Climbing Taishan

02:30 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

The national pastime in China is without a doubt, mountain climbing. Mountains are often given spiritual significance and the most auspicious is Taishan in Shandong Province.

South Gate to Heaven
If you are born Chinese, it seems you are destined to spend your free time toiling up and down big hills. It seems every mountain in the country is adorned with stone staircases, restaurant stops and tat stalls. Upon the slopes of these spiritual ascents, you'll see the complete strata of Chinese society; from the hardened labourers delivering supplies, to the ostentatious Party members in full Alpine hiking gear dragging along their stiletto-heeled mistresses.

During the May Day public holiday, I set off with my girlfriend and what seemed like the whole population of Shandong to climb Taishan. We stocked up on bottled water and sweet snacks and began our climb from the Dai Temple, traditionally where the Emperor would began his pilgrimage. The first hour of walking was spent navigating a path through the tat stalls and throngs of Chinese people wearing cowboy hats and walking sticks. My enthusiasm got the better of me and I bought a cowboy hat, hoping it would offer me a bit of anonymity among the crowds. Unfortunately, the foreigner-spotters were on their game. Throughout our five hour climb, all I seemed to hear was my left boot hit the ground foot, then the right and then “Laowai!”... left foot, right foot, “laowai!” and so on.

 The gradient became steeper and the crowds settled into their own pace. Overpriced instant noodles stalls dotted the route, relieving people of their hunger and burdensome cash. The snack of choice seemed to be stalks of cucumber, but we didn't venture beyond our peanut brittle. Walking along at our pace were two particularly eager Chinese girls who constantly wanted photographs with us. Every time we stopped for a breather they dived in for a photo. By the end of they day they must have had quite a collection.

Eventually we reached the halfway point, sweating and exhausted. We had already drank our water supply and the stalls around us were more than happy to sell us bottles of water for 15RMB (£1.50). I paid the price and then found the bottles for a third of the price just around the corner. Gutted. At the halfway point, there was a huge bus station which unleashed hordes of fresh-legged and vocal climbers who were too lazy too walk the first half. They had more than enough energy to shout, belch and get in our way. The route became really crowded and wasn't so much fun.
Just before the 'South Gate of Heaven', there is a ridiculously steep climb to reach the summit. This is where the climb got real. The stairs were littered with exhausted souls, breathless but somehow finding the strength to point a finger and call out “” We marched on. By now, everyone had forgotten about the rocks beneath them and were instead attempting to conquer their own mountains of fatigue. My girlfriend had a poignant battle of her own, which brought her a few tears of joy once she reached the summit.
We made it to the top only to find that there wasn't a picturesque summit, just more places to spend money. This is China. We found a spot on top of a roof of a hotel to watch the sun set. And you know what, it was actually worth it. The sky was clear and the colours were beautiful. It seemed even the birds came out to enjoy the sunset. All to quickly, the sun went to sleep and it was time to go home. Not before discovering than an opportunistic photographer had been snapping our romantic sunset scene. He was incredibly friendly though and sent us his best pictures, which was a bonus.
We began our walk down the mountain and headed towards the cable-car, suddenly grateful for all the infrastructure built around mountain climbing in China. Everywhere, people were setting up camp so they could be the first to watch the sunrise. They were in for a cold night. Our journey was over though. I couldn't wait to get my tired arse down that mountain. 

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