China’s most sacred mountain brings a fresh perspective on Qingdao
22.09.2010 - 24.09.2010
September the 22nd was Mid-Autumn Fest, a day which normally ends with me and my sisters prancing around our back garden with paper lanterns attached to bamboo sticks. However, since I am in China this year, the only similarity this time round was that I ate mooncake! Mooncake is the traditional food we eat during the festival to remind ourselves of Chang'e, moon goddess of immortality (see the legend of Hou Yi and Chang'e).
We got 3 days off from teaching as well as selected pressies from the school (see pics). Me, Elinor and Natasha decided to use this time off to make a trip to Tai Shan (泰山); China’s most sacred mountain which was also in our province of Shangdong. Anyone who's anyone (in China) has climbed it: Confucious, Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of China - the one in that film 'Hero') and even ol' Mao. Thus with the prospect of following in their footsteps, we were all certainly excited about our first slice of travelling action since arriving in Qingdao.
Unfortunately, days off for us = days off for the 1.3 billion other people living in China. Factor in the ‘festival effect’, where Chinese people journey back to their hometowns to deliver mooncakes and whatnot, and you start to feel like sardines swimming in a packed paddling pool.
September the 22nd
We arrived in Tai’an (the city at the base of Tai Shan) after a short 4 ½ hour train journey. Immediately we had to join the queues to sort out tickets for the return journey. The annoying thing is that you can’t buy tickets online which often means having to brave ‘queues’ at the actual place of departure since you can’t seem to buy tickets in advance without actually being there. If that makes sense.
Sardines in a tin...each with a box of mooncakes
After checking in our cheap ‘hostel’ (dodgy cause they didn’t even ask for our passports…), we headed out to explore Tai’an. The main attraction here was Dai Temple (岱庙), an expansive temple complex which rejuvenated our rather tired selves (having set off at 6.10am in the morning). The serenity of this place, coupled with the clean mountain air, was just what the doctor ordered and we spent more than 3 hours simply wondering around the temple buildings and their gardens. There were also these wondrous bi xi’s (鼻息) – mythical tortoise-like dragons which supported stone stelaes (tablets with ye olde Chinese wisdom).
We also spent some time trailing a Chinese tour group to observe their unusual activities which seemed to involve keeping one’s eyes shut whilst circling a stone block (keeping hands in contact constantly) anti-clockwise then clockwise before (still with eyes shut) attempting to walk your way towards another stone block of unknown significance. Well, I’m a sucker for such oddities so I also attempted it under the eyes of the tourist group who, to be honest, were probably looking at Elinor and Natasha.
Strangely enough, alongside the gardens, bi xi and stelae, there was also a small geology museum (???) which I took a shining to:
Where were you before my finals?
Once we retired back to our room, having used the local KFCs toilets to avoid the monstrosity that awaited our bowels in our hostel, we tucked into a mooncake I had brought with me. Glad it wasn’t the meat one, we ate a third each before going to bed (obviously brushing our teeth in between but I won’t bore you with such mundanities from now on).
September the 23rd
Today was the day of the big climb. Having once again used the wonderful facilities of KFC, we set off on our journey up Tai Shan laden with goodies (mainly sweets and water) to keep us going for the whole day. BOY did we need it. Although Tai Shan is only 1532m above sea level, it was certainly no gentle ascent. As well as the small and steep steps (resulting in crab-like sideways walking), we had to contend with what the Chinese call ‘人山人海’ – a ‘mountain of people and a sea of persons’. Alas, they all seemed to be fitter than us three – especially the OAPs who frequently overtook us with religious fervour. Must be all that dancing to ‘sex bomb’.
Top: One of the numerous shops selling religious trinkets and incense of varying sizes. I didn't have much money left so bought the smallest bundle I could find. The shopkeeper took pity on me and gave me a free red armband. I didn't know what it was for but I DO love freebies.
