Bum Slidin’, Stair Climbin’ and Army Watchin’ in Xian during Easter 2012
Photos are here. Videos courtesy of Martijn Doekes.
I looked at the calendar. I saw April 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th in dark red color. So many red dates on the calendar could only mean one thing. It was time for a vacation!
The who and the where?
And so, Easter vacation 2012 was on the cards. Next item on the agenda was to decide on a kick ass destination. Enter Dominic Rigby, my well-traveled friend who aims to master the language of Putonghua (i.e. Mandarin) someday. Some seriously clever and intense boardroom like discussions took place between me and him. We eventually (somehow) heard the calling of several buried terracotta army soldiers all the way from Xian in China. They were beckoning at us to pay them homage.
There was also a more practical purpose to the visit. Dominic wanted to bring out the linguistic warrior in him to woo the Xian girls with his newfound Putonghua linguistic skills. He even enrolled himself in a one-month Putonghua crash course for this purpose. And as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, we also decided to climb two of the highest mountains in Xian during the trip, i.e. Mount Huashan and Mount Taibei.
Then, like the climax of a suspense movie, it hit me. What if, during the trip, Dominic would end up finding the Xian woman of his dreams and refuse to return to Hong Kong? How would I manage to return to Hong Kong without the benefit of his Putonghua skills? Enter Vic So, my high-speed running teammate who has many great qualities, the most relevant one to this occasion being the ability to speak fluent Mandarin. And, like a clever politician, I concealed my true fears about Dominic and convinced Vic to join us on this trip by selling him solely on the beauty of Xian and its mountains and its women. It worked. Then I had a déjà vu. What if Vic would also end up finding the Xian woman of his life and refuse to return to Hong Kong? Enter Martijn Doekes and Maggie, my two other friends who speak the 3rd and 4th best Mandarin respectively (read: speak zilch Mandarin). But, that didn’t matter. My problem was solved by virtue of the fact that it was shared by 3 other people. Misery loves company and it was enough of a relief to know that there were other people who would have the same problem as me should my fears materialize.
The plan was this:
(a) 5th April 2012: Fly China Eastern to Xian at 2.30pm
(b) 6th April 2012: Climb all the 4 peaks of Huashuan in Xian
(c) 7th April 2012: Get to Taibei Shan from Xian. Celebrate my birthday 3000m above sea-level
(d) 8th April 2012: Hoist the Hong Kong Trail Runners flag on the summit of Taibei Shan
(e) 9th April 2012: Pay homage to the buried terracotta soldiers, climb Li Shan, visit the City Wall and end the trip with a kick ass sumptuous dinner in Xian
(f) 10th April 2012: Return to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong
5th April 2012
Rules are for dogs
4 men and 1 woman of the Hong Kong Trail Runners proudly landed in Xian International airport in China. The “civilized” woman immediately broke all rules soon after she arrived. There was a big sign at the airport instructing us “aliens” (that’s what we were called on the immigration card) to behave ourselves by (a) not taking photos (b) not using mobile phones (c) not talking too loudly. Maggie’s first move in Xian was to take A PHOTO of THE SIGN by using HER MOBILE PHONE and declaring what she had done LOUDLY. No wonder China hates us aliens.
Love is all around
After experiencing the pleasure of breaking rules, the next item on the agenda was to take a taxi to Xian’s high-speed railway station. Our destination was Huashan North Station. The railway station was massive. Almost the size of a modern airport. One would expect such a huge station to be crowded but it looked like it was built exclusively for the 5 of us! It seemed heavily underused. We boarded a train that clocked about 270kmh and reached Xian North Station in all of 28 minutes.
Finding a hotel in Huashan North Station was a “quick” deal. We simply had to find a hotel that didn’t only specialize in renting rooms by the hour!
We eventually did find what we thought was a normal hotel but upon closer inspection at the accessories in the room, we discovered that it was a “hybrid” hotel, i.e. they rent rooms both by the hour and by the day!
