Jia Wu Tai: A little bit of A summer alternative to Hua Shan

Article by  Malcolm Peak

In the Qinling Mountains, forty-four kilometers southwest of Xi’an, lies Taiping National Forest Park, nestled in a beautiful valley, complete with picturesque waterfalls, forested slopes and the possibility of seeing rare wildlife. Taiping is the same word as used for “Pacific,” as in the ocean. In this case “always calm” might be a better literal translation. The origin of the name actually dates back to the Sui Dynasty.

I love Hua Shan, with its towering cliffs, precarious paths and dramatic scenery, but in summer it can be very crowded. It can also be terribly hot, especially when the mercury approaches 40°C! And of course it’s a little expensive—a “sacred” mountain is not cheap in China.

Here is a viable alternative for those who love climbing, hate crowds and watch their wallets. Jia Wu Tai is a steep mountain just southeast of Xi’an, sometimes referred to as “Little Hua Shan.” Like its big sister, it has dramatic mountain scenery and a few mini-climbing challenges.

Our journey started with an interesting ride on bus 923, through the outskirts of Xi’an and then through rural scenes of the wheat harvest and farming villages. Soon the Qinling Mountains loomed large and we were dropped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, at the Jia Wu Tai bus stop. However, the way forward was obvious. We followed a few locals, heading directly to the mountains up a concrete road. After about a kilometre there was a small village. The road passed under a railway and began to steepen. The concrete petered out into a dirt road. Soon we found ourselves in a dense, luxurious forest, and we followed the valley upstream.

Although the temperature was about 30°C, we were mainly in the shade. It’s mostly pleasant, cool walking. The trail is mostly easy to follow, if you seek out the well-worn path. Further up the valley the track steepens and there are multiple stone steps. We stopped for a rest and my Chinese companions shared their snacks (or perhaps were desperately trying to lighten their load) and we all did our best to stay hydrated.

After about 2 hours we topped out on a ridge, where there’s a small makeshift restaurant, complete with tables, bench seats and tarpaulin roof. We stopped for another snack and to meet some more hikers, many wanting to find out who this waiguoren is and to practice their rudimentary English. In return, I practiced my rudimentary Chinese. (I’ve found that hiking is a great vehicle to practice my Chinese!).

Soon we were off again, climbing the ridge up the dirt track, with occasional stone steps. Views of the mountains and steep cliffs started to appear. There are interesting rock outcrops and the odd “dwelling” where monks reportedly spend time in reclusion. We climbed a steep staircase and through a “tunnel” which turned out to be another such abode. Gaining more height, we came across a very steep path, a la Hua Shan, with steps cut into the rock and iron chains to hold on to. At the top is a small temple. We lingered there for a few minutes and then found out we could have avoided the steep steps by taking a newly constructed bypass instead.

Moving on we soon reached the most difficult climbing section. It’s a 50m ascent up a cliff face at about a 60 degree angle, with steps carved into the rock. Fortunately there are two good iron chains to aid the climb, but we needed to be careful. A few minutes later we reached a rocky open place where many people were lounging, playing or snacking in the sunshine. A group from a cycling club were still in their garb, sharing jokes and taking photos. We admired a couple of paragliders soaring high above us in clearly ideal conditions. The views of the surrounding mountains are amazing—the rocky outcrops amidst the verdant forest. We gazed down on Da Yu, the next valley, and its reservoir. Further afield, the plains to the north showed a patchwork of fields interspersed with roads, rivers and railways.

Yet we were still not finished. Beyond this rocky sanctuary is a precarious traverse of a rocky ridge. The ridge drops steeply off both sides, but just below the apex the locals have constructed an ersatz path by lodging rock slabs balanced on iron rod supports. It looks dangerous, and some people really struggle with the 10m or so distance. Yet it’s relatively straightforward to those without too much of a fear of heights and, despite appearances, apparently quite safe. Another 50m or so later and we came to the track’s terminus, a largish flat rock with steep drop offs on three sides. We took turns to stand on the rock for the obligatory photo opportunity.

Our return trip was easier on the legs as we retraced our steps downward. Back at the restaurant we met an old man, a very old, yet still very fit man. We learn that he lives up here and regularly does unpaid track maintenance. We gave him the last of our unopened snacks and thanked him for his efforts. Then we bounded down the stairs and dirt path. As the sun began to drop in the sky, we again reached civilization. We looked back up the valley to see that the fog had cleared. There stood Jia Wu Tai in all her brilliance, beckoning us to come back and see her again.

Best public transport: Catch subway line 2 to the southern most stop (Wei Qu Nan, exit D) and then walk 300m north to Wei Qu Nan Jie. Turn right, and 50m further is a bus stop. Catch bus 923 from here (Ask the driver if it goes to Jia Wu Tai bus stop because… not all the 923’s go that far). It costs 3.5Yuan per person and takes about an hour. Alternatively you may be approached by “private taxi” drivers, with the going rate about 60 Yuan. The last return bus is 7.30pm at time of writing.

Distances: It’s about 5km from the base (bus stop) to the summit (or track end), with an estimated height gain of 800m. {ed- check if you can}

Time: Actual walking time is about 6 hours return at a fairly leisurely pace. But with rest, snack and photo breaks, and conversations with curious locals, allow about 8 hours to be safe.

Difficulty: Hard. Some steep climbing in places (with chains), with a head for heights and some minor rock climbing skills needed.

Essential requirement: Lots of water. I took 2.5L and used almost all of it!

Malcolm Peak is an English teacher in Xi’an who, being from New Zealand, sometimes craves the beaches and tranquility of the other Pacific.