Monday, May 23, 2005

Day 7: Stairway to Heaven

(My mother has mentioned she had trouble viewing my Shutterfly album, if anyone else has, as I have not, please email to let me know. The pictures should be available at

TaiShan was the last real stop on my adventure, and to be truthful, it was the draw for the entire expedition. TaiShan was to be the centerpiece for the trip, the whole reason I came to ShanDong in the first place. QingDao and QuFu were just lucky byproducts of convenience and a lucky class schedule.

Getting to TaiAn, the city at the base of TaiShan ("Shan" is Chinese for "mountain") was a cakewalk, especially by this point. Waking up in QuFu, I took the short walk to the bus depot, jumped on the bus marked "TaiAn," paid my fare, and 1.5 hours later I was there. A cheap cab ride later and I was at the foot of the monster.

TaiShan is not the tallest mountain in China, not by far. But don't get me wrong, it was quite large. However, the slope was gentle and well forested, so it lacked that awe that one might find in the Rockies or other mountains that I have not seen. It was very Appalachian in that regard.

But TaiShan is the holiest mountain in China. To explain, let me paraphrase the Chinese creation myth: In the beginning, there was nothing but everything, but everything was everything, there was no distinction. The god PanGu decided there must be order, and set about seperating the heavens from the earth. Stretching his body, pushing the earth down with his feet and lifting the heavens high with his arms, PanGu seperated the entities and created the universe as we now know it. At the conclusion of his effort, thoroughly exhausted, PanGu fell apart, his four limbs and head scattering about China. Each piece became a different mountain, the head becoming TaiShan, the holiest mountain in China.

The Chinese believe that anyone who can climb TaiShan will live 100 years. And only a true emperor can make the climb, otherwise he will be blown off by the wind of god. What this boiled down to for me, a solo Bill traveling during one of the 3 national holidays in China, was a mountain swarming (packed) with Chinese tourists hoping to reconnect with thier own spirituality and history while taking ungodly amounts of pictures of rocks and plaques.

The climb began easy enough, with the requisite gates and small village. I should say that when I purchased my ticket I took advantage of my knowledge of Chinese and the Chinese lack of English where I got a discounted ticket claiming to be a student. When they asked for my student ID, I gave them my Virginia driver's license telling them that "Virginia" was my school's name and "drivers license" meant "student ID."

The path at the bottom of the mountain was laden with stalls selling crap of all kinds. More than anything else were these red headbands that ended up tied to lots of trees later in the climb. I, of course, bought some.

Beside the hawkers, there was a temple or two, which I, of course, checked out. I'm a temple-holic. In one there was a pool with a stone lotus flower at it's center. People were trying to throw coins into the center of the bud. Feeling lucky, I pulled out a 1 Yuan piece, and taking that silly Beirut stance that Henle 7 loved to mock let the disc fly, plunking dead center. The Chinese all stopped and went silent, then actually began clapping. I smiled, bowed, made a remark about coordination, and walked away reminiscing about the colors of a varsity athlete.

By the way, I looked ridiculous throughout this entire climb. My Chinese staff told me the mountain got very cold, so I wore my jeans. But it was less cold and more scorching, so my pants were rolled up to my knees. On my back was my large pack, easily the largest on the mountain. But the kicker was my head, which remember, was sunburning rather badly. Having no lucky at finding a proper hat, I had taken a tshirt and fabricated a cheap turban. If you can picture this sight, you'll be laughing.

Going up the mountain brought me past monuments to the people, to emperors, and to history. Plus performing monkeys. "The Gate of Middle Peace," "The Wonderous 3 Li Walk," and many other sillily-translated sights. Plus performing monkeys. A few tea houses (I took a break in one such tea house where some people recognized me from QuFu! I'm a celebrity!), a lot of chinese barbeque, and ubiquitous fruit on a stick stands. Did I mention the monkeys?

There were dozens of significant items that I walked by, too many to adequately describe here. But I'm learning how to make DVDs, complete with audio tracks (like director's commentary!) so I'll bundle all that useless trivia with those.

I will say that TaiShan was an excellent example of the butterfly effect in action. If people stopped to take a picture, you could see the ripple coming down the slope of people suddenly being forced to stop short. And if one person stopped to take a picture, it would inevitably inspire another 3 to take the same picture, who would each then inspire another three, and so on and so forth.

The toughest part of the climb was the last 1,600 steps, known as "The Path of 18 Corners." I know all this because there was a little plaque commemorating the spot, a tiny little obscure insignificant bronze plaque that every Chinese had to have a picture with. Anyways, its the steepest part of the climb, and again, the last, so I was pretty tired by the time I arrived. Most people were strugling themselves by this point, I even saw two men carrying their elderly mother on a plank up to the summit. Luckily I didn't have my mother with me to carry (though, of course, she is missed) so I cranked up Bill Conti's "Rocky" soundtrack and launched the final attack.

Passing the the South Gate of Heaven, the final gate that gave entrance to the summit, I was pretty happy. My legs were happier. First job was to find a place to sleep, especially since I had been told that record numbers of Chinese were climbing the mountain that week. Being a foreigner means you can never get the cheapest accomodations in a hotel: they just dont trust you. But as the cheapest accomodations are usually dorm rooms with half a dozen people crammed inside, I usually don't mind. But since the beds are limited on the top of TaiShan, they really cranked the rates that week. But there was nothing I could do but swallow, as i was not going to sleep outside on the ground.

The summit holds a village, which is quite honestly very modern but as they have kept the architecture in a traditional vein it still feels like a mountaintop community from some pulp fantasy. Plus there were a good numbers of temples: one where I got tricked into donating 10 RMB for somebody's eternal peace (dunno who or how or why) and another where MONKS PLAY PINGPONG. They even had a YinYang on their table, just like we had a "G" on the table back at 4525.

The summit held some spectacular views, especially one overlooking the entire kingdom of Lu (KongZi's home kingdom). Once the sun set, you could see the cities of TaiAn and JiNan light up. I spent the sunset on the moon summit trying to do some writing, but soon enough attracted a large crowd of Chinese. A small handful were PLA soldiers who were shocked at the fact I was wearing shorts. They made a comment that "Americans are very warm blooded. We Chinese are cold-blooded people." Again, these were PLA soldiers.

Anyways, soon enough a decently large crowd had circled around me, largely due to that I was speaking Chinese, yet again. So I started to tell them stories, either about me, the US, teaching in Harbin, or whatever. But, again, my Chinese is still far from perfect, so sometimes I needed to improvise some method to express myself. Soon enough, as I droned on and the audience "oohed" and "awwwed," I realized that I was basically living that scene from "Return of the Jedi" where C3PO tells the Ewoks his account of the rebel's adventures. So the Chinese are akin to cute, furry little animals. But I am not a slightly homosexual British robot. But I am their god.

As it is known to do, the sun eventually went down, I grabbed some food, and went to sleep. Sunrise was at 5 AM, but the advice was to wake up at 4 AM to find a good viewing spot. Plus, that bed looked pretty good after that climb.


At 10:23 AM, Blogger lex said...

Did any ants die in the process of this journey in the venus fly trap that is your leg hair?


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