Tai Shan, in the Shandong province, is a sacred mountain. Sacred mountains are a landmark in China. We do have sacred mountains in Italy too, for the Christian religion, but here in China there are sacred mountains of Taoism (Tai Shan, Hua Shan, Nan Heng Shan, Bei Heng Shan, Song Shan) and of Buddhism (Wutai Shan, Emei Shan, Jiuhua Shan, Putuo Shan)[1]. Since different philosophies and religions were prevalent in the same place at different times, it is not uncommon to find buddhist evidence in Taoist holy mountains, and the other way around.

Tai Shan is the most famous and most climbed among China's holy mountains. Today it is a week-day so, thankfully, the crowd is bearable.
Later in my travel I will visit 2 other sacred mountains of Taoism: Bei Heng Shan and Hua Shan.

At the beginning of the ascent I stop at the Tourist Bureau, looking for a map in English. Despite their feverish endeavours, the employees can't find any. I continue my ascent towards the first temples. Once at the Guandi Temple:

I am reached by one of the ladies of the Tourist Bureau, which is some hundred metres away by now. She holds a map in English and tells me, breathless: "We managed to find one, it's for you".

I am alone for the first part of the ascent, which gives me the chance to focus on the interesting places along the way, such as the Red Gate Palace:

and the Doumu Palace:

I also take the diversion to the Stone Sutra Valley, which has amazing buddhist stone inscriptions:

From time to time the way offers surprising views like this:

and especially this:

While I wonder what it may be, I meet some young boys and girls who are going along the same way. They speak a bit of English. They explain to me that those stripes are worn around the head while climbing the holy mountain. And before I can say anything they buy me one and knot it around my head. As if it were not enough, they insist on taking me a picture with my camera:

They are exceedingly nice. We continue the climbing together and, half-way, they even offer me the meal. I am embarassed and I'd like to pay at least for my share, but they answer that, since I am a foreigner, I am their guest: it's a Chinese tradition. Here are two of them:

They come from Qingdao, a beautiful town in the Shandong province, a former German concession which still retains some German characters like its architecture and the best beer in China, the Tsingtao (this is again Qingdao, written in the Chinese Postal Map Romanization instead of Pinyin). The town is off-track with respect to my planned itinerary, so I won't be able to visit it. In 2008 it's going to host the sailings in the Olympic Games.

We get to Halfway Gate to Heaven:

and to the steepest part of the climb:

Some steps bear the height:

We get to the South Gate to Heaven:

which completes most of the way. Going through the amazing Tian Jie:

we finally get to the top, interspersed with holy places:

You can really feel the special atmosphere of this mountain and its history: several emperors climbed it in search of heaven's recognition to their rule.

I stare at a huge stone with an inscribed writing which, of course, I do not understand. All around a herd of visitors are trying to take pictures. My new friends tell me that this stone is very important but unfortunately I do not understand why. I am taken a picture by the stone:

Unfortunately the fellows are tired and they go down with the cable car, so our ways part. On the way back I am stopped, from time to time, by Chinese asking me if I can take a picture. This is not uncommon for a foreigner in China, and it will frequently happen to me for the rest of my journey. Initially I thought they wanted me to take them a picture, but then I realized that they want to take a picture together!! When you answer that it is ok, they are as happy as a king.

Well, it's been a while since I came to China, so it's the right time to face some of the common-places which are often heard of in Europe about Chinese people:

