We have conquered yet another mountain in China. This time the highest in Eastern China. Mount Taibai, ‘tai’ meaning too and ‘bai’ meaning white, is the highest peak in the Qinling mountain range, which lies between Eastern and Western China. The highest peak stands at 3,767 metres above sea level and the base of the peak is about 2 hours’ bus ride from Xi’an. The mountain is in a national park, which holds great importance as a research base for rare plants and animals that live there.
David, me and a friend of ours, Lucia, set off at 7.30 and got onto bus number 603 heading towards Xi’an train station. It seemed that the whole of Xi’an had decided to get on the same bus at the same time and the bus driver was only encouraging them. We soon arrived at the train station after this sardine-like experience and got on our bus to the mountains. I fell asleep on the bus and was awoken by sounds of awe and cameras – we had arrived and could almost make out mountains in the fog. I was rather disheartened by the sight of fog (smog) so far away from town.
At the base of the mountain lies a huge building with marble floors, fountains, big screens, sculptures and flower arrangements. People count in the building, excluding the employees, got me to about 20. This was remarkable, because we are in China. This boded well for our much needed rest from people and civilisation, which is so difficult to find here. It seemed like the whole place is being geared up for mass tourism, so we got there just at the right time. But it is sad to see another naturally beautiful place being turned into an amusement park filled with man-made things, which are so unnecessary there.
Once we had bought our tickets and provided our passport details, phone numbers, addresses and confirmation that we shall not get lost, we were given the green light to get on a bus, which would take us up to 3000m.
The bus ride took about two hours due to a couple of compulsory stops to admire a waterfall, some caves and streams of clear mountain water, which really was surprisingly clean. After being (rudely) awoken by our guide’s very bad and very loud singing in the bus, I opened my eyes and found the climate had completely changed in an hour. The leaves from trees had disappeared and the temperature had dropped significantly.
We walked up some steps and arrived at the cable car terminus. We did not take the cable car, however, we were approached by a police-man like person, who asked us to fill in the exact same form that we had filled in at the base of the mountain. We are 100% certain nobody would ever look at these forms, but it is required from all foreigners who visit mount Taibai. There is somekind of secret military and space operation somewhere in the mountains that no foreigners shall trespass should they be American or Russian spies (or Zimbabwean). We saw no sign of any such activity.
Once we had dealt with the bureaucracy we could finally start our ascent. We first encountered the standard Chinese way of climbing mountains – steps. The start was beautiful, happy and lovely. The sky got clearer and bluer as we got higher (up the mountain, that is).Even though I come from the ‘mountainous’ region of Estonia, complete with a 318m Egghill and all, I soon started to suffer from major lack of oxygen. This rendered me a pretty useless mountain climber and made me into a moaner. David and Lucia were very patient and waited for me when I had to sit down again and again. This part was horrible and I felt much worse than I did when we climbed a much higher mountain in Tibet.
When we had climbed (walked up steps) for about 2 hours, I decided that I shall not take another step forward before I had some lunch in me. I had packed some pasta I had made at home and a Mesikäpp chocolate from Estonia.
I was hoping I’d feel better after the food, but that did not happen. We kept walking and walking for another couple of hours past the other cable car station and past a temple. I realised that I had nothing to complain about when we saw these guys lifting heavy bags up the mountain on their backs:
We soon (meaning not soon enough for me) reached a little temple and a ‘scenic spot’ with a panoramic view over the mountains. This was at about 3,400m. We took a much needed break to admire the view and to get admired by the Chinese people there. We met no other foreigners during the whole trip, so we got to be quite a popular exhibit when we did meet some people.
After 10 minutes of rest we continued up the steps, which soon stopped and were replaced by a stone road covered with snow and ice. I was extremely happy about this as I had not seen snow for more than a year (it’s a big deal in an Estonian’s life). Once past the snow, we saw a little building in the distance, which was our hostel. It was about 6 o’clock by this time and getting very cold, dark and windy at such a high altitude.
