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 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…