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Published: August 3rd 2010
The coach driver was insistent that this was our stop. I was less convinced. For starters it didn’t look like a bus stop. Bus stops normally have rickety shelters and old ladies discussing the price of vegetables. At the very least there should be a disaffected teenager dragging on a fag. This had nothing. In fact, casting a gaze up and down the road it appeared we weren’t in a town at all; our current location looked more like a highway. There were two lanes of traffic rumbling past in both directions, a central reservation and a hard shoulder.
The next we knew of it we were stood next to our bags contemplating our predicament as the coach door wheezed to a close and the bus spluttered off on its way. There are certain things I enjoy doing at dawn on a Thursday morning. Standing beside a highway in north-eastern China with no real idea of where we were and no clue how far our intended destination was away is not one of them. But travellers can’t be choosers I suppose.
We weren’t totally alone though, a local Chinese passenger was in the same unceremonious position. Some bungled attempts
at Chinese at least managed to establish a couple of things. Firstly that he was local to the place, and secondly that he was friendly. I asked how far to the centre of town, he didn’t know, but it was far.
About 500m of trudging down the slip way we’d been abandoned next to the situation began to reveal itself in the shape of a tollgate. The coach driver had obviously been reluctant to pay the fee for exiting the highway. However whenever China frustratingly dumps you in no man’s land it can at least be relied on to supply someone willing to clean up the mess, for a small fee of course. A black car waited the other side of tollgate, window wound down. The driver eagerly stuck his head out the window, calling to us. A small price was negotiated for the 20km ride into the middle of town. Tai'An
In my mind I had expected the town of Tai’An to be a Kendal of the Orient nestled at the foot of TaiShan - China’s most sacred mountain. While I knew a haven for cream teas and minty delicacies was too much to ask for, I
nonetheless had hopes for cosy establishments serving local green tea and plates of steaming dumplings. I should’ve known better - with crushing inevitability it is a bustling, smelly city of 800,000.
Tai’An couldn’t prepare you less for the mountain. It is flat, polluted and the permanent hazy smog and fog prevents you seeing any more than a few hundred meters. There’s no chance of being able to eye-up the towering mountain you know is towering over the place. Tai'Shan
The mountain itself, TaiShan, has 6,000 steps up. From start to finish you climb over a kilometer of vertical height. It is thus not a stroll to be taken too lightly. But this didn’t put off any of the happy community climbing along side us. The shear range of individuals was what struck me. From fathers struggling to keep up with their energetic nine-year-olds to young couples going the whole way holding hands. There were mothers carrying their new-borns in their arms and older women with sticks fastidiously taking each step one foot at a time. Then there are the old boys lugging food and drink up to the mountain top shops and eateries, with 50kg loads slung on
both ends of a stick that weighed down on the shoulders. Finally there were a smattering of foreigners, sweating away in the humid heat and slightly unexpected seriousness of the hike.
When we reached the top we were in much need of a sit down. We also needed somewhere to spend the night in order to watch the sunrise the next morning. Our situation was fully understood by the first place we ventured in - we were well and truly outsmarted. They clearly knew their market well; tired climbers in need of a rest and somewhere basic to stay for one night in order to watch the sun rise. The proprietor swung open the bedroom door. I glanced inside and saw that a bed existed. I asked the price, it was reasonable. We’ll take it. Oh, and is there a shower? The woman patted on a small room behind the door. Ensuite then, even better.
It was only as we collapsed unsatisfyingly onto the hard bed that details began to emerge. Yes there was a bed, but there was no duvet and the mattress was a little damp and smelt the same way. The room had looked clean
from the door, but anywhere out of view from the door was covered in a thick layer of dirt and cobwebs. The 3-foot square ensuite consisted of a shower over a squat toilet. It was irrelevant though, as there were no towels or toilet paper, or in fact water for that matter. Of the 13 light bulbs in the room 4 worked. The TV had 1 and a half functioning channels. We had been well and truly outmanoeuvred, but it mattered little. By having a roof it fulfilled our main need. We would’ve slept anywhere.
Alarms set for half four we arose bleary-eyed and joined the wave of tourists leaving their assorted guesthouses and heading to the peak and the mountain. There is nothing between TaiShan and the coast. On a clear day you can see 200km to the Yellow Sea. On a cloudy day you can see little as the white fog that envelops you slowly brightens as the world’s dimmer switch is gradually turned up. This was the latter. We didn’t see the sun rise on TaiShan, but we were there.
We returned to our room to continue sleeping until the day was ready to be
embraced, at the very least we wanted to get value for money.
A heavy knock on the door, I peered at my watch. Still 0744. What was this about? I stumbled out into the corridor to inspect the commotion. The owner was standing there. A pregnant pause. I looked quizzical and mumbled some incoherent nothingness. A reply was simple.
I would’ve loved to have thrown a Basil Fawlty style rage, laced with scathing sarcasm and razor sharp put downs about what exactly they needed to do with the room at 16 minutes to 8 in the morning. Hoover the carpet? Wash the towels? Lay little mints on the pillow? But it was 16 minutes to 8 in the morning so instead I grunted, and went to pick up our bags. It was time to ChuFa.
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