There are stories—in China there are always stories—about Hua Shan’s connection to Chinese martial arts. Famous novels depict the sacred mountain as a ritual meeting place for Kung-fu tournaments and a sword competition where the winner is given a sword and proclaimed the champion. The “Hua Shan Lun Jian,” or Mount Hua’s Discussion of the Sword is a well-known cultural detail that just about anyone that visits the place can tell you about thanks to the “kung-fu” author, Jin Yong. Though we didn’t have to defend our honor in a bloody duel, I did descend the mountain with a sword. Here, I’ll tell you about it…
From the hostel we took the subway to the train station, and then the train to the town Hua Shan is located. We missed our original train because of a confusion with the time…Not my fault! Anyway, because of that we did not have tickets with seats on the one we finally got on. For about twenty minutes we managed to pretend like we belonged in two seats while others filed in and stood around in the cramped compartment. Eventually our luck ran out, though. Someone with a ticket number matching (my stolen) seat booted me out and I had to stand. Xiao Ming managed to hang on to her seat and the two of us ended up sharing it for the rest of the journey. The whole ride took about an hour and a half or two. It was my first time on a train.
At the base of the mountain chain, and the entrance to the site, the jagged, sword-tipped peaks were too far away to be intimidating, but the place sure was pretty. Xiao Ming and I ambled about in the welcome/info center, a state-of-the-art, artistically designed building that would be at home on the Enterprise. We paid the absurdly expensive tickets to get into the mountain and then grabbed some lunch at one of the restaurants on the bottom floor. We had just missed a group departing for the mountain, so the center was mostly empty. As I’ve mentioned in different ways before: that doesn’t happen much in China. It’s one of those things I just can’t get around—I don’t like big crowds. I don’t even go to the stores here unless I absolutely have to. I will wait until all my resources at home are completely tapped before braving the throngs and overly heated supermarkets…I digress…
A shuttle bus took us up to the cable cars. The ride up through the base of the mountain was not what I expected. The shuttle driver reminded me of the van driver I had on the way back to Chiang Mai from Pai, a few months ago in Thailand. Both of them took the curves at ridiculous speeds and seemed to have forgotten what the brake was used for. Homicidal driving was not what captured my attention, though. It was the mountain. Rising up on all sides of the shuttle, the mountain seemed to just explode from the ground and shoot up into the clouds. Peering out of the windows while being jerked left and right as we rounded curves, I felt like I was looking straight up at skyscrapers. The peaks touched the sky like sword points being raised in celebration. I tried to take some pictures, but none could really do the scene any justice.
We walked up to the cable car place and weaved through the empty metal guide things that people have to walk around when they’re in lines…what are those damn things called? As we entered the actual building part I caught the screen of one of the TVs hanging from the ceiling. Avril, from at least eight years ago, belting one out. No worries. No one paid her any mind.
The cable car ride up through the mountains brought us even closer to those sharp peaks. We boarded the car along with three others. As we ascended one of the others, a middle-aged woman, buried her face in her husband’s shoulder. He joked with her, saying we were going to fall and that if the wind picked up we’d all drop. Most of us laughed, but it was easy to see that the woman had a genuine fear of heights. I loved being up that high. I kept leaning over close to the glass to get different views, but once I looked straight down at the cars that trailed behind us I got a bit dizzy. The angle, movement, and small space of the cable car kinda had that affect.
I know, I know…why didn’t we just climb up the mountain? That option was available to us, but we just didn’t have the time. We needed to catch a bus back by six, and even at the top, it takes hours to hike along the ridges and peaks. Taking the cable car saved us time and got us to the wonderful scenery faster.
As one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains, Hua Shan is pretty famous. But it’s also considered dangerous. Xiao Ming’s father told her about how tourists die every year along the hike up the mountain. The narrow walkways, sharp angles and paths, they claim lives all the time apparently. That may be true, but our experience up and around the sacred mountain proved relatively uneventful.
The views were great, though. Up and down the peaks we hiked, snapping shots and resting to enjoy the scenery a lot. My thoughts drifted in and out of focus, tossed about, no doubt, by the wind and the simple beauty and history that surrounded me.
We bumped into two familiar faces, two of the girls who’d gone on the Terra Cotta tour with us. We chatted and they told us we still had several more peaks to see before we had to turn back around.
Along the way up you can see thousands of little locks with Chinese messages carved into them hanging from the guard chains. These messages contain names, hopes, desires, and even lovers’ names. People buy them, carve their special message, and then lock them where they want. They are given a key and a little note that describes the location of their lock. The hope is that one day you can come back and claim it if you want. Xiao Ming bought one and put her parents’ names on it. She said that she hopes one day they can make it back and unlock it together.
