Monday, October 09, 2006
Ain't No Mountain High Enough
Except maybe this one.

Our magical story begins on a day much like today. For those of you who didn't know, this last week (known as "golden week") in China was work-optional, with National Day falling on October 1st and Zhongqiujie (Mid-Autumn Festival) on the 5th. During the middle of the week, Wang Li An (a friend of mine from here in Laiwu) suggested we go to Tai'an and spend some time with nature, climbing Taishan ("shan"= mountain). It's only a one-and-a-half to two hour bus ride to Tai'an from Laiwu, so it was pretty easy going. We left on Wednesday, October 4th in the morning and arrived in Tai'an a little before lunch. I didn't know until we arrived that we would be staying overnight, so all I had brought with me was water and my fleece. We needed to find a place to settle in for the night since we knew we wouldn't have enough time or energy to climb Taishan that day (after spending the afternoon exploring the city). We visited the Dao Temple in Tai'an and went to see some of the attractions at the base of the mountain, among which included a small amusement park for little kids and a tiger show. We went back to the hotel exhausted after walking around for about six hours on what I'll call "uneven terrain." At the time it seemed a rather arduous hike, but it was nothing compared to what I was about to encounter.

Lili had mentioned that there was a beautiful sunrise over Taishan and that we could make plans to see it. This will be great, I thought. What a beautiful way to end our climbing trip. We talked with the people at the front desk and sorted things out, and I went back to the room and fell asleep. About an hour later, I was awoken by Lili to eat dinner. We ate quickly and bought food for the trip up the mountain. We would be meeting up again at around midnight to go to Taishan and start climbing. But upon returning to my room, after eating and running around, I was no longer tired. This turned out to be a rather unfortunate turn of events, since I would not have the opportunity to sleep (at least not comfortably) for quite some time afterward. After laying in bed restlessly tossing and turning for about 4 hours, I received the wake-up call from the front desk, organized my things, and met Lili in the lobby.

We went outside to wait for a bus but, with all the pushing and shoving that I was too tired to engage in, the first bus filled up before we could get through. As we were waiting for the next bus, two men playing cards outside the hotel's main entrance started trying to engage me in conversation. This was bad timing since I was exceedingly tired and my brain refused to access the entirety of the Chinese language. But I managed to stave them off, giving them just enough Chinese speaking for them to be impressed with what little I knew and to shut them up. We got on the bus to the mountain's base, which then led to another bus. This second bus took you from the base of the mountain to the beginning of the 6,666 steps that lead up to the peak of Taishan. This is not really mountain climbing, but it was still approximately a 2000 meter hike upward - no small task if I do say so myself. It was the middle of the night, and there were no lights on the mountain except the moon, our fellow hikers' flashlights, and the occasional food stand selling fruit, water, and hot soup. As we scaled the mountain, it gradually grew colder and the air thinner. We wanted to keep a good pace so we only stopped once the whole way up to rest our legs and take some deep breaths.

Finally, at about ten minutes to three, we were almost at the top. From where we stood it was only about ten minutes to the highest peak of Taishan. We were sweaty and tired and sore, but happy to have arrived at the place where we would wait for sunrise. When sunrise was close, we would scale the last small portion of the mountain to the vista. However, sunrise was not until almost six a.m., so we still had quite some time to wait. Lili told me to put on my fleece as the body heat that accumulated during the climb would be lost very quickly. I bundled myself in my fleece and we sat. In spite of our warm clothing, we got cold and quickly. Two men were selling large puffy overcoats for 10 kuai each (about $1.25). We bought one to sit on since the stone we were sitting on was freezing. We tried to rest, but it continued to get colder as the moon faded. We bought another jacket to wrap over us as a blanket and we each drifted off, exhausted from the climb, lack of sleep, and extreme cold. I don't believe I've ever endured a longer two-and-a-half hours in my whole life. At last, the time came to climb the final portion. I was more than happy to get the blood flowing again and generate some heat. But when I stood up, my legs and feet would barely move. Each of us took one of the overcoats we had bought, put it on as an extra layer, and began to climb. By this time, there were throngs of people that had accumulated to see the beautiful sunrise - probably more so than usual since it was a holiday week and many Chinese take vacations at this time.

We climbed up through several large boulders and, though a bit frightened of literally falling off the face of the earth since I was so tired and had so little control of my muscles, we slid across one of the rock faces to an empty space with no crowds so we could view the sunrise in relative peace. It took about another twenty-five minutes for sunlight to emerge, but when it did, it rapidly grew brighter. We took out the food we had brought and it was like cultivating a flower - with the combination of food and light, I finally felt awake and alive again. After another fifteen minutes or so, we heard noises from the people below us saying, "chu lai le!" - their meaning was that the sun was coming out from behind the mist. And then there it was. It was distant and small, but fully round and fiery red. And as I felt the warmth of the sun on my face, I forgot the early morning hours of shivering and the misery of what felt like drifting in and out of a comatose state. All I could feel was the warmth of morning. And it was finally worth the climb.

Lili and I sat for a while, eating and talking and resting. At around 7:30, we packed our things and began the climb down. I will concede that going down was considerably easier than climbing up. But our legs were wobbly and our muscles and joints were weak and tired. It took about two hours to climb back to the bottom since we stopped for breakfast at a food stand on the way down. I must say that despite the cold and uncertainty that came with climbing in the dark, there was a certain serenity about the nighttime climb. On the way down, vendors were shoving souveneirs and food in our faces, trying to entice us to buy what we so obviously did not want. But we were too tired to get angry about it. Around 9:30 a.m., we arrived at the platform for the bus that takes you down to the mountain's base. Lili jumped on line to buy tickets for the bus and I went to buy water and then waited for her. As I was waiting, I heard someone say the word waiguoren. I knew, as I always do, that this was referring to me, as I am usually the only foreigner in any given place at any given time in this region of Shandong. I turned to them and said - in Chinese, of course - "I'm an American."

And they nearly had a heart attack.

They could not believe the person they had been talking about actually understood and spoke Chinese. We chatted briefly and they asked to take a picture with me. Lili came back and told us we had the tickets and we needed to go. We took the picture quickly (in which I probably looked like Bigfoot, since I hadn't slept in a full day, had been climbing and sweating since one o'clock in the morning, and hadn't run a comb through my hair in over 12 hours), and then got on line to get on the bus. From the base of the mountain, we caught a cab to the bus station and just as we arrived, there was a bus about to leave for Laiwu. We just managed to catch it (otherwise we would've had to wait another hour) and rested the whole way back to Laiwu.

Upon my return, I promptly ate lunch, returned to my room, and fell into a twenty-hour coma.

posted by Rachel @ 11:43 AM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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