Sunday, August 5, 2007

Go tell it to the mountain

Up early (all of us, not just me and Ben) and on the road headed to Taishan Mountain. Before leaving I am given a gift from one of our hosts – his 16-year-old son, who wants to learn about photography and speaks a bit of English. Li has lived in Jinan his entire life, but this is his first venture to the mountain. He looks over some photos on my laptop as the bus takes us to the day’s event, but gets a little car sick (or sick of my work – I’m not sure, as he is truly puzzled at why I would take photos of so many signs). We talk a bit about his favorites:

Music: The Eagles, The Beatles and (this one took awhile to figure out as we resorted to using his cell phone that has a English-Chinese dictionary) The Carpenters.

Movies: Gone in 60 Seconds, anything else with Nicholas Cage and anything with John Wayne.

TV: Growing Pains and Knight Rider (He began to get excited about that one: “The car, Kit, he knows things and understands!” Then he pulled out his cell to show me photos of some favorite cars he has discovered. Number One? Mustang!) Although we are 30 years apart in age, somehow we share some common bonds (but I never did like Kit the talking car…Sorry, Li).

CLARIFICATION: A previous posted photo of a sign reading “Please watches the flowers outside the garden” should be translated as the following (according to my new translator Li): “Flowers and grass are smiling; you should watch them outside the garden.” Much better.

We are headed to the South Gate, which means Ladder to Heaven. There will be two ways to go. The easy way is a cable car ride to the top, then plenty of time for shopping (yes, they have MANY shops at the top) or you can take the stairs. 3,262 of them to be precise (one of the students climbed claims he counted as he went up). After a harrowing ride in a mini-bus to the halfway point, taking switchbacks at full speed and swerving side to side across the narrow patch of pavement along the hillside, we split into two groups: the smart ones and the climbers. Just go ahead and guess which one I was standing with.

Well, it starts with the first step (which for us is halfway up already) and just keeps heading into the sky. There are huts selling food, drinks and souvenirs along the way, with everyone taking a brisk start to the top. For a while I was taking two stairs at a time and feeling good, with Lee and I taking breaks to make some photos along the way. We were given two hours to make the ascent. Well, it WAS cooler than we were used to (a good thing) and except in some areas is WASN’T too crowded (also good), but this thing was steep! The steps are narrow and you feel your heel hang over if you have feet larger than a size 7 (men’s). And the steps just kept going, even when you didn’t want to.

Along the way a monk stopped me and we shook hands and then embraced. We got smiles and waves from other climbers as we all started breathing a bit heavier. Many stop along the way for a picnic in the shade or along the water running down the mountain, but we have a lunch date on the top. Now, after about 1,000 steps, we (the Fry family, Li and me, with our tour guides tagging along behind, as we are the back of the pack of Baylor climbers) notice that we need to take more breaks and are one hour into our climb. Not good, if we want to eat with our group that took the easy way up. My friend and photo-protégé Linow decides to improve his English skills by telling me every positive cliché in the book (in about another 800 steps, while I’m wheezing and trying to remember where I am, he looks at me and says, “No pain, no gain” and I about push him off the mountain). He is a great cheerleader, with something new to say with each step. Now, I’ve given up on having lunch with our gang, much less eating lunch or dinner ever, but Li insists a fine meal is prepared at top of mountain for me. Just keep going. And hurry (as the tour guides have convinced him this IS a fantastic meal and we are running late).

I am motivated by one thing: a man carrying two baskets loaded with supplies heading up the hill. We pass each other occasionally (and at one point Li suggests I have offended this man by smiling at him while walking past. “He asks, ‘Why would you smile at me?’” All I know is I need to make it to the top before a guy carrying an extra 70 pounds of stuff on his back. So what if he makes the trip daily? I have found my inspiration – to become competitive with a man weighed down.

At one point a pair of men approach us as we sit in the shade on some rocks and ask if they can carry us up to the top. They are armed with two bamboo poles and a canvas sling (not unlike those used to move a manatee or dolphin – your choice) and we are only at the halfway point for us. And the fear of having them drop us down the stairs has us dispatch them with a well-used BU YAO (but in a nice way, in case we change our minds). We keep climbing.

And climbing.
And climbing.
And stopping.
And climbing.

And wondering if we made the right choice taking the stairs, as we have now hit a clearing and can see the top. And ALL the stairs leading to it. And our necks crane upward to take in this sight, which make us doubt our continuing, but we know it’s a long way done too. And no fantastic lunch.

