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Tai Shan: the reality of China's heavenly mountain

by Robert Flawith

One of the most famous sites of natural beauty in China is Mount Tai Shan, the heavenly mountain in central Shandong province in East China. This spectacular peak, situated 1545 metres above sea level has been the object of admiration by the Chinese for over 5000 years, and its summit has been scaled by several Emperors, the great sage Confucius and even Mao Ze Dong. It has been the subject of poetry and literature throughout the ages, and is so central to Chinese mythology that it has even become a god. It is said that the ascent up Mount Tai Shan symbolizes your life, and if you successfully make it to the summit, you will live for 100 years. Tai Shan is highly recommended by travel guides and Chinese citizens alike, and based on these rave reviews I determined that one day, I too would scale the lofty heights of the mountain and meet the god of Tai Shan.

It so happened that my chance came to behold the mighty paragon of nature's perfection that is Mount Tai Shan in early January 2005. I was traveling around China with a friend of mine from England, and we had sworn to scale the 6660 steps of Mount Tai Shan in pursuit of enlightenment. We partook of a hearty Chinese breakfast of soy milk, salty beans, spam, and oddly shaped deep fried pastries, and thus fortified we began our ascent. We ventured out of the wonderfully heated restaurant and were faced with the harsh reality that was the incredibly bitter winter that engulfed the whole of China. It was f**king cold, let no man tell you otherwise. Antarctica looked like a sunny tropical retreat compared to where we stood.

To battle the cold we had both bought Chinese Red Army trench coats the month before, and so we faced Mount Tai Shan dressed like extras from a low budget World War 2 movie. Oh we had been mocked and humiliated and stared at when we originally bought the giant, padded, khaki monstrosities, but they were essential winter fashion for Tai Shan, if not Milan. The first stop on our epic assault up the mountain was Dai Miao temple, which is dedicated to the god of Tai Shan. Situated at the base of the mountain, it is the traditional starting off point for climbing the mountain. We then proceeded to the red gate and encountered the first of the 6660 steps.

Yep 6660 steps. Six and half thousand. 6.5 grand of poorly maintained, slippery, ice covered excuses for stairs. Thats a lot of steps. I wager that anyone who is unimpressed by this grueling, torturous, and at some points near vertical ascent, is either a mountain climber, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or a liar. And so on we climbed, and the icy cold soon gave way to incredible heat, as our exertions during this trial by fire forced us to strip off layer upon layer of thermal underwear. On the way up the central route we passed many famous sites and monuments, some ancient and filled with mystical Chinese lore, some glaringly Communist, and others just plan weird. One such example of the latter category is the Five Pine Pavilion, a small unassuming temple nestled into the side of the mountain path. This historical relic is so named because in 219BC the first Emperor of China promoted the five aforementioned pine trees to 5th rank officials after he sheltered under them during a storm. Very Chinese.

Other sites we passed on the way included the very creatively named Path of Eighteen Bends (no explanation needed) and the Archway to Immortality, a charming little monument proudly continuing the Chinese obsession with long life. We eventually made it to the top of the mountain and were instantly set upon by a tout, who promised us a hotel room for two people for 20 yuan! 20 yuan is exceedingly cheap, and sounded to us like a great deal. By now it was late afternoon, and the day was very quickly proceeding into a sub zero evening. We visited the temples, shrines and even a meteorological station (no joke, and it is quite unimpressive) which were situated at the top of Mount Tai Shan, and then darkness fell. As we trekked back to the main settlement of hotels on the mountain in the all encompassing blackness our extremities began to shriek of frost bite.

In an effort to defeat the cold that was fast approaching 10 degrees below zero, we both tried to drink Bijiu, the incredibly strong and incredibly disgusting Chinese rice wine. This attempt to drink ourselves into oblivion failed partly because of Bijiu's horrible taste, and partly because all the shops and restaurants were closing. It was only 6:00pm!

So admitting defeat we trundled off to our bargain hotel, and even our three inch thick trench coats couldn't keep out the terrifying cold. The thermometer in the hotel's foyer (if it could be called that) read negative 15 degrees Celsius. We walked into our hotel room and suddenly it became all too clear why the room had only cost us 10 yuan each. It was colder than the frozen depths of space. The walls were paper thin, there was no heating, no thick sheets and no hot shower to be found anywhere in the whole hotel. My frostbitten room mate made himself a cup of tea from the bottle of hot water that the hotel manager had given us, and within an hour it was frozen solid. He filled a bottle with the hot water as an impromptu heating device and rolled himself in his thin blanket in an attempt to battle the arctic cold. I put on another pair of socks, bringing the grand total up to three, put two pairs of gloves on, and went to bed still wearing my trench coat and two layers of thermal underwear.

Thus armed against the inhospitable conditions I was fortunate enough to slip into unconsciousness for a few blissful hours at a time and escape the pain that was our existence. I cannot stress how unbearably cold it was, and my friend was in an even worse state than I was. At some point during the night his hot water bottle, which he clung to like a teddy bear, became a solid block of ice. The next morning he informed me that he hadn't got a wink of sleep and instead had spent most of the night hallucinating, having long babbling conversations with old friends and slowly losing his sanity.

That morning at 6am we ran outside to watch the sunrise, a beautiful and awe inspiring site, as Tai Shan is the first place the sun is visible in China. The howling wind chill and deathly cold however forced us to beat a hasty retreat back down the hill, and within minutes we were running back down the hill to civilization, trying in vain to warm ourselves up. I suppose the moral of this story is simply that while Mount Tai Shan is an amazingly beautiful and inspiring place, for the love of god don't go there in winter. What really concerns me is that if the ascent up Tai Shan really does symbolize one's life, then my life will be one of bitter cold, misery and shameful defeat at the hands of nature. Something to look forward to isn't it?

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