By the time I arrive in Tai'An, I knew that I was officially ill. With this in mind, I didn't want to end up somewhere cold or uncomfortable and I knew that I needed to lie in bed for a day or two. Furthermore, the main reason for me coming here was to walk up Tai Shan, one of China's five sacred Taoist mountains. No small undertaking and something I needed to be properly well for, so I booked myself into a proper hotel. The Lonely Planet suggested that Roman Holiday, ironically decorated with pictures of Paris, was characterless. But compared to most accomodation whilst travelling it was luxury.
The only downside of the place was the nice-but-dim girl working on reception in the evenings. Once she had been prised away from her mobile phone or whatever friends had come in to chat to her, she checked me in. She told me the room was Y200 per night for two nights and that "Deposit Y500". This phrase was repeated a few times, but I was just short of the Y900 required so had to go and find a bank, which was not easy as most of them in town would not accept my card. Half an hour later I arrived back with the money to discover that the deposit was only Y100, making a total of Y500 and my long walk pointless.
Getting her to extend my stay wasn't always as simple as it should have been either, something that occured often as the illness would not go away without a fight and kept me in bed for a full week. This did at least afford me the opportunity to sit and watch plenty of live coverage of the American election results coming in all the way through to the concession and acceptance speeches. In the evenings I went to the nearby coffee shop places (posh western-style restaurants - see previous journal), typically the one opposite the hotel where I was well known to all the staff by the time I left town.
After a week with little more to do than ponder why my bathroom had sachets of complimentary bath foam when it had no bath, I went out for a walk around the Dai Temple complex. After four months in Mongolia, China and South Korea, I have seen pretty much everything temples have to offer. Twice. But this was a particularly pleasant example of the genre both architecturally and in its gardens.
Having come through this challenge unscathed, I therefore felt ready for the mountain the next day. Initially, I had to follow the road as it generally inclined for a kilometre up towards the entrance gate at the base. From there, the path went up and up and up. At first it is a gently-sloped path with some stairs. But the stairs become more and more common until they are the norm.
After at least an hour and a half of steepening climbing, I came to a plateau with some buildings etc which proved to be the midway point. Looking along the road from here, I could see where the steps began again and I could see that they only got steeper with almost no flat sections to rest the legs. There was a bus station here, linked to the town below by a road on the west side of the mountain, but from here up everything must be carried by hand. All the drinks and crappy souvenirs, all the provisions for the two hotels at the very top and all the staff that both entail must be brought up by foot. Similarly, all the rubbish must be brought down this way. Sometimes, you would see some poor worker struggling along with heavy boxes, usually balanced at either end of strong poles over the shoulders. Surely a high entry in the list of 'Jobs you would not want to do'.
Some way after the midway break, I saw a sign by one of the little temples that line the route. It said "Climb starts here". "You must be joking" I thought considering how far I had come, but it wasn't completely untrue you know. And so the climb got steeper, or, at least, it felt like it.
Shortly afterwards, an old Chinese man with long, grey hair and a long, green coat wanted to say hello to me (see pictures). He then wanted to give me a big bear-hug and then pick me up. A bit weird, but I returned the compliment on all three counts and the locals seemed to think the whole exchange was very funny.
I now started to walk with a young couple I had said 'hello' to as we passed and re-passed each other further down the slope. She was struggling big time, even with a walking stick she had bought from one of the many vendors on the climb. Finally, we turned off the wide stairs onto the final section of narrow, turning, steep stairways. No one was walkiing normally now, no one was doing more than twenty steps between breaks, many were only managing ten steps at a time. Rather impressively, the girl of the couple I was with gave her stick away to an old lady she saw struggling on the way back down.
Reaching the last of the 6660 steps at the top, the couple headed straight towards the cable car back down so I bade them farewell and instead headed up though the small temples and buildings around the mountain top in search of something I could truly call the top. Immediately I joined up with another couple. They were students from the local university and had come up the mountain to celebrate their third anniversary since they "became lovers". I explained what this meant and suggested that it was really the third anniversary since they became girlfriend and boyfriend. They blushed, apologised and said that I was right. "Is that other anniversary next week?" I quipped. No one laughed, but I think they just didn't understand me.
We took photos for each other around the top and at the very top temple. They gave me an incense stick to light and plant in some kind of altar on legs. Apparently, the wish you make then will come true, so we all made our wishes before planting our sticks. Afterwards we wandered around the back and played each other some songs from our MP3 players. They played me some Chinese grunge track which his student band apparently cover with him on the drums. I played him some Led Zepellin tracks including Kashmir. I like to think that, even if the temple wasn't his thing, I gave him a spiritual experience on top of the mountain.
It had taken four hours to climb up and a further hour was spent looking around when I got there. The sun was dipping below the horizon now so I had planned to ride the cable car back down, but they convinced me to join them walking instead, taking us three hours. We talked a lot about music, China and life all the way back down before they got in a taxi to head home.
I was in two minds about whether to take the 14:30 bus to Beijing the next day or to wait until the day after. I figured I would wait to see what time I woke up in the morning. As it happened, I woke late but decided to go for it anyway and rushed around suitably. My 'taxi' to the bus station was a three-wheeled car with one seat upfront and perhaps enough space in the back for four children with no luggage who were close, personal friends. Upon arrival, a girl meeting her friend came to chat for a while. She was amazed by how much Chinese I had learnt from just five lessons when she watched me buy my ticket. All I actually said in Chinese was 'Y145' and 'thank-you' so I don't know what she expected a normal student to have learnt from ten hours of lessons. "Here's my course money, please don't teach me anything"?
In the waiting room I had to endure thirty minutes of staring from some weirdo sucking on a lollipop. Wherever he went as he walked around, he stared at me. Wherever he sat, he stared at me. When I tried to look back and out-stare him, he still never blinked. I was relieved when I got on the bus to see that he wasn't taking the same journey.
Arriving in Beijing seven hours later, I took another three-wheeled taxi to good-old Wanfujing hostel. This vehicle made the one from the morning look like a HumVee, Just about squeexing in me and my backpack but leaving little room for breathing. This driver came to a standstill just once during our twenty-minute journey. Other than that, we stopped for nothing. Not traffic lights, not traffic coming across us, not traffic coming towards us, not pedestrians, not one-way streets, not nothing. Given the limited capacity for speed of this contraption, it would p robably be exaggerating matters to call anything we did 'weaving', but given the speed of most of our obstacles, I still felt it was a miracle that I made it to my destination in one piece.