<C> Weekend Warriors Conquer Tai Shan

Written by Oct 12, 2006 03:10
Add Friends:
Email 1 Email 2 Email 3

No more than 10 friends at a time, please.


Nightcaps and Night Trains

A spur of the moment weekend-warrior trip to tackle the ominous and omnipresent Tai Shan…

China affords fantastic weekend travel opportunities just a train-ticket purchase away. A quick tap-in to the online train schedules and, without much else forward planning, one can board a train and be on their way.

And so we did. Unfortunately, the line blurs between daily life and travel life, and sometimes they butt up against each other in scheduling-chaos. Thus, I began a typical Friday night after work with some friends, a good meal and a few social drinks. But suddenly it was 11:45pm and I couldn't decide whether I should just stay awake the 2 and a quarter hours remaining before catching our overnight train or if I should go home and sleep a few hours. I ended up going home and made myself a cup of coffee and turned on a movie and planned to stay up but promptly fell asleep...

And woke up at 2:40 am--ten minutes after I was supposed to meet my friends at the train station for our 3:00 am departure. In a whirl I grabbed my things and ran out the door, not even bothering to put my shoes on all the way until after I was seated again in a taxi. I even chose to save time by climbing over the big steel gate that guards our apartment instead of spending the time to wake the guard and get yelled at for waking him and leaving at an insane hour...So there I am, shoes half off my feet straddled over a gigantic steel gate, trying to calm my jittery hands and get myself to the station on time. Normally it takes at LEAST 20 minutes to get to the station, and that's with NO traffic, but the taxi driver must have intuited my anxiety (the crusted drool, bloodshot weary eyes and crazy hair might also have tipped him off) because he drove through the streets at breakneck speed and deposited me at the station at 2:57. In record time I made it through the security check, up the stairs, into the appropriate waiting hall (said crazy hair and bloodshot eyes causing waiting passengers' jaws to hit the floor as I bolted past them in my, ahem, haste), through the gates, along the corridor, down more stairs and onto the platform all at a speed I didn't know was possible for someone who has been awake less than 20 minutes and running on 2 hours' sleep. I leapt onto the train as the whistle blew and found my friends and my seat. And then I collapsed.

I sat next to my fellow weekend-warrior Paul and did my best to make conversation, tried to ignore the caffeine ache and exhaustion headache warring in my body, put my responses on auto-nod with an appropriate minimal response thrown in here and there, until finally I got Paul to tell me a story and I put my head on his shoulder and fell into a jilted, distorted sleep.

We arrived in Tai'an, the host city to Tai Shan, around 9:30. Six hours south and west of Tianjin, Tai Shan is in the middle of Shandong province, which is also home to Confucius' birthplace, Tsingdao beer, the Yellow River and not a lot else (aside from some oil fields and the city of Qingdao, famed for its seaside quaintness and German architecture). We immediately went to the ticket office to book tickets home for the next day and found that there were no trains with seats...only standing room tickets. Joy. Just what we needed after climbing a mountain...to stand for six hours on a train. We left the ticket office a bit deflated and completely starving, so we decided to put our ticketing concerns on hold until we had some sanity-inducing calories and caffeine in our bodies.

Once that was done we decided there was nothing to be done at the moment about our tickets, better to worry about it later, after all, a mountain was waiting for us, there, filling the horizon, beckoning with its craggy ancient finger. So we set off.

Staircase to Heaven

What was I expecting? Well, coming from a mountainous hometown and having climbed scores of mountains in my youth, I expected something similar to that: a narrow dusty trail, the sounds of birds and wind in the trees, clean air to fill your lungs with and stunning vistas to fill your eyes with, the steady plod of footfalls, the quiet chatter of our voices. I expected, when we reached the top, that nothing would surround us except a 360 degree view of the world, a stiff wind, and some deliciously craggy rocks. I expected to sleep outside under the stars and the full moon and then wake for the sunrise in blissful silence, watch the sky pale and the dark cloak of night to be reluctantly swept aside as the sun slowly highlighted the world's features. I would breathe, and hug my knees to my chest, and look out at everything around me, and be happy. And that's all.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

You'd think, after being in China for over a year, I'd have learned by now that nothing is as you expect it. What I took for granted is that Tai Shan has been climbed for over 3,000 years by people seeking spiritual blessing. This is because Tai Shan is the First of China's 5 Sacred Peaks, and the site of the Taoist Creation Myth.

The myth goes like this: the god Pan Gu awoke one day to find the world a blazing, churning mess. So he spent the next 18,000 years separating the earth and sky to make it habitable for humans and then he expired from the effort. His eyes then became the sun and moon, his blood became the rivers, and his head and limbs became the 5 Sacred Peaks. Tai Shan, which means Peaceful Mountain, is Pan Gu's head (apropos to him bringing peace to the world by separating the earth and sky...).

A little while later, the Taoist goddess Bixia took up residence on the mountain. She is the Princess of the Azure Clouds, the Protectress of Women, and the Bringer of Dawn. It is said that the sun begins its journey across the sky at Tai Shan.

Thus, as early as 217 B.C. the mountain has been tattooed with religious inscriptions, allusions, poetry, and word-plays to honor the gods. In 351 B.C. the first temples to Bixia were constructed along the route to the summit. A staircase was built from the base gate to the summit. Emperors who could successfully ascend the mountain could be certain their reign was ordained and blessed by the heavens. Confucius climbed to the top and said "The World Is Small". Mao summitted and declared "The East Is Red". Who was I to climb to the top and wish for silence?

All this popularity over the last 3,000 years has made Tai Shan 'the most climbed mountain on Earth'--and so my fantasy of solitude and serenity was naught but wishful (and ignorant) thinking. Tai Shan is best described as the longest, most crowded staircase in the world. From base to summit there are people, souvenir shops, restaurants, temples, pavilions, arches, beggars and toilets. And thousands of people.

