It was still dark as I walked up the road from the hotel towards the start of the mountain track, but the vendors were already out. Seeing my backpack, a lady called me over to her stand, and showed me her range of white cotton gloves. These weren’t for cold, she signed, but to stop my sweaty hands from losing grip and allowing me to slip to my death. To emphasise the point, she pointed to postcards with photographs of climbers following planks precariously suspended over an abyss, grasping rusty iron chains with cotton gloves identical to hers. I decided to keep with my trusty polyprop gloves, but bought some dried fruit to sustain me, and headed up past the temple, under the rail viaduct, and up to the park entrance, where a sign greeted me with “Mount Hua warmly welcome the brave climbers from home and abroad” and the cautionary note “no sightseeing while walking; no walking while sightseeing”.
Hua Shan (2160m) is one of the five sacred mountains ("Shan") of China. A Chinese saying is "There is one route, and one route only, to the summit of Hua Shan", meaning that sometimes the only way to achieve something is the difficult way. But in the new China, a rising middle class is demanding that technology overcome the constraints faced by their forebears. Now there are two routes to the summit of Hua Shan - the traditional walking route up steep paths with chain handrails and steps cut into the rock; and the Austrian built cablecar that whisks tourists to the temples and snack bars of the North peak for 110 Yuan.
I'd biked for two days from China's old capital Xian to get to the village of Hua Shan at the base of the mountain, so I decided to brave the traditional route. Some travellers take two days over the climb, spending a night on the summit to see the sunrise, but impending airline flights meant that I could only spare one day, so I was making an early start. At first the path was wide and an easy grade, following an alpine stream up a pretty valley, past small temples and resthouses. Porters were making their way with wicker baskets of souvenirs and supplies for the cafes further up the mountain. A number of vendors sold padlocks - I was puzzled at these until an English speaking tourist explained that further up, it was traditional for couples to have their names inscribed on the padlock which was then locked to the climbing chains, ensuring a long relationship.
From the saddle, stairways and chains led along the narrow ridge. On one particularly auspicious stretch, the climbing chains were festooned with padlocks, with several engravers busily inscribing names - clearly Hua Shan has been doing its bit to stem the divorce rate in China.
When I stopped to catch my breath, Lu, a Chinese student keen to practice his English, started to chat with me, and joined me as we worked our way up through the forests of the centre peak. Lu was well equipped, with pristine white gloves and, already, his commemorative medallion of the climb. Soon we arrived at the approach to the East Peak, which is where the famous "plank road" runs along the cliffside over a thousand metre drop. This was the route that the stallholders in the village had wanted me to have cotton gloves for. Lu and I sat on an outcrop overlooking the narrow path leading to a solid but rusty chain ladder descending the face to the plank road - weathered beams hanging off the rock face.
At this point I have to admit that, despite some climbing experience (Aoraki and Aspiring among others) I'm not keen on excessive exposure. Even if I'd had the regulation white cotton gloves, the idea of traversing the equivalent of the face of Yosemite's El Capitan, without a decent belay, gave me the shivers. Lu however was still keen, so he checked the fit of his gloves, and set out towards the ladder. By this time his parents had arrived, having kept in touch by mobile phone. I watched their faces as their son started the descent. I also thought about China's one child policy, and thought they were remarkably sanguine as their only son edged over the drop. However they looked a lot more cheerful when after a short distance Lu decided that he wasn't up to the adventure either, and returned to us.
Fortunately, despite legends surrounding the plank road, there is in fact more than one route to the highest point of Hua Shan, the South Peak. I followed the relatively straightforward steps, and stopped for a snack at the Yangtian (Black Dragon) pool, a natural rock pool on the summit.
From here a clear trail led north to the West peak, up a spectacular rock ridge, supposedly the result of the loyal son Chen Xiang splitting the mountain asunder with an axe to save his mother from the Black Dragon.
The West Peak hosts several Taoist monasteries. In a courtyard of the main temple, an old monk dressed in dark cotton jacket and cap enjoyed a smoke, oblivious to the smartly dressed city tourists around him. Here it's common to spend the night, to see the summit dawn, but I wanted to get back before dark, so started descending the pleasant paths that weaved through pine forest, passing newly constructed hotels, catering for the increased traffic from the cablecar. Soon I was back at the north peak, and eschewed the cable car again to follow the steep paths down into the valley.
Despite the tiredness of a long day, I felt steady and confident as I descended, until a polite cough behind me alerted me that someone wanted to pass. I paused, and let a sinewy porter dash past down the slope, balancing a pole across his shoulders with two huge sacks of rubbish, clearing the mountain of the day's tourist excreta.
I carried on, more slowly now, but it was still just light when I walked back under the railway line and down the street. On the corner the market woman was still there, hawking her postcards and gloves to tomorrows climbers.
The next day, I loaded my bike on to the bus back to Xian and eventually, a plane back to New Zealand, and on Hua Shan another bevy of travellers began their one route to the summit.