One of the principles of Taoism is to accept transience, the inevitable and the irrevocable.

Most other religions have a similar belief, akin to accepting what you cannot change. I’ve learned this lesson many times, just like most everyone has. Sitting on the precipice near the East Peak of a sacred Taoist mountain, next to shrine where locals kneeled at the alter amidst the ringing of a bell, I was again taught this lesson.

Any list of dangerous hikes will usually include the so-called “World’s Deadliest Hike”, the Plank Road in the Sky of Mount Huashan in Huayin, China. More often than not, it makes the top of the list. It consists of climbing down a makeshift metal ladder bolted to the rock and carefully navigating both footholds carved into the mountain and two by fours totaling about a foot in width, holding on for dear life to chains which run along the path, suspended seven thousand feet up a sheer cliff face of one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains, colloquially known as the “Number One Precipitous Mountain under Heaven.”

The only thing keeping you from falling to your death if you lose your grip, balance or consciousness is a chest harness with two carabiners which you must clip to connecting metal cables bolted to the mountain as you traverse the wooden planks. The path is also two-way, and you must go around or underneath whomever is heading in the opposite direction. A Buddhist temple and scenic overlook are all which await you at the end of the path.

It’s claimed that “over 100 people a year” die from falling off the cliff, however there is no concrete evidence to back this number up and is most likely conjecture and so much touristy flimflam.

What isn’t conjecture is the footage of a man committing suicide by unhooking his harness and jumping to his death.

Naturally, this seemed a perfect fit for my yearly adventure to celebrate sobriety.

However, One Does Not Simply just travel to China.

Your passport is not enough, and you additionally must apply for a Visa — completing a four-page application (with your employment status, names of all immediate family members, and the specific reason of fourteen to choose from for your visit, among other details) and include the application fee, copies of your airfare, hotel reservations, a passport-worthy photo and your actual passport.

Apply online? You wish.

You must either apply in-person at one of the six Chinese consulates throughout the US, specific to your state, or have an agent apply on your behalf. Thankfully there are many companies who will handle this part for you.

It took a week for to return my passport including my Tourist Visa, good for the next decade, and again I was able to get round-trip from Orlando to Beijing for just over $600, keeping my streak of not paying more than $700 for an international flight intact. This likely to end when it comes to Japan or Kiev.

I had originally thought to fly into Xi’an, only a 30-minute train ride from Huayin, yet over double the cost of airfare. Flying into Beijing meant a five-hour train ride on the high-speed rail, but for a chance to see the third most populated city on the planet, with over 20 million people and a wealth of historic sites to explore, the choice was obvious.

The next hurdle to overcome was communication.

Everyone spoke English in Dominica, Costa Rica, France, Belgium and Norway – at least, enough to be able to communicate on a rudimentary level where simple things like ordering food weren’t a problem. This is not the case for China. Your average cabbie does not speak a word of English.

Thankfully, the owner of my favorite restaurant is Chinese and was able to help me immensely by writing down the names of my hotels and various points of interest in Mandarin to show taxi drivers and other relevant parties.

Fiona, you are a life-saver.

After six months of waiting, watching YouTube videos of the Plank Walk, studying the paths around the mountain, getting a feel of how Beijing was laid out on Google Maps, it was time.

Megan spent the weekend before my early morning connecting flight to Dallas and being the utter sweetheart she is, got up at 4:30 in the morning with me to ensure I got to MCO early enough to make the 7:40 flight.

Typically, this would be a wealth of time, but Orlando travelers and TSA were in rare form and it took nearly forty minutes to wade through security, complete with panicked travelers claiming that “their flight was boarding in five minutes!” and hurriedly skipping past those of us waiting patiently in line. I seriously hope they were roundly chastised and told to wait by TSA.

Sure enough, my flight began boarding not five minutes after getting to the gate. With only three hours to DFO, it went quickly enough, listening to music as the clouds floated by. The real marathon was yet to come, a fourteen-hour jaunt to Capital Airport in Beijing.

I figured an hour should be more than enough time to change flights, despite having never visited DFO before. When we sat on the tarmac for almost thirty minutes after landing, my nerves grew increasingly tense with each passing minute.

By the time I walked off the plane, I practically ran to the shuttle between terminals. Reaching the gate, the final few passengers were boarding, Mercifully, an Auntie Annie’s was situated directly across from the gate.

Fourteen hours in a cramped window seat, and I barely had time to stretch my legs and eat a pretzel.

As I walked down the aisle approaching my seat, I heard the distinct mewling of a toddler amongst the otherwise quiet passengers.

“No, seriously… please don’t do this to me,” I thought.

Sure enough, there was little Brooke. My three-year-old single-serving friend for the next half-day.

I tried to rationalize it by considering myself lucky that she was sitting next to me and not behind me. But I knew at some point this would result in a tantrum within two feet of me. She mostly kept to herself, other than putting a finger in my water and trying to turn my laptop off by choosing the power button of all the ones to press. Her mother did a decent enough job reigning her in, and she napped for the first few hours.

The best part about sitting next to a three-year-old is that they don’t care if you sit like a five-year-old, not to mention the extra room.

I passed the next few hours watching ‘All the President’s Men’, yearning for Woodward and Bernstein to pass through a time-vortex from 1972 and obtain the full, unredacted Mueller Report through a secret high-ranking government official in a dimly lit clandestine parking garage.

They also had the first two episodes of Season 3 of True Detective, which I now absolutely need to finish, as it looks like it’ll live up to the standard set by Season 1.

Finally, I watched ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’, and holy shit is it good. I’m at little ashamed I waited this long to watch it. So well put -together, genuinely touching story, Miles had a wonderful arc and I love that Nicolas Cage voiced Noir-Spider-Man.

Despite the auto-tinting of the aircraft windows to simulate a night flight during perpetual afternoon, the solar heat still manages to make its way through. I didn’t think I need a hoodie on the flight, but turns out it was the perfect Sith Lord-like shroud to keep the heat off my face.

At hour ten, just as I was going to attempt to close my eyes and pretend to take a nap, Brooke finally broke.