By now I’ve finished off some water, several green teas and an apple (that somehow tasted a lot like a pear, but still was good) and lugging around camera gear is giving me thought of leaving it along the path. I am covered in sweat on a cool day’s climb and my most positive friend is even starting to slow (in pace, not upbeat patter). We are offered items for sale that produce good luck and wealth, but I do not need any if it means carrying more stuff.

Somehow, some way, after doubting I would/could make it (Li: “You can and you will!” Me: “Things that can’t be printed here.”), I make it to the South Gate. I do stop within the last 100 stairs to pose for photos with people who ask (and take another break between steps). And the news I get upon making it to the top: The restaurant is up ahead, on the next peak.

I do make it to lunch, but by now most the food is gone, the servers are clearing off tables and the other Baylor climbers are long done. Li and I (along with our guides) eat what’s left, joining a few students who don’t want to go back out to face more stairs. And we decide, after lunch, to climb just a little bit higher, to visit the temple at the top. More stairs.

The smoke from the incense rises slowly as you enter the holy area, filled with various shrines and indications that this has been here for a very long time. We have reached a point, along the same path as emperors thousands of years before, that leaves you quiet. I marvel at the stones placed in the center of the courtyard and the feeling of stepping back in time. The peace and tranquility seem to surround this place like its stone walls. We are truly above the clouds and as close to heaven as I’ve ever been. After climbing and struggling (and a heart rate of about 200) I am now calm and feeling refreshed.

Behind the temple, following a narrow pathway, I look out in awe of my surroundings and am suddenly moved to tears. The beauty is amazing as I look out over the land below and realize my journey to China is nearly complete. I understand why all Chinese seek to visit the top of this mountain at least once in their life.

And now I must leave.

I will miss the smiles of the people that couldn’t understand a word I say, but welcome me nonetheless.
I will miss the beauty of this place, filled with the mysteries of survival and prosperity over many generations.
I will miss the bad translations that make me laugh out loud (like tonight in the airport: Waiting room for the delayed).
I won’t miss the smog or oppressive heat/humidity, both served up in a near-lethal doses.

But there is someone I am missing that makes leaving here a bit easier.

Before I leave the temple, now alone with the mountain and the sky and earth below, I make good on a promise. I say a prayer wishing God’s blessings on us all. I say a word of thanks as well. Thanks to all the travelers that went along and kept me company along this journey. Thanks to all my new friends in this distant land and those who will return to Baylor. Thanks to all who have shown support and love to me and my family now and always. And thanks for taking the time and effort in reading these words and looking at these pictures that I hope give a glimpse into this strange and wonderful place called China.

Facing east, I gather my breath in the high altitude and shout out into the heavens to Franci, so far from here, but always with me. I hear her name echo around this place for what seems like minutes then I begin my trip down, for she now must know I’m coming home.


Special thanks go to Cindy, Greg and their families, my traveling buddy Ben, Li the encourager, all the Baylor and Thunderbird students that took part in this first-year venture, the ones at home who took care of things while I traveled to the other side of the earth, the honorable people of China and you.

Until the next adventure…

Friday, August 3, 2007

China close up

Exploring Jinan

Stares greet us, as we are in Jinan with locals giving us the hard once over twice. Our host tells us not many Westerners visit this area and by the looks of folks, we might be the first. We are taken to a shrine, with spring water on display surrounded by period buildings and statues. On the bus, we are given a lesson on Confucianism and the history of this place, as if you can cover the thousands of years in a 15-minute drive. We visit the lake, walking along the banks covered with weeping willows swaying softly around us. The noticeable difference is the lack of crowds, as we have plenty of room to navigate the place. The greetings we receive seem to contain a touch of shock in them – warm and welcoming, but still a jolt of wonder in the eyes at our appearance. Only the bold approach and ask to take photos with us, with many just laughing or waving at us as if we were on parade. The Big Nose convention has hit town!

