Friday afternoon, after Duncan finished his classes, we set off for Taishan by heading to the Baodingdong G-Train (bullet train) station. The cab ride there was very pleasant and exciting because the driver kept talking to us (in Chinese, of course) but, for once, he was talking slow enough for us to understand most of what he was saying. Duncan was able to have a complete conversation with him pretty much the entire way from the school to the station and I was able to understand almost everything the driver was saying, though I could not have formulated my own responses had he been talking to me directly. Regardless, we were both very pleased and excited by our linguistic abilities and by the friendliness and patience of the cab driver.
We didn’t have to wait long before we boarded the G-train to Beijing and our grand adventure was on its way. But, while on the train, we realized that the train from Beijing to Tai’an (city Taishan is in) did not leave from the station we would be arriving at and so as soon as we arrived at the BeijingXi Station, we had to make a fast dash to the subway, to the other part of town, and to another Beijing train station. Fortunately, with the help of our Chinese friends and our newly acquired experience and confidence with the Beijing subway station gained over National Day holiday, we made it to the station with time to spare.
While waiting in line to get our pre-purchased tickets, a Swedish couple came up to us and asked us for help buying G-train tickets to Shanghai for the next day. Fortunately, Duncan was able to speak enough Chinese to help explain what the Swedish couple wanted to purchase and we left them feeling pleased that they had come and asked us for help (because we’re not Chinese and they assumed we spoke English) and, because of Duncan’s language prowess, we actually were helpful. Everyday we look like we know what we’re doing more and more! It’s exciting for us when other foreigners come to us because it looks like we’re not floundering (or at least we’re floundering less) in this foreign country we are now calling home.
Before we knew it we were boarding the next train that would take us to Tai’an. For some reason that I cannot explain (because it is not a holiday weekend) there were virtually no tickets left to Tai’an and we were forced to buy standing tickets or otherwise cancel our trip. We decided to buy the standing tickets because we assumed that there would be seats left over from people who did not show up but, as it turns out, no one did forfeit their seat and we walked onto the train to greet a crowd of other people crammed into a hallway in the train car.
This is where we spent the next 5 hours – crouched down on the floor in a corner of the train car surrounded by people smoking and playing cards. Once they opened up the kitchen car and allowed standing people to go in that car as well, rather than just in the hallway, Duncan and I were able to claim a section in the hallway and we spent the time reading and playing games on our phones. Though I thought it was going to be pretty awful when we first got on the train, it actually wasn’t too bad and I’d say the worst part, for me, was the guy who clearly wasn’t speaking Mandarin (might have been Cantonese) that seemed so fascinated by Duncan that he kept trying to talk to us even though we clearly could not understand a word he said through his gold rimmed death (yes, the edges of his teeth were gold).
We met a guy who was studying to get his PhD in Animal Science in Beijing and whose dream it is to go to Cornell University in the States and we met another guy who is studying English in Jinan but was on his way to Hangzhou and was spending the night on the train despite his only having a standing room ticket like us. These two, with their limited English (though better than they acknowledge) and our limited Chinese, were extremely helpful by making sure we got off at the right time and at the right stop and we enjoyed talking to them when they built up enough confidence to come practice their English. My favorite part of the train ride to Tai’an was when the English major headed to Hangzhou pulled out a recorder (what else?) and started playing it in the middle of the train car hallway. (Maybe he thought the acoustics were good?) What songs did he haltingly play with mediocre success? “My heart will go on” by Celine Dion and an American folk song that I don’t know the name of but I do recognize immediately. The music didn’t go on for too long and as the time passed, people got quieter and quieter which was nice. All in all, the ride to Tai’an was actually quite enjoyable and not at all the experience I thought it would be.
We arrived at Tai’an station and, as usual, pushed off the taxi drivers clambering around the exit just looking to get more money out of you than is necessary and headed toward the street to find a more reasonable cab. A woman came up behind us and asked us where we wanted to go and said she had a special cab for us. Though we originally thought she was going to try to take advantage of us too, we decided to listen to her and we followed her to her “special cab”. What she led us to was not a cab but just a usual car with a driver in it. What seemed to be sketchy and fake at first ended up being a good experience. Ever though this wasn’t a cab, it clearly was some kind of official driving service. He even wanted to call our hostel from his phone to confirm the directions. He was very concerned that we didn’t have a place to sleep for the night (even though we repeatedly told him that we had a reservation at a hostel – which he was taking us to) and he was concerned that we were going to get cold (because he didn’t know we had jackets packed in our back pack). We reassured him of our plans, he seemed excited, got us to the hostel, and we all wished each other well as we parted ways.
The Hongmen International Hostel, located at the base of Taishan, is the coolest first hostel experience I can imagine. To be honest, it’s probably one of the nicest places we’ll stay in all year and, as a bonus, was very cheap. Our private room (because we paid a little more not to stay in the dormitory) had two big beds and a very clean bathroom. After living in Baoding for two months, it’s amazing what simple but tremendous pleasure you get from sleeping in a bed that has fitted sheets and does not have a crack in the middle that you slide into in the night, a well-lit and clean bathroom mirror so you can see what you actually look like again, and a shower that is not directly over the constantly running toilet. Really, it’s quite amazing!
