Not too long after my mother died, my friend Wu Shao bo who calls himself Shawn, (many Chinese people will pick an English name when they are young) suggested that we should go to Huashan together. I agreed and he invited his friend Liu Xiang Kai who I call Xiang Kai to join us. Xiang kai which sounds like Shee-ang K-eye did not have an English name.
The trip to the mountain although considered a sacred mountain was not meant to be a spiritual trip. After my visit to Shaolin I had let go of the idea of China’s sacred places as being sacred. This was modern China, and much of the spiritual part of the journeys to places like the five sacred mountains, and Shaolin, along with any of the many buddhists temples were now commodities bought and sold to tourists. You could still find the faithful buddhist burning incense and saying prayers, but for the majority of Chinese tourists prayers involved a camera of some sort. You could think that nature itself was some kind of spiritual experience, but the crowds and the litter that they brought with them, was too overwhelming to be able to absorb the majesty of the mountains. Eco- tourism is also huge in China and thousands of Chinese are flocking to mountain hikes and gorges, and valleys for adventure and for photo ops.
Not to tear apart modern China, but up until about twenty years ago these mountains were hiked by monks, occasionally pilgrims, your rare break from the mainstream Chinese person, and the adventure foreigner. Today with the budding commerce of tourism and eco-tourism, and the fact that more and more Chinese finally have some leisure time, nature has become a literal stomping ground. It is a communist society, but it has also embraced capitalism. I often saw many parallels between American capitalism and Chinese capitalism. I fully believe if Americans had the same population size as China that we too would destroy our own national forests. There are of course many, many, conscientious Chinese people who honor the earth, and do not like to see their beautiful country littered and polluted and they take measures to not add to the destruction , but for every 5 conscientious Chinese you have about 20 who don’t give a shit or think someone else will clean up the litter. In America our numbers are smaller, but the fact that there is an almost daily battle to preserve the land, it would not surprise me that if we had a population as large as China’s that we too would have an uneven balance of entitlement versus preservation. There are other factors involved of course, but the reality is that this once sacred and very dangerous mountain is not that sacred, but still very dangerous.
There are five sacred mountains in China, Taishan the East mountain in the Shangdong province, Hengshan the South mountain in the Hunan province, Hengshan the North mountain in the Shanxi province, Song Shan the Center mountain in Henan province, and Huashan the West mountain in the Shaanxi province. I had been to Song Shan when I had visited the Shaolin Temple. Hua Shan was close enough to travel to in a day, but it’s reputation was that of the five sacred mountains it was China’s most dangerous. It’s difficult to find numbers as to how many casualties have occurred on Mount Hua. My friend had told me that you can’t find any numbers because they don’t want to decrease the numbers of tourists, but with the sketchy conditions, and the large, large hiking populations by inexperienced climbers, and days of bad weather I’m sure the number is not small. I fit into a number of the above categories, and had a few moments where I felt like I couldn’t hold on, but my life literally depended on my keeping my grip. My life and the lives of about 50 people nose to ass beneath me.
As an outsider to China it is easy to attach myself to the romantic connotations associated with ancient Chinese traditions, Daoist beliefs and Buddhist rights of passage. Like some scene from Seven Year’s in Tibet or The Rivers Edge, I pictured myself reaching the peak of the mountain, and when in a moment of reverie the sunlight would break through the clouds or rise over the crest, and I would be filled with a sense of peace and gratitude and a higher understanding of what life is about or why we are here, why I am here, and then I’d feel a dawning acceptance of my mother’s death, and I’d understand- no- not understand but I’d know that it is beautiful. That death like life is beautiful. Sadly, but not surprisingly to say, I did not reach my zenith, I was not awash in enlightenment; I was achy and irritable. In retrospect, I’m a little disappointed I’m not writing a post about my spiritual awakening, but then again, perhaps my journey was to feel exactly what I felt; achy, despondent, irritable, depressed, and still, always still, grieving, and wanting my mother to be alive.
Although, as I mentioned above, that I did not view it as a spiritual exploration I still grabbed some of my mom’s ashes and put them in my back pack. I decided to take her with me. She never got to travel in her life and I thought I could take her with me now. If I made it to the peak then I would leave that little part of her there on that mountain top. It would be the closest I’d ever get to the stars (Everest is not in my future). If I made it.
Shawn didn’t have a lot of money so he insisted that we take the cheapest slowest train. Although, knowing Shawn I think even if we had money he would insist we take the slowest and the cheapest. On the fast train we could have made it to HuaShan in about three or four hours, but on the very slow train it took us about 8 to 9 hours. We did the overnight train. The idea was to sleep on the train and then to start our hike in the morning. If you have ever traveled on a Chinese train in a non-sleeping compartment you’ll know sleeping on the train is not that easy unless of course you are Chinese. I’ve discovered that Chinese people in China can sleep anywhere. On the sidewalk, on their e-bikes, bent over or smooshed between seats. They are like cats able to find any place as a suitable place for sleep. I had often been overcome with jealousy at this ability since I find it so difficult to sleep sometimes even when I am in a bed in a dark room. The train was packed. On these trains once the seats are all sold they continue to sell seats so sometimes there are people standing in the isles for up to eight hours. People are constantly switching seats around every time someone leaves in the hopes that they can sit for a couple of minutes. When you are sitting you have people leaning against you or over you. It is a crowded that most Americans in America will not ever experience. We were in a section of six seats. Two rows of three facing each other. Shawn and I were able to sit across from each other but Xiang Kai had to find a seat somewhere else on the train. I am bigger in size than your average Chinese woman, but I am also smaller in size and sometimes width of your average Chinese man. All the seats were occupied by men, sleeping men who had spread out as much as they could in the spaces available leaving me with very little room, and since I did not have the Chinese power of sleeping I was awake for the entire 8 to 9 hour train ride. This is not the way I would recommend prepping for hiking the most dangerous of the five sacred mountains.