We prepare for our official government dinner (being hosted by the director of the information industry seated at position number one at the head table) by changing into a bit more formal wear while crowded into the men’s room at the hotel hosting this dinner. We are met by our host (and his staff) and enter a ballroom with dozen of people to wait upon us. After a nice introduction from the director and a Chamber of Commerce-style video touting Jinan, we are served up a complete dinner with duck, whole fish (and somehow fried fish squares like Mrs. Paul’s made it to our table too. Seemed odd to see among all the other items) and the typical trimmings of an authentic meal. We are severed up so tiny Chinese Twinkies (that’s what we called them – we have learned by now to never ask what a dish is that is placed before us, not for fear of the ingredients but the amount of time in an explanation that leaves us more puzzled) tipped in chocolate. Our entertainment is a local troupe of acrobats and the dated tunes of Mambo Number Five and some Backstreet Boys accompany the acts of children with tubes, a man juggling a pot on his head and a woman with Hula-Hoops. I am invited up to help with a magic act, waving a yellow handkerchief then cutting into the middle, as I mimic my performer. We put on a show; with a bit of dancing and silly-looking movements, and her hanky returns to its original state, while I’m peering through the whole I’ve cut. For a brief moment, I thought mine would be whole too, but no such magic for me.

More bowls and plates are presented to us until were are about to pop. The host stops by our table to offer up a toast and we leave the banquet happy and full. Leaving we are offered a view of old Chinese design on a hill top across from us, with the new architecture of the city encroaching into view.

Some students stay behind to explore the city, and we take at 20 minute ride (that turns into an hour as our driver gets lost several times, hops out to call for directions at two stops and then calls a cab we follow to our destination) back to the hotel. Along the way our guide tells us the greatest fear of Chinese people is not the heavens or the earth, but Americans speaking Chinese (his little joke to us, as his conversation the entire time is punctuated with ya-ya on a regular basis). Seems the are indeed laughing at the Big Noses and are shocked if we reply in their native tongue, in case we understood their comments. They are safe with me.

This morning we ascend a mountain and explore before leaving Jinan.


Room 507

Irony is alive and well in Room 507 in Jinan, China. After downloading some work (and I swear NO THE VIRUSES) I hurt my wrist on the shower door. Can't say they didn't warn me. I stood in fear of the shower as I faced the Caution Wet Floor sign, with the icon of a falling man next to Chinese characters. I am afraid, so very afraid...

Just to play it safe, I brush my teeth using Chinese toothpaste. That's safe, right?

PS: NO - I will not take a photo of the interior shower sign. I'm not going back in there!

In Jinan

We started off our day with what we considered a "Down Home" breakfast...if you are from Alabama. Boiled peanuts, watermelon...and rice. We are waiting for the rest of the crew (IE: students) to rise and our hotel is a nice place, but we are in the middle of an industrial park, not unlike airport hotels in the U.S. Outside my window are Pepsi and Suzuki plants, as workers are starting to stream in. Traffic is picking up and the work day is about to begin.

Sounds like a warning written by Bartles & James.

I'm sorry the last photo is so bad, but a airport security guard was yelling at me as I brought up the camera. Perhaps there is a law against bad English. It reads: For staff/VIP/First class pax/the old, weak & pregnant

We did NOT use that gate.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Off the beaten path

From the teak-colored wooden chair in the hotel lobby café, I have a clear view of the world passing by from my seat by the window. Traffic is a steady crush, cab drivers wait out front waiting on passengers and the sidewalks and road are still wet from the soaking monsoon rainstorm that passed through a few hours before. While some got caught in the clash of thunder, lighting and driving rain (and some hail too, although it is still hot here) I watched my first Chinese monsoon roll past outside a 13th floor window. I am packed up and headed out for a two-day excursion to Jinan, as our flight leaves in a few hours.

My Sprite (they serve Coke, Sprite, water or tea…with little room for variations except the tea) bubbles slowly on the table next to my new pair of Oakley sunglasses I picked up during the spree at Silk Street. The other tables have pots of tea and heavy smokers, all engaged in loud conversation while I type. While I am now secure behind the thick glass window, I did get a chance to venture out into the real China earlier in the day with Dr. Ben Kelley.

After breakfast we headed out together to discover the everyday, common places and people that fill this city, off the main streets and away from any other visitors. The morning rush hour keeps us busy watching for a safe time to cross the street and I spot a single blue umbrella passing in front of the throng of riders lined up like the start of the Indy 500 (should it be held on scooter and bikes and they all can pull up to the starting line) After safe passage, we first watch a father and child playing together in the morning light in an alley filled with bikes and scooters. The man smiles at us as we pause and we greet him with the same. I decide to follow some walkers into the next alley up ahead and we enter a small neighborhood; we pass a pair of women washing their laundry in a small tub on the front stoop. Yes, we catch some strange looks at first, as if we are lost. But we are greeted warmly with waves, smiles and the feeling of discovering a hidden layer of the city. While I move closer to take a portrait of a woman, fanning herself in a plastic chair outside her home, her small dog begins barking, sending her cat into the open doorway. She motions to me to come closer, I show off her photo, now on display on the display screen of my camera and we play a really bad game of charades, where she either tells me the number of pets she has (my first guess), her age (maybe…) or something having to do with numbers. My luck would be she was telling me winning lottery numbers she saw in a vision, but no way I am going to figure this out.