We finished the day by celebrating our achievements over dinner.
6th April 2012
How many stairs would you want to climb in a day? 200? 300? 400? How about 6000?? That’s exactly what we did today!
Never fight a determined grandma
The day started off with a cab ride to the base of Huashan. Our touristy looks there attracted quite a lot of saleswomen. Wait. Not saleswomen but sales grandmas. Sales grandmas who have clearly had plenty of coaching from the sellers of fake watches and tailored suits near Chung King Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. A grandma there wouldn’t let me take one step in any direction until I bought her gloves. Her sales pitch was in Mandarin which she knew I couldn’t understand a word of. But, why bother with a sales pitch when all you have to do is to follow me around and suspend a pair of gloves right in front of my face? And so, thanks to grandma’s persistence, I was sold. I was RMB 2 poorer. And the sales grandma made a sale!
Climbin’ stairs – up, up and away!
Armed with a new pair of sexy gloves, our climbin’ began. And it never ended! We were climbing so many stairs that it seemed we were going all the way upto heaven. The views got increasingly spectacular but so did the inclination of the climbs. Some of the climbs were designed more for Spiderman.
Luckily, the thoughtful authorities had useful signs installed at the right places to guide us through the climbs effectively. For instance, if we felt like slipping down, we had to do so carefully.
We, the Hong Kong Trail Runners always believe in being at our civilized best when we are out of Hong Kong. So, when we saw an overhead cable car carrying passengers, we gave them the same treatment that we give to our very own Ngong Ping cable car passengers.
And, by the way, when you visit Huashan, please remember that you can’t toss.
And you can’t “stride” either.
Also, you will come across several spectacular views. But, you’ve got to remember, “no watching when walking and when watching no walking”.
Got problems? Just lock them up in Huashan! As we climbed to the peak, we saw plenty of locks suspended from heavy metallic chains that acted as railings. We were told that the locks signify locking your problems away for good. So, the next time you want a problem to go away, just lock it up on a chain in Huashan!
There are 4 main peaks in the area. The North, South, East and West peaks. Once you have climbed the 3000 steps to the first peak (the South peak), you can buy yourself a “gold” medal that costs RMB 5! Who says you can’t buy your own glory?
Kung Fu fightin’
As we were chatting and climbing towards the next peak, the topic of Plover Cove ownership came up. The arguments began to heat up and tempers started to fray. Dominic, Martijn and I decided to settle this dispute once and for all like REAL men. There’s only one solution to all of life’s serious problems. And that is Kung Fu. So, I picked up that sword and settled this fight once and for all. Plover Cove shall remain mine!
Hangin’ by a moment
And then came the highlight of the day. This is what I call the Mong Kok-style Wooden Plank thrill. Picture this. You are over 1000m above sea-level. You are walking on a narrow wooden plank which is mounted on one side to a very steep cliff. The other side of the plank isn’t mounted to anything. One small misstep to the left will see you drop 1000m down into oblivion. That is all it takes. One little misstep. Fortunately, you are given a harness. You are supposed to fasten the buckle of this harness to a rope that runs above the plank. This is part of the thrill of walking on the wooden plank. And the other part of the thrill comes from the fact that it is Mong Kok-style. Meaning, you are doing this with several million other people who will also literally die for the thrill! So, not only do you have to worry about accidentally falling off the plank or the harness snapping, you also have to worry about the wooden plank snapping as it becomes unable to bear the load of so many people. How exciting is that?! The Mong Kok-style wooden plank is a must for any thrill seeker!
So, after a day of adventures, we descended several thousand steps back to sea-level. But, not before going through a cave where a hairy woman used to dwell. She lived here to escape death but, unfortunately, in her hurry, she forgot to pack a pair of scissors into her bag and thus ended up with hair that grew too long. And therefore, the geniuses living in this area named this cave the “Hairy Woman Cave”.