We boarded the train around 1:00 am and arrived around 8:30. We took a taxi from the station to the town at the base of the mountain, and began our hike around 9:00 a.m. We had three large bottles of water, some strange meat paste, a few bready bits of snack food, and a bag of spicy chicken feet. I kept thinking shouldn’t we have some trail-mix or something?
For hard core hikers the beginning of HuaShan is not much of a hike in the sense that it is paved for a large portion of the lower part. You do not disappear into the mountains you stick to the path. Once you ascend deeper into the mountain the hike becomes more of a challenge and more of a climb and sticking to the path becomes necessary to keeping yourself alive.
There are steps on Hua Shan. These steps were carved deep into the mountain’s side thousands of years ago, all by hand, and by the monks that would make their pilgrimages to the top where they could meditate. On the side of the steps chains have been drilled into the mountain for you to hold as you pull yourself up. You need upper body strength to help you on the climb. Upper body strength that at times I thought I might not have.
Compared to most saturdays it was not very crowded by Chinese standards of crowds. It had been a rainy night and it was cloudy and grey. On one hand it was nice because you had a small bit of breathing space (to me it was still very crowded but I was aware of what a real crowd in China was) perhaps during our climb there were about 200-300 people climbing Hua Shan that day but at night during our descend hundreds of new climbers were making the midnight treck. In total maybe 800 people were on the mountain. Oh, and the thing of Hua Shan: there is only one path up and one path down. When you are coming down and they are coming up you literally have to crawl over one another− crawl over one another 1,000 meters high on a steep mountain side with wet steps and cold thick metal chains, and you are climbing backward. You get the picture. The downside of the rainy day was that the steps were wet and slippery and at times the dark clouds dropped so low around the mountain that you could not see two feet in front of you. Then you had to climb over someone, I need to add, without any safety harnesses or safeties of any kind.
It took us another eight hours climbing vertical steps, sometimes through wet caves and on the edges of steep cliff sides. Shawn was our guide and he wanted to race to the top of the mountain. Often criticizing Xiang Kai and I if we wanted to sit for a moment or if we were moving too slow. I was grateful to have Xiang Kai on my side. Shawn was the adventurer climbing the mountain to defeat it, to reach the top a conquerer, and to reach the bottom in the fastest time possible. I’m not this person. I wanted to sit and reflect and bask in the nature, and the multitudes of people, around me. I did want to meditate, and reflect. I did want to absorb, but between the crowds and Shawn’s constant pushing us hiking Hua Shan felt more like a simulated virtual wii game than an actual hike and journey. I didn’t know what was in Xiang Kai’s mind except that he wanted to stop and sit as much as I did, and he would shoot me looks of disdain and irritation. Ignore him, he’d say from time to time, let’s sit, make him wait.
When we reached a peak we did take a moment to take a million photos, but also to just sit and be. It wasn’t easy to reach the peaks (unless you took the tram that I didn’t know about but explained how some Chinese girls were able to hike in flats and skirts) and when we would reach a peak the crowds would disperse and only 20 to 30 people were able to reach certain points. We went from the north peak to the west peak and to the south peak reaching 2,080 meters.
By the time we reached the top the sun was beginning to set and only five other people had made it to the top at the same time as us. It was cloudy but beautiful. Hiking to the north peak at 1,000 meters was the highest I had ever hiked, 2,000 meters had never happened in my life. I still thought the entire hike was absolutely crazy and badly planned, but I had survived the ascent and was now 2,080 meters above the sea level. Here I took a moment to pull out mom’s ashes and let her small bits of dust and bones catch onto the breeze and float away. It was actually more like that scene in The Big Lebowksi when they throw Danny’s ashes into the ocean and the wind blows the ashes all over them.
As I dusted mom’s ashes of my sweatshirt I giggled because of course that would happen, and with my mom’s dark humor she would have been laughing. In fact we laughed so hard during that scene that she started coughing. This memory made me feel sad once again. Shawn asked me why I would bring some of my mother’s ashes to the mountain. “She’s not Chinese,” he said. I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “She’s never been able to come here before, I wanted her to get the chance to travel.” I didn’t really know. Part of her was in the California Feather river, part of her was in the Trinity National forest, and the Pacific ocean, part of her was in the San Francisco bay, I didn’t know why. In death she had already been to more places than she ever went to in her life.
It was seven when we reached the top and the sun had set. It was now dark on a steep dangerous mountain and we needed to reach the bottom. There were some lights, but not many. Shawn informed me that this mountain was a really popular hike for college students, but most of them liked to hike up at midnight and then stay the night on the north peak in order to see the sun rise. He said we should do it the next time. As romantic and as peaceful as that sounded in words the reality sounded terrible. Hundreds of flashing camera’s trying to simultaneously get the perfect shot of the sunrise.
“Maybe off off season,” I said.