The Terracotta Army, Xi’an and the Walk of Death : My first trip within China
Soon after I arrived in Nanjing, I heard that some of my new friends were planning to fly to the city of Xi’an for a weekend in March. They were mainly going to see the famous Terracotta Army, and to test their nerves on Mount Hua’s “Walk of Death”, a cliff side mountain trail known to be one of the most dangerous in the world. I was offered to tag along, and even though I had already forked out over £2,000 to settle in my apartment and wasn’t planning on travelling so soon, I thought “hell this trip seems amazing…” And well, credit cards were invented for a reason, right ?
The 10 of us arrived in Xi’an’s airport early afternoon, and hired drivers to take us straight to the Terracotta Army. Now, when you think of grand, spectacular tombs, you may first think of Egypt’s pyramids. But Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (259 BCE – 210 BCE), had his own take at remaining glorious in the afterlife, and he very much succeeded. He ordered the construction of a necropolis estimated to be as large as 98 square kilometers, which includes 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, but also officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. And only a portion of the necropolis has been excavated…
Strangely, I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I would be. Maybe it was the warehouse-like structure built over the pits, or the fact you could only see them from above rather than feeling surrounded by them, or perhaps it was the anticipation of the Walk of Death the next day that prevented me from feeling overly excited by what I was seeing. I will return there soon with my sister, I might feel differently then. Don’t get me wrong though, it was a fantastic thing to see and I very much appreciated it, just not as much as I thought I would.
After visiting the pits, we paid a visit to Mr Yang, the farmer who found the Warriors on his land in 1974. He is no longer a farmer and now lives like a sort of local rock star, happily getting his photo taken by scores of tourists. If you believe the banner, shaking his hand brings good luck !
The drivers got us to our hotel, the Bell Tower hotel, named after one of Xi’an’s most famous landmarks that was right in front of it. The Bell Tower was built in 1384 during the early days of the Ming Dynasty, for dragon-related reasons, according to the legends. It’s quite an astonishing piece of architecture, especially impressive at night, when it gets all lit-up !
After dropping our stuff and showering, we headed to Xi’an’s Muslim quarter, located nearby. It features an amazing night market where you can buy all sorts of delicious foods, as well as the usual trinkets you find on any Asian market. My favourite was the mutton skewers, cooked with cumin and other spices, it was absolutely amazing ! The atmosphere in the area is very special, there’s something catching your attention pretty much every two metres. Due to its popularity, the market is excessively crowded so it’s easy to lose your friends ! If you’re visiting without the ability to make phone calls make sure you either stick around somebody or fix a meeting point.
Once we had our fill of yummy foods, we headed back to the hotel to catch some sleep before the next day’s adventure.
We woke up early the next morning and hired drivers to take us to Mount Hua (Huashan in Chinese), just under a couple of hours from Xi’an.
Mount Hua is one of China’s Five Great Mountains, and has been regarded as a sacred place since the 2nd century BCE. Once you look at the mountain, it’s easy to understand how ancient people thought gods lived there ! It is simply majestic.
Our trek began from a set of grand, beautiful arches that left no doubt about the fact this was not just any mountain.
We had time constraints that made us unable to do the full ascent on foot, so we took the cable car to the North Peak (1,614m). That cable car was scary as hell ! They are obviously glass cabins so you can see around, and the ascent is just incredibly steep, with the wind moving the cabins more than a little. I couldn’t help but imagine what it would feel like if the cabin dropped… Don’t get me wrong, the cable car system is safe, but looking down does make you imagine the worst. As we got up, we literally went THROUGH the mountain before eventually reaching the North Peak. That cable car ride was just an appetizer before the Death Walk, but man it was a good one !
To our surprise there was snow when we got out of the cable car station, however it didn’t feel too cold.
We first spent some time taking photos of the North peak, and also had a bunch of Chinese tourists who asked us to pose with them, which felt already usual to me then. You just can’t escape it if you’re a laowai (foreigner) in a Chinese tourist hotspot, you will get photographed.