Then, at one of the peaks, Xiao Ming bought me a sword. A bit paradoxically, the swords are cheaper at the top than they are at the base. It’s illegal to own guns in China, and in the Liaoning Province in the NE of China even knives aren’t that common, but in the Shaanxi province and around Xi’an, they are everywhere. For the last few days I had been seeing booths and stores with swords of all description. I have loved swords ever since I saw the first Highlander years and years ago, and even have a small collection in America. Seriously, I even tracked down the dragon katana that Connor McCloud uses. So when Xiao Ming asked me which one I liked I checked them out and told her. I never thought she’d say, “Okay, let’s wrap ‘er up.” When she began negotiating with the guy sellin’ them I butted in and tried to stop her, but she carried on until the two had come to an agreeable price. After that I still tried to tell her it wasn’t worth it, that I didn’t need it, that it was too much, blah, blah, blah….To no avail. A few minutes later we were trekking back along the path we’d come, sword in tow.
On the way down we took some pictures, and since I was one of the few white guys on the mountain, AND I happened to be carrying a sword, people wanted to get in on the picture taking. I took about three or four pictures with different people, even letting one of them hold the sword, and then we got a few of our own.
Ever since my hiking trip with my dad along the Great Smokey Mountains I’ve noticed a difference in the endurance of my knees. Up is no problem. Down is where the knees wanna just give out. It takes a while before any discomfort flares up, but it eventually does, reminding me that my old neighbor was right: jumping off roofs and doing flips out of trees as a teen has finally caught up to me.
We made it to the cable car place and descended, taking in the change of angle. Rising through the peaks was still more dramatic, but coming down through them also had its appeal.
On our way down the walkway we sat down on one of the benches lining the path, and I finished off the rest of the sandwich from our earlier lunch. As the other people filed out down the path we caught a few of them glancing at us. Stares are just something you have to get used to as an Expat, but these stares and conversations were even more specific. I understood some of it, phrases like, “Foreigner with sword,” and “look.” I asked Xiao Ming to clarify.
“They’re saying, ‘Why does the foreigner think he deserves the sword?’ They’re referencing the old stories.”
Of course I was annoyed and wanted to use my limited Chinese to ask them, “What are you looking at?” but Xiao Ming gave me a better phrase: Jiao Liang Yi Xia (roughly: let’s compare). It’s a phrase that kungfu fighters used to begin a fight or contest of ability.
Once off the mountain and back at the train station we encountered the first of what would become many “sword transporting” issues. First off, before stepping into the place I handed the sword to Xiao Ming. It was in a box and a red string was tied to either end of it so you could sling it over your shoulder, but I’m white. And in China. Carrying a sword is just too much attention. Giving her the box just bypassed some of the superficial issues that could come our way.
I set my bag on the security belt and it passed through just fine. I walked ahead of Xiao Ming and tried to seem nondescript to the point of just plain old ignorable…By the way, never, ever works here. As soon as the sword passed through the woman behind the scanner sat bolt upright. She motioned to the box and then to the other security guard. I didn’t make eye contact with either one. Instead, I grabbed it and set it against the railing like I didn’t have the faintest clue what they were on about. Then the male guard came over to it and asked in Chinese what was inside it. I shrugged my shoulders and told him in English that I didn’t understand. I made a gesture to Xiao Ming and grabbed the sword and headed off in her direction. I gave her a heads up when I got to her just before the guard came over.
Xiao Ming told them it was a fake sword for her father, a gift for an old sick man. It was tied up tight and was not dangerous, at all. They relented and let us through under the condition that we didn’t open it or swing it around on the train. I kind of just stared at him when he said that. I wanted to ask what the hell fun could I have with it on a train if I couldn’t lop it around and do some permanent damage to body parts, but I didn’t…
Anyway, once we got back to Xi’an we took another bus to get us on the same block as the hostel. Before heading back we picked up some newspaper and tape. At the hostel we taped the sword up, using about five newspapers and an entire roll of packaging tape. Hopefully having it sealed up would limit the amount of bullcrap we’d have to deal with on the rest of our trip (barely any help, is the answer to that one).
We grabbed some more food at the hostel, but the atmosphere had changed. As soon as you walked in, the place felt more like a club. On the second floor a live band played and a Chinese girl who sounded like Sarah Mclachlin sang songs in Mandarin that I had no hope of understanding. Customers who were definitely not staying at the hostel came and went, ordering food, beer, smoking, and chatting loudly. The Han Tang Hostel is a strange and interesting place. They play American country music in the mornings, alternative international ballads in the evenings, and on our last night there they had a Chinese girl with a voice combo of Mclachlin and Pink. And the staff stayed friendly and helpful the whole time, even the over-worked girl from that first day maintained a scary amount energy and patience at all times. She even laughed at my jokes in Chinese. I spoke Chinese, she didn’t laugh in Chinese…
But we were leaving in the morning. Off to Luoyang in the morning, to see the famous Longman Grottoes. We packed our bags, and turned in for an early night. I dreamed of cutting things with my new sword.
The next morning, on our walk out of the hostel, we ran into Lady Jia Jia. She smiled at us broadly and wished us happy travels.