  • They are yellow: false. Their skin is, on the overage, a bit darker than ours, but they are not yellow at all. White skin is considered an indication of beauty for women, so it's not uncommon to meet some shielding from the sun with their umbrella.
  • They are short: on the average they are a bit shorter than us, but not so much. And there are exceptions: a notable example is Yao Ming
  • They use chopsticks for eating but they will shortly get used to fork, knife and spoon: the first is true, the second is false. They use chopsticks, period. There is a strangely-shaped spoon for soups, but I have yet to see knives and forks.
  • They are slender because eating with chopsticks takes a lot of time and they get tired of it before being full: false. They are so quick with chopsticks: quite a sight!!
  • They spell 'l' instead of 'r': true. It's so hard for them to say r. And saying 'Carlo' is a real torture.
  • They are a lot: true. Towns on the east coast are incredibly over-populated and you can experience it everywhere you go.
  • They look very much alike: false. Even my eye, unused to the oriental look, can tell them apart. The only common trait is black, straight hair. Other than that, there are differences in the nose shape (straight or flattened, never aquiline like mine), in the cheek-bones, in the colour of the eyes (brown or black) and in the lips (fleshy, normal, thin).
  • They speak Chinese but they are adopting English very quickly: false. If anything, the opposite is happening in some places like the ex-colonies (Hong Kong and Macau), where Chinese has already become the most widely spoken language. Moreover, as it is difficult for us to learn oriental languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean, so it's difficult for them to learn western languages. Last, it's worth mentioning that there is not one Chinese language: different parts of China speak a different language. The Chinese Government tried to establish one official Chinese language (the Mandarin, the Chinese language spoken in Beijing, is the official language in China), but differences are here to stay. It's possible, albeit not certain, that English will prevail as the language for business.
  • Since they eat dog meat, they don't love animals. This seems to me one of the many lies of our press on China (and not only on China: speaking bad about a foreign country gets a lot of attention, without running too much risk to go to court, unlike what would happen by speaking bad about a local celebrity). First of all, dog meat is served only in a limited number of provinces, and even there it is more the exception than the norm. During my travel not only I have never eaten it, but also I have never seen it in menus or on sale in shops. I can also say that I have seen dogs fondled and taken for a walk in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and many other places. Last: we eat horse meat, don't we? And the horse is as clever and sensitive an animal as a dog, isn't it? So what?

I get down to Tai'an, the town at the foot of the mountain. I am not in time to visit its most famous temple, so I have to do with a look from the outside:

»While I walk in the town I take a curious look at the entrance ticket for Tai Shan and I realize that it comes with an insurance. Terms and conditions are also written in English so I read that "The insurance company is to pay...the insurance money to the policy holder for deformity or death caused by unexpected injury and medical expenses needed", as if "medical expenses" along with "unexpected injury", can be one of the causes of "deformity or death". A freudian slip on the real quality of the Chinese medical system?
The English translation also says: "In case of ambiguous (?!) between Chinese version and English version, Chinese version shall prevail" - I hope the Chinese version is better .

While I walk quietly along the pavements I catch the attention of every taxi driver passing by. As soon as they see me, they ring the horn thinking that I need a lift. This will happen again and again later in my journey. What a strange attitude: by my mentality, if I need a taxi I am the one who takes action and calls it. Here, to the contrary, the taxi driver rings the horn all the time, for good measure. Some even stop, and they go on ringing the horn until you are very explicit in saying that you do NOT need it. In this particular case I do need a lift, because the train station is too far away to be reached on foot. I go on walking until I run into a taxi driver who does not ring the horn: I stop him and I go with him at the train station .

»Night train to Beijing: usual crowd at the station and chock-full train as usual. Nonetheless, I am lucky and I have a bed. Yes, because in China the ticketing system is naïve, to say it gently. Let's say you have to go from A to B by train. You are allowed to make the ticket only in A. If you are on travel, like me, this is a huge problem: I stay in a place for at most a couple of days, and this is the only time window I have to make the ticket for the next stage. But at that point it may be too late, because the train may be fully booked by then. The ticketing system is computerized so, I wonder, why does it have this enormous limitation? When I travelled in Russia in 2005 I was able to make the tickets from everywhere for trains leaving for any other place (and Russia is large...), as many days in advance as I liked. Why aren't Chinese able to offer a similar service? I am still unable to answer this question. When I asked, I have been answered "We know this is a big problem in the Chinese railway system". The sentence is true, but meaningless.
Ticketing system apart, night trains are good:

lights are turned off early and usually you can sleep well. Unless in your compartment you happen to have the bore. It goes like this: at 3 AM you wake up all of a sudden, hearing noise and heart-rending screams. You think a disaster is taking place on the carriage, but that's not the case: the moron in the bed under yours is simply looking at a violent scene of a movie with a portable device of some sort. Obviously without headset. Mobile phones are other sources of noise and, generally speaking, I did not get the feeling that people take the pain not to disturb the others.

  1. ^ Yes, you guessed right: Shan means Mountain in Chinese