I think she wanted to go to the bathroom and her mother kept telling her to go in her diaper, which she didn’t much care for the idea of, sending her piercing screams wailing through the cabin. Really, she acquitted herself well and lasted longer than I would’ve initially given her credit for.

When her mother went to take her away to the back, there was something wet on the seat next to me as well as my jeans. She apologized and wiped it up, and it’s my head canon that it was water from her sippy cup, not her mother forcefully putting her in her seat with a compromised diaper. The flight attendants actually came by to ask if I was okay and if I needed to get up to stretch my legs.

Finally, after thirteen thousand miles, passing through the Arctic Circle at -83 degrees, over the uninhabited jagged tundra of Siberia and the desolated deserts of Mongolia, the haze on the horizon of the Beijing skyline came into view. I had heard about the ever-present smog which hangs over the city, but it’s hard to believe until you actually see it.

Also, it’s hard to believe its sheer size – a massive, sprawling metropolis with mid—range skyscrapers stretching out in all directions for miles.

We land, and I immediately check cellular connectivity. LTE service is good, with China Unicom. I’d downloaded a VPN app, NordVPN, with a free trial to attempt getting around the Great Firewall and make sure I still had access to Gmail, Google and social media. Of course, it fails.

Thankfully, the Verizon TravelPass service works as its own VPN, and for ten bucks a day, I had access to everything, even though I really only needed Gmail.

Forgive me, Facebook, but I had social media the whole time.

Honestly, I needed an excuse to force a break from this site, as well as preserve the precious battery life of my poor little iPhone, which has become hopelessly, hilariously bad. More on this later.

Not wanting to risk getting taken the cleaners by a “black taxi”, I’d ordered a car service online in the month before leaving. Without any English-speaking drivers available, it was going to be interesting right off the bat.

Once you’re out of the baggage claim at PEK, you’re greeted by a host of drivers holding signs in front of a Starbucks, where the email said to meet my driver, but my name was nowhere to be found.

After looking as confused as possible and refusing a man who walked up saying, “Taxi? Taxi?” an older gentleman walked up, showing me his smartphone, zoomed in on my name surrounded by Mandarin characters. I nodded enthusiastically, and he smiled and grabbed my luggage. I showed him my passport on the escalator, and he nodded enthusiastically back.

Our drive would have been impossibly awkward had we both spoke the same language, but 30 minutes of silence was fine, since he needed to concentrate on the road and not a translation app.

Downtown Beijing is roughly a thirty-minute drive from the airport. The traffic seems normal at first, a slow-moving, perpetually backed up interstate.

Once you enter the inner circles of the Ring Roads, however, you quickly realize that shit has officially gotten real.

There is no waiting your turn. There is no letting the other car go first. There is no waiting for pedestrians to cross. There are few actual lanes. There is no shortage of horns being leaned on, and there is no offense taken when they’re leaned on.

There are precisely zero fucks given, and somehow, miraculously, there are almost no accidents, at least none that I saw.

It is now a dream of mine to take every aggressive, tailgating, asshole Florida driver, drop them in the dead center of downtown Beijing to try to fight their way out and see how long they last before they either learn some goddamn humility or have a massive stroke, whichever comes first.

We arrive at my first hotel, the Nostalgia Hotel – Temple of Heaven. The driver has a bit of trouble finding it. I don’t blame him. Turns out Google Maps was way off all along, since the literal translation is “Time Walk Renaissance Hotel.”

Through a poor experience using the ‘Mr. Translator’ app, he confirms my pickup at the second Beijing hotel on the 10th, The China World Summit Shangri-La Hotel.

The staff at the hotel do not speak English.

Again, this is not Bergen, Ypres or La Fortuna. The only word the man helping check me in knows is ‘Passport’. It’s enough to get me my room on the fourth floor, a perfectly serviceable room the size of my bedroom with a small bathroom, yet still not small enough to break Paris’s record on that front. I could actually turn around in the shower comfortably!

By that time, despite being only 3:30 in the afternoon, my body was about to air its own Season Finale of ‘24’, so I skipped venturing out to explore the city and a proper dinner in lieu of a protein bar and passing out almost immediately.

I only actually slept for maybe six actual hours, and woke up to a text from Megan that Avengers tickets were officially on sale. Atom Tickets succeeded where Fandango failed – again – and I managed to get an opening night 2am showing, as well as Monday evening showing.

Passing back out, I woke up again at 6:30 leaving a cool 15 minutes to get ready for pickup of my tour of the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, a Jade factory and a Tea tasting – a TripAdvisor tour I’d signed up for maybe a week before the trip.

The lady who picked me up was not my tour guide, but the driver and did the exact same thing my driver from the airport did, show me my name on her phone. She spoke no English.

Fighting morning rush hour traffic, she drove to the Renaissance Hotel nearby and picked up two American girls also going on the tour. After a cursory ‘good morning’, they sat in the back of the minivan, discussing the finer points and struggles of Silicon Valley housing, as one of them was soon moving there. From what I could tell, they were Besties on an international adventure, close to graduating from college, discussing their future lives with their soon-to-be husbands and past dating exploits.

We pick up our Tour Guide (forgive me, I didn’t get his name) who gives us a brief rundown on the history of Beijing and the Great Wall. His English is more than passable, despite a thick accent.

After he finishes, the girls continue their conversation, and one of them mentions about how she didn’t much care about not being able to get to social media, but not being able to get to Google was killing her. I hold up my phone and refresh the page in a “Boom! You looking for this?” moment, which admittedly felt pretty good.

We introduce ourselves, and their names are Theresa and Jennifer, indeed Besties. They’ve been looking forward to climbing the Great Wall together as a life goal.

It takes about 30 minutes to reach the Badaling section of the Great Wall. I’d heard this was one of the more touristy parts, but getting there so early, we had the advantage and it was practically empty save for one Vietnamese tour group. Our guide tells us we have two hours to explore and then to meet him back at the van, and does us a solid of taking pictures of us.

I mention to him that I’m climbing Mount Huashan in a few days and if this compares to the steepness. He says this is nothing compared to that and refers to it as a “kiddie” steep. Great.