The hostel appeared to be a garage-like construction built from very thin metal. There was no system of insulation to speak of, no fire or heaters. There were bunk beds with a plank of wood on them. Blankets and some pillows were provided. The doors were not closed unless done by oneself. But in a very strange way it added to the whole experience.
We were greeted by someone who claimed to work there, but it later turned out she was just another traveller. A very lovely girl nonetheless. We went to sit down in the ‘restaurant’ to have some food. Bear in mind that nothing grows up here and getting supplies here is difficult, so our options were very limited. Instead of he usual mountain climbing pot noodle, we went for egg fried rice, which tasted like rice and absolutely nothing else. The electricity was produced by a generator with the power of a hair dryer, so we had a little flickering light for a while. I find this kind of thing quite romantic actually. If only it wasn’t for the cold, and if only someone closed the door. They also had a bunch of workers living there. We saw them all digging a hole, but not sure what it was for. They all wore suit jackets and/or trousers and shoes and did not look like they were prepared for the weather at all. They may be used to it or they may be tougher than us.
Since it was freezing and dark, we went to bed pretty soon after eating. We did ask for tea for about 10 times, but it never found its way to us. We played 20 questions for a bit, taught some English to our roomies and learned some Chinese from our roomies. We also hatched a secret plan to go and steal some more blankets from other beds while nobody was looking. It worked.
We were (rudely) awoken at 5am by very excited Chinese girls, who thought the sunrise was at 5am. It was not. The Chinese guys in the room thought it was a good idea to light cigarettes at 5am at puff away as other people were still trying to sleep. Since they were all up and we gave them very angry looks and told them not to smoke, the whole group decided to leave to keep climbing. At this point I really needed to pee, because it had been too cold for the past 12 hours and I just could not bring myself to go out there and squat over a hole in the ground filled with wildlife. But I was getting desperate, so armed with a headlight I went and saw billions of stars while I visited one of the smelliest places I have ever had the displeasure of smelling. After this we happily fell asleep for another hour when we were again (rudely) awoken by the owner of the hostel, who was yelling:’ ‘the sun has come out!!!!!!!!.’ Nice. So out I went. I saw some guy out there taking photos so I greeted him in Chinese. He asked me if I was Chinese or a foreigner. I thought of that as a compliment to my Chinese. As soon as I told him I was a foreigner he shoved his camera in my face and had a whole photo session. Once David and Lucia emerged from our metal igloo he had us posing looking at the rising sun. The sunrise was indeed extremely beautiful.
After brushing our teeth with cold mountain water and nearly frozen toothpaste we set off again. The owner of the hostel did try to tell us something about foreigners not being allowed, but we did not understand him and went anyway.
The climb got a little easier from now on as we were not going that much higher and the road was not as steep as the steps had been. Plus we had beautiful views to admire. We did not see a soul for hours apart from some weasel like creatures and lots of spiders. We walked on the side of a mountain for about two hours and then reached another hostel. We had quite a steep ascent from there, which brought back my lightheadedness, so it took us a long time to get to the next stage of the climb.
After walking for another couple of hours we finally reached the glacial lake, which we thought was the peak, but it turned out later that the peak was another 40 minutes’ walk from there. The lake water was turquoise and very clean. There was quite a lot of snow up there, which made for a happy Estonian once again.
We had a little rest at the lake and started our descent. This went a lot smoother, but took a lot longer than I thought it would. Our legs soon turned into noodles and knees started making strange noises. So when we reached the cable car, we took it to avoid walking all those steps down. But it still took us about 5 hours to reach the cable car station.
It was the first time in China (not counting our Tibet trip here) that I had more than an hour without hearing or seeing any other people besides the ones that were with me. I truly hope that when I have forgotten the pain of getting there I will visit mount Taibai again and it will not have been turned into a nondescript tourist attraction.
Lähen teen piimasuppi ja kiluvõileiba. Tsau-pakaa!