Sunday, May 30, 2004

Back from Mt. Taishan, Tai'an, and Qufu

I made it back safely though it was really an adventure. We left Friday night on the train in what they call "soft" seats, this is quite an exaggeration. The train takes over 6 hours to get to Tai'an, at the base of Mt Taishan, so we got into the hotel just before 5 in the morning. Since it was already beginning to get light out we opted for an early start to the day. A quick breakfast of steamed bread stuffed with a spiced pork filling, accompanied by a grain soup, we began our ascent of the mountain.

There is the option at the Midway to Heaven gate to take a cable car to the top of the mountain (or close to the top anyway) but I was determined to climb the 7000+ stairs. I have known of Mt Taishan for the better part of two decades, and for me this was the primary destination for the trip to China. To do anything other than climb the stairs would for me, have taken away the authenticity of the visit; I would have missed the very point of being there had I simply taken a cable car to the top. So I started up the stairs.

Along the path there are hundreds of inscriptions, carvings, and hisotrical sites, unfortunately the ancient Chinese were not so considerate as to write in English, so most of these were lost on me. However there are a number which are of note, and which are explained in books and on the net, if not on the mountain. The one that comes immediately to mind is The Five Pines. These pines once protected the emporer during a thunderstorm which came in while the emporer was ascending the mountain. In thanks for their protection, he granted to the pines the status of Fifth level Ministers. There are also the welcoming pines that appear to be reaching out to shake hands. There are caves, sacred temples, historic locations, and vistas that no camera can truly capture.

There are merchants along the stairs selling almost everything imaginable. Fortunately one of the things that they sell is water. I cannot say how many bottles of water I went through, but but I can say that being overweight and out of shape is not the way to ascend Taishan. The merchants sell prayer flags/ribbons, incense, and other religious paraphenalia, along side the souveniers that you might well expect to see. At one point an older man in what we in the west see as the traditional Chinese garb comes over and shakes hands, then hugs us. He spoke no English, and I speak no Chinese (okay a few words but not enough to converse) but the welcome was obvious and sincere. He and another man were telling fortunes, and selling religous items just in front of a cave which was clearly also a temple. We had him tell our fortunes, in a way to thank him for his welcome. Quite detailed, interesting, and novel to say the least.

At another point, much farther up the stairs, I was greeted by a fellow with a monkey. He was offering the opportunity to have photos taken holding the monkey. The dangers briefly crossed my mind as I welcomed this opportunity that I would not find again, certainly not in the west. So he showed me how to stand, how to hold the monkey and I have it recorded digitally for proof. A side note I have to make here: Jeremy, the monkey experience was at least in part for you.

The stairs are neverending and it is not possible to get more than a small number of the stairs in any one photograph. I have taken many pictures, which will be posted once sorted, but none of them give more than the slightest glimpse into this unique stairway. I will say more on this journey later, when I can put words together in a more appropriate way to convey exactly what this experience has been for me, but for now allow me to reveal the end: I made it to the top. I was tired, sore, thirsty, out of breath, soaked in sweat, but most of all I was elated, moved, and completely lost in the moment. This was something I never expected to do, and certainly am not in the physical shape to do, but when the opportunity arose, I found it in myself to climb Taishan and the 7000 stairs. I cannot truly express what this accomplishment means to me, but there is something that tops even this. My father, my 60 year old father, who fully intended to ride the cable car up after going only as far as the Five Pines, decided to continue with me up the mountain. He made it to the top as well, and he did it on crutches.

Along the way, we received stares as we always do, but he received more than normal given the crutches. Many people let us know, usually through hand gestures, that they were encouraging him to make the climb, and reaching the South Gate of Heaven, the entrance to the top of the mountain, we (I was a few steps behind him) were greeted with resounding applause, welcoming hands, and cheers. I cannot express the emotion tha this brought to me, for my father as well as for the Chinese people who were so encouraging, positive, and enthusiastic.

There is far more to tell of that day, for when we reached the South Gate of Heaven it was only 11 am, this tells just how early we began our day. For now I need to leave off so that I can begin to organize photos, and prepare presentations for this week.

From Tainjin all my best,


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