All set from the previous days walk, I woke at around 08:30, packed my bags, and went downstairs to check out and meet with our new friends (we had met a Canadian couple the night before and were going to hike with them). leaving our bags with the hotel, we grabbed a few complimentary walking sticks and headed out.
Immediately we were met with a bit of confusion, according to the map, we could start at two points, one required a taxi ride, and the other was a 10 minute walk away. The closer added a bit of distance (how wrong we were), but meant not having to catch a taxi, so we started off for the closer point.
The first part of this walk did not inspire confidence in any of us that we were in for anything special. There seems to be an underlying way of dealing with wonderous things in China, and that is to “Vegas” it to within an inch of its life. So the first few hours saw us wandering along paved roads disturbingly carved into natures glory, speckled along these roads are construction sites for soon to be hotels and shops. If they can sell it, they will. To say it was a little bit underwhelming is an understatement, and you soon start questioning the point of “hiking” along a road. But, ever the optimists, we carried on, and soon came to a trail leading off the beaten (or tarred) trail. A shop owner pointed the direction to the first Monkey part of the hike (which we thought headed up and further into our journey), and we were soon wandering into a more natural scene. However an hour or so later, we were confronted by hundreds of Chinese tourists. This meant something was very wrong, mainly because the local tourists don’t do the hard parts, they stick to the bottom of the mountain, or catch the bus all the way up to the good parts (did I mention a road has been built to the top of the mountain? “Vegas” it up baby). Our fears were correct, and it turns out we had done 3 or 4 hours of hiking to reach the alternative start point! We had hiked up and down stairs and roads for all that time, and were just now at the start!
Well there was nothing to be done about it, so with somewhat heavy hearts, and already tired legs, we began the journey anew. Again, the first part of this trail is not very pretty, or rather it is not very natural, the “Vegas” way of doing things was rearing its ugly head and we found ourselves walking amongst hundreds of people, along very unnatural paths, and past water which was definitely not flowing in its preferred pattern. At its lowest point there are statues and Chinese lettering carved into the mountain, they depict ancient scenes and are cracked and covered in the detritus formed from millenia, and then you see a few that are actually broken, with metal pipes and fibreglass showing, and you realise that they have probably only been there for a decade, you crafty chinese you.
As a side note it is worth mentioning a strange going on around this point in the journey, one which I have no explanation for. At a point where tourists can soak their feet in the passing stream, we witnessed a cat scratch in the pebbles, urinate and then cover it up again, the strange part was when a Chinese fellow walked over to the spot, dropped to his haunches and proceeded to dig up the cat piss?!? After a few pokes around, he seemed to give up and walk away. What. The. Hell?
We hit the area known for its “wild” monkeys, along with the associated crowds of “wild” tourists, all shouting and pointing, trying to get their pictures with these miserable looking creatures. The monkeys haven’t been wild in quite a few years methinks, they are wild in that if you’re not careful the little bastards will go you, but not so wild that they haven’t gotten used to being fed packets of corn and “posing” for pictures. To be honest, it is a little depressing, and I was glad to put the whole scene behind us. And it was upon doing so that things started to look up, figuratively, and very, very, literally.
Up we go
The crowds thin out quickly, the women in high heels finally admitting defeat, and the men not really caring to move beyond the photo opportunities with those crazy monkeys (except for those in the seats being carried uphill, while, I might add, typing on their smartphones). This is where the mountain becomes a mountain, and the difficulty seems not worth the spectacle to those not wanting to work up a sweat. To say this is hiking is probably a little misleading, carrying on with the theme of jazzing things up, what was undoubtedly once little paths winding their way around the mountain chain, are now very well-built staircases that seemingly go on forever! And not just any staircase, but a staircase with handrails built from metal and covered in plaster to look like logs, about 40 kilometers worth.
