Have you ever wondered what it would be like to climb up a never ending staircase for five hours straight, scaling 300+ floors and 7000+ tiny, excessively steep stone steps? Well, it is absolutely amazing what the human body can accomplish, and something I never thought I would be able to do until this weekend when I climbed Taishan 泰山 (or Mt. Tai), the tallest mountain in Shandong Province.
The story goes that if one climbs from the very bottom to the very top of Taishan, one will live a hundred years. It seems my fate is sealed (spoiler alert), and the next 76 years of my life loom before me, waiting to be filled with other such feats of physical prowess.
My friends Misti, Cindy, Tamsyn, and I woke up early Saturday morning (5am) to catch a high speed train out of Qingdao to the neighboring city of Tai’an, about a three hour journey. We came laden with tons of water and snacks, wide eyed and bushy tailed, ready to take on Taishan and it’s fabled steps of terror.
Of course, Saturday was the first day it rained in our part of the world “in like 500 months” (as a friend so eloquently put it), and we found ourselves disembarking the train in Tai’an to an overcast, foggy morning. Luckily, it wasn’t so cold (yet), and we warmed up quickly once we began to hike.
Hiking Taishan is a national past time in China, and because of the rain and the fact that it was NOT a holiday weekend, there were relatively few hikers.
Keep in mind that when I say relatively few, I am referring to China, and believe me, this is relatively few for this kind of activity in China. There is a famous saying in Chinese (人山人海) which translates to “people mountain people sea” and can be used to describe the insane amount of people that often clump together when in China. Thankfully, we did not experience that so much on the way up.
As the only foreigners on the mountain, we were bound to make new friends, and Jackie, the Chinese guy in the top right of the above picture, befriended us and accompanied us up the mountain. He was very helpful and friendly, and spoke excellent English. We also were asked to be in many photos with other random tourists, despite being soaking wet and looking really rough.
At this point in our lives in China, we are used to the attention. The four of us can speak decent Chinese, and so we often shocked Chinese tourists around us who were blatantly talking about us. One of my favorite things to pull when someone points and says 外国人 (foreigners!) is to look around excitedly and shout 在哪儿?! (where?!). The confused looks are priceless.
The hike up was five long, grueling hours of endless stairs in the cold and rain, as China does not believe in or understand the concept of switchbacks. Sane people could take a bus to the mid point, and the most sane of all could take a cable car to the top from there. But they won’t be living to 100 years old.
Though the fog did obscure the view, it also lent a sense of mystery to the ancient mountain with its temples and history.
All the way up the mountain there are vendors selling food and drinks. I can’t imagine having to hike up to work every day. It gives me a new appreciation for that kind of dedication.
When we reached the top we were soaking wet, cold, and exhausted, but triumphant.
The wind was insanely cold and driving, and we quickly scurried to our hotel, dropped into our room, and were asleep by 9:30.
At 4:30am we received a friendly wakeup knock and shout from the hotel staff. Taishan is famous for its sunrises. The THING to do is to start hiking at midnight and reach the top for a 5:20am sunrise, and then hike back down. Since we aren’t THAT insane, we decided to hike during the day, spend the night, and get up for the sunrise, which only can be seen 4/10 days.
Bleary eyed, we stumbled into the darkness and joined hundreds of other weary hikers to shuffle up the remaining kilometer or so to the peak. It felt as if we had been transported back to the time of Mao’s Long March or some kind of war time sojourn as not only were we trudging in semi formation in the cold and dark, but the hotels rented coats which were all forest green with brass buttons and looked excessively communist.
Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, and we were blessed to be able to have a front row seat to a gorgeous sunrise from the peak of Taishan.
Backed by 500 of our best communist military friends.
We sang Amazing Grace as the sun spread over the horizon, illuminating the mountains and lakes below.
It was freezing at the peak, so after about 45 minutes we hiked back down to our hotel to eat breakfast and warm up before starting the strenuous hike back down. Of course, we HAD to try on the amazing coats.
Sunday was warm and clear, and we were finally able to enjoy the views from the mountain.
Hiking down is often worse than hiking up, but we were comforted by the beauty of the day.
We also made friends with three Chinese, two guys and a girl, who were in their early twenties, and who joined us for the duration of our hike down. They didn’t speak any English so we spent a lot of time speaking Chinese, which was difficult while hiking, and brought even more gawks from passing hikers. But we had a lot of fun together.
The guy on the far right is in the Chinese army, and he offered to carry my backpack for the last 45 minutes of the hike, which was really nice and I seriously needed the help at that point as my legs were hardly holding me up.
Just above the halfway point, I heard an all too familiar cry of Rachel 老师! (Rachel teacher!) and whipped around in disbelief to see one of my students with her family hiking up. It seems even China is not as big as I once thought.
The hike down took around 4 hours, and by the time we reached the bottom we were thoroughly exhausted, our legs like jello. We ate at the first restaurant we saw, fell into a taxi, rolled our way through the train station, and collapsed onto the train where we alternated between sleeping and having hyper, exhaustion-driven, overly-animated conversations.
I have never been so tired in my entire life, nor so proud of myself for accomplishing such an insane task–10 hours of hiking, 622+ floors, and 14,000+ steps. No matter how exhausted I was on the trip, the company was more than I could ask for, and so we were going to have a good time no matter what. I am so thankful for amazing friends who love to do the same things I do, and are willing to join in the insanity for the sake of adventure.
Post-trip we bonded even more as we are all having trouble walking normally, let alone taking flights of stairs because are legs are insanely sore. But hey, at least we will live to be 100.