We wander past a seafood market (ok, not so much a market but more like a tiny booth) with fish heads, eels and other delights, which shoppers and shopkeepers engaged in verbal battle. The crowds are shopping for their daily food, or perhaps some breakfast cooked up along the street. We go inside a dark building with booths filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, along with a sundy of animal parts on display. If it can be removed, it’s fore sale.

Along our journey we encounter people that are willing to pose for a photo, if only fleeting. Many laugh with us as we show off the photos, eliciting hugs, hand shakes or the international thumbs-up. After combing the alleys we end up on Jiashan Road and I notice a barber that has set up on the sidewalk near a large, red phone booth, with tufts of hair scattered nearby on the ground. My explorer partner decides he needs a haircut, and sits down in the chair. The barber gets out his tools, and starts to go to work, with people walking by between snips. A washcloth sits in a large silver bowl partially filled with water. The cut includes a close shave, and as the barber produced the single blade razor, Ben didn’t even flinch. I was kind of jealous I didn’t have enough hair for a cut too.

Another turn to the left and we end up in the middle of a market place that is bustling with people. Seems we decided to venture out on the busiest shopping day of the week. You can spot chickens, ducks and other poultry in all forms of life and death. The combination of smells and the intense heat of the day create a sensation that is hard to describe. Each step brings a new odor or fragrance, depending on your direction. We are soaked in sweat by now, as most of the locals are as well. The piles of rotten fruits and vegetables mix with other trash to create a walking hazard. A woman takes a handmade broom with long strands of straw to sweep her pile to the other side of the street. And we keep walking.

I happen to notice a store filled with colorful paper goods and have been searching for “red bags” (Hong hao) to bring back for Mrs. Burns’s kindergarten class to help celebrate Chinese New Year. I enter and apply my best Mandarin skills and hand them the piece of paper my teacher had written out for me. I get a nodding head and we begin to pick through a good choice of bags, all adorned with different images and characters. I need 50 and even get some play money to put in each one, as the bags are given as gifts and always include cash inside. I have a sense of pride, speaking my tiny phrases and being able to find these on my own (mostly).

Heading back to the hotel, my companion and I realize we had ventured off the beaten path of Starbucks and other comforts of home and had experienced the real China. And we have a haircut and some red bags to prove it.

Just a short follow after that long read: Greg, Ben and I extend our authentic adventure by passing on lasagna with the group and find a Szechwan place. We were taught some favorite dishes in Mandarin and now order them with flair. I worry that the servers laugh in our face and the subtler gather in the corner to point and snicker at our dinner requests. We can handle ordering a Coke, and I stick with the standby Kung Po Chicken. The tables are sort of like a southern BBQ joint – polyurethane pine picnic tables and benches pushed together, with the difference being pots of tea and chopsticks.

We knew we would be getting some hot food, and even try to persuade the waitress to tell someone we want the two-pepper level. Once the food starts being served, the dishes are filled with all sorts of fire producing and we are still hoping for something Texas hot, but not too bad…

After a few bites some begin to cough. I look across the table to look at a sweat-covered face, as if he was made of wax and then put into an oven for a slow, painful melt. My nose starts to run and I begin to lose clear vision. I notice the cook having a broad smile as he stands off near the back. Our server just smiles as she passes, making sure we don’t combust. More wheezing and a more prominent choking couch now comes to our table. We are still trying to talk about the quality of the food (it WAS good…just a bit out of my range in intensity, but the sweat is now pouring off us all and my sight is dimming. I then mistake a hot pepper for a mushroom and my gums start to bleed (well, maybe not, but that might have felt better). I let out a gasp and we are all laughing at our authentic experience. This is real China once again. It was just not as sweet as my first taste.

About one Pepsi, a pot of tea and then a bottle of cold tea on the walk back and I begin to regain feeling in my tongue.

Next time we’ll order the one-pepper special.