(4/22) Don’t Run Out of Air
This post continues directly from my Inner Mongolia Journal. We had just finished our trip to Inner Mongolia, but still had a few days to travel before needing to come back for classes. Alex, Megan, David, and I continued on from Hohhot to Xi’an, where we then traveled to Huashan.
Once we arrived at the Hohhot airport, we went through security and waited by the gate for our flight. Unlike most of my trips, I had packed two bags for this excursion. We would be traveling for 5 days, and that was just a little bit too hard for me to do in a backpack, so I had a rolling carry-on as well. This had never been a problem at an airport before, so I was surprised when I got stopped at the gate for having too large a bag. I argued with the attendant for quite some time over it, telling her that it would indeed fit safely onto the plane, as it had many times before. She kept saying it wouldn’t and eventually the only way I could progress past that point was to let her tag my bag.
However, she didn’t actually take my bag, just tagged it. So naturally, as soon as I was out of sight I removed the tag. We got onto a bus on the tarmac to travel to the plane itself and while we were waiting for the bus to fill up, another person came up to question me about my bag. This is when I started getting pretty upset about it. There were several people around me with equally large, or larger bags and they were not getting checked. One of these people was even in my travel group. I had somehow pissed off the airplane Gods and they were taking their vengeance out on my bag. They put another tag on my bag, but still didn’t actually take it from me, so I took it off again afterwards.
Once the bus arrived at the plane I tried my best to carry my bag discreetly, not rolling it and hiding it behind my body as best as I could. Alas, I think at this point all the employees associated with my flight had been told about the tall white guy with the beard and his horribly dangerous and incredibly large, small carry-on bag. As I was boarding the plane they stopped me again and actually took the bag this time. I was not happy. I became even less happy when I boarding and found that there was plenty of room for the bag. The reason this argument had come about was because this plane was smaller than normal. It was the kind of plane a company would have as a private jet. As such, the overhead bins were very small, but there was still plenty of room under the seat in front of me for the bag. No need to steel it from me.
The one saving grace from the whole experience was that my bag was the first out of the baggage claim at the other side, but I still maintain it should never have been there in the first place. Now in Xi’an, we had to figure out how to get to Huashan. It was an hour and a half drive or a 45-minute train. We didn’t actually have train tickets though, but we grabbed a taxi to the train station anyways.
Once there we learned that they stop selling train tickets about 2 hours before the train departs. This seemed really strange to me. We knew that the train wasn’t fully booked, and here we were, four people ready and willing to give them money so that they wouldn’t have to run an empty seat, and we get turned away. Didn’t make sense to me. We tried and tried to get them to give us tickets, but around the time that the train left the station, we figured we weren’t going to get on the train and started to look for other options.
Our only real option left was taxi. We knew this was going to be a hard sell because Huashan was very far away and it was getting pretty late at night. Nevertheless, we headed to the taxi line of the train station and found ourselves a driver. We were expecting to have to go through a series of drivers before we found one that would be willing to make such a trek for us. Much to our surprise though, the very first driver agreed. We repeated that we wanted to go to Huashan and showed him our map a few times, just to make sure that there wasn’t a miscommunication. There wasn’t and so off we went.
I really like the cab driver we had. He was very relaxed and tried his best to converse with us. We had a half hour conversation with him, which was pretty impressive given how little we each knew of the other’s language. Overall, the ride was smooth and without surprises, with one exception. At one point on the drive, our driver pulled into a gas station. This made sense, since his gas gauge was pretty low and we had been driving for more than an hour. No way he had expected to be traveling so far when he picked us up. Much to our surprise though, he drove right on past the gas pumps and pulled up next to a big row of air compressors. He made us all get out of the car (which is apparently a thing you have to do when filling a car with gas in China) and popped the hood of the car. He then hooked up the compressor’s nozzle to a valve in the engine. We were very confused about what a car needed compressed air for, and went over to take a look. As best as we could tell, he was just filling a compressed air tank with more air. No idea was that was being used for in the engine. This was a BYD car (BYD is a Chinese brand that stands for ‘Build Your Dreams’). I guess they really make their cars differently here.
For the life of us we could not figure out why the car had to stop for air. It actually really started to bug us, since nothing we had ever learned about engines would lead us to believe that they would need a pressurized air intake. If you know why a car would need that please let me know. Even after googling it, I’m still not sure. My best guess is that it was some kind of turbo charging in the engine, but if so that’s a crazy thing to include in a base line car. I just found the whole situation so confusing and hilarious. Very out of left field.