With the diminished opportunity for income, comes a natural beauty mostly untouched. The mountains stretch up all around you covered in greenery, deep folds like draped cloth dip and rise, the reason stairs have to go down after a hard hour long climb. Suddenly it seems you have found nature, the view stretches out to where mist renders it invisible, the moist air begins to cool as you rise and water collects in pools and rivulets all around. The trees and plants become more dense and insects and reptiles start to show themselves all along the path, and there are some crazy insects in China (all edible of course). The stairs, although still well buiilt start to show signs of wear the higher up you go, small rock slides having wiped away their manicured appearance introduce an element of natural flair to increasingly uneven mossy ground. It takes a few hours, and a lot of sweat, but it is amazing up here. Our walking group starts to fall into its own pace and spread across the distances. Such are the twists and turns, ups and downs that a 100 steps difference is enough to create the illusion of complete isolation up here.
The walking, is tough, tougher than Tiger Leaping Gorge, and if I was not wielding the benefit of that walk, I would have struggled equally on this one. Fortunately my fitness levels were up and I managed to once again conquer the aches and pains that come with pushing through your perceived limitations. It is a stairwell from hell, never seeming to end, stairs climb into mist and you tell yourself that surely it cant be much higher. And then another unending staircase presents itself, and you have no option but to take another step. I used to struggle doing 10 minutes on the stairmaster in the gym, this was like 10 hours on the stairmaster, and yet, you just keep on keeping on. Then out of nowhere the path starts to drop and you find yourself heading down steps for 20 minutes, and then you go up again, it gets so you start cursing the downhill, because you know it precedes another ascent into hell, but a marvelously scenic hell.
We had walked for about 10 hours on the first day, the rain had started to fall and night was creeping in, Marty and I met up at a little shop and were taking a break of biscuits and water before the last push for somewhere to sleep. At this point we had no idea if we still had another 5km or 2km, a Chinese fella had said there were about 4km left, but he had never climbed here before and I put little credence in his guesstimate. Sugary goodness inhaled, and legs aching, we set out to finish this thing (the halfway point anyway). Remarkably and with a huge sense of elation, about 20 minutes later a monastery appeared out of the dense misty air, we had made it! That is as long as they have room.
Despite a hugely excited young Chinese fella (Jack), telling us they were probably full, we managed to book a dorm room, dump our stuff and head for the showers. The monastery is comfortable (60 yuan for a dorm bed), serves vego food (about 20 yuan for a meal), and is somewhere to rest your weary feet after the days graft. All 4 of us were knackered, which made it tough to deal with Jack and his friends, all excited to be practicing their english with actual english speakers. So after a tasty meal (although anything would taste great when your body is screaming for calories), it was off to bed for what turned out to be a pretty short sleep.
At about 4am, a group of people decided sleep time was over, and that their incredibly loud talking was OK with everyone. Although most seemed more than capable of ignoring the din, I could not, and with weary legs rose to see what the day had to offer. Wandering around the monastery on my own was amazing, only a few mountain locals and monks were walking around preparing for the day, the sun was still down and only a few well placed lights were burning for early risers like myself. Although breakfast was only supposed to start at 7am, I went to the kitchen and was greeted by the friendly cooks. I was made to sit down, and before I knew it was tucking into a bowl of congee (like porridge without sugar), 2 giant buns (which they proudly gestured was hand made by them), and a plate of chilli green beans and cucumber. Not my usual fare but great in the solitary silence of a monastery kitchen.
I then walked back to the main temple and was told that the monks were doing a service, so with a little searching, I found myself standing at the doorway of a prayer hall, watching 6 or 7 monks perform a ceremony for a few dozen local chinese people. It was a beautiful thing to witness, people chanted and bowed, incense sticks were lit and lifted above the monks head, then walked out of the room, where I watched a monk say a silent prayer as he dropped them into a waiting vessel. People chosen for a reason I will never know, were walked up to the centre and given directions by the head monk. Kneel there, bow now, recite this chant. The ceremony lasted about half an hour and then people began filing out of the hall, a few looked my way and smiled, but most just picked up their things and went on to start their day, a monk in grey robes brought out still burning incense sticks and placed them in one of the 3 vessels in the courtyard, a few more silent prayers, and that was it, I found myself alone again, savouring what I had just seen.
As the sun began to rise, I ambled around the monastery, looking at the silhouette of the peaks as their detail became clearer. There was silence aside from the occasional banter between unseen faces, and mountain creatures waking as they obeyed ancient circadian rhythms. I wanted to walk through this amazing landscape as the veil of darkness lifted. So deciding I couldn’t wait any more, I grabbed my things from where my still sleeping companions lay, scribbled a note about my departure, and hit the silent murky stairs waiting to challenge my still aching muscles.
