The plan was roughly formed. The days slipped towards the final midnight and the ticket still had not been purchased. Luckily, using qunar.com’s train schedule, I found a total of seven trains that would depart after midnight and deposit me at the destination early in the morning.
Earlier in the week, I had told my students about my planned journey to Qufu, the ancestral home and jurisdiction of Confucius and his family. They recommended I climb “Mount Tai” or Taishan instead. Hell, I figured I’d just do both with my coming three-day holiday.
I arrived at the ticket office at about 3:30 pm on the 31st. The ticket clerk and I have a history and he was not super pleased to see me. He knew, like I did, a struggle was about to ensue. However, I lightened the mood by emphatically cooing “you are not happy to see me friend (ni bu shi kaixin kan wo, pengyou)?” He and the rest of patrons of the store couldn’t help but smile back. The 6th of the seven after midnight trains had the sleeper ticket I sought to deliver me Taishan.
The train would depart Tianjin an hour and a half after midnight. I figured nothing helps you sleep better than a belly full of liquor after emphatic celebrations. Let’s ignore the fact the New Year’s feels more like a generic universal birthday than a real holiday. All I had to do was arrive at the train station on time… but I nearly sabotaged the plan by going against my instinct and assuming I would be able to get a taxi after midnight on New Year’s. I resorted to begging and pleading with a driver after he had rolled up the window on me. He acquiesced after the sound of 30 kuai rang in his ears. So I was down a bit more from the start then I would have liked, but the alternative was to miss the train and have to transfer tickets, and likely not be able to reserve a sleeper. E.g. a five hour train ride at 1:30 AM on a seat with likely a shufu (uncle) sleeping/drooling on your shoulder.
The train arrived at 6:50 am. I had slept soundly enough. Plus, the time schedule had been so tight that I really hadn’t over indulged in the crowded New Year’s bar the night before. I stopped and had breakfast, yuntun (called “wonton “in the USA, and an array of local names in China) soup and two tea eggs (hard-boiled eggs cooked in a broth of tea, cinnamon along with local variations). The owner of the restaurant told me that I could take bus number 37 straight to the “red gate.” The bus can be grabbed from right next to Taishan zhan train station. However, verify with the bus driver that the 37 you are on is going to the mountain. Just say, “Taishan ma?” That is what I did and the first bus driver took be to the same bus three back in line. So there is some mystery going on there.
I arrived at the red gate at about 8 am and started my climb. The ticket is 102 kuai during the off-season. The walk starts leisurely enough. The first hour is more or less an approach to the foot of the mountain. From the foot of the mountain staging area the climb takes on a significantly more strenuous nature. Naturally, this area also contains the cable car landing. Peering through the crowds, the grey serpentine stairway sways between two impressive mountain ridges leading to the barely visible “South Heaven Gate.” The thought crossed my mind: this is what I came for. No turning back now.
Climbing a mountain is the natural metaphor for overcoming a difficulty or achievement. Most of the time, a novice does not know what he is getting himself into when he sets a goal or imagines some new quality he wishes to possess. That is the approach, everything is leisure and one remarks that the journey has not been nearly as tumultuous as he had apprehended at the onset. The sudden sight of the loftiness of the goal can inspire stolid behavior or cowardice. Hence, the strategic location of the cable car. A cheat for those whom did not comprehend the loftiness of their goal. An easy exit, a saving face mechanism, a monetarily accessible route. Like the fat Homer episode of The Simpsons. For those whom make it to the top, mountain climbing is addicting. The thrill of success banishes the ache of the joints and muscles.
I smiled and sighed, I had arrived at the real mountain. The first hour was a tootsie roll. The climb was about to begin. I walked the first third feverishly. You always pick out a person or a group whom are more or less moving at the same pace as you. To not let them get too far ahead becomes a kind of secret driving force. Each group passes and rests on the ascent. When your markers pass by, it signals the brain to engage legs and continue the hike.
The second third my pace slowed significantly, but I was only resting every twenty minutes or so. The last third, each narrow landing between the sets of 50 stairs becomes an oasis. There you can rest without feeling like you quit or are in the way. The last three hundred are endless. It is all I could do to lift my legs to the next step, but what was I to turn back? To walk back down the stairs? Not even an option. That is the great thing about goals, when the end is in sight, nothing can persevere on the human spirit to turn back.