The girls are off and running. I start climbing and quickly realize in my haste to meet the driver, I forgot the GoPro. Because why not. I also had the absolute wrong bag to carry my camera up the wall, with a single strap across my chest, putting uneven pressure on my shitty, former smoker lungs.

No matter how long it’s been, it never seems to get any easier.

I take my time climbing the wall, going about the same pace as the Vietnamese tourists. Getting to Tower Fortress #9, I kneel down in a corner trying to catch my breath, and a Chinese man wearing a three-piece suit and dress shoes smiles at me and starts speaking. I tell him I can’t speak Chinese.

He moves his arms in a lifting motion and says, “Up! Up!” still smiling. This dude just fucking crushing 30 floors in the most uncomfortable shoes a man can wear, and I would punch my stupid lungs if they had a face. I was genuinely impressed.

Tower Fortress #9 was as far as I went. It was the second highest tower on the path, as any further might have taken me longer to get down. Still, the view was magnificent. The Great Wall truly is a marvel of human engineering, despite the suffering and cost in lives it must have taken to create it.

Making my way back, I head for the structure on the other side of the road we drove in on, kind of like an old fort, with binocular stations at points. They were not coin operated, but WeChat pay.

WeChat is like Facebook and Messenger but also tied to your bank account. Each account has a unique QR code which business can scan and allow you to pay for services. The scanning works the other way, too, where you scan the code and pay for something. Tourists can’t have official Mainland China bank accounts, but can use third party services to “deposit” money into your WeChat account, which is what I did. I had no idea whether or not it was going to work.

I scanned the code on the binocular, it prompted me for my six-digit code, and upon entering, my phone buzzed confirming the transaction. The binoculars unlocked and I laughed ecstatically that it worked.

A man standing close by gave me a very confused look. I deposited 450 Yuan in my account later that afternoon.

Meeting back at the van, our Guide tells us our next stop is a Jade factory and to each lunch.

It’s tucked away in the back of an industrial area, and right on the inside we see a worker refining a ball of Jade. A woman walks the girls and I through the facility, showing us the various forms of Jade. Really, it’s little more than an excuse to get us to the massive showroom floor in the hopes that we’ll buy something. I get Megan’s daughter a Golden Jade pig, since she was born in 2007, the rare year of the Golden Pig in Chinese horoscope. The lady who assists me literally follows me around the store as I look around at the ridiculously expensive Jade statues and figures, waiting for me to ask about any of the thousands of items.

Our Guide comes back and directs us to the restaurant upstairs where we’re fed orange chicken, beef and broccoli, white rice, soup and spring rolls. Theresa and Jennifer tell me they’re both graduating from medical school and Beijing is only one stop of a month-long international tour of Asia, with Phukett, Thailand as their next destination. Only one of them is moving to Silicon Valley, and the other to Seattle, while they’re both from Arizona. I tell them about the Plank Road and my reason for doing it.

We leave before I eat the entire plate of orange chicken.

Back in the van, our Guide gives us a choice of where we want to go next – the Sacred Way or the Ming Tombs. He recommends the Sacred Way, since the Ming Tombs are largely inaccessible since the government has blocked them off and you can’t go inside. He doesn’t mention the likely reason for this is that they were desecrated during the Cultural Revolution. Remains of Emperors were dug up and posthumously denounced. We opted for the Sacred Way, a path lined by statues symbolizing the different positions in the hierarchy of the Ming Dynasty. The tombs themselves stretch out for miles into the surrounding mountains.

At the start is a large monolith with some of the original Chinese characters still in use in some parts of the country. It’s situated on a statue which is a turtle body with a dragon head.

Taking our time walking down the Sacred Way taking pictures. I mention to our Guide about the upcoming festival, where graves of family members are decorated to honor them. He tells me he will be participating in the coming days.

Our last stop is a tea tasting ceremony, another building unremarkable from the outside but ornate within.

We’re walked upstairs where a woman gives us a demonstration of tea infusion, letting us sample all the different types. I’m generally not a tea drinker, but the last flavor we try is this kind with dried fruit in it and it’s better than any fruit juice I’ve ever tasted. Of course, the demonstration is all in the hopes that we’ll buy something. The girls resist, but I’m a dead sucker and buy a pound of the fruit stuff.

No, I’m not saying how much it was. I didn’t haggle and probably got taken to the cleaners. I will say that I felt better when I got back to the hotel and checked Amazon, where a pound of similar stuff wasn’t very much less than what I paid. I’m cool with that.

As the last stop on our tour, our Guide thanks us and says rather unconvincingly that he’s very happy to have had us. Aside of the Great Wall and Ming Tombs, it was all an exit-through-the-gift-shop experience. I don’t expect someone to be all super enthused for randos, but he was at least pleasant and that’s all one can reasonably ask. He’s dropped off near a subway station and the driver takes us back to our hotels, dropping the girls first as we wish each other well on our respective journeys.

Back at the hotel with a good bit of the afternoon left, it’s time for grocery shopping. I’m almost out of bottled water and there isn’t any drinking from the tap. Google Maps proves terribly unreliable and I’m forced to just walkabout until I find something. Thankfully, it didn’t take long and I stumble on a supermarket a block or so away.

Crowded. Cramped. Lots of yelling.

The section of packaged foods was the smallest, just a couple of aisles. The vast majority was fruits, vegetables and cuts of meat. But I found what I was looking for, and this is where the Yuan goes a long way.

I walked out of that grocery store with:

– Two liters of water. – Chinese Red Bull. – Two Chicken Feet. – A large bag of candy. – Three packages of yellow cake. – A 12-ounce bottle of Chinese branded Coke.

The total cost was 48 Yuan. Less than ten bucks. This is how I stretched my money out – so many of your average goods are the fraction of a cost of what they are in America. That would have been $20 minimum at Publix.

At the hotel I do something I usually don’t on my international excursions and turn on the TV. I found a dating show where the all the contestant’s parents were part of the show, even those who’d been eliminated.

