I decided against duking it out with the weekend crowd to see the Terracotta Army and went for a climb up Huashan instead, which is about 120km from Xi'an.
Huashan is one of the five sacred Taoist mountains, often referred to by literary heavyweights Li Bai, Du Fu and many others in their writings. In days of yore, Huashan was the place to go to seek inspiration and contemplate the meaning of life amidst tranquil surroundings. Think mist-shrouded peaks, tall pines rustling in the wind, time standing still, men with white beards tied around their waists etc.
Well, no longer I'm afraid. The centuries of calm was abruptly perforated with the construction of not one, not two, but THREE cable car lines in the past 20 years. Today, Huashan is a major tourist attraction; not so much for its serenity anymore, but for the spectacular views from the top.
There are altogether five major peaks in Huashan (N, S, E, W, Central). The North Peak, which is the one you get to first, is 1,615m and the tallest is the South Peak at 2,160m. All five peaks are accessible in a lung-busting walking circuit that goes up and down. Now, it's entirely possible to dash up the mountain, complete the circuit and come back down again in one day. But you'd have to run marathons for a living.
A far better, and less painful, experience is to do it over two days, by staying at one of the guest houses on top of the mountain for a night. This way, you get to see both sunset and sunrise which are pretty fabulous.
WARNING: running water is kept to literally a trickle on the top, so you're more or less condemned to wiping yourself down with a damp handkerchief after a sweaty day. Food and drinking water are expensive (RMB24 for a bowl of instant noodles), so bring both with you. The cheapest beds(RMB100-RMB150) are in dorms of 10 pax. Quads/doubles are available, but you're looking at RMB250/RMB400 and above per person. Accommodation is available at the North, East and West peaks. I stayed at the East Peak for easy access to the sunrise.
Another WARNING: It's a pretty tough climb. The most popular route is the one to the North Peak, and that's 6km of stairs which get progressively steeper until the final bit which has an incline of about 70-80 degrees. Really. Getting to the North Peak took me 2 1/2 hours. Another two hours to complete the circuit. Lonely Planet says to budget about 8 hours.
Yes, you could save yourself all this misery and take one of three cable cars up. About RMB160 for a return ticket. But that would be cheating.
Steep? Naah, it's only 60 degrees.
It makes everything worth it.