We woke up early Saturday morning to get a head start on our day of climbing. Though I was still recovering from last week’s illness and breathing kind of felt like my lungs were on fire, we made it up the over 7,200 steps to the top of Taishan in about four and a half hours. Halfway up the climb, we stopped for a rest and a Chinese guy walked by looking very proud of himself and handed his friend a beer. His friend clearly didn’t want it and, after seeing Duncan and I laughing at his proud friend, came over and handed the beer to Duncan. The friend, who originally bought the beer, was even more excited excited that a white guy now had his friend’s beer, came over, clinked his bottle to Duncan’s, did a cheer, said “Tsingtao beer” (probably his only English) very clearly, and walked away grinning from ear to ear. We didn’t drink the beer but we enjoyed the interaction.
The hike up the mountain, though grueling at times and very tiring, was enjoyable and we had a lot of fun stopping at the little stands on the way up to grab drinks and watermelon slices tat kept us refreshed and energized on our climb.
View from Taishan:
All over the mountain (in the trees, on signs, on basically anything), there are red ribbons. It is a tradition in China that you whisper your wishes and prayers into the ribbons, tie them on top of a mountain, and then as they fray, the wind will carry your wishes and prayers out into the world and heavens. Another tradition is for a couple to get a lock (usually with their names engraved on it) and to lock it at the top of a sacred mountain to represent their eternal love and commitment. Regardless of how potentially cheesy these traditions might sound, ever since I heard about them, I have wanted to partake and so, on our first big mountain climbing adventure together in China, Duncan and I got red ribbons and a lock.
At the peak of Taishan is a Daoist Temple. If you go through the gates of this temple and into the inner courtyard and you look left of center, you will see a big calligraphic stone surrounded by a metal fence with dragons on the top. On this fence, hooked around one of the little dragons in the front-center is our lock with our two ribbons (with our wishes whispered to be carried away by the wind) tied together.
We took a cable car back down half of the mountain that cut at least two hours off the return trip. Tired and hungry, we returned to the hostel, cleaned the sweat and dirt off of us from the day, found a Pizza Hut for some filling food, and spent the rest of the evening relaxing. After doing some exploring as we searched for the Pizza Hut, we realized that Tai’an is a really cool city and it actually reminded us a lot of Asheville. Since we’ve been in China, Tai’an is the only place that has reminded us of our lovely home in the mountains. Our only complaint about our time there is that we wish we could have stayed longer to do some more exploring.
We woke up very early Sunday and prepared for our return journey back to Baoding. Since we woke up at five, it turned out that the front desk at the hostel was closed and the gates to the hostel were actually locked. We were locked in to the hostel grounds. After a moment of panic when we noticed the front desk didn’t open until eight and our train was scheduled to leave at seven, we called the front desk and, thankfully, someone answered the phone, checked us out, and unlocked the gate.
The five hour trip to Shijiazhuang, our connecting city, was worse than the five hour ride to Tai’an despite the fact that we had seats this time. As is the case with pretty much every part of China, there are too many people and this leads to shoving, cramming, and general chaos. The most frustrating part of our trip back was the guy sitting in the seat facing us, with music on his phone playing as loud as it could, while he slept for four hours. It was absolutely obnoxious. To add to his blaring noise, all the other noises of the people in the vicinity have to be even louder to cover up his noise, and then we were stuck on a train for five hours with shoving, cramming, chaos, and too much noise!
We finally arrived in Shijiazhuang only to realize that we were, once again, at the wrong station for our next train. We fortunately found what must have been one of the fastest cab drivers in the city and he got us to the other station with almost an hour of time to spare. We actually even began to hope that we would make our train and be home by 2pm as planned. But then the train station couldn’t find our ticket reservations made online and didn’t find them until after our train had already left. We were then informed that our new tickets for the next train to Baoding were not until, wait for it, 9 at night unless we wanted to wait until Monday. At this point we both were grumpy, frustrated, hungry, and tired, but we had no other option than to spend seven hours in the Shijiazhuang rail station waiting for our train.
The wait wasn’t nearly as dreadful as I thought it would be and with the help of the in-house KFC and coffee shop along with my Kindle (best purchase ever!) and yet another Philippa Gregory book (I think I’ve read ten of them now and at least seven since we’ve been in China) the hours passed quickly and ended up being much more enjoyable than our ride to Shijiazhuang (mainly because we were not cramped and surrounded by constant, blaring noises).
After an eighteen-hour day of traveling (and waiting), we finally (and very happily) made it back to Baoding.
We really enjoyed our trip to Taishan despite all of the difficulties with traveling. The mountain is truly incredible and words do not do justice to the impressive and striking beauty of this “grand mountain” (rough translation). As we climbed I reveled in the satisfaction that comes from reaching the top after a challenging climb, whether it be a mountain or life and I, once again, couldn’t help but contemplate the old Chinese proverb, “the journey is the reward”. We reached the top and just as the memories of our climb will stay with us, we have left a piece of ourselves on top of Taishan with our ribbons and lock. We have crossed another place off of our list and there are many more mountain stories to come.
Until next time,