We're Never Coming Back

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Day 263 - Taishan

china 6660 steps later...

So, in our usual squalling backward trek around massive countries (we did the same in argentina), instead of taking the quickest and most sensible route through a selection of places of interest, we decide on taking the longest, most contorted and most uncomfortable route. So once again, we leave Datong and head, this time, to Taishan, once again via Beijing (a journey that takes in total 24 hours - killer).

But we made it. I'm not gonna bore you again with details of the horrendous train journies - needless to say they were hellish. Please try and understand how bad they were. But the worst was yet to come. There's not much I HATE about backpacking. I can put up with the evil lack of sleep and uncomfortable seats and beggars hassling you and people thrusting tourist tat in your face. I can put up with the long flights and hours waiting in airports. I can stand the stinking dorms and uncomfortable beds and lack of privacy or clean clothes or hot showers. All that stuff is bearable.

But one thing I can't stand is taxis. If you've ever been travelling or even just on holiday without an airport pickup organised, you'll know what I mean. Turning up at airports, train stations or bus stations, laden with all our stuff, clearly dripping with money, digital cameras and iPods, and when its dark. and you're confronted with a hoard of taxi drivers all ready to whisk you away. You don't know where you're going. You don't know any decent hotels. You don't have a reservation. And you don't speak the language. Its SO BAD. In south america, you have to fear for your life. Reports of tourists being driven to cashpoints and held at ransom happen with this frightening regularlity. In the rest of the world however, you fear for your stuff being nicked. or being ripped off. Its literally the worse thing about backpacking.

Taishan was the same, except our driver this time didn't want to take us where we wanted, but instead to his mates hotel on the outskirts of the city. Sam's terrified in the back, I'm trying to remember the route and work out an escape plan, and eventually we're dropped at a dodgy looking hotel, which is trying to charge us three times the price of everywhere else. We haggle it down to a reasonable (but still expensive) price, get some sleep in the freezing room and check out first thing the next morning, to search for a better hotel in town. I hate it when that stuff happens.

Anyway, I shouldn't complain. And we survived unscathed. We decided to come south to Taishan, maybe not strictly off the tourist trail but heavily out-of-season, for what is described as the "most climbed mountain on earth". Really? In china? I had no idea. apparently it is. Mount Taishan is, it seems, china's most sacred mountain. Always up for a bit of sparkling chinese mythology, it seems that the dude that created the world worked long and hard, and when he finished divided his body up into 5 bits and lumped in different parts of china - his most important bits right here in Taishan, forming the mountain. So every year, hoards (and by that I mean thousands and thousands) of people do the 4-hour trek to the top as some form of pilgrimage.

So, always up for a challenge, I decided to do it. And to top it off, apparently anyone who does the climb will live to be 100. WHOOP WHOOP. and, get this, if you walk through the archway of immortality at the top, you get to become a celestial being as well. how sorted am i. that debt's not looking like such a big deal now, is it? So after a day of wandering around the cute, although uninteresting town at the base of the mountain, I got up at 10am, wrapped up in plenty of layers, bought some spam (very popular here) to line my stomach as I hiked, and set off.

And its cute. We're here TOTALLY out of season. so not only am I the only westerner for 100 miles, but the place is NOTHING like the photos. Its not green and lush, with streams and rivers coursing across boulders and under ornamental bridges. Instead its that yellowy colour that you associate with people who are dying. The trees are almost bear, the air not blue but white, icicles hanging from the stone bridges and random piles of snow, unmelted by the perpetual shade of the winter's low sun. Its not the Taishan experience you ought to have, but its good enough for me.

The first half is a gentle rise through the thinned out forests, past shed loads of temples and monuments, and even more tourist stalls selling t-shirts and water bottles. But there's hardly anyone else on the path, and with my iPod to keep me company (sam's back at the hotel lazing the day away) I wandered to the halfway mark an hour and a half later. Its 7.5km in total, from the town to the summit. I've stomped my way through more than half of that, braced for the second half which is apparently the killer. Unphased though.

The place is cute. Its ear-marked as a site of geological significance, and has the odd interesting rock formation hanging around. And the route is literred with temples stinking of josticks. And LOADS of rocks with chinese inscriptions on them. That was kinda cute, although meaningless to ignorant duncs. But probably the most beautiful thing was the hundreds of red ribbons hanging from the branches of trees, with rocks attached to them. I still don't know what they represent - but they're only on certain trees, and its striking to see. when you're not wiping sweat from out of yours eyes.

ah, and they have this thing about padlocks. wrapped around everyting sacred and locked to one another in massive blinging chains. its special.

So I'm doing fine. until I get to this bit - the path of 18 bends. Right, until now it was kinda easy. and whilst I saw this in the distance, I didn't think I'd be that bothered. I've done the inca trail. I've climbed mountains at altitude. this is nothing. and I don't smoke anymore (have I mentioned that?), so I should be fit and healthy and prepared. I wasn't. It killed me. Its like being shot in the lungs and in the knee-caps. I'd take 5 steps, and then collapse. Of the 10 or so people around me doing the walk too, they were all using the hand-rail to pull themselves up. I wasn't. I had my photo taken 3 times. and some dude filmed me on his video camera, as I drank water and sweated it out straight away. But apart from that, i totally under-estimated the physical labour I'd have to undergo. killer.

But I made it. I passed through the archway of immortality (ha ha! sucks to be you, mortal beings) and spent an hour wandering the temples, bell towers, archways, panaramas and finding a little quiet spot to sit by myself and think about stuff. It was cool.

It never fails to amaze me how one minute you can be at the bottom of a massive, imposing mountain, and 3 hours later you can be at the top looking down. all done on foot. I love that stuff. anyway, i was SO SHATTERED. so forked out the 3 quid for a cable-car ride (alone) down the mountain, which scared the shit out of me. And with that, sam and I boarded another train headed BACK to Beijing.

Its the eve of my flight to Vietnam tonight. We've spent the last 48 hours not sleeping on another night-train, not being able to get a cab to the hostel, not being able to find the hostel as we wander in the 6am darkness down beijing side-alleys, not being able to pack all out winter clothes into our already over-filled backpacks, not being able to get cash out at the chinese cashpoints, and not being happy with my new too-short and too-rubbish haircut which some chinese dude thought was a good idea. Its not been great. But I do have a soft spot for china.

Its weird. Its an amazing country. and the youth seem so cool and switched on. But this place is CRAWLING with people, and unemployment looks set to get worse. I dunno if all these rumours of china becoming a super-power within 10 years could be possibly true with the amount of work that needs to be done to this place. And the whole olympics thing in 500 days seems totally unprepared for, and at best a thrown together plan. Like they've just dumped a multi-million pound stadium in the centre of town and not bothered upgrading the infrastructure. I dunno. But rural china is amazing, if a bit scary. And the people, whilst a bit weird, always break a smile if you send one their way. I like it. And I have a distinct feeling that I'll be back one day - heading down the Yangtzee, or riding the trans-siberian back into town. Until that time, farewell China. Its been fun. next stop - vietnam.

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