As noted above, this post is the second part of my adventures in Shandong Province. The first part encompassed my visit to Qufu, and the second discusses my trip to Tai’an and Tai-shan.
Following our intensive tour of Qufu’s sites, we boarded a bus for Tai’an, a city of around 750,000 people and home to the revered mountain Tai-shan. When we arrived, we left our luggage near the train station and ate a quick lunch before ascending the mountain. According to the history books, we would be walking where great men of China have walked. Confucius was said to have trekked up the mountain and concluded that man was a tiny speck in this vast world. After Mao Zedong saw the sun rise above the mountain, he declared the East was Red. A fitting statement for that time. But now, it was our turn to climb the mountain already conquered by millions of Chinese.
The beginning was the easy part. As I expected, there were stone steps carved into the mountain from the base to the summit. When they were carved is a mystery to me, but someone had plenty of back-breaking work for several years at least. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, Tai-shan boasts more than 6,000 steps. I would regret that statistic later. As we progressed, the steps became steeper and more numerous. Along the way, vendors were selling a motley collection of trinkets for tourists such as inscribed polished stones and stone balls. Other vendors offered eggs steeped in tea or a bottle of water or soda. The higher we climbed, the higher the price. Someone has to take the goods thousands of steps up the mountain. Hence the higher price.
At the halfway point or thereabouts, we rested for the hardest section of the climb. From our position on the mountain, we could see cable cars inch their way to the summit for the less adventurous , and we also saw the final section leading to the final red gate for the more vigorous. We may have saved money by walking, but we definitely lost several pounds due to heavy perspiration. Initially, it wasn’t so bad. But then there were sections of 20 steps, 30 steps, and more. I began measuring my progress by the vendor stalls we passed on the way. Towards the end, I had to rest at each station until the final stretch of 80 stone steps (approximately). By that time, I felt like I had climbed 10,000 steps, and once I reached the red gate, I was too exhausted to celebrate. I wonder if Mao took the steps or a cable car. Looking back, I might have opted for the latter.
After my friends caught up, we searched for a hotel on the blustery mountain. All of them were overpriced, but for cold, hungry travelers, price was not much of an issue. We paid 180 RMB ($30) for our mountain suite with 3 beds and a pitcher of hot water. I preferred cupping my hands around the pitcher rather than drinking it. After resting for a bit, Ivan and I found a one-room restaurant with plenty of overpriced items to select. I think the most exotic food was braised duck with a peppery sauce. I declined such delicate fare and chose a simple dish of chicken (the whole package) and noodle and vegetable soup. It was warm and tasty, which made me content. Later that night we chilled in our cool room (the heater acted like an A/C) and surfed the fuzzy CCTV channels until we fell asleep.
Our friendly hotel worker woke us up at 6:20 am to see the beautiful sunrise. Unfortunately, it was a bitterly cold and windy Friday with a heavy cloud cover. At various scenic spots, Chinese photographers would take your picture for a small fee. I figured my camera would work just as well. As the sun rose, a pink ribbon of light rose in the east and then turned into bands of red, orange, and yellow. It was a pretty sight, but I missed seeing the beaming yellow orb rise over the mountain peaks. After the sunrise, I visited several Buddhist and Taoist temples around the summit. All of them had a central stone courtyard with various shrines surrounding it. Some temples had iron pots surrounded by locks with Chinese engravings. Maybe prayers of some sort. I heard some Chinese believed the mountain itself to have a godlike quality and be worthy of reverence. Earth’s natural beauty will always outdo man’s feeble attempts at imitation.
After the sunrise had come and gone, we began our descent. We almost took the cable cars, but being the poor students we were, a free walk down the mountain seemed the better choice. Our climb back down was one hour less than the climb up the mountain. I developed quite the love-hate relationship with steps after our Tai-shan hike. They mock you as you climb them, and then propel you down as you descend them. I never explicitly heard them speaking, but I felt it all the same. When we came back to the base of Tai-shan, we were both delighted and tired. After five hours of climbing, we had conquered the mountain. We might not be able to walk tomorrow, but today was a successful day. We finished our journey with a hearty, nourishing hot pot soup in Tai’an.
Qufu had introduced us to the revered teacher Confucius, Tai’an had given us the fabled mountain Tai-shan, and we were now ready to head back home.