Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Steep mountain, sore calves (part I of our Hua Shan adventure)

By Kevin

Wes, Ruth and I slowly made our way past the peddlers selling 1 yuan gloves and entered the oddly empty temple at the base of Hua Shan. We knew it wasn't supposed to be as crowded as usual because school was in session, but this was still a Saturday. Only when we made it to the top of the temple did we find out we'd entered the wrong gate, because we wanted to ride the cable car halfway up the mountain.

So we made our way back down the street. Peddlers, thinking we were fresh off an all-night hike offered us beds at their hotels and meals. We just shook our heads and plodded on, disappointed that we'd wasted several hundred steps of muscle power.

We hopped in a 10 yuan taxi to cover the short distance to the other entrance to the National Park, where conveniently no local buses seemed to go. Then we plopped down 20 yuan for the absolutely essential 15-minute bus ride up to the cable car. Then another 100 yuan for an entrance ticket and another 110 yuan for the also absolutely essential cable car ride. Why they don't just combine these all into one 230 yuan ticket is beyond me. I didn't see a single person walking up the bus route to the cable car, though there were a few brave souls who opted directly for the stairs once we got there. So maybe just combine the entrance ticket with the bus ticket.

Anyway, as we waited in the 10 minute line for the cable car, we admired the 60 degree climb it took up the mountain, knocking perhaps 1,500 stair steps off of our journey. We marveled at the blue skies and wondered how many accidents the cable car had had, figuring they wouldn't want to risk paying the 50,000 RMB life insurance policy that came with the ticket should they lose one of us. As we sat down, we were grateful to see that the cable car had been in fact made by an Austrian company. We felt more secure.

After 5-10 minutes ascending the mountain in a cable car, we began our climb. We admired locks that had been attached to chain railings. Adoring couples supposedly buy a lock, shackle it to the chain and throw away the key, symbolically locking their love for eternity, or at least until the lock rusts off. And of course, there were numerous shopkeepers peddling locks, alongside various Hua Shan trinkets, including a special Hua Shan Olympic gold medal (they had silver and bronze as well, but I didn't see anyone buying those.

We trudged up stair after stair for a good half hour, including ascending the “Heavenly Ladder,” a stone ladder ascending a rock on an 80 degree vertical with only two-inch divots in the rocks and chains to help pull you up, before we got a good glimpse of it: “Black Dragon Ridge” (I think that was it's name, at least, though one sign changed the color, calling it “Blue Dragon Ridge.”) Anyone who wants to see the North, East or West peaks at Hua Shan has to ascend the perilous Black Dragon Ridge, which takes you up a perhaps 70 degree vertical climb for a few hundred stairs.

As we gazed at it from afar, we debated whether or not to attempt the ridge. We were a bit out of shape after a year back in the states, so we were already huffing and puffing.

“Are we going to regret climbing it or are we going to regret not climbing it?” Wes asked.

“Probably both.”

After worried looks, we began trudging up the steep staircase, bolstered on both sides by chain railing. By the time we reached a rest area overlooking the stairs from the top,we were exhausted. Our calves burned. Our lungs hurt. My Achilles ached. After a few minutes of regathering our breath in the thin mountain air, we continued up the slope into a series of switchbacks surrounded by trees. Little did we realize, we were only a little more than halfway up the peak and that we'd be hiking for a couple more hours before we reached the tip of the Western Peak, which we aimed for.

My legs began to shake with each step and I began to think about how we were going to have to go back down all these steep embankments to get back to the cable car.

I'd estimate that the climbing population was 99 percent Chinese. In our entire time on the mountain, we saw only a handful of foreigners. Probably less than 10. There were thousands of Chinese. Some smiled and shouted “ZhaiYou,” encouraging us up the mountain. “Only 10 more minutes to the top,” one said with a smile, seeing us resting our aching bodies at the side of the stairs. “You are very close.”

We reached the peak and soaked in the cold breeze, amazed at the beauty of the peaks, mostly below us now. Shocked that we could see the Yellow River in the distance through the haze.

But for every few encouraging comment we heard on the way up, Wes translated the snickers and probably unintentional jabs that stabbed our pride as we descended the mountain, with seemingly fresh-legged Chinese people racing ahead of us, taking the uneven steps lightly, seemingly unconcerned that heavy legs might betray them and send them hurling over the cliffs.

“If they can do it, I can do it,” a woman in her 60s said to her companion, nodding to Wes and I.

On the way down, we moved much more quickly. However, stabbing pain made my left knee throb every 15-minutes. As we rested for a moment, several groups flew down the steps beside us.

“Are you going up or down?” one girl asked.

“Down,” said Wes.

“Look, the fat foreigners made it,” she said to her companion, perhaps forgetting that Wes had just answered her question, demonstrating that he could understand Chinese.

“It can't be that hard if they can do it,” said another.

Inside I fumed, wanting to shout my amazement that someone with absolutely no muscle mass could accomplish the feat. Immediately, I was convicted about my pride and my need to (as Henri Nowen would put it in today's Wheaton reading) "shake off (my) compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of the Lord," but instead I fumed. I dreamed of ways to lash out, to regain my self-respect. But inside, I heard Dad saying, "no, let this go. I'll fight for you. The next morning, the recorded message we listened to reminded me that pride is our enemy because it blares in our ear: "fight for your rights, fight for your self-respect," when in truth we need humility. Then again today, reading a passage in Henri Nowen's "The Way of the Heart," the topic returned in his discussion of our need for daily solitude to fight our compulsion toward anger and greed: "What else is anger than the ipulsive response to the experience of being deprived," he writes. "When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word."

Harsh, perhaps, but so true.

Aching, we approached the cable car, grateful that we'd have the opportunity to sit soon. I tried to lift the hearts of the people around us and stand in awe of the Maker of this beauty, but it was a struggle. Finally, during our half-hour wait to ride back to the base, my heart was calmed. I was grateful to be spared anymore climbing.