Two and a half hours later, heavy legged and winded, I arrived at the gate. I hesitated a minute to share a smile of accomplishment with my adopted group. Then without hesitation, I foxed out a spot of serenity and solitude. I lit an incense stick for my grandfather whom had passed away recently. I started meditating and asking for peace for my gramps in the next life. Overtaken with exhaustion, I fell asleep next to the edge of a cliff, facing the sun, and resting my head on my walking staff that had seemed so out of place the night before in the bar and train station.
I awoke a half hour later. I reengaged my quaking legs and explored the offerings of the mountain top. The air was fresh and soft. The smell of incenses wafted through the air filling my nose with undulant peace. Out across the surrounding valley, the pollution cloud laid low, obscuring the floors features with a grey haze. A clear line across the horizon divided the divine Taishan air from the rest of Shandong. At some of the more populated areas loud speakers listed the rules of the mountain repetitively. The noise really added to the mystic nature of the mountain that emperor after emperor had climbed to ask for the mandate of heaven. But, in China, these kind of annoyances are unavoidable. You either tune them out or become one of the embittered expats that a newbie meets fresh of the boat and thinks, “What is wrong with this guy?” And then your mind flashes to Braveheart, “Go home boy!”
Around 3 pm, I started my trek down the mountain. This time I took the Tianzhu path which flows quietly through the pine forests that cover the mountain ridges. The soft whispering of the mountain’s pines drown out the pertinacious Chinese voices. And as the path wound further away from the South Heaven Gate, my perception turned inside and I reflected on my life and position in the world. Melancholic beautiful are the thoughts of truth and honesty with oneself. Where was I going? What would/does it mean?
The forest protectors live in one room concrete houses that acquiesced to the mountain ridges and fault lines. How peaceful their lives must be, yet difficult. Everything has its price. I observed one of their gardens that had been destroyed by frost. A meager patch dug out against the jutting rocks of the mountain. Meek, yet bold and honest.
As my mind floated its way down the mountain, I felt a forlorning of returning to the real world. All the beauty and peace I had found would soon fade back into the drumbeat of daily life. Of a life lived without a vision of purpose. Muddled along, as the trash island grows ever larger, and organisms adapt to a life of floating ocean plastic.
I arrived at what appeared to be the foot of the path. A bus terminal that headed down the mountain for 30 kuai. The sun was on the descent, and so were my energy reserves. I still planned for Qufu the next day. I inquired if walking was an option but my Chinese failed me and the next bus was leaving. The buses only leave when sufficiently filled. The next departure time could be awhile, especially after all of the people I saw on Tianzhu. I took the bus, but soon regretted the decision as we passed by some of the most beautiful scenery yet. The path wound on and on. Again, I changed my mind and decided I had made the right decision.
For serious hikers, Tianzhu is definitely the way to go. From where the city bus drops off, the hike is probably about 6 hours to the top of the mountain. I believe bus number 17 takes you to the foot of the path. You can ask when you arrive. “Ji hao de jiche dao Tianzhu lu?” I don’t promise you’ll be understood, especially if you don’t read pinyin. However, there is something to be said about following the red path, as it is the traditional route taken by the emperors of old.
As the shuttle bus swung on, I slipped into exhaustion and passed away from reality. I slept until the telltale engine sputtering and the break squealing informed my resting brain we had reached the main road.
I slid from the bus with all the agility of a newborn fawn and searched the main road for a bus stop. The man, because he is always there in different shapes, sizes, and huas, approached me and offered me a great deal, 70 kuai back to town! I politely declined and informed him I would take the guaranteed seat on the empty bus for 1 kuai instead. Nap time.
My belly growled and the horns screamed, I had reentered downtown after a half hour ride. A peaceful half hour. Unsurprisingly, people coming down the mountain are not very much interested in any type of communication. We basked in the glory of the rocking bus and dreamed ourselves a baby again.
I took a bus stop too much, and backtracked as I am wont to do. The big mall guaranteed a satisfactory meal for a worn out body, if not unduly expensive. The knee was stiffening, I had cursed myself the previous week in soccer. The mountain had been too much. Yet, I was unaware when the journey began. Just a mere memory of a tackle and a tight knee that loosened with a minute of hobbling.