And, as usual, we celebrated our accomplishments for the day over dinner. A sumptuous dinner at a Muslim restaurant concluded the day’s affairs.
7th April 2012
The day started off with everyone acknowledging the fact that I was one year wiser, i.e. it was my birthday. And, I thought to myself, what would be a better way to celebrate a birthday than to spend it 3300m above sea-level in several feet of snow? And so, the destination was Taibei Shaan (Mt. Taibei) which is about 120km from Xian.
Paying more for less
Thanks to climbing more stairs the previous day than we had ever climbed in our lives, we were all tired and sleeping. But, not Vic! Our Trailwalker team leader Steven’s training seemed to have a profound effect on him. He woke up early despite all the exercise from the previous day and went into town to inquire about transportation to the Taibei area. I got a call from him at 6.30am. He said that there were two options (a) we could take a luxury bus to Taibei at the cost of 22 bucks each OR (b) we could hire a van at a cost of 500 bucks for all. He wanted to know what we preferred. I asked Dominic who delegated the decision making to me. Feeling lazy, I chose (b) and we ended up in a van that had shaky seats. The interior looked like it was designed to transport cargo!
After a 2 hour journey in the van, we checked in into a hotel near the base of the Taibei area. This place was at an elevation of around 500m and seemed quite rustic. After that, we had to do take another cab to the start of the cable car which in turn was supposed to take us all the way to the first hut where we would be spending the night. The 42km cab trip was supposed to take us to an elevation of 2500m and the cable car would add 700m more to the elevation.
The cab and cable car combination made me think that there wasn’t too much of walking to do. And so, I wore my jeans and carried a fleece, a windbreaker and some spare tee shirts to survive what was supposed to be a cold night in the hut.
Boys will be boys and Swiss girl will be Swiss girl
Upon reaching an elevation of 2500m near the start of the cable car, us boys got excited after seeing a bit of snow all around us whereas Maggie’s trademark smile started to wane. She told us that she had seen enough of snow in Switzerland (where she is from) and wasn’t a big fan of cold weather and certainly not a big fan of snow. And that sentiment got accentuated as we took the cable car upto the first cabin. There was snow everywhere!
Vic, on the other hand, was the other extreme. He had never seen snow before and was so excited by it that he was behaving like a small boy who had just been given his first toy car! Martijn was his usual composed self while Dominic had a “been there, done that” look. I was excited. I started kicking the snow around and was wondering if the jeans I was wearing was the right clothing for snow. I asked Dominic who replied nonchalantly with a “no comment”.
The snow became omnipresent as we left the cable car and starting walking upto the first hut. At that point Maggie had had enough. Her smile faded away and a sense of gloom overwhelmed her. “I want to go back down!”, she exclaimed. After a few minutes of distraction from our snow-filled playing field, we decided that Maggie would go back down to the warmth of lower elevation while us boys would do what we know to do best. And that is, FIGHT! It was Kung Fu in Huashan and a SNOWBALL fight in Taibei! Before Maggie decided to go down, I did invite her to join us for some snowball action but she explained that she had “already done that stuff when she was 7 years old”.
Lessons from snow
Snow teaches you quite a lot of things. I, for one, learnt quite a few things.
(a) Thou shalt not wear jeans when playing in the snow.
Why? You end up having a wet night. And, no, I don’t mean THAT kind of wet night! I mean a night where the jeans don’t dry and thou’s butt shalt freeze! Here, take a look.
Thou shalt not wear jeans if thou don’t want a frozen butt
(b) Thou shalt be a good trail runner but thou shalt still struggle in snow.
Very true. We had chicks wearing chick shoes climbing faster than I was climbing. We had Chinese dudes wearing office gear and climbing faster than I was. AND I AM A HONG KONG TRAIL RUNNER! Take a look.
Thou shalt be a kick ass trail runner but thou shalt still suffer in snow
(c) Snow brings out the best of violence in people. LET THE WAR BEGIN!
