Article by Malcolm Peak
On a cold but clear November Saturday, I joined two Chinese friends to explore Zi Wu Yu, one of the many valleys that provide entrance to the Qinling Mountains and a place that could be one of Xi’an’s best hiking options. That’s because there’s no entry free, it’s easily accessible and is a not-too-strenuous loop (rather than the typical up-and-down, one-way options elsewhere). Still, it offers some glorious views of the city, looking straight down on the southern suburbs of Xi’an.
It’s a relatively simple task to head south on Zi Wu Dadao from Chang’an District. The road is wide and not particularly busy, so is potentially bike-able. A car would work best, but we took bus 9 from Chang’an Lu at Fengxiyuan metro station. The bus turns at a main highway (S107), which is where we got off, walking from there. Zi Wu Dadao continues to head south and then gradually turns westward as it starts to climb. After about a kilometre the road seemingly peters out. On most days you will find people selling fresh fruit and other market produce here. The road carries on, thinning to a concreted narrow mountain road. After another 500m or so a dam is reached (which doesn’t currently hold water) and the road hairpins twice. Another 300m further on is the start of the track proper. Look for a well worn track on the left leading to small concrete foot bridge that crosses the stream. There is some parking on the road, and a larger carpark another 400m or so further upstream, where the concreted road ends.
After crossing the stream the track rises steeply up the hillside, on dirt tracks which would be slippery when wet. Although steep, there were many people of various ages, shapes and sizes negotiating it, including one man in slippers. School age children were seemingly having no difficulties. There are zig-zags and mini-scrambles, often with easy and hard alternatives. The track passes through pine trees, cedars and rough scrub. As the track rises the views improve, particularly up-valley (southwards) to a rocky promontory and the surrounding peaks. The temple complexes at the apex of the hill also come into view, seeming deceptively close. After about 90 minutes of steady but unrushed climbing we finally topped out at the buildings. It’s about a 400m vertical gain.
There are at least three temples, all perched precariously on the steep-sided ridges or rocky outcrops. People live here, but don’t apparently mind people wandering through their abodes. There’s a mini- tunnel below the ridge and two cave dwellings nearby, both clearly still lived in. The views northwards to Xi’an are spectacular, even on a moderately smoggy day like the one we had.
Many people choose to simply return from here, but it’s only another 40 minutes further up a flattish ridge to the summit of Zi Wu Tai Ding. So onwards we went, reaching the flattened top of the peak just in time for lunch. There are “tables and chairs” here (actually just rocks arranged for that very purpose). Unlike other summits in the Qinling Mountains, this summit has no temple, although there are some signs with religious slogans on them. A friendly cat was scavenging for food and we traded niceties with some locals who were intrigued to see a waiguoren in such a place.
For some hikers Zi Wu Tai Ding is the target, but a fair few others were choosing to carry on, as we did. The track continues at the back of the summit clearing, dropping down to the ridge line roughly southwards. For me this was the most spectaucular part of the hike. The track undulates along the ridgeline, with spectacular views to both Zi Wu Yu and the neighbouring (eastern) valley. There are 5 knobs, or mini-summits to negotiate, but none of them are difficult. Just as the track seems destined to strike another steep climb, there’s an abrupt right turn. After an initial steep-ish drop it’s mostly smooth sailing from here as the track continues in an arc gradually dropping down the valley. There are a couple of dwellings and then a little stream is followed. We nibbled on wild fruits, which to locals assured me were safe. After a little while another track is joined. This is the main track up and down the valley. It can be followed upstream to a low saddle that looks into the next valley westwards. Originally it carried on to Sichuan Province and was part of a 330km track. Carrying on down the valley we passed some farmers harvesting persimmons from the many trees which dot the valley. We spent ten minutes watching a mountain goat that had climbed a large boulder to nibble on foliage. Finally we reached the road again, and a complex of buildings. The “road” is dirt and gravel for about 500m before meeting the concreted road further down. If you’ve parked here at the carpark, the loop is complete. By the time we reached the little concrete footbridge we’d been on the go for about five hours.
If you’re wanting a good, achievable, intermediate hike with interests galore, Zi Wu Yu is wooing you.
Malcolm is a New Zealander teaching English at Xi’an Medical University. More used to roughing it in the NZ backcountry wilderness than living it up in luxury, he nevertheless appreciates the finer things of life. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org