China has five sacred mountains and clearly a lot of other, non sacred mountains! But for us, no trip to the country would be complete without visiting at least one sacred mountain. Huashan is 120 km from Xian and is not only sacred, but is also home to the Plank Road. The Plank Road has been on my bucket list for a long time.
Huashan is a right of passage for many Chinese. They climb the mountain from the bottom, often climbing through the night hours to see the sunrise at the top.
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We weren’t planning a night time trip. Visiting during July meant that the likelihood of the weather being clear enough to see the sunrise was pretty low. I also have no burning desire to climb a mountain in the dark.
Getting to Huashan on Public Transport
We took the public bus from the main Railway Station in Xian, paying our 22 CNY once on board. We took the last two seats on the bus and settled in for the two hour trip to the base of the mountain.
Buy tickets for Huashan on the bus.
You can beat the lines at the mountain by purchasing tickets from “volunteers” who board the bus and who give you a receipt. The receipt is exchanged at the supermarket near the base of the mountain for your tickets. We did this, and saved standing in a line at the mountain.
I’ll start by saying it’s not cheap, spending a day on the mountain in China I mean. You can save on cable car fees if you walk up. You can save on a hotel room cost for the night as you’ll be walking all night, but there are still a lot of costs that mount up.
- Entrance to the Mountain: 180 CNY
- Transfer bus from the ticket office to the base: 20 CNY each way
- Cable car each way 80 CNY or 150 CNY return
- Bus to Huashan from Xi’an = 22 CNY on the public bus or 35 CNY on the commercial bus services.
Bus Timings: Huashan to Xian Return
Factor in timing and as the last buses depart Huashan for Xi’an around 6pm, then if you only have a day, you’re going to have an expensive day. If you have longer there are lots of places to stay near the bottom of the mountain. If you want to stay on the mountain, then it will cost 480 CNY minimum for a double room. There were no “full” signs on the places to stay that we walked past at the top.
You can also catch a fast train from Xian north or a slow train from Xian station as alternatives, but you’ll have to buy these tickets in advance. Our guide on the best things to do in Xian is here.
Huashan – China’s most dangerous mountain?
Huashan has a reputation as one of the country’s most dangerous mountains, called the World’s Number 1 Precipitous Mountain on the signs at the bottom, we were at Huashan for one particular reason.
The Plank Road
The Cliff Plank Road. I can’t remember when I first heard about the Cliff Plank Road, but I do remember attemping to hop from one seat to another in the ancient Roman ampitheatre in Plovdiv, bailing and thinking “shit, if I can’t do this, how can I do the Plank Road?”.
We took the North Cable Car up Huashan.
At the top of the North Cable Car
Immediately you exit the North cable car you set off upwards, cueing up the joke that if we’d been in the USA the cable car would have gone to the TOP of the mountain, not part way up.
Using the North Cable car – which arrives as a much lower “top of the mountain” than the West Cable car, still means you have several kilometers to go. And that means up.
For around two hours to reach the East Peak.
Left Luggage Facilities at Huashan
There are left luggage facilities at the ticket office, you do NOT want to be dragging your heavy bags around here with you. We took the shuttle bus to the North Cablecar and decided to come back the same way.
Perhaps retrospecitvely we should have taken the West Cable car up and the North Cable car down, but it’s difficult to figure out distances and times when you’re at the bottom of the mountain and also what is actually where.
Travel Guide China has a pretty good overview that you can read here
So. You arrive “at the top” of the cable car after a 7-8 minute trip and your route is either head up the North Peak or head towards the East Peak.
If you awnt to hike the North Peak, then do it first. You won’t feel like it on the way back down. However, don’t understimate the amount of time it will take to hike this mountain.
Maps and Signposts on Huashan
There are maps and signposts when you’re on the mountain and they “pretty much” direct you along the way. They give an indication of how long each part should take – that’s based on the “going up time”.
It’s worth having a good overview of what direction to take before you go up the mountain, these “maps” aren’t great.
Huashan – the world’s biggest stairmaster
And then you set off. Huashan is really just the world’s biggest stairmaster. There are literally kilometers of steps. And these aren’t uniform steps. They’re half size, quarter size, they’re not straight. They’re designed for one person when three are trying to use them. There’s not designed for your western sized feet.
You might be climbing in your Merrells, but the woman in front of me had heeled platform wedges on,which does make you feel somewhat inadequate. I don’t think I saw flipflips, but pretty much anything goes.
Buy Snacks before you get to the Mountain
At the supermarket at the bottom, where the public bus stops, you have the opportunity to buy food, drinks and accessories. It’s more expensive on the mountain.