The pleasures of bum slidin’
Have you ever slid down a slide when you were a kid? Well, here’s something 1000 times more fun. It’s called BUM SLIDING!! And, it’s an art, not a science. The professional bum slider has to navigate down steep slopes at high speeds while carefully maneuvering through the rocks. A sharp rock can puncture the butt (not fun). And bum sliding for too long can result in a frost bitten, numb ass (not fun). But, sliding down a natural snow slide on your bum at top speed is.. PRICELESS!
ON YOUR ASS, GET SET AND GO!
We climbed a further 150 meters in snow and reached a place where a sign said “No foreigners allowed”. We decided then that we were not foreigners. Foreigners live in America. Or better yet, we decided we could not read English and therefore didn’t know what the sign meant. And so, we climbed even further to what seemed like a summit at 3500m. It was just 200m more in elevation from the first hut where we were going to stay but plodding through snow (and wearing jeans) and slipping a hundred times, took much longer than expected. The views from this summit were simply spectacular.
We then descended 200m in spectacular bum slidin’ style to our hut where we spent the night and celebrated my birthday. I had to borrow Martijn’s waterproof pants and quick drying socks to avoid hypothermia from wet jeans and wet socks. So, let that be a lesson for you boys and girls. NO JEANS IN SNOW!
8th April 2012
Dominic, Vic and Martijn tell me that I was the one who slept best the previous night. All the bum slidin’ from the previous day must have worn me out. And, my snoring probably kept them awake.
So, we left at an early 6.30am when the sun was shining nice and bright. This had an extra slippery effect on the trail as the ice was partially melting in places leaving the terrain even more slippery than it was the previous day.
The first task for the day was to climb back upto the “Foreigners not allowed” board and blatantly cross it. This climb was a combination of non-stop plodding on the snow and some slick break-dancing moves on many occasions. Have you ever tried walking on ice? It helps with dance moves as we found out. I think I am a natural at it. And, when the dancing got too stressful, we relieved the stress by having more snowball fights. When we reached the first summit, Vic noted that we were at an elevation of 3500m and that there was only 150m more to go in elevation before we would reach the summit of Mount Taibei. He thus thought we were almost there. Big miscalculation.
The wise Dominic pointed out that just because something is only 150m higher in elevation doesn’t necessarily mean that it is close. We discovered the truth to this as we kept walking. And walking. And walking. It was 2.5 hours before we reached another hut. And a further hour passed before we met three guys walking in the other direction. These guys told us that we are still 1-1.5 hours away from the summit. We had some super slippery, snow-filled slopes to cross. Matijn taught me to land on snow with the outer part of my foot to create a natural wedge in order to prevent a slide. It worked and didn’t work. And when it didn’t, I resorted to punching the snow with my left hand to mimic the effect of a pole. Then it started to snow and visibility dropped.
After break-dancing, sliding, plodding and punching the snow for about 5 grueling hours, we reached a frozen lake and an isolated hut. There was one Chinese guy, probably the caretaker, in the hut and he tried communicating with Vic in a dialect of Chinese that no one understood. We could see the summit of Mt. Taibei from this hut but there was no clear path to get to the top. The visibility also started to drop quite a bit and it started snowing much more. It was then that we made an executive decision to turn our backs on the summit. The summit seemed so close yet so far. But, my wet jeans and numb hands had had enough. We turned back.
A good 4 hours of snow tramping went by and we eventually returned to the first summit. We then did our last bit of bum sliding back to base! It was then time to bid goodbye to the Taibei area. My jeans, my butt and my numb hands were thankful but my mind was going to miss the bum sliding for sure. Part reluctantly, we left the snow and took a taxi back to the base of Huashan. But, striations of my bum in those snow slides will forever remain in Taibei!