The mall was worth the risk. And I ate fantastically. Settling for a Beijing duck restaurant after scouting the rest of the mall, I came up aces. I ordered half a duck, two pijius, and sweet & sour pork. Yes, it is a real dish, but you’ll never see that name printed on a menu in China. Unless, of course, you go to the famous American Chinese restaurant in Shanghai. Yes, that is a real thing. Or it was when I wrote this…. I swear.
After chowing, I blankly stared off. This was the calm before the storm, or so I worried. I still had to find a hotel. A bleak prospect. The wise traveler can often save a buck and some time by booking the hotel beforehand.
Finding a hotel to my liking, both quality and price, turned into an expedition. I questioned, as I often do, if it had been worth it rather than just taking the first shitty hotel for 60 kuai more. Honestly, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. If you are not even willing to walk away, you will find yourself at a disadvantage. Especially in countries where negotiating the price is a given like it is in China.
I questioned the night nurse about the bus to Qufu. I knew Qufu was close, I had a seen a map (a joke. Well I had seen a map but it has not always been helpful in that I can be quite absent minded.). The bus departed every two hours. I reasoned out the timeframe. And set my alarm-clock accordingly.
When I woke up in the morning, I had breakfast, yuntun again but this time with an order of baozi. 12 kuai. Before a long cold adventure, the soup is absolutely fantastic to eat. First, I stopped at the train station. I bought a ticket from Qufu back to Tianjin, a sleeper ticket departing that night. I had had enough of the odyssey of finding a hotel room the night before.
Taishan to Qufu via bus: 23 kuai. I could have taken the train but I figured due to the extreme proximity of Taishan to Qufu that the bus would be much more frequent and therefore convenient.
I xia che le (got off) at the Qufu bus station. From there I grabbed bus 2 to downtown exiting once I spotted the old city wall. I wandered towards the brick and mortar, but later rather than sooner learned that one needs to go to the far southwest gate to buy a ticket to start The Three Kong’s (san Kong). The price is steep at 150 kuai. The first stop is the Confucius Temple. The temple had once doubled as the seat of the Kong family but also the monastery where Confucius and his followers did much of their preaching.
The temple is haikeyi (haihao for you Taiwaners). Depends on what floats your boat. Maybe it would have been more interesting if I had hired a guide. To me, it was just old Chinese style pavilions with mundane explanations of their significance. Also, huge stone tablets…. written in Chinese, with little English explanation.
The next stop was the Kong family mansion. This area was more interesting because of the more spirited layout of structures. The mansion replaced the temple as the seat of the Kong family’s administration and residence.
The last and the greatest, the Kong cemetery; by far the most beautiful and awe inspiring of all the Kongs. It was the first Chinese cemetery I had ever visited. The grounds with their wisp-like trails spelling away through the curvatures left by centuries of burial mounds screamed sacred, old, and serene; the way I expected China to be before I arrived.
A hell of a place to be buried, but more importantly to haunt. The Friday night socials must be out of this world, rivaling even the most fervent guangchangtiaowu (evening exercises for the elderly in China).
Ancient Chinese ghosts just don’t scare me. I mean, how scary is a ghost that doesn’t speak your language? It could be saying the most evil malicious shit to me and I would be like… “shen me?” We all know how easily the Chinese give up when you ting bu dong. Why would that change after death? Especially if it was a Shanghai ghost, everyone knows they have no time for foreigners, or really anyone.
Nonetheless, the graveyard definitely makes Qufu worth a visit. Consider a full night moon stay in the graveyard. And I mean listen to Bob Segar the whole time.
The trees here also filter the outside noise. A highway was perceptible through the din. Instead of detracting from the awe inspiring nature, it added a haunting silhouette, like the choir in a cathedral. Everywhere, the ground was covered with the dead plumage of trees. Trees that still grew and spread their limbs, but yet whose roots sank deep into the heart of the dead. The heights to which they had risen exulted the decaying for their contributions.
The pollution aided rain has quickened the pace of forgotten names, places, and dead. A common legacy perpetrated by Mao’s Party. A country, renowned for its tradition, cookie cutting the landscape, until the sky is filled with an all equitable grey. Till the only sounds discernable are car horns blaring and tempers flaring.