We’d taken some bizarre “cheese” sandwiches, which were more like banana spread in white bread and some biscuits. You can also buy hats and white gloves. Not because this is a Michael Jackson tribute area, but because a lot of the paths and climbs on Huashan are bordered by chain link handholds. You’ll definitely use them. The gloves will protect your hands and also stop them slipping.
The Sky Ladder at Huashan
We were heading across Jinsuo pass and the Canglong Mountain , which was basically up, up, up, down a little. It’s just evil, because, then you have to back up again. We went up a stone staircase and then after an attempt at the Sky Ladder, I backed down. The cliff is just about vertical and you have to pull yourself up on the chains, leaning out to pick up the next chain. Those gloves would have been useful there.
East Peak, Huashan
We made it to the East Peak, understanding completely why when it’s raining or bad weather you really won’t want to climb Huashan. Our next stop is the West Peak area and the Plank Road.
We’re racing against time at Huashan
It’s a race against time at this point. We’d taken the 0800 bus from Xi’an, the first bus out, and it was now getting on for 1330. We weren’t standing around or taking more rests than anyone else on the mountain.
Golden Lock Pass – Gateway to the Plank Road
Arriving at the Golden Lock Pass, where you’ve made a decision to turn left for the Plank Road, or right to head to the West Peak area. Here you can take the time out to spend a few CNY on making a noise, or joining the back of the line for the Plank Road.
Lining up for the Plank Road
Even getting to the line, you have to walk along the cliff side. It’s a path that’s no more than 18 inches wide. You must negotiate folks who have either already been or chickened out.
There is a sturdy looking fence, but still..
There were two Chinese girls in the line in front of me. The line started just outside a small temple, where folks who were on the plank road had left their bags. We waited. Perhaps 10 minutes, which feels like a lifetime, as you’re looking over the edge, watching folks climbing down and considering how far up you actually are.
The Plank Road, Huashan
It’s literally that. A small plank path, around 30 cm wide, built onto the side of the mountain. You climb down onto the path using a series of “steps”, made of metal poles drilled into the rocks. You climb down these steps as the mountain curves inwards and you cling, anxiety rising, feeling for the next foothold, which cunningly is off to the left.
And that’s before you get to the Plank Road.
The Plank road doesn’t extend very far, perhaps 50 metres. At the end of the road, you climb up steps cut into the rock and unclip your safety belt. You can then walk to the small flat area for a different view of the mountain.
But you’re not done yet. Your way out is back the way you’ve come.
One Way in, Same Way Out.
And don’t be thinking that the line of people behind you waits until you’re back. Nope, You’ll have people behind you, and in front of you. When you’re on the way out, some will be on the way back.
Safety and the Plank Road
There are no specific laybys or passing places. There are two differing height wire safety cables. You clip onto these with your safety harness that is strapped around you like an ill fitting life jacket.
You have two lines, always keeping one clipped on, because this isn’t a continuous wire that you’re clipped to. It’s a series of wires. So you have to clip and unclip perhaps 20 times on your trip, often stretching for the next wire.
Often other plank walkers will help and clip and unclip you. Thanks folks, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but the clips didn’t always close properly…
Stepping onto the stair rods to climb down was I thought the hardest part. There’s a line of people ahead of you, well, underneath you. Despite there being only two girls in front of me in the line to pay our 30 CNY for the use of the safety hardness, there were still people on the ladder. Some going up and some going down. The stair rods are about 24 inches wide at most. Please God, let me not meet a big fat person. Please.
What it’s like to Walk the Plank Road
I climbed down onto the stair rods and climbed down perhaps three and… stopped. It narrowed. People were coming up. Someone at the bottom (it’s about 30 feet down to the plank road), was having problems negotiating the turn.
We were jammed. And now all I’m thinking is that I can’t actually get out of this. I can’t turn around, all I can do is go on.
But strangely I’m not scared. I’m not even considering how far down it is if I fall. I’m thinking, do I have the nerve to let go, take my phone out of my pocket and take photos?
What seems like an age passes, people squeeze past. They’re all grinning and not hysterically. That buoys you on. I get almost to the bottom and can’t find the next step.
My left leg is waving around mid air, my hands are starting to slide on the chain link handrail. A returnee guides my foot and I breath again smiling at my saviour. I’m able to help the person behind me by doing the same for them.
And, clipping onto the new horizontal, not vertical safety wire I set off.
As you look down, you see that the Plank Road isn’t just a single plank, its two or three pieces of wood, that form the path. You can see there’s nothing underneath, well apart from the bottom of the mountain. Actually you can’t see the bottom of the mountain, its too far down. About 2,000 metres.
