Friday, May 13, 2005

Day 3: Misty Mountain Hop

(To view all pictures from the adventure, please visit

Waking up early enough to catch the first bus, I made my way out of QingDao for the day to visit LaoShan. Like most mountains in China, LaoShan holds a certain religious/spiritual importance, and as I made my way around the area that day, I could understand why.

Debarking at the foot of the mountain, I had no idea where to go. There were no signs, no maps, no guides, and all the Chinese people were simply interested in selling you whatever crap they had laid out for sale. Being white makes one an easy target in China for entrepeneurial shysters, being a confused honkey makes one an even bigger mark.

I got into a conversation with a gentleman who told me that the really interesting stuff was further down the road. I said thank you and started walking, but he chased after me on his motorbike. After a short misunderstanding (I thought he was saying it was 3 km to the spot I wanted, he actually said it would be a 3 hour walk) we negotiated a price and I jumped on the back of his bike.

Let me say that I do not like motorcycles. They scare the hell out of me. And I've discussed how I don't like driving in China in general, so you might imagine how nervous I was at this point in time. Plus, I felt a little awkward hugging an old Chinese man, even if I was paying him enough for the pleasure.

Regardless, I'm happy I did it. The bike ride, which took about 15 minutes, took me down a windy road that coasted next to the ocean and around the mountain. We sped past terraced tea fields that rose up into the clouds and watched fishermen hauling in the morning loads. People on the side of the road were busy chipping away at various sculptures and some were building a dam. The weather was gorgeous, and the wind felt great against my face, and the whole spirit of adventure really got me going. I really can't express how amazing the entire experience felt, and I began to contemplate buying a motorcycle myself and taking a tour all through China when my contract was over. But that's far off in the future, and I still don't like motorcycles, and I still don't like driving in China.

Arriving at my destination, I took a gondola to the top. The short lift has hysterical, as many Chinese people below me, trekking either up or down the mountain path, starting pointing at the cracker on the gondola as if I were Superman (which I am). They took pictures, shouted hello, and I played right back with them. Its funny to think that someone somewhere in Shandong is showing off a quickly snapped picture of yours truly riding on a ski lift.

At the top of the mountain I purchased a small flashlight and entered the cave I needed to climb through to reach the summit. The pass was a little tight at spots, especially with my large backpack and wide build. Either way, the sense of adventure only grew and I felt my way through the shadows.

Returning to the sunlight, I asked a small band of Chinese to take my picture for me. They were shocked to hear my Chinese, and started chatting away with me about many various things. After I explained to them that I understood half of what they said, but that they had to speak a little slower, I joined up and spent the rest of the morning with them. They were LED engineers from QingDao who came on a office getaway for the day and they were all excited to talk with an American, especially one who spoke Chinese and therefore could have real conversation.

Arriving at the top of LaoShan, we took shelter under a boulder as they explained what some of the various emperial graffitti meant. Chinese emperors seemed to have been obsessed with transcribing their wisdom upon mountains, and the modern day Chinese are obsessed with taking pictures with these characters. I would see a lot more of this at TaiShan, but it was more interesting at LaoShan since it was much less crowded and I could take time and learn what the various transcriptions symbolized.

One point of interest on the summit was a sign that read "Beware of Turtle Deity Looking Great" or something to that effect. The Chinese (which I could read, thankfully) actually said something like "Here is the Great Turtle God Overlooking the Sea." What was to see was a rock formation in the form of a turtle sticking its head out of its shell and looking out over the mountainside and down to the sea. Look at the picture above and you'll catch on.

The turtle has significance in China, representing wisdom. One of their Nine Sacred Dragons (and you should know that the Chinese consider themselves Children of the Dragon, it might sound silly but they are serious about it and the mythos is pretty cool as you learn more about it) is a hybrid of a dragon with a turtle, but I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that when I get to QuFu.

After resting a bit the engineers treated me to some squishy garlicy dish that was... interesting, plus some tea. Drinking tea up on the mountaintop in a little rockhut was really cool, especially considering the view, and the tea was delicious. After a few cups I felt amazingly refreshed and promised myself to pick up some of the tea before I left the area. The Chinese are obsessed with tea (duh) and pride themselves on their local grow. The LaoShan tea, grown on the side of the mountain, benefitted not only from the daily mists that make for ideal tea growing situations, but also the natural spring water. This is the same spring water used for TsingTao beer and it is famed throughout China as the only water served at CCP headquarters in Beijing. Either way, the tea is unavailable in Harbin, or anywhere too far from QingDao, so I had to get it there while I could.

Coming back down the mountain I ducked into a Daoist temple where I wowed some monks with my Chinese. (This will never cease to amuse me, nor Chinese people for that matter!) I asked them some questions about Daoism, the significance of certain items in the temple, and the monk life in general. They were very friendly, and I got a picture of one, and they informed me of what was left in the area that was interesting and what could be avoided because it was dumb.

After getting back to the base and speeding back to the origina point, I took another path towards the largest temple in the area. Along the way I stopped for some grilled squid (delicious!) and a beer. The temple itself was right on the ocean and contained a flower that had been blooming in the temple's courtyard for over 100 years. There were more tourists here (Chinese), though not even close to the number I'd see later in my trip, and you couldn't take pictures, and I just wasnt as impressed as I was with the quiet mountain top temple.

Eventually getting back to QingDao, thoroughly exhausted, I realized I was beginning to sunburn rather badly. Now, I don't know how to say "sunburn" in Chinese, nor "suntan lotion" or "sunblock" or "ointment," so when I walked into a medicine shop I had to be a little creative. My query (in Chinese, again) when something like this:

"I am a white person. Look at my face. Now it is red. It should not be red. My face is stir-frying. Please give me something so it feels more comfortable and so I stop stir-frying."

They ladies at the counter thought that my use of "stir-frying" as the verb here was hysterical, but I don't know how to say burn and Chinese has about 10 different words for something getting hot or cooking or whatever. They figured out what I meant though and gave me a vial that had a lot of Chinese on it that I couldnt understand and the single English word "tincture."

Chinese medicine is a little crazy, often relying on herbology instead of real science and usually utilizing treatments that the West forsook generations ago. When I applied the medicine I had purchses to my face it stung like crazy, causing me to yelp and dance around in the medicine shop, giving even more amusement to the staff. Getting back to Harbin I translated the bottle's label and discovered it was alcohol that had been steeped with a certain root that we use to make benzoin. So it didn't help me from any future sunburning, but after the initial sting it did present a soothing, cooling effect.

After the medicine it was a small feast of dumplings and a final stroll along the piers, as the next morning I had to find a bus and make my way cross-country to QuFu. I watched the sunset on QingDao and said goodbye to the brine. Sometime around then I realized that in the past 13 months I had dipped my feet in both sides of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans: In Virgina Beach, Massachusetts, and Ireland; then in San Francisco and now QingDao. Something about that struck me as being pretty cool. Here I was, 24, and I can say I've dipped my feet in both sides of the two largest oceans of the world. I don't think many can share that experience. With a smile on my face I put my head to my pillow to rest up for Day 4.


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