After descending to the base of Taibei, we were reunited with a smiling Maggie who told us that she went on a 14km trail run on her own. She communicated with the guys at the hotel using sign language. She drew pictures of an egg, pictures of spinach in a cube to order dinner! We celebrated both her drawing achievement and our bum sliding achievements in style over dinner.
9th April 2012
After stair climbin’ and bum slidin’, the only other thing left on the agenda was to pay homage to several buried army guys in the “8th wonder of the world”. Yes, I mean the world famous Terracotta army in Xian.
The first statue I saw in the museum wasn’t that of a buried soldier, it was instead a statue that signified Wall Street’s influence on everything including a museum of dead soldiers.
And the story is simple. Emperor Qin wanted to be remembered. So he ordered his deputies to build an army of soldiers and horses in terracotta and buried them in his secret cellar. (Kind of like the place where our very own Henry Tang hides his wine bottles). Some other dude later invaded Emperor Qin’s land but didn’t find much use for his personal collection of pottery. So he destroyed them. And after 2000 years, they were found by local farmers and excavated. I have to say, I am more of a jungle boy but I did find this excavated pit fascinating. Not only because there were close to 8000 figurines of soldiers but because they also had HORSE BUTTS. Take a look.
And you know you’re in a tourist spot when you can get your own “warrior stature personalized”.
Maggie, known for her special bargaining power, gave a seller of terracotta warrior figurines a walk for his money. He had to follow her all around while she used her super strong, kick ass negotiation skills to bring down the cost of the figurines to RMB 70 from RMB 170. After she bought them and took a few more steps, another sales chap was willing to sell the same set of figurines to her for RMB 30! But, we reassured Maggie that her figurines probably came from Emperor Qin himself, hence the premium of 40 bucks!
After seeing enough dead soldiers for one day, we visited the next tourist spot for the day. It was a mountain called Li Shan which is hardly 15 minutes away from the terracotta army museum. We took a cable car to the top and climbed some stairs to reach a lookout point at 1300m above sea-level. This lookout point has a story behind it. When a fire is lit inside the lookout point, it signifies that the town is coming under attack. All the soldiers and villagers then rush out to defend their town. The king who ruled this place, however, ran out of gimmicks to impress his girlfriend. So, he decided to light a fire inside the lookout point and voila! Every soldier and villager ran out startled for nothing but his girlfriend was impressed! And so, he did it again. And again. And again. Until one day, the soldiers and villagers paid no heed to his light-a-fire-to-impress-girlfriend gimmick. Then one gloomy day when the town really came under attack, he lit the fire and nobody bothered coming out to rescue their town. The king was then killed! What a story! The moral of the story, ladies and gentlemen, is: stick to Hello Kitty dolls to impress your girlfriend! Lighting a fire ain’t cool.
The king of Xian built a wall around the city that covers an area of 14 square kilometers to keep infiltrators at bay. Think of it like the Green Zone in Matt Damon’s movie. It’s supposed to be the most secure part of town. Our final tourist spot for both the day and this trip was to walk on top of this wall. I have to say, I quite enjoyed it! Had I been living in Xian, I would be doing a 14km run every morning before work on this wall. There’s only one catch. There’s a RMB 40 entrance fee to get on top of the wall. But, judging by my stair climbin’ and bum slidin’ skills, I am sure I can find a free shortcut to the top of the wall.
We concluded the day’s achievements and the end of a successful trip with a sumptuous Chinese dinner and returned to our hotel rooms to sleep a solid 8 hours.
And btw, next time you are in China and need to drink some water in the hotel, please remember, “The drinking water needs to heat by the cold water then drinks”. Always a useful tip.
10th April 2012
Stair climbin, bum slidin’, army watchin’, Wall walkin’, we had done it all! The last thing left to do was plane sittin’ back to Hong Kong to conclude a trip packed with adventure, great company and plenty of fun!
And, btw, my final tip to readers who plan on doing a similar trip is this: don’t wear jeans when you are walking on snow…