From mid-mountain to the summit you acquire 600 meters (about 2000 feet) of elevation. This means your visibility is limited to the stone steps in front of you and not much else. The steps are so narrow and steep that you have to consciously put each foot down securely in fear of mis-stepping, losing your balance, tottering backwards and tumbling back down the mountain, head over heels, taking everyone below you along for the ride in a spectacular snow-ball of human bodies. On the other hand (or foot?), if you over-correct your steps and set your foot into the stair too securely then you have to be careful not to bash your knee-cap into the step above. Each foot must also be placed flat on each step because if you use only the balls of your feet your calves start burning with such intensity that your face takes on an expression of such concentrated pain that people stop and chuckle.

Also, if you’ve got a European face and think you're the tourist on the mountain then you are sorely mistaken. You are a sight to be seen by other Chinese tourists, something to be ogled at. On the way up the mountain I was asked to have my picture taken with more Chinese people than I have in all my time here put together. Sweaty, red-faced, and squinting in the sun, I can't imagine what all those people will be printing up and showing to their friends. Next time I decide to climb a sacred peak I'll be sure to follow the example of the Chinese women and wear my nicest clothes, high heels, and make-up instead of the tennis shoes, t-shirt, and fleece vest I had chosen.

Despite the crowds and shops and restaurants lining the path up the mountain, some beautiful vistas could be seen...it just took a bit more effort to access them beyond all the heads and rooftops of shops. Spring is the perfect time to be there (weather-wise) because the sunshine was warm but not too hot; leaves were new and crowning some trees while others had adorned their arms with bright pink, red and pale white flowers; there was a lovely cool breeze and cool rock-formations and cliff-faces and tumbling sliding water that lapped into pools...it was enough to renew and sustain me after weeks in the big city.

Primed by the hordes of people on the way up the mountain, I wasn't nearly as shocked to see the masses at the top. The summit of the mountain is more a small town than an austere rocky peak. There are, again, restaurants, souvenir shops, temples, arches, pavilions, beggars and toilets. And hotels. Four or five hotels to be exact. And not hostels, either. Hotels. Two-star and three-star hotels, all at prices that befits an American-style mountain top resort. We checked into one and headed out again to explore. The reason for the increased numbers of people on the top of the mountain as opposed to the way up is due in large part to the sky-tram that follows the western route up the mountain. So we joined in the multitudes, watched the sunset, ate some food and took showers before promptly greeting our beds at 8 pm.

Pilgrimage at Sunrise

We woke at 4:40 am feeling a bit disoriented. Though it was dark out and the middle of the night, the noise out on the streets was as intense as if it were high-noon on a festival day. We didn't understand why. Surely all these people weren't going to see the sunrise too? Would there be no respite from the crowds?

Nope. Impossible as it may seem, the mountain-top at 4 am was more crowded than it was the afternoon before, and everyone was heading in the same direction: towards the eastern-facing edge of the mountain for optimum sunrise viewing pleasure. Walking there was like being in a line at Disneyland...the pace was hardly more than a shuffle and there was nothing to be seen but the outlines of hundreds of hooded, bundled up bodies in front and behind. Dawn clouds were brushing over the mountain top with the rapidity of a time-lapse video. It truly was a pilgrimage.

We billy-goat hopped to the eastern-facing slope of the summit and whiled our way about until we found a spot with minimal people and sat and waited. The sky lightened, and kept lightening, and kept lightening some more. But the sun didn't appear. We kept waiting, thinking: any minute now. Any minute. And then...I saw high up in the sky an airplane. It's contrail glowed bright pink. And I knew...somewhere out there, the sun had risen. The clouds had obscured it. And we’d missed it.

We sat around a while more and enjoyed the morning before heading back towards the crowds. From afar they looked like those Nature Channel specials on sea lions: all gathered on various rock-outcroppings, huddled and piled on top of each other, all bulbous and frumpy in their giant green PLA coats available for rent at the hotels. Sitting, waiting, watching, talking. I chuckled a bit and enjoyed the sight. I may have missed the sunrise but it was worth it to see everyone else rising with the sun. We bought some postcards and wrote to our families, sent them from the mountain-top post office, and then tucked in for breakfast at one of the bustling eateries.

Home again, Home again

At ten a.m.we were out of the hotel and, after consulting our knees and the steep-sloping staircase, opted to take the tram down the mountain. The Tai Shan tram can be accessed from mid-mountain, and from mid-mountain to base less hardy or more weary travelers can opt for a bus that cuts through western slope of the mountain. Well paved, it offers scenery one would otherwise miss ascending (or descending) the central route of the mountain.

Though the tram requires a pocket-full of change (40RMB) it’s well-worth the short journey as it’s akin to flying down the mountain. We were alone in our little gondola-carriage (finally alone!) and could take in the vista and scope of the mountain we had ascended the day before. I saw more of the landscape and more scenery and really got a feel for what we had done and where we had been. It was beautiful. A great sense of accomplishment spread through our tiny carriage.

Back in town we had some lunch and then searched the local markets for mini-stools as our solution to having no seats on the train for the ride home. After procuring some from a small shop just outside the train station, we boarded the train at 2:30pm and snuggled in for the journey home.

 More Shandong Travel Reviews
1. The seaside in Rizhao ALICEGAO from CN Sep 26, 2006 04:09
2. An Unconventional Route Part One - Skipping the Bohai Gulf MISHEN from NZ Sep 25, 2005 11:09
3. The Road Less Travelled DENNIS Oct 16, 2004 13:10
Comments (0)

Write Your Comment

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.

Send me an Email if anyone replies.

Your Reply to

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.