There was supposed to be a plateau as the first part of the walk today, it ended up being a series of ups and downs, and then a loooong up. So be it, this is how you want it mountain, lets roll! After a few hours of strenous walking, I was treated to a miraculous view, the day had started out clear and mountains poked through a sea of cloud. Far off in the distance the monastery where I had slept appeared as a tiny speck on a far off slope, so far already, and so far to go. Continuing to climb more vistas became apparent and more photo breaks (more like any excuse to stop breaks) presented themselves. Out here, far from the maddening crowd, it was truly a natural wonder.
I soon bumped into a German couple, and after a few breathless exchanges we found ourselves more or less walking in unison. They were friendly and a welcome distraction from the endless staircases. We walked past more monkey sections, being grunted at by the mostly disinterested scruffballs (until I pulled out a snickers and had to make a hasty retreat), more incredible scenery, and more locals, the ones who actually live up or around here. It is somewhat deflating to watch a dozen or so old girls and men, probably in their seventies, strolling along without breaking a sweat. But they are very sweet, and would almost always stop and offer me some sort of greeting, huge smile and often a laugh at my sweaty visage. A few even gave me handfuls of funny looking fruit to power the rest of my journey (once one gave, the others couldn’t miss out and made sure I took food from their bags as well, so cute).
All in all, this was my favourite part of the walk, for the solitude I enjoyed through a lot of it, and because of the spectacular views. After a few hours though, the views dissapeared behind mist and light rain, which continued unabated for the rest of the hike. Eventually, like the view, the solitude had to end, and we popped off the path into a busy area where the buses drop those unwilling to walk the distance. From here the path was a lot busier, with the crowds only easing a bit where the cable car offered another short cut.
It was still a 2 hour walk of unbelievably steep stairs to the final goal, The Golden Peak, but knowing the journey was almost done gave me a bit more strength, and I started taking steps 2 by 2, and then jogging up (much to the amusement of my German friends who exclaimed that “You’re crazy!”). On one of my sit downs a mother asked if she could take a picture of me with her kids (which makes a nice change from the sneaky “He doesn’t know I’m taking his picture” snappers), always happy to oblige I popped one on my knee, which freaked him out a bit and he quickly jumped down, but at his mothers insistence the two stood next to me and looked wearily at the camera lens while she snapped away. The German fella (who’s name alludes me right now), took a pic for me with my camera, and seeing the scary knackered look in my puffy eyes and red face, I can understand the child’s fear.
The top, I think
Although the peak is supposed to be amazing, it was covered in mist, so after a brief walk around the statue and square, we headed back down the stairs, amazed that we had managed to climb them in the first place. Although the initial plan had been to stay the night and watch the sunrise. My tired legs, sweat drenched clothes, and the misty weather helped me to decide to jump on a bus, and be in the warm embrace of the Teddy Bear Hostel. So it was, a few hours later, at about 4pm, I was showered, changed and sitting back with a smoke and a coffee (severely lacking on the way up). Reflecting on the challenge and the beauty of the mountain, and of how damn good it felt to be sitting down. In less than 2 days we had walked around 40km, climbed 2500 meters, and walked up and down thousands upon thousands of steps. Quite a feat, I think I like this hiking thing.
A pleasant interaction
The following morning I was sitting down to breakfast and had noticed a young family staring in my direction, this is fairly common so I smiled back and carried on like normal. After a few minutes however they all 4 came over and sat down at my table. The father or maybe uncle introduced everyone and asked if I minded. We chatted for about 20 minutes, they asked me all sorts of questions, referring to the young daughter for any trickier words, and told me how she would maybe be going to Australia next year. They were so friendly, humble and kind that it was genuinely nice to chat to them, they obviously love the opportunity to talk to a foreigner, and I was glad to be the one. They requested a few photos, and after some happy bunny ear snaps with the young daughter, they thanked me, wished me a good journey, and went on their way. I love these interactions, and am left with a delightful memory from their frequent occurrence. What a cool and friendly place is this giant country.
Some pics from the hike