Breakfast at the hotel cost 30 Yuan, or about five bucks. (A note about currency exchange – the Yuan/RMB to USD exchange rate is about 5 to 1, ie 50 Yuan is roughly ten bucks. This helped greatly when determining how much any given item was going to cost. I ordered 2,000 Yuan online before leaving for spending money, since Visa is not widely accepted. WeChat is the primary mode of electronic payment.)

Reviews off the hotel on TripAdvisor said they served traditional American breakfast, which was depressing, and I was happy to find out this was not the case.

Steamed buns and fried bread were readily available and delicious. Though I was a bit embarrassed when my attempt to go back for seconds was met with the breakfast attendant (who also did not speak English) gesturing for me to give him another breakfast ticket, totally deadpan. I sheepishly put my bowl of fried bread down. No double—dipping on breakfast.

The first order of business was getting the subway system down, and determine the path to the Beijing West Railway Station for my train to Huayin in a few days.

Tiantendongmen Station was the closest to me, one click directly west of the hotel, a stop on Line 5. It would end up being a 15 minute walk I would make many times over the next few days.

The Beijing subway system is masterfully designed.

Once you get the directions down, you simply cannot get lost unless you’re deliberately attempting to. Every line links to all the others at specific junctions and with all the signage in English, transferring trains is a snap.

Of course, you need to know how to work the ticket kiosk first.

I walked up to a kiosk, pressed the button for ‘English’ and was confused almost immediately. A station attendant came up and asked repeatedly what I can only assume where I was trying to get to and holding up her fingers in the shape of a coin. Cue the Deer in Headlights. Once realizing her efforts to speak to me were in vain, she gestured to come over to the counter, where the counter attendant did not speak English, either.

Out comes the phone, where Mr. Translator completely fails to register what the attendant is speaking into it. Anxiety Sweat starts coming off my forehead like windshield defroster. I’d watched a goddamn YouTube video on how to do this before I left and it still threw me for a loop.

Another attendant walks over. “Where are you trying to go?” Exhale.

I tell her and the first attendant walks me back over to the kiosk and goes through the process for me. Now, I get it. It would be the first of many times I would say “Xie Xie”, pronounced “She-yuh She-yuh.”

“Thank you.”

I walk down the stairs to where the trains are, and it’s only about 8:30 in the morning, still rush hour. Everything you’ve heard about the Beijing subway rush hour, people packing in as close as humanly possible into the cars to the point where they have to push them in just so the doors will close?

It’s all true.

Good lord, the look I had on my face as I squeezed into the lone square foot of available space, saucer plate eyes with my bag clutched up against my chest, feeling three separate people pushing into me into the door and being unsure if it was even going to close at first.

It’s a claustrophobic’s literal worse nightmare. I hope at least one of the locals saw me and chuckled to themselves. “Welcome to Beijing, lowai.”

I change trains at Dongdan to Line 7 and take it all the way to the railway station. Easy enough, I’m now ready for Saturday morning when it’s go-time. At that point the day was mine, so I figured I’d get Tian’anmen Square out of the way first.

I got back on the train and navigated to Line 1, only to realize that my ticket would now no longer get me out of the subway. When you reach your destination, you feed a card into the turnstile and it lets you out. It’s not some chaotic free-for-all, where you can just ride all over town. You get out where you told the kiosk you would get out.

Thankfully, there’s Fare Adjustment booths, and I got mine sorted easily enough.

The most striking thing about the subway is just how unbelievable *clean* it is. There’s no trash, anywhere. At all. It’s completely spotless. For a city of that many people, I will never know how they manage it.

Not being terribly familiar with how Tian’anmen is laid out, I got off the subway and followed the massive herd of people moving into archway next to the large portrait of Mao, thinking I’d be able to just turn around and check out the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the middle of the square.

Nope. Welcome to the Forbidden City.

I sat down on a bench and looked at a map, trying to figure the exit, when a man sat down next to me speaking English to someone who I can only surmise was his tour guide. I didn’t get his name, but told me he was from Virginia Beach.

His guide told me that the exit was through all the way on the other end of the area. I had my cameras on me and was planning on doing it during the trip anyway, so as good a time as any.

Another Chinese man sat on my other side and started speaking in Mandarin to me, but I gestured “sorry, bro” hands and regretted not learning how to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,” in Mandarin. The man from Virginia Beach told me to say “Pu Yow” if anyone tried to talk to me and sell me something, meaning “Not interested.” Good to know.

Inside, the Forbidden City was huge. Not unlike a small theme park and equally as crowded.

This was the place where Emperors and the ruling class lived during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, where regular common folk were not allowed to see the inside of, hence the name. It’s full of temples, now containing relics and statues dating back hundreds and hundreds of years. Statues of Buddha dating back to BCE and the turn of the Millenia. Weapons from 400-500. An anthropologist and historian’s dream.

No doubt, some of the few thousand of China’s historical relics which survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 60’s 70’s, when he urged citizens to destroy them, are housed at this location.

In one of the rooms, there was a large stone with a few Chinese characters on it and a sign nearby that said, “No Photography.” I’d inadvertently walked in with the GoPro recording on my headmount, and ripped it off almost immediately.

The throne rooms of the Emperor and Empress are (ironically) forbidden for visitors to enter, with glass barriers and crowds of people fighting to get to the front to take pictures like the Mona Lisa. The glare of the glass and all the shoving made it difficult to get good pictures off it.

By the time I reached the exit at the north end, breakfast had been officially used up.

The famous pedestrian shopping street, Wangfujing, was close enough that a taxi would have been pointless, but far enough away that on an empty stomach after standing for three hours was a bit tiresome. During the walk, I stopped to rest at Theresa and Jennifer’s hotel on what looked like a solid black concrete slab, but was actually water. Embarrassing.

One thing I wanted to do while visiting the city was try their variant of American chains, as I’d heard from friends about how much Beijingers love KFC. McDonalds and Pizza Hut are everywhere. I know, it’s asinine to fly halfway around the world just to try shitty chain restaurants when presented with the opportunity to venture out and try new and exciting international culinary exploits.