Bottom: Those red armbands seemed to be hung up in random places en route to the summit. My personal theory is that the red armbands are placed when the person can climb no more...thus I was determined to hang mine up only once we had reached the very top!
Once we reached the mid-point of our climb, we could’ve stopped to have some ‘la mian’ (pulled noodles) but we decided to press on. We even resolutely decided against taking the cable car up to the summit. We’re hard as nuts we are.
Top: Pulled noodles being...pulled
Bottom: Food supplies have to be carried up the mountain thus food gets pricier the higher up you eat!
L: Me and some red calligraphy carved into stone. It means something profound. R: Here come the tourists/pilgrims!
More than half way up the mountain, some guy thinks he's a joker.
From then on, the ascent got even steeper. We weren’t the only ones struggling though - we saw a young American woman slowly battling up and offered her water. Katie, for that was her name, was trying to catch up with Dan, for that was her friend’s name, who had gone ahead with her water, mobile phone, money and anything else of use. We decided to undertake the rest of the summit together and onwards we went. Understandably, I didn’t take many pictures from this point due to exhaustion though I did manage one short breathy video:
and no, I am NOT wearing a wife-beater.
Upon reaching the summit, we were pretty chuffed and took the obligatory pictures and chatted to our new found friends Katie and Dan who coincidentally were also living in Qingdao this year! I also was glad to burn the incense sticks I had been carrying all the way up. However, our chuff-ness was short-lived when we discovered that we weren’t at the summit at all (DOH). Elinor and Natasha were reluctant to go on but a bit of light persuasion by yours truly soon saw us trekking onwards up yet more steps (though not before we ate a well deserved bowl of beef noodles at one of the restaurants on the aptly named ‘sky road’).
Me trying to light my incense sticks without getting charred myself. Alas my incense sticks, battered from the long journey up, started crumbling and breaking apart so in the end, I kinda unceremoniously just threw them into the fire...(I still get my good luck right?)
Up we go again...
When we *finally* reached the REAL summit, at the temple of the celestial Jade Emperor, breath-taking views of the cloud-swathed mountains greeted us – the pictures really don’t do any justice. Whilst Elinor and Natasha wandered around taking snaps, I participated in ‘spiritual stuff’…I always feel obliged as a ‘paper Buddhist’ (though I think I may be Taoist…) despite not being practising. Meh. I like the smell of incense so that’s good enough for me.
'Spiritual stuff' included hanging up that red armband I got given at the base of Tai Shan.
When in doubt, just copy everyone else...
With the sun starting to set, we headed down those small and blommin steep steps once again. Katie and Dan had got the cable car down and as night fell, perhaps we should of as well! In the end however, I was glad we did it the ‘pilgrims way’. Btw, fellow friends of the travel bible – LONELY PLANET LIES! It says (and I quote) “it’s possible to scale the mountain at night…the way is lit by lamps”…NOT. It honestly was pitch dark with only the sound of (possibly death-harbinging) dogs to keep you company. Surprising enough, there were still many people coming up as we were nearing the base of Tai Shan – hardcore climbers no doubt wanting to get to the summit for sunrise.
All in all, the whole ascent and descent took us 10 hours including rest-stops we made along the way. We were certainly glad to find ourselves back in our room for another long-awaited sleep.
September the 24th
On the bus back to Qingdao, we amused ourselves with ’20 questions’ – spiritually clearly still on my brain as I choose ‘Jesus’ as the figure that Elinor and Natasha had to guess. When we finally pulled into the long-distance bus station in Qingdao, we were all pretty pleased to be back ‘home’ as it were. I guess sometimes you need some distance and perspective to renew yourself. The break was definitely needed but we returned with a new sense of ‘connection’ towards Qingdao (now affectionately known as QD). As we went for a nice dinner with our new American friends, I reflected on how different my mid-Autumn festival was this year and silently toasted Tai Shan for making QD seem more welcoming than ever.