Tai Shan Mountain, China

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of China  , Shandong,
Friday, July 13, 2007

Beijing was the end of my Dragoman tour but not the end of my trip since I still have about a month to go through eastern China to Hong Kong. While last year I traveled the length of China from west to east on my Silk Road trip, much of it was on the periphery of this new economic and industrial powerhouse.  It whet my appetite to see more of the country, and this year I'll end my trip across Asia concentrating on eastern China, some areas often overlooked by western tourists who usually head for the more scenic spots of Yunnan, Guilin, and the Yangtze Gorge.

I'm still trying to figure out how this system of getting train tickets works in China and what the different classes of service are.  To avoid standing in a 2,000 person long line at the train station I went to a booking agent for my ticket from Beijing to Tai'an.  With some trepidation I accepted the only seat available which was in a class called "hard seater", which I suspected might mean wooden benches.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find rather narrow straight-backed but upholstered seats at small tables for the seven hour ride south.  Of course, I now had an assigned seat but hundreds of other people in this form of cattle-class on the train did not and packed the passageways and ends of the cars while the conductors wandered back and forth selling food and drinks and checking tickets, Chinese music blared over the audio system, babies screamed, adults screamed into their mobile phones, card players and mah jong players yelled at each other at the top of their lungs.  And I thought Italian trains were noisy!

As everywhere in China, I encountered a few people on the train eager to speak English with me.  However, as is often the case in China, I understood rather little of what they were saying to me.  People in China, though, like to ask foreigners lots of questions, many of the sort we might consider inappropriately personal, such as "How old you?", "You marry?", "How many children you have?", "How much money you make?", and "How much money you have?"  I suppose they're not very different from that question Americans perpetually ask everyone, "What do you do?" that annoys so many members of other nationalities so much.

My local base, the middle sized city of Tai'an, is located at the bottom of Tai Shan, a large mountain surrounded by flat farmland near the center of Shandong province.  Tai Shan is the holiest of the five Taoist holy mountains in China.  Along with Buddhism and Confucianism, Taoism is one of the three primary belief systems in China and is based largely on the philosophies of the great sage Lao Tzu.  I'm far from an expert on eastern religions, so I won't attempt to explain Taoism's history or philosophy in any greater detail other than to say it's responsible for some very interesting religious sites in China. 

Tai Shan's peak is a little over 5,000 feet, not high for a mountain but still a very tiring climb from town considering the base elevation is close to sea level.  The climb was entirely up stone pathways and stairs that are frighteningly steep in some places, but I broke the climb up with visits to a series of temples along the way and stops at calligraphic inscriptions at scenic spots on the mountain.  There seemed to be quite a few bona fide pilgrims this Saturday among the throngs of mostly middle-class looking Chinese tourists.  The relatively low elevation was a mixed blessing, though, providing a normal level of oxygen but making the climb painfully sweaty on a hot, humid day.  When I arrived at the summit there was a brief shower, after which I spent perfect afternoon on a misty Chinese mountaintop full of beautiful temples, with about as much solitude and opportunity for quiet contemplation as one would experience during rush hour in Grand Central Station.

There must have been at least 10,000 tourists climbing the mountain that day, and I'm absolutely certain I was the most popular one of them all.  I was constantly joined by young people wanting to practice speaking English with me and to have their photos taken with me to the point that it really slowed my progress up the mountain.  Usually I only achieve this level of popularity with trinket salespeople and hotel touts.  Only two days from my 40th birthday it felt quite flattering  to be considered so photogenic, especially considering my thoroughly sweat-soaked state.  I felt very happy to oblige, though, considering how many times I've asked exotic-looking people in far-flung parts of the world for their photographs.  But here in I'm considered exotic as a very large blondish American, and I've left the mountain with a dozen new college student friends in Shandong province who want to be my e-mail pen pals.  I did meet two other Whities that day in the crowd of thousands, identifiable as Canadians by the maple leaf regalia they were covered in from head to toe long before I could tell they were Caucasian.

One group of five university students from Jinan even conducted an interview with me on the mountain.  Wow, I've never been interviewed before!  A boy with a camcorder filmed me while a small crowd gathered around as his four friends asked me questions about where I was from, what I thought about Tai Shan and China, where I was going in China, and what it was like for a foreigner to be traveling alone in China.

I stayed at a basic local hotel near the train station in Tai'an, the kind of place that has a posted nightly rate of 380 Yuan (about $47) for a single room that suddenly dropped to 160 Yuan ($21) after I said "too expensive" and turned to walk out.  I hadn't experienced it much in hotels in China when I was with a tour group and had a roommate, but now as a single male traveler I find I get a phone call as soon as I return to my room each night.  If I bother to pick up the phone the female voice asks, "Ni Hao, you want massage?" 
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