Don’t care. I want Pizza Hut.

I told myself as soon as I saw one, I was stopping to eat, and almost on cue right as I entered the pedestrian-only section of Wangfujing street, there it is. It’s not some chincey takeout place with eternally ringing phones and just enough room to grab the pizza and leave, it’s a sit-down affair with a pretty sizeable menu, including stuff like steak and lobster.

I ordered a Roast Duck Flatbread, and it was fucking amazing. Seriously. Light, not crazy greasy, no red sauce and veggies. I ate the whole goddamn thing without debating for a second whether or not I should.

Rejuvenated, I walked down the alley section of Wangfujing Street Market with the weird food. The bugs. The tentacles. The deep-fried whole birds – head, beak and all. It’s a cacophony of smells that vary literally from second to second with each step. There was something on the street that I was determined to try before leaving, but it was to wait until after Huashan. I couldn’t risk the possibility of getting sick and being unable to do the Plank Walk.

The next day I decided to check out the Temple of Heaven, since it was the closest tourist attraction to the hotel, just past the Tiantendongmen station, to which I would add, the literal translation of that word is “Temple of Heaven West”.

It was roughly the same size as the Forbidden City, and while the actual temple area itself was very crowded, much of the park wasn’t and was quite a bit more relaxed. Really, a park is most of what it is. On the walk up to the Temple area entrance were group after group of people playing cards, though I have no idea what they were actually playing. Lots of families having picnics and folks milling about.

At the actual temple, it was the same as the Emperor’s throne at the Forbidden City, blocked off by gates with everyone crowding around to snap a picture of where the Emperor would come to sit. The temple was part of a larger park structure, aligned perfectly with one another, for rituals involving animal sacrifice. Inside the buildings of the park are murals depicting the many intricate steps heavenly blessings performed there during the Ming Dynasty, On the opposite end of the park from the temple is a raised platform with a circle in the middle, a key location of the sacrificial ceremony, where all of the visitors were fighting for a chance to stand on it. I managed to get on it for a few seconds.

As I’ve mentioned in previous trip write-ups, the most frustrating thing about travelling solo is having to ask randos for pictures. At least when you’re in a county where your language is spoken, it’s relatively easy. This time, I stood outside the temple for almost 30 minutes waiting for the right moment to attempt to use Google Translate and hope it didn’t fail.

Finally, a visiting group of British kids on an international field trip walked by and I asked them, who had trouble working the autofocus of my DSLR and were hilariously British about it. “It worked but I think I took about a million of them.”

They took six, and one actually came out really well.

It didn’t take nearly as long to visit as the Forbidden City did, so I headed back to the hotel, picking up a few more things from the grocery store on the way.

Friday nights on Wangfujing street are insanity. Thousands and thousands of people. Take downtown Orlando after Orange is closed on a Saturday night and multiply it three-fold.

I scoured the shops trying to find gloves to wear for gripping the chains on the mountain, and came up frustratingly short. For a seven-story mall, there was a distinct lack of sporting goods stores. For dinner I’d wanted to try a restaurant Fiona recommended, Quanjude, famous for their roast duck, but it was busy to the point where it made Cheesecake Factory on Homecoming Dance night look slow by comparison. I took a packed elevator up to the restaurant floor and literally pulled a Grampa Simpson where I immediately turned around and got back on.

Before getting on, a man at a counter selling pre-packaged takeaway items gave me an annoyed, furrowed brow look that could only have said, “Really, motherfucker?” as I queued up for the elevator, clearly without having checked in.

Settling for a restaurant in the mall with a sushi conveyor belt, that sadly I was not able to pick sushi directly off of, wasn’t a terrible alternative.

Back at the hotel it was time to pack for Huashan, as my train left at 11:53 the next morning.

Now that I knew the subway, navigating the rail station was a snap. What wasn’t was trying to go through the entrance without getting my ticket first, to which the ticket attendant also did not speak English. She angrily took my passport, stormed off to the back, and returned a few minutes later with my ticket.

With an hour until departure and five ahead of me, I stopped into McDonalds for what I thought where McNuggets, but turned out to be deep-fried whole chicken wings. Thankfully, a McFlurry is still a McFlurry.

Boarding the train, I ended up with a first-class carriage almost entirely to myself. Only one other person was there, and he left a few stops in.

Seeing the countryside was harrowing in a way, as much of the infrastructure of the small towns was in a poor state of disrepair. Some buildings looked like they’d been bombed. One thing that stuck out in particular were the identical apartment buildings.

You know how in SimCity, when an apartment reached its most valuable state, all the buildings were the same? It’s exactly like that, and it’s a bit spooky. Some of the buildings look like they’ve been under construction for years on end, if not wholly abandoned skeletons, stretching for miles into the distance silhouetted against the hazy smog.

People bitch and make stupid memes about the Eyesore on I-4, but imagine having an entire city full of them, they’re carbon copies of each other and all twice as high.

And of the smog, I could see where much of it came from. Coal plants, cooling towers and manufacturing facilities pouring endless amounts of steam into the air. It’s not just Beijing, it’s everywhere.

Aside of that, it was farm after farm after farm, many of which had decorated mounds scattered throughout. I wasn’t sure what they were at first, until I saw telltale headstones of some of them. It made sense when I thought about it, and even more so when I was reading about China’s recent farm history on the return trip.

Five hours and several stops later, the train arrives at Huashanbei Station.

All the reviews I’d read about the mountain and Plank Walk recommended to not even think about taking a taxi, as they bleed you dry for funsies, and instead take one of the free buses which runs back and forth on an endless loop from the railway station to the front of the park. I lucked out and was one of the first few on an empty bus, nabbing a seat. Twenty minutes later when we departed, it was standing room only. During a trip, a freak gust of wind blew in across the main road, sending dirt, dust and flower petals into the bus.

It was my hope that where the bus landed would be somewhere close to my hotel, as it’s address was literally “100 meters from the East Gate”.

Turns out it was a healthy mile away.

