We arrived in Tai'An in the wee morning hours of September 15 after taking the overnight train from Beijing. It was our first experience with "hard sleepers" and on the advice of our hotel in Beijing, we had booked 2 hard sleepers with the idea that the boys would climb in with us to sleep. Hard sleepers are the budget option of sleepers and the cars consist of doorless compartments with 6 sleepers stacked 3 deep in each compartment. The sleepers are padded,and are about 6 feet long by 2 feet wide -- adequate but not roomy -- and come equipped with pillow, towel and blankets. Each compartment is provided with a huge thermos filled with boiling water; everyone seems to carry their own mug and tea and it appears that the commuter mug business is alive and well in China! Across from the bunks, are windows, flip-down seats and small tables for the people occupying the upper bunks. Overtop of these, about 7 feet above the ground, are the luggage racks which sorely test our biceps every time we have to put our packs on them. Previous experience had prompted us to bring a flexible bike lock and padlock to weave through the packs and ultimately lock to the rack to avoid our luggage seeing parts of China without us. We had two bottom sleepers which turned out to be a bit squishy for 4 of us.
We arrived bleary-eyed in Tai'An, as the night had been filled with many unfamiliar noises (hawking, coughing, spitting, snoring, talking, eating, laughing, singing) and smells (let's just not go there!) which made for restless sleep. To our delight, the inexpensive hotel we had booked from Beijing was a lovely hotel largely populated with Chinese tour groups and with a cavernous dining room where they had a Chinese breakfast buffet. It was a treat for us to sample some traditional Chinese breakfast foods (although congee, a soupy porridge made from various grains, gives me the willies) as well as enjoy good old toast, jam, and our perennial favourite, steamed buns!
Qufu (pronounced "choo-foo"), the home of Confucius and his descendants, was a bumpy 2 hour bus ride from Tai'An. Confucius was a philosopher and a teacher who lived about 2500 years ago. He never wrote his ideas down nor did he profit from his teachings in his lifetime. However, his disciples and descendants collected his teachings and spread his word throughout China and North Asia, elevating Confucius to near-godlike status. The descendants of Confucius, the Kong family, were also elevated to near-royal status and the emperor regularly prayed at Qufu for prosperity for the nation. Around 52 generations of decendants of Confucius lived at Qufu in the most luxurious of mansions outside of the Forbidden City. Confucius' main tenets were respect for elders/superiors/authority and ancestor worship. Although these philosophies have influenced Chinese culture for centuries, Confucius fell out of favour during the Mao years, and indeed it has been alluded to that the Kong family went underground during the Cultural Revolution and have only recently resurfaced to claim their name. The temple and family mansion at Qufu have been restored and the teachings of Confucious are now being actively supported once again.
Our other main activity at Tai'An was climbing Tai Shan. One of our main purposes in visiting the Tai'An area was to climb the most revered of the 5 holy Taoist mountains, Tai Shan. At 1545m above sea level, Tai Shan receives hordes of pilgrims every year who worship the Taoist deity The Princess of the Azure Clouds at the many temples enroute. There are several ways to get to the summit including various bus and cable car options, but we opted to try to climb ourselves. The route consists of 6,660 stone steps interspersed with stone walkways; it covers 7.5 km and has a net elevation gain of 1200 meters. We started out on a cool, misty morning; the way was lined with shops, food vendors, temples and calligraphy and the going was quite pleasant. It was interesting to see how the vendors seemed to be tailoring their wares to your needs on the trail. At the trailhead, umbrellas and walking sticks were for sale. About half an hour up the trail, just when you might be noticing that your gear wasn't up to the climb, shoes, backpacks and shorts were available. After that, food and water seemed to be the focus while by the half-way point, religious articles seemed to have come to the fore -- perhaps climbers needed divine inspiration at this point?? Every hour we stopped for a break, munching on chocolate, nuts and downing bottles of water.
By the half way point, we were surprised at how well we were feeling. Snubbing the cable car option at the point (our mantra became "cable cars are for wusses") we headed into the second half of the climb in the full knowledge that it would be much much steeper and cover less ground (we had already covered 5 of the 7.5 km by the half way point). The staircases became longer and steeper; the final hour was basically one long, steep and virtually uninterrupted staircase. We resorted to counting steps to keep focus and finally, finally after 4 long hours we made it to the summit -- even little 4 year old Robin. It was a great victory for the family and we are very proud of our two little mountain goats who kept excellent pace.
We succumbed to wuss-dom and took the Austrian-made cable car down. It was a long and breath-taking journey, both because of the scenery and also because Dan and I were questioning our judgement in taking the cable car all the way down -- it was a VERY long way down! What a day!
We are off tomorrow to Luoyang by overnight train. Check the next installment to see how we have made out.
Bye for now
Faye, Dan, and the honorary mountain goats -- Adrian and Robin!