Few places I have visited in China reflected my a priori mental picture like the resting place of Kongzi. I might not be afraid of Chinese ghosts, but the Chinese seemed to be. I saw no littering, spitting, or yelling. Only hushed tones and forecasting eyes.
I wondered toward Kongzi’s mausoleum. In comparison to the great mausoleums of china, it is quite humble. A few temples, and an asymmetric path deliver you to his funeral mound, the biggest in the cemetery. On either side of the approach are buried some of his greatest contemporary followers. Names you are like to come across if you purchase Confucius’s Analytics. I had resisted purchasing it at many of the other stops in Shandong, but it just felt right at the cemetery. I had been struck, I needed a memorial. When I flip through the pages, my mind transports to the last temple before the grave, dark and dusky. It is here that I had purchased the great masters remembrance told through tales of his followers (or so I imagine).
The sun was setting, and I needed fuel. Lunch, most days is optional, which can leave quite the appetite come dinner. I headed back to town. I found a restaurant as far as I could walk away from the tourist district without collapsing. Once again, the food was fantastic. I devoured the meal of chopped up chicken in a butter sauce, and stir-fried cabbage. The belt slipped a notch and I stared off, perhaps ting dong-ing a little hau from time to time.
I made some new friends in the restaurant. Really, it is an easy thing to do. I joined them from some beers, and cigarettes. Deducing my meaning, the offered me a ride to the train station. I verified seven times that we were talking about the normal train station and not the high speed. Dui. Dui. Dui. Dui. Dui. En. I was skeptical for many reasons, but mostly the beer drinking. The knee said yes.
I got to the train station feeling a little drunk. So I bought another beer. I sat down in the station, and some young ladies started up a conversation with me. I humored them while keeping a close eye on the oversized clock situated on the center of the back wall of the tiny village train station. A train came and went, only five minutes till my departure to Taishan, where I would switch to a sleeper ticket. I walked to the one turnstile that led to the one platform, and the clerk gave me a confused look. My train had just departed. Or at least that is what I think he is saying. I turned and pointed at the clock. Bro, I got five minutes. Well, he pulled out his phone and showed me the actually time. Son of. What the… damnit China. Lessoned unfortunately learned. The fucking clock was slow.
The clerk was really helpful and took my ticket and disappeared even with my protesting. He returned with a new ticket for train due to depart in an hour. How could I explain to him what he had just done? I showed him my second ticket to Tianjin, and a confounded look spread across his face. At this point almost everyone in the train station has come up to offer their help, or gaping.
He quickly reformulated and told me to follow him. The man at the ticket office opened up his window. A few questions later, he started typing furiously. They were determined like I have never seen Chinese before. It might have been that the clerk had exchanged my first leg ticket for a nonrefundable ticket and felt like he lost face. I understood his intention and did not fault him for the 40 kuai, but was happy with the expedited service. A line started to form behind me, where at first there was none. I felt like that guy. The one with the unhappy look exuding his displeasure on his luckless compatriots. In this world, we play every role.
The tickets printed and I sprinted; my new train departed in a few minutes. The ticket office clerk had managed to find me a replacement sleeper ticket. My gramps, who had been a train ticket clerk for many years, was looking out for me. He was the man, after all, who had taken me on my first sleeper ride destined for New York City.
The halfwit at security, who had searched me half a dozen times, gave me another pat down. His colleague gave me a knowing smile. Although slightly inconvenient, I like seeing people in positions that they are suited for. The guard might not have been the smartest man around but he performed his job admirably.
The clock cost me about an hour, but earned me two new friends on the train. All told, I was extremely satisfied with Chinese rail travel service. If there is one thing you can love about China it is the thoroughness of the train network. Remember, I bought a sleeper ticket the day of, both ways, and missed a train, yet still ended up in my destination within a reasonable error.
So that was New Year’s. Probably, one of the most memorable I have had since I woke up half staggering and headed to the Browns game with my family and friends a few years past. If you are passing through Shandong, I highly recommend checking out Taishan and Qufu. Maybe, after that, if you have more time, head to Qingdao. I have heard great things, including that they sell beer in large plastic bags; straw included.