This is where my phone’s failing battery would cause the most stress, as I genuinely didn’t know if it would last a half hour using the map’s GPS. Ever since I upgraded to iOS 12.1.4 from 10, the battery life has been an absolute joke. Like, I can sit and watch it drain 20% in real-time inside of ten minutes just browsing social media. It’s ridiculous. I’ve had to turn off System Managed location services in order to stretch it out to what it usually is. It’s making me want to finally switch to a Samsung or Pixel full time and not just for work.

Having to walk directly on the edge of a major highway, with cars buzzing by two feet away, dust blowing in my face and a dying phone battery, I was getting a tad bit frustrated.

“Take the bus, they said! IT’LL BE EASIER, THEY SAID!”

It has barely enough life in it to get me where it says my hotel is, but I have no idea what actual building it is. This isn’t Beijing, where most of the signs are hybrid Mandarin and English. Everything is Mandarin, and I am utterly lost. The only thing nearby is a restaurant. I’m officially losing my shit and the locals are noticing.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a man in a black SUV drives up and asks me something in Chinese. I’m at a loss for words and throw my hands up. He keeps talking and gets out of his car. Showing him a screenshot of the name of my hotel in Chinese, he nods and smiles, walking me into the restaurant.

Inside, a younger man with glasses meets me at the counter, which I can see now has room types and prices. Turns out the Huashan Mountain Spring Guest House is tucked away above the restaurant. The man with uses Mr. Translator and his works flawlessly, go figure.

“You have a fixed price?” he asks. I confirm and show him a screenshot. The price is 198 RMB, or $40, for two nights in this hotel. I pay in cash and an older woman walks me upstairs and shows me to my room. Google Translate uses up the last of my battery, and we have a conversation about getting to the ticket office, stressed and thinking I was going to have to walk back out to get them before they open in the morning. She says it’s too late today, but will give me a ride early in the morning.

I thank her, close the door and almost have a complete emotional collapse, not even going back downstairs for dinner and instead just lay down and get in bed impossibly early. With the day I had ahead of me, I’d need it.

Alarm was set for 6:30. I was up and dressed by then, downstairs and ready to go by 7.

Another woman and the man from the black SUV are sitting in the restaurant. There’s a bike lock on the front doors. I ask them if the other will be down soon for the ride, and they look at each other confused.

The woman makes a call, yelling at someone in Mandarin, and soon after the man with glasses appears and unlocks the door to give us all a ride to the ticket office. He asks if I’m hiking or using the ropeway (cablecar) to get up to the top of the mountain. With more time, and not wanting to beat the inevitable line for the Plank Walk, I opt for the cable car.

Dropping us at the ticket office, I already know that I need a ticket for the West Gate. It’s a forty minute bus ride, a short climb and then a 20 minute gondola journey up the mountain. The East Gate is only an eight minute gondola ride, but involves traversing Black Dragon Ridge, a steep rock staircase of a few hundred meters at a near 60 degree incline, with a sheer drop down the rock face. Again, on another day with more time.

Negotiating the ticket purchase goes infinitely smoother than I’d envisioned, as Google Translate was perfectly accurate for once, and I had less trouble than the two older gentlemen in front of me who had many questions about their tickets and kept coming back, to the point where the cashier lost her patience and ordered them away.

The bus ride up was deceptive in terms of elevation. It barely felt like we were going up and incline, and within a few minutes we were hundreds of feet above the winding road we came in on.

Only a few granite staircases led to the gondola station, with many shops along the way where I found the gloves I’d searched for in vain the previous night, as well as two locks to leave on the mountain – a tradition off Mount Huashan – one for family and one for friends, to bring both good fortune.

It’s a very good thing that I was by myself for the gondola ride up, because I was not ready.

I like roller coasters. I like flying. I like being on the top floors of tall skyscrapers and looking down.

Being in a small metal glass elevator, suspended by a wire and slowly ascending 7000 feet straight up a literal mountain and feeling the little cart violently rattle every time it passed through the pulleys had me absolutely fucking unnerved, to the point where I was humming “Pure Imagination” as if I was Ripley from the end of Alien. Mechanical objects eventually fail.

I reassured myself that if it broke and I fell to my death, I wouldn’t feel a thing.

Twenty minutes of terror later, I stepped on the platform an onto the Mount Huashan, not far from the West Peak. Not unlike the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, it was ridiculously packed. The path to the Plank Road was easy enough to follow, just past the South Peak.

This was not Trolltunga and I was under no obligation to rush, yet I still had to get ahead of the crowd so I wasn’t waiting in line for four hours. Climbing the peaks was not nearly as bad as I’d anticipated. The views in all directions were nothing less than breathtaking, while the music of Skyrim made it feel like being on top of the Throat of the World.

After thirty minutes or so, I finally reached the marker for the Plank Road, as it was just a few more flights of steps and around a corner.

It was finally time. The GoPro is strapped to my head and recording. There’s no line around the narrow pathway that leads to the entrance. I think to myself that I really must have beat the crowd, passing only one person coming back the other way.

And then I see it.

Locked metal gates with a sign on them.

No attendant handing out harnesses. No tourists beginning their descent. No excited screams of people who mistakenly decided to look down.

The Plank Walk in the Sky is closed.

I flew 16 hours, over 13,000 miles, halfway around the world, through the second largest city on Earth and a further hundreds of miles on a train, after waiting for six months to experience this, and it fell dead at the foot of a message I could not read at the very end of the journey.

There were no words.

A man and his daughter stood nearby, also looking at the sign. I ask them through translation if the sign says what I think it says, though I already know the answer.

He nods and confirms, as there was nothing more to say.

All the wind in my sails gone, I sit down on a rock nearby the Taoist temple next to the gate, normally where people’s bags are stowed while the do the climb, barely keeping it together. If I came all that way just for a locked gate, I was going to sit as long as I could. People are stopping to kneel inside the temple.

Eventually, the woman in charge of the small temple pats me on the hand and gently shoos me away. I reach through the gate, grab the metal wires where carabiners are hooked, and walk away.

