After a happy, prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in gray, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
“This is pretty kooky,” I laughed, admiring the large black and white canvas of Audrey Hepburn at reception. “I wonder if they have Oscar-winning rooms too”. Approaching the grinning mannequin of a receptionist, I asked her if we could see a double, before making a self-satisfying joke about Gregory Peck. But of course she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. “Hotel name is movie?” she asked during my messy explanation, her furrowed brow dislodging a few flakes of her ridiculously thick makeup.
S and I had just arrived in the city of Tai’an, where for the first time in our trip we hadn’t sorted out accommodation in advance. So we’d spent a while searching for digs, working our way down Hongmen Lu, the city’s lengthy hotel-bloated main street. Our hunt had taken in several places, a grubby-looking hostel and an almost-palatial boutique tower with price tags to match. But now, in the amusingly named Roman Holiday Hotel, it felt like we’d found the right balance.
The room turned out to be great, a spacious, tastefully decorated rectangle with a framed poster of the movie above the bed. And while the rate was a more-than-reasonable 150-Yuan a night, I still managed to charm the mannequin down to 120 with my amazing film knowledge. “Yes, an Oscar is like a prize”.
“You climbey mountain?” enquired the receptionist, handing me the keys. “Yes ma’am!” I confirmed, feeling a sudden rush of adrenalin. “Oooh, very good!” she giggled. “You know in China we say the one who climb Tai Shan live one hundred years!” Hmm, I’d never really wanted to be that old, but figured it would be shrewd to keep my options open and grab any extra years on offer.
We didn’t know much about Tai’an, a booming city of five and a half million with a tourist industry dating back to the Ming Dynasty. Our visit was all about its sacred mountain, one of China’s so-called five greats. Standing 1540 meters above sea level, its misty peaks were partly visible from Hongmen Lu as we left the hotel for an afternoon stroll.
Like Jinan and Beijing before it, Tai’an was a dizzying mix of the ancient and modern, a contradictory blend of ramshackle market streets and shiny shopping malls. There was an abundance of rickety food shacks, but just as many upmarket restaurants inhabited by droves of beautified waitresses. One of them waved at me as we passed, her perfect skin radiating an almost porcelain-like quality. Outside a massive McDonalds, located next to an even larger KFC, a craggy woman sat peddling handcrafted wooden animals laid out across a pair of old towels. Not one of the swarming masses of pedestrians paid her any notice.
At the southern end of Hongmen Lu the crowds thinned out and we came upon the delightful Dai Temple, a walled Taoist complex with bronze pavilions, two thousand year old cypress trees and an immaculate Bonsai garden. We could have spent hours there, but the day was already melting into early evening and our stomachs were grumbling.
On our way back to Roman Holiday, we stopped at an indoor food market to feast upon some freshly cooked potato and onion pancakes. In preparation for the following morning’s insane 4am rise, S came up with the grand idea of putting together a picnic bag for our ascent. So we darted around the market, much to the curiosity of the sellers, picking up peaches, a bag of almonds, a pack of banana chips and plenty of bottled water.
“Oh, movie so romantic!!!” cooed the mannequin back at basecamp. She’d only gone and downloaded Roman Holiday! And she seemed utterly absorbed, though I couldn’t suffer more than a few minutes of Audrey Hepburn speaking Mandarin, so we left the girl to it and headed up to the room for the night.
It was still dark as we approached the ticket office at the base of Tai Shan, the first hints of light beginning to creep through the blackness. It was about a quarter to five and the air was thick and sticky, pools of sweat forming across our foreheads and on the back of our necks. There was already a short queue of Chinese hikers, so we took our place, bought the tickets and headed up the central pathway at a leisurely pace. Before long the track began to rise steadily, following a bubbling stream set among scattered trees and wild bushes. And then it was rapidly getting lighter, the birds exchanging morning calls, a number of our fellow hikers coming into focus in the distance.
Along the route we passed various rock monuments, each one embellished with blood red, hand-painted calligraphy. The Chinese climbers stopped at each one to pose for photographs, chattering excitedly among each other. With no English translations available, we bypassed most of them in favor of pushing on; following in the footsteps of such revered Tao Shan champions as Confucius, Chairman Mao and… err… Jacky Chan.
We’d been walking for over an hour by the time S and I reached the first staircase, a sharp uncompromising elevation of punishing stone slabs. I was shattered by the time we got to the top, only to be rewarded with the depressing sight of another flight of steps just a few yards away. “Water!” gasped S. It didn’t take us long to polish off the first bottle.
Two more staircases and we took our first extended break, resting a while at a little temple called Dou Mu Goddess Palace. Guzzling more water, I looked on as a team of brown-robed, shaven-headed attendants busied about the courtyard burning incense and sweeping leaves. Further along, a sizeable group of tourists stood huddled around a giant fallen tree. One of the Chinese men spoke a little English and was keen to inform me that the tree had been planted by the infamous General Cheng Yaojin. “He very good!” laughed the man, driving an enthusiastic thumbs-up into my face, “but also naughty boy, kill many people ha ha!!!”