A few metres further on, I meet my first obstacle. A returning group of three people. Go round us they say. Waving me past on the OUTSIDE OF THEM. The look on my face convinces them that is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. Especially as two of them are stood behind each other, and I would have to step out mid air to get around them. They inch past me, as I plaster myself to the face of the mountain and my first obstacle is overcome and I open my eyes again.
Actually this is fun.
It’s actually fun. There are other folks returning and it becomes a little easier. As there are two safety wires on different levels, it’s not necessary to unclip for them to step around me, so long as you’re both not using the same level wire of course!
A photography shop on the Plank Road
About half way along the road, there’s a small recess in the cliff, with a printer, a laminating machine and a small stool. There’s a Chinese guy sat in there laminating photo’s. This is his office. His job is to take photo’s of us plank walkers, and sell them to us for 30 CNY each. How can you have got this far and not do that?
He asks me if I want a photo, yes, yes, I say, so he waves me on past him. I think, but surely you need to be ahead of me to take a photo.. and he blithely clips on and literally swings out around me. He then bounds a little way UP the mountain and yells at me to swing out, and hold my arms out. I swear I thought my arm holding on was extended in the photo. Clearly my brain was playing tricks on me. But here’s my 30 CNY photo. My less than $10 in total experience. (I’m not counting the rest of the costs!)
After that it seems easy. Shuffle, shuffle, clip, clip, negotiate with returnee, shuffle a little more. Clamber up the rock footholds at the end and have a wander around. Take a few photo’s to prove I was here, although it’s pretty overcast, so I think I could be anywhere, and then head back.
Returning Along the Plank Road
Heading back I take more note of the cables, and how they’re attached to the mountain, yes, yes, that looks secure and I feel a little better than using the blind faith I’d employed on the way out.
As a returnee, it’s my job to step out and around the folks who are heading out. And you know, actually, now it’s easy. What had seemed like an insurmountable task on the way out, now seems, well, yes, easy. Adrenalin is a wonderful thing, we should bottle it.
Collecting my Photo
My photo is ready as I now walk more confidently back past the photo recess and it’s now tucked into my pocket. Clearly now I’m confident enough to take both hands off the chain hand holds to grab the money out of my pocket, count it and hand it over. I even give him the right change.
Climbing Back up the Stair Rods
All that remain is to negotiate the turn at the bottom of the stair rods and join the line to go up. Clipping on and off is harder going up, as the carabiners slip down and catch. There’s a blockage halfway up, as folks have jammed themselves a little too close together, my fingers come within millimeters of feet and the universal language of “ah ah” comes into play.
Then I’m at the top, unclipping my harness, showing Nige the photo, grinning widely and thinking of that jump I couldn’t make back in Plovdiv wondering what all the fuss was about.
You don’t have to DO the Plank Road to Hike Huashan
The Plank road isn’t part of the “route around the top of Huashan” – it’s on the way to West Peak, and it’s not necessary to walk the Plank Road in order to summit the mountain. For many (including me), it’s the reason for heading to the mountain.
For me, it combined conquering a fear and dropping another item into the Bucket List in one. Now all that remained was to return to the bottom in time to catch a bus.
Walking Back Down Huashan
Going down should be so much easier than going up right? Ha. Yeah, right. Remember those uneven, small, not uniform steps? Going down you’re going to be walking sideways, otherwise you’ll just get your heels on the steps and most times if you do that you’ll be slipping off. You’ll be competing with the families that hold hands on the way and those still coming up. You’ll also be competing with time, because it ticks away pretty quickly waiting in that line for the Plank Road, and then walking it.
Walking down is hard work. Even to the Cable Car.
Stopping for a break mid way down, my legs actually trembled as I considered how much my calves would be aching over the next few days. The line at the cable car took around 35 minutes for us to be in a car and heading down.
When then ran for the shuttle bus, which took around 15 minutes to deposit us not quite back to where we’d started, but to a parking lot, where a guy selling tickets to Xi’an for 35 CNY yelled into the shuttle bus.
Buses Back to the East Xian Bus Station
As it was clear that our shuttle bus wasn’t going to move to the area where the local 22 CNY bus departed from before it actually departed (it was now 16:55 and the bus left at 17:00), we took the 35 CNY option.
These commerical buses drop you off at the East Xi’an bus station, which is around 5km to the east of the old city. There’s an easy subway link right at the station will will take you back into the city.
Your calves will ache and walking down stairs will be hard for a couple of days and you’ll probably have sweated out all the water that you drink and more, but it’s an amazing, amazing experience that I wouldn’t swap for anything.
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