Close to the pathway entrance to the walk there’s a bell where people are taking pictures, so I sit nearby trying to find the mindset for not letting this ruin the entire trip. I know that it reasonably cannot, since I’ve gotten to do so many other things with even more to come, however in the moment it’s extremely difficult to not let it.

This isn’t a situation where The Moose Says You’re Closed, I Say You’re Open, it’s just done and that’s all there is.

An unknown amount of time passes and the cloudless sun is burning me up, so I go sit underneath the shade provided the bell’s supports. A young couple walks up, and the girl must have been able to read me like a book, because she says something in Mandarin and hands me a bottle of cold water, a small packed sausage, and two hard boiled eggs. Her boyfriend kneels down beside me and asks through translation if he can take a picture with me. It gets me to smile.

Such simple gestures of kindness which they’ll never know how much they meant in the state I was in. It helps pull my mind away from the disappointment and remind me that I still had a mountain to explore. I hate the sausage and got back on my feet.

The rest of the afternoon is spent climbing up the paths to the other peaks. After Trolltunga, this is a literal walk in the park, not nearly as bad as I’d anticipated, probably because I took a long shortcut to avoid Black Dragon Ridge.

On the East Peak, where those staying on the mountain overnight hike to in the morning to watch the sun rise, I decided that would be the spot where I’d place my locks. The chains are crowded but I manage to find a spot to place them amidst the hundreds of others.

It only takes a few hours to get through the other peaks. The line for Sparrow Hawk Flips Over, a more technical climb down a cliff to a chess pavilion overlooking the rest of the mountain range is both long and not moving, and I didn’t feel like waiting around and possibly missing my ride down the mountain. The Sky Ladder, a near 90 degree, 30 foot staircase where you ascend via chain would have been a good alternative, but with no harness and nowhere to stow my bag, it’ll just have to wait for my eventual return.

I buy a third lock for myself at the exit, with my name in Chinese characters engraved on it.

The gondola ride down didn’t have me as much on edge as the other but was still fairly intense. This time I was sharing mine with an older man, who either didn’t see the ‘No Smoking’ sign or was fresh out of fucks to give, because he lit up and offered me one when he saw how tense I was.

After a long, dusty walk back the hotel, I devoured a plate of amazing Chicken Fried Rice and dumplings. I don’t have a clue what was in them, but it was delicious and tasted borderline Italian. To have authentic Chinese food from a small rural Chinese town was one of those wonderful moments that make traveling so special.

I ask the man with glasses if he can call a taxi for me the next morning to get back to the rail station. He says he’ll give me a ride. For a hotel which was quite literally $20 a night, valet service to the train station four miles away was not expected at all. “We should have done this,” he tells me through translation. The next morning as he dropped me off, I tell him that when I return to Mount Huashan to complete the Plank Walk someday, I will remember him.

Unlike the trip there, the ride back to Beijing was rather full, validating why I paid extra for a larger first-class seat.

As we pass by the old farms and crumbling structures again with hours to spare, I dive into Wikipedia and read up China’s recent history and how the Communist party came to power; the Chinese Civil War between the communists and nationalists in the late 1940’s, their temporary alliance against Imperial Japan, Chiang Kai-shek and the founding of Taiwan, how Mao rose to power and how his ideas about Communism directly caused the Great Famine. Aside of taking resources away from farms and diverting them to industrialization, with little to no net gain of output, one of the more harrowing contributing factors was how Mao labeled the Eurasian Sparrow Hawk as one of four pests to be eliminated from China. Doing so upset the balance of nature, and locusts, now with no natural predators to keep them in check, consumed a large portion of the crops.

The Communists also enlisted the help of peasants and farmers to help defeat the nationalists, promising them more land, turning around and collectivizing it after it was over. The estimates of the Famine range anywhere from 10 to 50 million dead, depending on the historian.

A rather depressing read to go along with the state of some of the countryside passing by, but enlightening, as I’d no idea how it actually happened.

The grave mounds in the farm fields now made much more sense.

That night, it was time to accomplish the other goal I’d looked forward to – eating scorpion. If I wasn’t able to walk the plank, I was goddamn sure going to eat my star sign bug as a consolation prize.

Entering the Wangfujing Street food market, away from the Apple Store and seven-story malls, live scorpions writhing on sticks are quite literally the first thing you see. Most people crowd around just to take pictures, and don’t have the nerve to ingest them.

I won’t front like it didn’t take time for me to build mine up, pacing up and down the street for a good 15 minutes. A skewer of three cost 20 yuan, and I found a place away from the crowd to eat them in peace and film it.

They seriously weren’t bad!

It was almost like a small crispy potato chip that didn’t take much effort to chew through and tasted like any brand of generic salt seasoning. I was pleasantly surprised. Granted, I didn’t want to risk getting food poisoning by gorging on deep-fried venomous insects, and by that time I was keeping a pretty close eye on remaining funds, but still, I’ll totally eat them again the next time I find myself in Beijing. I washed it down with an ice cream waffle.

Afterwards I went to one of the merchant shops to find a flag and some chopsticks. I found some I liked, and didn’t bother haggling. Really, with the exchange rate, there was no question they were cheaper than anything you’d ever find at “China” in EPCOT, so whatever. While I was being rung up, they let me choose from a stack of scratch off cards which would reveal some random jewelry discount. Mine turned up 900 Yuan and they actually kept saying “Super Lucky!” showing me another stack of ones that were only 300.

It was such a dog and pony show to try to get me to buy a piece of Jade jewelry… and it worked. Again, in the end it wasn’t more than what I spend on Chicken Fried Rice in a week.

Rain finally arrived the next day, giving my chapped lips a break from the windy, arid climate.

Checkout time from the Nostalgia Hotel was 2pm, conveniently the exact same time as my check in at the Shangri-La. I had enough time to visit Tian’anmen Square without getting misdirected to the Forbidden City. The line to get into the Mao’s Mausoleum at the south end of the square was easily a mile long, snaked around the building. It looked to be moving at a decent clip, but I didn’t have the time to risk it taking two hours.

The Monument to the People’s Heroes in the center of the square was blocked off on all sides, and you could only get about 40 feet from it, guarded by soldiers in uniform in every direction.

