Xi’an, China – Thursday 3rd to Monday 7th August
We’d made a terrible mistake. Any future travellers to China out there, follow our advice. Never, ever, do a touristy thing in China in the summer on the weekend.
A couple of years ago, Phil had heard of an amazing cliffside plank walk where, clipped to a safety line, intrepid types can test their nerves with a 2000m drop below them. So, on Saturday, we set our sights on Hua Shan – one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains.
We had intended to beat the crowds, so awoke at four thirty in the morning to make sure we got the first bus out of Xi’an. Hua Shan was two hours away, and we were hoping to be among the first up on to the mountain that day.
The sheer cliffs of Hua Shan
And we were ready to meet the bus outside the train station bright and early at five thirty. Expect there was no bus to be seen. We asked, and asked, and asked, but could glean nothing about where our bus was supposed to be.
Two hours passed before, finally, we were sitting on a bus heading out of the bus station for Hua Shan. Note: it’s not where Lonely Planet tells you it will be. This meant that we were no longer going to be at the front of the queue on the Mountain.
Once we arrived at the village we had to navigate our way to the visitor centre – not as straightforward as one might like. Then, at the centre we went back and forth half a dozen times trying to work out where we needed to be. We had decided to take the west cable car to the summit; a forty five minute bus ride away from the visitor centre. To get on the bus, you had to queue, queue, and queue; then queue some more.
By the time we were actually on the cable car we had been queueing for more than four hours. And we had set out from our hostel more than nine hours before.
The West Cable Car was, frankly, stunning. Supposedly, rivalling the most incredible scenery in the world. Sheer cliffs and dizzying drops fell from dramatic peaks around and above us. The perpetual haze shrouding not so distant hills well before the unseen horizon.
The incredible West Cable Car at Hua Shan
Then, we were at the top. Well, close enough as to make no matter. We had just a couple of hundred metres to climb and a couple of kilometres to walk. However, so did the scores and scores before us. We were effectively, once again, in just another queue. People swarmed the top of the mountain. There were stalls and hawkers, and even a restaurant at the top.
Eventually we make it to the South Peak for the sky walk, only to join another queue. This time it was approaching an hour and a half before, finally, harnessed up, we stepped onto the steel ladder embedded in the sheer cliff to begin our sky walk.
The view, again, was spectacular. There is something quite wonderful being clipped to the side of a cliff with nothing but a couple of planks to walk on, and two thousand metres below you. Yet neither of us could quite muster a sense of how dramatic, or amazing an experience this should have been. Because we were simply in another queue.
The long drop
There were dozens of people on the plank walk; clambering over and under each other; squeezed against the rock; plus a harnessed photographer taking snaps for posterity – shouting at everyone to hurry up. The occasional scream would pierce the clamour as someone was pushed a little too far out, or unbalanced on the edge by the crowd. It was close to pandemonium, and nothing like the experience we had hoped for.
Best not look down, ay, Hannah
However, I am certain that under the right circumstances, in low season, in the early morning, perhaps on a Tuesday, it would have been one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Sadly, for us, it wasn’t to be. But Hua Shan was still one of the most beautiful mountains I have been on – one that I could recommend anyone to see. Perhaps that is half the problem. With well over a billion people in China, that’s a lot of people to see one mountain.
On Sunday we awoke early once again. We were off to see the Terracotta Army, and were determined to beat the crowds. This time we were on the first bus. This time we were at the very front of the queue, arriving an hour and a half before the ticket office opened.
The Terracotta Army
And for that first twenty minutes at the site, it was well worth it. For a precious few moments, we had the place to ourselves. The warriors are amazing to see; standing stoically in formation, ever ready for a battle that will never come. To think that the site was hidden for hundreds of years, to be discovered purely by chance by farmers digging a well. Each soldier different, each face unique.
Every soldier different from the next
It is thought that archeologists have uncovered just two thousand of up to six thousand terracotta figures. Every one a work of art in its own right.
Our time with them was fleeting, however. The crowds descended, the now familiar clamour filled the air, and we beat a retreat back to Xi’an, for our final evening in the city.
Chengdu, China – Monday 7th to Monday 14th August
In China, few things are just around the corner. So, bright and early, we settled in to our bunks for the twelve hour train ride to Chengdu. This time we were in the Hard Sleeper class. Open compartments of six bunks a piece. Hannah had a bottom bunk, while Phil was up in the submarine, right by the ceiling.
Views from the submarine
The journey was actually surprisingly comfortable, and by the evening we were in the ten-million-strong city of Chengdu. We were staying at Steam Hostel, for £20 a night; and one evening got into a long conversation with the proprietor, Mao Mao, on the pros and cons of modern Chinese life. So often, we form our own opinions about the rest of the world without actually speaking or listening to those who inhabit it. The great thing about travelling slowly, as we are, is that we have time to meet local people and have real conversations. Hearing about the places we are journeying through from the inside.
Waiting for the train
Chengdu is in Panda country, so, dutifully, we took the time to visit the snappily titled Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Considering how difficult breeding captive pandas has proved to be, this place is an amazing success story, with several new births each year.
Once again, it was incredibly busy; despite us being there before it opened and were very nearly first in the queue. We were lucky enough to see both red and giant pandas in the big enclosures (they are a little shy), before joining the merry-go-round that was the breeding houses.
Pandas doing panda things
These were a little more zoo-like, but afforded us the chance to spot three brand new baby pandas. The chances of us seeing that anywhere else in the world are slim to none. Despite the crowds, it was a rare privilege.
Next week, we continue south to Nanning, hoping to get our visas and our tickets across the border to Vietnam.
Hannah and Phil x