Huashan, Holy Daoist Mountain
If you particularly love fabulous karst limestone mountains your greatest experience in China will be climbing the steep Daoist Mountain of Huashan (Wha-shon). But then everything depends on the weather, perhaps in a fashion the exact opposite of what you might think.
Huashan is 40 miles east of Xian where a single city bus leaves at 7 a.m., far too early for you. After a leisurely breakfast you meander to the minibus menagerie next to the train station and climb on the first one going to Huashan, and you wait because no minibus leaves in China before it's full. The forty five minute relaxation period coalesces the common interests of the passengers in sharp words to the bus driver who keeps trying to entice more passengers and usurp your personal space, whereupon you become fast friends with the other passengers.
Upon your long awaited arrival a couple from Beijing, he works for FedEx, insists on escorting you to your Huashan-town hotel lest you get lost in the tiny burg of a few thousand people. They and the other Chinese are going to climb the mountain to arrive on the top at midnight. It's a religious thing. Instead of a night climb (what could you see!) you instead check out the Daoist Temple at the base of the mountain, eat at the homey town cafes, informal affairs under a communal roof with four dozen Chinese patrons and you, and it starts drizzling before you nod off for a good night's sleep, resting up for the ordeal ahead.
The next morning you pay $8 to enter the national park of Huashan Mountain, to hike in driving rain, guaranteeing if not a mystical experience at least a wet and misty one. You follow a barely seen river the first few miles, up and up and up. An ethereal temple materializes from the myst and you pass several cargomen, your own term for the Chinese men of burden who tote a hundred plus pounds up the vertical mountain. The last few hours is indeed vertical, up precipitous steps, little to see, much effort and you're soaked, wandering what foolishness got you into this. Suddenly you're among a sizeable group of people, standing on a flat spot. The rain abruptly stops and you wonder around in a daze, in a sudden flash realizing you're on the top of North Peak. Your hotel is ten paces away and the fog is lifting. The views are incredible and that's out the window of your hotel room, a $37 affair that offers little beyond the view. You stumble back outside, unprepared for additional exertion beyond a few reluctant steps and are overwhelmed: A miniature temple sits below the top, your hotel glommed onto a sheer wall that drops 1000 vertical feet to hard rock. There's a connecting vertical spine from North Peak, something out of Star Wars, the rocky karst of Green Dragon Ridge leading heavenward toward the other peaks: West, South and East. There is no question of not forging forward notwithstanding sheer exhaustion. On the Ridge you meet your Chinese friends from the minibus as the fog, after a single hour's abeyance, redescends. It's dark again, nothing to see.
You resolve to meet the sunrise and as it does perhaps four dozen days a year, morning dawns crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, and you share it with three young Chinese. The rain has washed Huashan clean and what you thought incredible in yesterday's late afternoon is eclipsed by the unbelievable clarity, the other peaks standing in space as the sun blinks up. For three hours you scurry up ridges, over sheer drops, to the other three peaks along precipitous white granite cliffs carved with rivulets in stone, Chinese temples high on West Peak, mountains the next valley over, Huanshan town almost straight down below East Peak. You wimp out and take the cable car down, catching a bus to Xian showing Pearl Harbor dubbed in Chinese, passengers cheering destruction of the Japanese they uniformly seem to dislike while the only thing you can think of is the incredible experience of Huashan, Holy Daoist Mountain, your most exhilarating experience in all of China.