Marie and I don’t do an awful lot of mountain climbing these days. Partly because we’re idle, and partly because Marie doesn’t like heights, but mainly because our customary sustenance of wine and frozen margaritas are typically to be found only at lower altitudes. Nonetheless, during our recent visit to the city of Dujiangyan, we decided to make an exception.
Mount Qingcheng (actually pronounced ‘ching-cheng’, regardless of how much that might sound like a racial slur) is an impressive forested mountain and park 16km from Dujiangyan City, and as the point of origin of the Taoist religion, it’s littered with more temples, monasteries and holy sites than you can shake a bamboo medicine stick at.
It seemed like a worthwhile excursion.
Back in the days before I exchanged my briefcase(*) for a backpack and assembled myself in to the kind of ragged globetrotting shambles that you see today, I had a certain image of China. More of a vista than an image in fact, one of jagged mountains blanketed in dense green forest, in which the occasional break in the rolling mist reveals ancient wooden temples, and perilous, overgrown stone staircases winding their way to forgotten peaks beyond the clouds. My imagined scene even had a soundtrack, that of the soothing tones of a Chinese woodwind flute, played by some unseen old master, and supported by the distant echo of cascading waterfalls.
Well, as it turns out, this is the place.
Of course, certain modern realities are forced to encroach on my idealistic imaginings; those winding staircases for example, are now occasioned by the odd noodle shop and souvenir stand, and that tranquil woodwind music is being played over a tannoy by a man looking to sell you the CD’s at 45 yuan a pop, but what did you expect? It’s a tourist site, not a time machine. Besides, it’s a long walk, and you might just find that noodle shop to be a welcome sight by mid afternoon.
That said, these necessities of the real world do little to dilute the overall atmosphere, and the authorities have gone to some significant effort to preserve the areas natural and historic setting. During your ascent of the mountain you’ll wander for hours through pristine forest, encountering mountain lakes, waterfalls, crumbling and picturesque stone bridges, and ancient timbered palaces.
As I mentioned before, this mountain is the site where the Taoist religion began, and countless temples dot the landscape, ranging from small innocuous shrines by the roadside, to vast, sprawling complexes, and all with a wealth of stories and myths attached. We even stumbled upon a temple carved right in to the rock face of the mountain. This is especially pleasing when, like us, you’ve failed to study the maps or signposts correctly and so each new wonder appears quite unexpectedly, and you’ve no idea what’s awaiting you around the next corner. It grants an exciting feeling of adventure to the whole affair.
There are a number of routes (4 or 5, as I remember) that you can take to ascend the mountain, from the challenging (or suicidal – more on this later) ‘Nine Turnings’ path, to the supremely easy option of just getting in the cable car. Each path offering it’s own, often curiously named sights, such as; ‘Horizontal Cloud Pavilion’, ‘Heart Washing Pool’ and ‘The Subjugating Demons Rock’.
Reaching the 1,260m peak is possible for people of pretty much any fitness level, especially if you’re willing to cough up the 35 yuan for the cable car. Though on the off-chance that you’re visiting with a broken leg or terminal case of idleitis, there are always the litter carriers. These grizzled and sturdy chaps ply their trade all around the pathways, and in exchange for a few banknotes, will happily heft you up or down the mountainside, recumbent in a contraption that’s somewhere between a medical stretcher and a medieval palanquin.
Any bad things to say?
Only our choice of date. Not only did we have the misfortune to visit on a day when the weather was grey, foggy, and overcast, thus pretty much grounding our camera drone, but it also happened to be the day of the Qingming festival – a national holiday in which everyone and their grandmother heads out in force to the nearest tourist site. As our friend in the Dujiangyan tourist office aptly dubbed it : “People Mountain, People Sea”.
My, my, was it busy! Fortunately, the place is so vast that even China’s unstoppable tourist hordes were well enough dispersed once past the main gates, that the crowds never felt the slightest bit oppressive. Once deep enough in to the park in fact, it was not unusual to find ourselves alone at times. Only twice was it an issue, the first was the cablecar, the queue for which extended a good 200 metres beyond the building, and the second was when descending the ‘Nine Turnings’.
Mount Qingcheng : The ‘Nine Turnings’.
This is the westernmost route on the mountain’s north face, the name comes from the nine switchbacks that the path makes as it winds up the mountainside. It’s a terrifyingly steep staircase that runs for several kilometres, it’s slippery, it’s narrow, and many of the stone steps have been eroded by the passage of many years and many feet. We’d chosen to come down the mountain by this route rather than up, figuring that the descent would be easier, what with gravity on our side. Gravity, as it turns out, does not make a good ally.
The path does have handrails on one side to give you a fighting chance, sadly, this side of the path had been claimed by the endless snake of people making the uphill climb. Those of us coming down had no choice but to trust in the treads on our shoes and our own sense of balance to avoid calamity. A sense of balance not improved by having sack of camera equipment and a small helicopter strapped to our backs! Nor could we pause to rest or steel ourselves during the (probably 90 minute) descent, as the path was too narrow to allow the hundreds of others behind us to pass by safely. Sorry if you’re looking for photos of this, we couldn’t stop moving and Miss Marie-Carmen the photographer was too busy trying not to die.
Unlike my wife, I have no fear of heights, quite the opposite in fact, I hand over hard earned cash to zip-line, abseil or bungee jump at every opportunity I get. Even so, I found myself wishing I’d worn my brown trousers for this trip. God only knows how Marie made it.
Awesome. Some breathtaking natural scenery, a wealth of antique architecture and history, traditional crafts and food, and walking routes to suit any level of ability or or desire for adventure.
Here is also some of the drone footage we’ve taken on Mount Qingcheng:
How to get to Mount Qingcheng
Qingchengshan Railway Station is on the bullet train line from Chengdu, and bus no.101 and 101A run from the station to the park. There are also regular buses from Chengdu Xinnanmen Bus Station.
If you want to take your time while hiking Mount Qingcheng we would recommend staying at the Six Senses , which is next to the entrance. For a budget friendly option, ask at the temples on your hike, they do rent rooms.
Prices to enter Mount Qingcheng
Admission is 90 Yuan, and the cablecar is a further 35 Yuan each way (or 60 for a round trip).
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* Yeah, yeah, it was a metaphor, alright? We all know I never had a briefcase. Even back when I was a respectable office worker I still showed up in crumpled trousers with my papers ensconced in an army surplus backpack. Some might say I was destined for the life I lead today.