Looking around at all the people milling about in their umbrellas, following their flag-holding tour guides and snapping portrait framed pictures on their smartphone, I couldn’t help but think about what it must have been like to be standing in the same spot 30 years ago – the chaos between the protestors and soldiers, with tanks rolling in down the street as the military opened fire. Harrowing.

On that note, I did manage to snap a few quick pictures of the infamous ‘Tank Man’ intersection. It’s completely changed and is no longer a crosswalk, but you can find it by the position of the hotel the footage was shot from.

I’d hoped to spend my last few hours checking out the National Museum of China, directly across from the square, yet a nearby policeman guarding the entrance confirmed for me it would be open the day after tomorrow. He made up for delivering the disappointing news by walking into a picture I was taking and dumping out the rest of his morning tea.

The only other attraction nearby was the China Railway Museum.

It wasn’t anything I’d planned, but was only four bucks and a chance to get out of the rain. Some interesting artifacts and old machinery, as well as intricate scale models of the tracks going through China’s mountain ranges. For train enthusiast, would be a pretty grate place to visit.

I made it back to the hotel with just enough time to grab another bowl of fried rice from next door. A girl at the front desk was kind enough to call a taxi for me, and the address Fiona had written down for me of my hotels saved me from having to attempt another potentially misleading translation.

When it comes to being fancy versus roughing it, I like experiencing both, preferably on the same trip for contrast. Two nights prior, I was in a room smaller than my home office, where the curtain-less shower was integrated directly with the toilet and sink area. You know, for efficiency.

My final night in Beijing would be spent in the second most expensive room in one of the top 5-star rated hotels in the city: The China World Summit Shangri-La. Right off the bat, you get the all-smiles, “Let me take your luggage” white glove service.

The Grand Premier Suite #7703 was located on the 77th floor, facing northeast, and was bigger than two of the apartments I’ve lived in.

Within minutes of arriving, a lady came to my door to deliver fresh flowers to go along with the fruit basket on the coffee table. For a few minutes, I completely forgot about the disappointment of the Plank Walk closure and was geeking out over how crazy the room was. My favorite feature were the retractable window shades, slowly revealing the city stretching out into the distance. Even the smog cooperated, and visibility was at six miles. The windows were a bit dirty, but really, at that point you’re just being nitpicky.

It was the kind of room where high-powered businessmen make decisions and deals that shape the lives of people all over the world, sipping 40 year old brandy all the while.

I’m not going to say how much it cost, because I’m not a bragadocious dick. I will say that splurging on fancy shit like this, every once in a while, feels pretty great when you’ve worked hard to save for it.

After settling in, I went for a swim in the ‘Infinity Pool’ in the 78th floor, where you can look out over the horizon from the water. In the next room is a jacuzzi the size of my living room. MY LIVING ROOM.

My life used to consist of sitting around on my overweight ass, pissing away my money on booze and carcinogens. Now I was laying on a reclined metal chair in a fucking hot tub on one of the highest floors in an eighty-story skyscraper, in the third most populated city on Earth.

I started laughing so hard, I’m certain the folks back the pool heard me.

That night for dinner, I finally got around to having Peking Duck at a t restaurant called ‘The Red Chamber’, which was somehow less red than I envisioned. You don’t just get a plate of duck when you order it. You get a tableside chef who carves it in front of you and serves it. It’s served with thin pancakes, celery, scallion and duck sauce, and apparently, you’re supposed to make little duck fajitas.

I didn’t know whether I was supposed to eat them with my hands or the chopsticks, not wanting to look like a five-year-old in this fancy-ass restaurant. That said, it tasted pretty good. Afterwards I went up to the Atmosphere Lounge on the 80th floor for cheesecake and a latte with a window seat.

It was the kind of swanky place where a glass of Cab-Sav might have been the perfect final touch, but that’s the price I pay.

I pay it gladly.

There was one more accessible floor, a small smoking patio on the 81st, and was the exact reason I packed my tripod. I pulled off some pretty decent night shots, and then more later from the room, even with the shitty glare from the floor.

Breakfast the next morning was a huge buffet spread, with more food than I could remember to list here. In a dining room full of entitled suits and ties, Gucci bags and Rolex watches, I roll up in flip-flops, basketball shorts and a Vault-Tech t-shirt, bedhead and still picking crusties out of my eye. The “they’ll let anyone in here” side-eye I was getting from these people, I fucking loved it.

My money was just as good as theirs was. When you’ve got the Rain Man suite, you can show up to breakfast looking however you goddamn well please.

With only a few hours to go until the driver came to get me to the airport, the closest place nearby worth checking out was Ritan Park, a free park in the middle of the city one mile from the hotel. Reviews said it was a place where Beijingers went every day to sing, dance, play instruments and practice what looked like chi flow yoga, but most of what I saw what elderly folks enjoying time with their children and grandchildren. Rather touching.

It wasn’t terribly crowded, and the perfect way to close out the week.

The drive back to the airport was another silent car ride, and I’ll spare the boring details of getting through security. I spent the last of my Yuan on a set of overpriced chopsticks at the terminal.

A mother and son from Colorado waiting at the gate, and we passed the time waiting to board with shared stories of our trip and compared experiences. They confirmed that skipping the Beijing Zoo was a good call, apparently the animals do not appear well cared for.

Finally, it will be the absolute last time I willingly select a window seat on any flight longer than six hours, let alone 14.

I was not too great at sitting still as a kid, and I’m not very good at it now. At least this time I wasn’t slow-cooked by solar heat. The worst part was telling US Customs I brought home packaged chicken feet, sending me through additional agricultural inspection which erased the time I would have spent getting a non-airline-food hot meal, so dinner frustratingly ended up being Reese’s Pieces.

My tourist visa is good for the next ten years, so no more filling out applications or paying agencies, at least until 2028. Now that I know how to navigate the airport, subway and rail stations, getting around will be much easier.

I don’t know when, but the day will come when I return to China and complete the Plank Walk.

Next time, I’ll call first to make sure it’s open.