China's five sacred Taoist mountains are named according to the Chinese cardinal points - centre, east, west, north and south. I am atop Mount Hua, the West Great (Splendid) Mountain, and all I can think about is down. I'm squeezed against a rock face on a trail called the Cliffside Plank Path, which is not so much a trail as a test of nerves, faith and possibly mental stability.
The only things between me and a 1,000-metre drop are a narrow row of wooden two-by-fours nailed into the mountain and a thoughtfully provided harness. An icy wind cuts through my sweater, freezing the sweat on my brow. For a mountain that receives millions of visitors a year, I am ominously alone. Rather than contemplate the plummet beneath my feet, I stare ahead at the spectacular snow-frosted mountains, soaking in the beauty, which is always preferable to soaking in the fear.
Every year, millions of Chinese make the pilgrimage to the five great Taoist mountains, which have long featured in legends, history and art. Besides the view, there are temples, tea houses, archways, nature trails and plenty of opportunities for reflection and prayer. The East Great (Tranquil) Mountain, just north of the city of Tai'an, has 22 temples, and more than 1,000 cliff and stone inscriptions. The South Great (Balancing) Mountain is in Hunan Province, part of a 150-kilometre range. The North Great (Permanent) Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in the country, but its difficult location in Shanxi Province has made it the least accessible. The Centre Great (Lofty) Mountain is on the banks of the Yellow River in Henan Province and is home to the famous Shaolin Temple.
Let's return to the West Great Mountain, Hua Shan, and the subject of prayer, namely the one I was saying to help me get off this plank path alive.
Few Western tourists visit Mount Hua, but you may find yourself in nearby Xi'an. This ancient city, with its well-preserved 14th-century wall, serves as a launch pad for the terra cotta warriors and other tourist attractions. Mount Hua is a three-hour scenic drive away. At the bottom of the gondola, I purchased an entry ticket, declining optional insurance because I clearly had no idea what I was in for. Deposited at the top, I began my trek to the four summits, strolling along concrete paths and stone-cut steps. At times, the paths became both slippery and steep. A sign pointing to the "No. 1 steep road on Mount Hua" caught my attention, and so I followed the arrows, under gorgeous archways, through temples smoky with incense. Eventually I found myself on a precipice, where I had to pay a little extra for a harness to attach to a safety line. My knees didn't stop shaking for the next hour.
Slowly edging along the rock face, I reached the end of the wooden planks, where I found a small shaded area for reflection and prayer. It seemed like the perfect spot to offer thanks for making it across the path alive. Unfortunately, I'd have to brave the planks again to get out. This time, there were a half-dozen giggling Chinese students making their way across. To pass each other, we had to detach our safety harnesses and squeeze around torsos, vulnerable to strong wind and balance. Over the years, people have fallen to their deaths, especially before the introduction of the safety harnesses. We managed the switch, took photos of each other, and I continued on to the main path. That optional insurance plan was now perfectly clear.
Besides the five sacred Taoist mountains, there are also four sacred Buddhist mountains and one mountain that seems to trump them all in terms of popularity and cultural influence: Huangshan, or the Yellow Mountain. It receives more than 15 million tourists a year. It is so renowned that there is a Chinese saying that once you have visited it, you don't need to visit the sacred mountains at all. Located not far from the urban centres of Hangzhou or Shanghai, the Yellow Mountain is a gorgeous blend of pine forests, granite formations, hot springs and waterfalls. It is served by busy gondolas, and offers several restaurants and hotels.
Huangshan seems almost manicured, its rocks carved by time into odd shapes and sizes. Various lookout points gaze upon deep canyons and crevices. When clouds sweep in, it gives the impression that the mountains are floating - an effect that inspired artists to create the Floating Mountains in the movie Avatar. It looks right out of a fantasy novel, which explains why the mountain is the source of legends and poems, and has served as a location for movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
On both the Yellow Mountain and the sacred mountains, there is no doubting the striking natural beauty, or the fact that in a country often criticized for its environmental policies, this beauty is so joyously revered.
Like millions before me, I pay a small token to an engraver to write my wish on a lock, clamping it to the heavy chains along the path. They tell me that it is good luck to seal my wishes to the great mountains of China. Good luck that might have helped with that perilous plank path.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Watch Robin explore the Yellow Mountain here
Watch Robin's harrowing experience on Mount Hua here
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is robinesrock.com.