Once we had topped of the air tank, we continued on to Huashan (without ever getting any gas). We paid the driver a very good price for his amazing services and then got checked in at the hostel. We went to the room, dropped off our bags, and then went back to the main street to look for food. It was getting pretty late at this point, and I was feeling a bit ill from all the traveling we had done in the past few days. Alex, Megan, and David all went to find some real food for dinner, while I just grabbed some snacks from a convenience store. I ate them back in the room and then crashed. Hard.
(4/23) Never Enough Printers
I woke up feeling quite a bit better this morning. After getting yet another meal at a convenience store, we all walked over to a nearby bus stop. We got on a bus that was free and went directly to the bus depot we needed to be at to go up the mountain. Once there, we walked around for a bit and found the bus which took us up the mountain. After scanning our fingerprints and having a picture taken of us (to identify the bodies) we were on our way up Huashan.
The view we had of the mountains from the bus was striking. They were somewhat similar to Huangshan in terms of color and greenery, but a bit more spread out. After 30 minutes, the bus dropped us off at a place that was definitely not the peak, but it was quite a way up from the base. They had built quite the complex there and had a few different ticketing buildings, bathrooms, and even an alpine slide.
We had to walk quite some ways to find the cable car ticketing booth and then got onto a car. This cable car was amazing. Such a feat of engineering. It took us from this sort of halfway point all the way to the highest peak in the mountain. It could span huge valleys and at some points would hang over a kilometer in the air. The supports were also massive and one of them was even suspended at a 30-degree angle off the side of a hill on a bunch of girders. The best part was that the cable car just barely couldn’t make it to the top of the mountain, so they had just carved a bit out of the side of the cliff face to make the station. It was awesome. On the way back down I took a timelapse of it.
Once at the top, we took as direct a path as possible to the plank walk. This is what Huashan is best known for and it the reason we had amended this trip onto the end of our Inner Mongolia trip. The plank walk is just a series of wooden planks nailed into a sheer cliff face, with a chain nailed a little bit above that. You just walk along the foot and a half wide plank, with an unprotected fall of over a kilometer behind you. No big deal.
We found our way to the plank walk area fairly easily. We had a quick photo shoot beforehand, because the area was very scenic and we were all wearing matching outfits. How cute!
With photos done with, we went to the line for the plank walk. Even the line was made to scare you a little about what was to come. The line was just a path carved out of the mountain side with a cliff face on one side and a chain railing on the other. The chains were also fairly low, only coming up to about my waist. There was a very steep fall on the other side of that chain, and to make matters worse people coming off the plank walk kept pushing past us to get out. This meant that the precarious path just barely wide enough for one person yet two people regularly had to fit side-by-side. Sometimes it was even worse than that, since employees were also pushing their way through the line. For some reason, they were all carrying printer boxes with them. During our hour long wait in line, we saw maybe three people with printers go by. Guess you can just never have enough.
After a time, we had finally made it to the front of the line. The plank walk is a bit safer than my early explanation let on. Thousands do it daily with no deaths or injury, due mainly to the mandatory safety harnesses. These were thrown over your shoulders only, and had two carabiners coming off of the middle on them. These clipped into a safety line secured above the path. We all got hooked in, and then had to wait for quite some time. This was because to actually reach the plank walk you needed to climb down a ladder and a ton of people were currently coming up said ladder.
Once the traffic was clear, I suddenly became very, very scared. I’m not sure why this happened, because while this was super crazy and intense, it wasn’t way out of left field in terms of life experiences. It may have had something to do with how everyone else in the group seemed to be so calm and blasé about it all. Freaked me out a bit.
Going down that ladder was awful. I was terrified the entire time and it was a challenge to make myself place each of my feet. Again, I don’t know where this sudden fear came from, because up until this point I had been super stoked to do this, looking forward to it for weeks even. I guess I psyched myself out in the line. The ladder seemed to go on forever and at some points I had to get a firm grip and just push myself away from the cliff to get my feet down to the next level.
Eventually that gave way to the actual plank walk, which was much better. This was all flat and consisted of footholds cut in the stone, and wooden boards nailed into the wall. There was a chain above it for grip and two safety lines above that. There needed to be two, because the walk was two directional, with people coming back at us the entire time. People coming from the ladder used the bottom line, while the ones going towards it used the upper line. This allowed people to pass each other without unclipping. In some places, we were getting passed by a seemingly endless stream of people, which left us huddled against the wall of what felt like an eternity (it was probably about 4 minutes).
After the initial thoughts of ‘get me the hell out of here’ and ‘what the hell am I doing?!’ wore off a little bit, I was able to take in the experience. It was stunning, being well and truly on the mountain. Nothing between you and the sheer, unforgiving cliff. It was incredible and one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.
