Our plane was delayed two and a half hours in Shanghai, due to smog so thick we couldn’t see the airport from the plane window. We had originally planned to climb the mountain, but because of the delay, and then the fact that we missed our train from Xi’an to the mountain base and had to take a later one, we arrived at Huashan only an hour before dark. Not wanting to climb one of the most dangerous mountains in China in the dark in the winter, we opted for the safer and faster cable-car route.
By the time we got to the top, it was completely dark. There was snow and ice blanketing the hills around us, but the paths were clear. Our plan was to stay in one of the hotels (I use the word “hotels” rather loosely — they were a collection of stone-floored rooms with no beds), but the first one we came upon was 300 yuan a night (roughly 50USD), and nearly full, so we decided to check out our other options before we settled. Hiking around 45 minutes to another peak, we reached a second hotel; this one was, to our dismay, completely full. As the innkeeper turned us away and we resigned ourselves to hiking back to the other hotel, a man wearing a set of long robes emerged from darkness and caught our attention. With the help of my (rather broken) Chinese, I figured out he was trying to tell us to come with him, and that he had a place for us to stay. Sophie, Justina, and I shared a kind of “what the hell, why not” look, and followed him up a flight of stone stairs that curled around the side of a cliff. When we got to the top, we realized he was leading us to a small temple-like building. We entered, and he ushered us behind the shrine, where there was a bunkbed and a few blankets. He only charged us 80 yuan each (a solid deal), and we were really close to where we wanted to be the next morning to watch the sunrise: the east peak.
The next morning we got up before dawn to find the front room of the temple, and the top bunk of our bed, had filled with people overnight. Needing to pee, I remembered a couple of outhouses I had seen the night before, and slipped out before Justina and Sophie, stepping around the people on the floor. The outhouses were built on the side of the mountain, had no doors, and instead of being built over a hole dug in the ground, hung over the side of the cliff. The snow underneath the hole leading down the slope was not clean. A line was forming in front of them and I, still half asleep, did not trust myself to not fall off the side of the mountain, and decided to hold it.
We hiked to the east peak to find a crowd of people already gathered at the prime sunrise-watching spot. There was a fence along the edge of a steep cliff, covered in golden locks and bright red strips of cloth, which, against the rising light in the sky, looked absolutely beautiful. In the summer, many people choose to make the hike up Huashan overnight to reach the peak by sunrise, or they hike up and sleep on the cliff itself, tying themselves to the poles of the fence so they don’t fall.
There was a lot of fog hanging around the mountains that morning (or smog — in China, it’s often hard to tell which, and Xi’an was at the top of the pollution charts that week, so smog from the city could have blown over to the mountain quite easily), so the light from the sun filtered in slowly, changing the sky to a soft, grey-blue color; it made the mountains in the background look hazy and ethereal.
When I look back at my travels abroad, I tend to remember the “from afar”. I forget the details. It’s when I look at my “up close” pictures, of cute bugs or interesting rocks or cool fences on top of mountains, that I start to remember the little parts of the story. How, when we were waiting for the sun to rise, I sat right on the edge of the cliff, holding onto the chain of the fence, cuddled close to my friends for warmth. I remember how, out of a hectic trip where we missed or almost missed every train and plane we had booked ahead of time, we found a moment of peace on top of this mountain.
Jaqueline Morse has always had an interest in travel and in discovering new places. For her junior year abroad she studied in Shanghai, China and Melbourne, Australia, spending the two intervening months WWOOFing in New Zealand. She hopes to someday find a career where she can travel to new places often.by