Thus it's name, Flower Mountain.

Rod and I begin the sweaty crowded climb, passing the various souvenir and food stands. We buy red prayer sashes, and carry them with us to tie at the summits. The path is stairs, but toward the end, the stairs get steeper and there are chains to hold onto as you climb. The famous "ear touching wall", is a very narrow series of steep steps with a big chain. It's famed danger comes from (in my opinion) all the other climbers pushing their way up behind you and stumbling above you. When we finally reached the North Peak summit (1615m), Rod and I have had it with all the people and their lack of a sense of personal space. This peak is named "Clouds Stand" peak. The summit is a relatively flat peninsula of rock surrounded by cliffs on three sides, so it is classically thought of as a platform in the clouds (one you can stand on). We try to enjoy the summit, Rod ties a prayer on a tree there, and we decide to call it a day. We will come back tomorrow, hope there are less people, and summit the other peaks. We stand in an agonizingly disorganized 45 min long line to take the cable car down. Yes, here too is a cable car! Everyone in the line cutting and pushing; Rod getting belligerent and swearing at people; basically Hot Sweaty Stinky Loud Chaos (for 45 min!). The good old china HSSLC.

The next morning, Rod and I re-entered the HSSLC and waited in the ENORMOUS line to get the cable car up. It was awful. Then at the top, Rod just could no longer deal. He opted to retreat and headed back to the hotel. I bravely pushed on. I somehow got into turbo mode and charged my way through the crowds and up the Blue Dragon Range ridge. I was ruthless, climbing at about 1000 m/hr, passing and cutting people off... i don't feel good about it, it just happened. All the people - It was too much.

And, luckily for me, once I passed Hongsheng Terrace and reached Jinsuo Pass the crowds were mostly behind me. I took the trail to the West Peak and was rewarded with very few other people and a light breeze! The trail climbed up to the first overlook... a breath taking 2000+ foot vertical drop to pine forest below. Then up the narrow ridge to the summit itself (2038m). On West Peak, or Lianhua Peak, is the Taois Cuiyun Palace. The rock before the temple looks like a lotus flower, hence the peak is named Lotus Flower Peak. There are another seven rocks beside Cuiyun Palace, and a big crack in one. This is said to be the place where Chenxiang, a filial young man, once ripped open the mountain to save his mother (The Heavenly Goddess San Sheng Mu).

I tied a prayer sash on the summit, and continued along the cliffside path to the Luoyan Peak, or South Peak (2160m). Before reaching the top, i saw a small path running along the side of the cliff with a chain. It looked like no one goes there. I looked and the path continued for about 2 meters, then disappeared, reappearing about a meter further along, and ending in small ledge (about 1 m square). Oooooo... it would be really cool to sit on that ledge... The part of the path that disappeared was short, and had small foot holes carved in the rock face and there was the big chain to hold onto. I went carefully along it and onto the nifty little ledge. I tied my prayer sash on the ledge, and then noticed the really cool thing... from the ledge, there was a vertical chain, with footholds carved in the rock along it, that lead up (about 10 m) to a hermit cave. I wanted to go up there so badly, but yes, a fall would be the end of me (1500 ft drop), and with no harness and no one knowing where i am i guess i shouldn't try... but it was so hard!!

On the top of South Peak is a water pond with calligraphy inscriptions. To reach this summit and pond is regarded as reaching the peak of perfection. Legend has it that wild geese returning from the south often land here, giving the name 'Landing Wild Geese Peak', or 'Dropping Goose Peak'. The Taoist temple on South Peak is called Baidi Temple or Jintian Palace and is considered the host temple of Deity Shaohao.

I stopped for some lunch at the food stand in the temple (is there nothing sacred?) and had 'beef noodle'. The students I met in the train told me that "'Beef noodle' is Chinese favorite snack. They're delicious!". 'Beef noodle' is instant ramen noodles in a cardboard bowl with beef broth and plenty of MSG. Hmm... Yum!

After my delicious lunch, i walked down South Peak and up to the top of East Peak (Chaoyand Peak). The views from here are spectacular! And, I can see the tops of the row of heads walking on Blue Dragon Range ridge below. I tie my prayer, hang out on this summit (2100m) a while, and enjoy the afternoon sunlight through the twisted pine trees. Quartz dikes on the cliff face look shaped into the form of a giant palm print, reminding me of the "Facing Sun" Peak's story. A long time ago, on March 3rd of the Lunar Calendar, a torrential flood erupted, destroying the villages within the Huashan area. This disaster was caused by the Queen Mother of the West, who held her 'Flat Peach Carnival' celebration that year. She carelessly spilled a little jade wine down from paradise, causing a serious flood below. This news was quickly reported by Deity Shaohao to the Jade Emperor in Celestial Paradise. He gave a prompt order to Deity Juling to go down to tame the flood. When Deity Juling, full of vigor and vitality, descended from the clouds, he arrived at the precipitous cliff of East Peak. At the moment that he laid his left hand on one side (the dikes) and his right leg on the other, he ripped the mountain into two halves and immediately the flood rushed out and away.

I stop daydreaming and begin my way down. The route down had the steepest stairs/ladder with chain I ever walked on, and it was made more interesting because the crowds were closing in. I re-entered turbo mode and bee-lined down the mountain toward the cable car. My rapid decent was surprisingly interrupted by my name being called! Huh?! Across from me are a couple Rod and I met 2.5 weeks ago while climbing Taishan! These two are doing a bike trip across china and decided on a whim to walk up Huashan... on the same day, same time... small world for sure.

I blitz down to North Peak and connivingly cut 3/4 of the cable car line. OK, I'm learning! I make it back to the Hotel to meet Rod with time to spare.

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