We followed along the plank walk for 30-40 minutes. Along the way we were passed by countless returners and passed a shop built into the side of the cliff. They were selling pictures of people and had several printers going to get them developed right on the spot. Guess that explains all the printers that were so desperately needed on the planks.
After a while, we came to an uptick in the path. It started being carved out of the stone again and went up about 10 feet. At the top, it turned into an actual hiking path. It was wide, fairly even, and had a railing on the side. No harness needed. At the end of this path was a lookout area with some nice and secluded views of the mountains.
We stayed there for a while and took the obligatory pictures. We then turned around and headed back to the ladder, since the lookout was a dead end. We got back to the planks quickly which lead to a big surprise: the plank walk it actually incredibly short. It’s about 100 meters in length, maybe not even that long. Now that we knew what we were doing, the walk was super short, maybe 10 minutes max. We did have a complication climbing back up the ladder though. A ton of people had stopped on it, but we needed to go up so clear space for them on the planks. This led to an awkward situation where we had to climb past people on a pathway clearly not made to support dual passage. I was climb over, on, around, and through people, while basically just hanging a few kilometers in the air. Fun times (it actually was fun times now. I had become a lot more confident).
Once we had made it off the plank walk, we found a pavilion nearby. It had a bunch of tables, a small store, and a great view. We stopped there had just relaxed and had lunch before continuing our hike. We ate some snacks a drank a victory beer.
We hiked back to the cable car, taking the long way around this time. This brought us to a temple and a minor peak of the mountain, offering even more views and pictures for us
Once we made it back to the cable car we took it off the mountain. At the bottom Alex and I got onto the alpine coaster we had seen on the way up. Unlike the one we had done on the Great Wall, this one had a real track and very well built cars. Also unlike the one at the Great Wall, we weren’t allowed to go down on our own. We were pushed off from the station in a group of six cars that were all stuck together. Boo. Alex and I were in the back and the guy in the front kept pulling his break all the time, which meant that everyone had to go his pace. Talk about disappointing.
We got onto the bus going off the mountain and made our way back to the station. Unlike going up the mountain, we had to walk through a bunch of stores, malls, and restaurants before actually ending up outside. It was almost surreal, because we really had no idea where we were, no clue how we had gotten there, and no good plan for how to get out. We just follow the path until we were eventually outside.
We got back onto the free bus to the hostel, got our bags from the hostel, and then grabbed a taxi to the train station. Unlike the night before, we had actually booked train tickets this time and so were good to go.
The train ride made me a bit upset, because while my 3 traveling companions were all seated in a row next to each other, I had a seat all by my lonesome one carriage over. Complicating matters ever so slightly, when I got onto that carriage there was already someone sitting in my seat. I pointed to my ticket and he got a kind of scarred look on his face and ran off. I wonder if he actually had a ticket for the train or not…
The train arrived in Xi’an shortly and we taxied to the airport. From there we got checked in, had a nice sit down dinner in Burger King, and then waited by the gate. Our flight started boarding 20 minutes late, but somehow still managed to leave the gate on schedule. It’s also a massive plane that we’re in. Big enough to cross an ocean. It remains me of the plane that we took to arrive in China 15 weeks ago (wow! I can’t believe that was so long ago!)
After we landed in Shanghai, we haggled and got a taxi back to ziroom for 220 kuai, which is about par for the course. We hopped into a fairly nice car, confirmed that the price was 220, and headed ‘home’. Along the way the driver was being really nice and friendly towards us. He didn’t know much English, but he was our age and was pretty good with his phone so we made do. He asked us if we liked American pop music, and when we said yes, he pulled up a massive Justin Bieber playlist on his phone to listen to for the ride. I’m talking old Bieber from 2008.
I was really enjoying the ride until we arrived. I gave him the agreed upon 220 and he told me it was 250. We got a little confused and he told us how he was now basically in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t get another fair in his cab. This was completely true, but we had agreed on 220 before leaving the airport. We all got out of the cab and continued arguing, and he stood next to the trunk as if to say “I’m not unlocking this until you pay up”. Curious to see if it was actually locked, I reached around him and just popped it open. We grabbed all our stuff and went inside. Pro tip: If you’re going to extort your cab fairs for more money, be sure to lock your trunk.
It was kind of a sour way to end the night, since I had really enjoyed the flight and the ride. I also felt a bit bad for the driver. He wasn’t actually involved in bargaining the price. We had worked that out with his boss and he was just told the price and where to go. I can understand where he was coming from, but we had had an agreement and that’s what we stuck to.