Back on the climb and the stone staircases came thick and fast, one after the other, not a slither of mercy. Stopping mid-stairway for a breather, we were treated to some great views of the countryside below, where a group of hikers chanted as they walked, a tribal boom that echoed across the cliffs around us. Some of these chants were actually returned by unseen climbers above, a call-and-response type rhythm that was strangely hypnotic.
Stone staircase… timeout… stone staircase… respite… and then another temple, this one home to a host of tree shrines. Some were decorated with pink ribbons and rolled-up banknotes, others adorned with shiny padlocks. All of which, we discovered, were offerings to Pan Gu, the mountain’s mythical creator. Nibbling from our picnic bag, tourists came and went before us; solemnly feeding incense sticks into the black stoves that lined the leafy courtyard. Stone staircase… collapse… stone staircase…. moan/complain/guzzle water. Stone staircase… and then something different (!), the ground leveling out onto an extended platform where we were greeted by a large wooden sign: Midway Point To Heaven, climbing starts here. “Climbing STARTS here?” I cried in disbelief as S dropped into my lap with a defeated sigh. Midway point to heaven? Running my hands through my sweat-soaked hair, I feared that at this rate I’d be reaching heaven long before I got to the top of this damn mountain.
But then, a few minutes later, bracing ourselves for the next stage, we came across a cable car station that whizzed you up to the summit in an efficient twelve minutes. “Yes!!!” cried S; whose recurring back issues had started playing up, “I’m taking the cable car, wanna join me?” It was tempting… so so tempting… and yet a part of me felt I had to finish what I’d started; that living to be a hundred years old might be amazing! “I can’t…” I exhaled miserably, “I’ve gotta walk it”. And so it was that we parted ways at Midway Point To Heaven.
Ten minutes later I was feeling more than a little grumpy. Negotiating giant staircase number 20485, I gazed uselessly up as cable car after cable car floated gaily above me, their hidden occupants presumably sipping cocktails and receiving back massages. But what had really pissed me off were the busloads of Chinese tourists that had been deposited at Midway Point To Heaven. Cheerful and sprightly from their air-conditioned journey, they flocked out alongside me, shouting at each other in excitement and incessantly clicking their cameras. There were so many of them it soon became difficult to continue, with some bumbling uncle or littering child getting in my way.
I was desperately applying sun cream atop staircase 20490 when a pair of giggly girls asked if they could have their picture taken with me. I was not in the mood, but they were so wide-eyed and eager I felt it would be mean-spirited not to oblige. “You so handsome!” laughed one of them as I stood there dripping with sweat, hair a mess, face screwed up in agony. A little while later I came across a crowd of people gathered around a bespectacled teen with a chained monkey perched on his arm. Shamefully, people were paying him small change for a brief stroke and he seemed to have amassed quite a fortune in the baseball cap that lay atop his sports bag. Tired and dismayed, I left monkey man to it and pushed on.
I was literally plodding up staircase 20494 feeling sorry for myself when I had the epiphany. Just ahead, moving forward at a painfully slow pace, were two bony Chinese men carrying a massive refrigerator! The bloody great thing was attached to a wooden platform, each end pressed hard down on their shoulders. I was so in awe of them I actually stopped in my tracks and let out an audible expletive. Suddenly my own burden seemed laughably negligible and I could only conclude that if my achievement constituted the award of one hundred years, surely these two dudes should get at least two hundred each!
Motivated by this liberating new perspective, I gave the climb an extra burst of energy. And so I turned onto the infamous Path Of The Eighteen Bends, a particularly arduous set of staircases that led to the promised land of the summit. So desperate was I to get to the top I actually began jogging, the sun burning into the back of my neck, my calves complaining under the strain of the effort. Turning onto the final staircase, my legs felt like blocks of lead as I dragged myself up those final fifty slabs. Amusingly, S had positioned herself on the top step, where she was perfectly placed to take a photo of me stumbling over the finish line.
The views from the top of Tai Shan made it all worthwhile, a vista of low hanging clouds, distant peaks and dense greenery. But the mountain’s highest platform was also big business, a developed complex of kitschy souvenir shops, a dozen or so restaurants and even a four star hotel! We stayed for around half an hour, drinking in the views and picking out a few sections of the path we’d climbed.
“So you will be old man!” sniggered the mannequin upon our return to Roman Holiday. “And you will die young! Ha ha!” she hooted, gesturing to S. And then she was back to her computer and hitting play for another viewing of Roman Holiday, though this time it was in English. “I’ve never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on” said Princess Ann, unbuttoning her gown. “With my dress off it’s MOST unusual”.