On the way to the start of the Walk of Death, you could see lots of prayer ribbons tied to barriers or trees, and if the sheer majesty of the mountain itself didn’t suffice to remind you that you were in a holy place, the ribbons would. We saw a beautiful little temple as well, which we spent some time walking around and photographing. At one point, one of my friends was at the bottom of a set of stairs whilst we were all at the top, and he said he wanted to take a picture of us. Since we’re nice friends, we all gave him the finger for the picture. What we didn’t realise was the presence of a Chinese couple behind our friend, who himself was hidden from them by a massive incense burner. So as far as they could tell we were giving THEM the finger ! The guy returned us the gesture whilst speaking angrily in Chinese and they left, but none of us spoke enough Chinese to explain this was a misunderstanding. Oopsie, bad laowais…
Eventually, we got to what we came for : the Walk of Death ! Or Plank Walk in the Sky, as the Chinese call it, but I find the other name catchier. We had to wait in line on a narrow cliff side platform for people to come back from the trail, thus leaving room for us to get on it. During the wait, we could look over the safety barrier – which wasn’t actually that high so not excessively safe – and get an appreciation for how much of a drop there was next to us. It’s fair to say we were all getting quite anxious !
Batches of people came back from the trek, and among them were quite a few people in their forties or fifties that didn’t seem particularly fit. None of them appeared to be traumatised, which made us feel better. If they could do it, so could we !
After some time, the long anticipated moment arrived, it was our turn to begin the Walk of Death !
The first part of the trek was possibly the most scary, and in my opinion the most dangerous. We had to go straight down something like 15 or 20 metres, via a sort of ladder that consisted of metal bars fixed on either side of a hollow on the mountain face. The amount of space between two bars wasn’t regular, and neither was the angle at which they were placed. Which means you have no choice but to look down if you want to see where to put your feet ! Of course, you’re hooked up to a cable on the side and there are chains you can hold onto. However, there’s a good 2-3 metre length of cable in between each safety bolt that stops an eventual fall, which means that if you do fall you’re still in for a scary drop and potentially an injury. Don’t worry though, we all made it down unharmed !
Sadly I have no pictures of this section of the trek, as I was too scared I’d drop my phone or break my camera if I kept it loose around my neck.
Following this we got onto the actual plank walk, which is literally what the name says, a thick plank of wood nailed to the cliff face. There were also some sections where the path consisted of holes carved in the mountain where you could put your feet and advance sideways. To be honest I found this really enjoyable and not particularly scary ! Again, I felt that the ladder part was the most scary/dangerous part, so anything after that felt like a piece of cake !
Rather quickly, we reached the end of the trek, which is a small natural platform that doesn’t have much to it apart from a little cave.
We had to go back through the same route as we came, and it had gotten a little crowded on the path… Considering the plank is less than a metre wide, it was quite interesting whenever we crossed other people and had to avoid them. It literally meant leaning over the drop as you went around… I found it quite exciting !
This trek is reputed to be claiming quite a few lives each year, and soon enough I understood why. Despite the fact you’re provided with safety equipment, some people don’t care much for their safety and take silly, unnecessary risks. We saw some Chinese people unhooking BOTH of their carabiners to go around us ! That means that if they lost balance and fell, they’d be gone for good…
Thankfully none of us were that silly and we all made it back alive. What an adventure this was ! The level of intensity, not so much technical but psychological (because yes, looking besides you and seeing a deadly drop does slightly impact you), gives you a great sense of appreciation not only for the mountain, but also for yourself. This is considered one of the scariest treks in the world, and completing it definitely has a lot of feel-good value !
We found our way back to our drivers and then back to Xi’an where we enjoyed much deserved beers and pizzas. The next day, we’d fly back to Nanjing.
So here we go, this was my first trip within China, and it sure set the bar high !