Two weeks ago, John and I were in a foreign bookstore again (I know, always a dangerous place to be when you’re with a bibliophile like John). Since Sue and Troy’s visit to Shanghai in early July, John had been feeling a bit disappointed about our limited travels in China. When we passed our eight-month mark at the beginning of August, we knew something had to be done: only Beijing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou were checked off our list. With renewed vigor, John searched far and wide for a new book to push us out and beyond Shanghai. [Btw, for potential China travelers: LP China is a shitty source (smug author Damien what’s-his-name SUCKS!)]. John’s latest China pick? World Heritage Sites in China– a gorgeous pictorial focusing on 28 cultural relic sites and natural landscapes in China. What the hell is “World Heritage”, you ask? The phrase certainly raised my eyebrows in skepticism. Actually, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization UNESCO World Heritage program is pretty cool. Having seen so many sites in China that are mere replicas of their magnificent, ancient originals (previous governments failed to recognize and preserve their value to humanity), I only wish this international treaty calling for the preservation of cultural/natural sites was established sooner. Anyway, the book was so convincing that within days we began plotting our journey to Shandong province–home of the famed, sacred Mount Tai.
As always, the trip planning was exhausting and frustrating. So many times, I came close to calling the trip off. But opportune moments shouldn’t be wasted: SABIC canceled class (again), and it was just time to venture beyond SH. After two days on the phone checking airfares and researching transportation and lodging options, we got on the road. For the first time, we flew domestically. Luckily, many domestic flights go out of Hongqiao airport, conveniently located just 15 minutes from our apartment. Once again, John and I packed light– just one backpack per person (yes, this is worth mentioning– we’ve come a long way in that respect): check-in was a breezy 15 minutes to the gate. It’s nice not having to suffer through security measures like those in the US.
Our flight (Shandong Air) was a painless one. We arrived in Ji’nan, the capital of Shandong province in less than two hours. We hopped on a public bus (destination unknown)–the only one parked outside the small terminal. I asked a few people where precisely the bus would drop us off in the city, but no one knew or cared. Ji’nan was a bustling, dusty city. The airport was a good 40 minutes outside downtown. There was a lot of noise and construction, and I remember the ride was very bumpy. Finally, we were dumped off at some random hotel. Next, we got in a cab and headed for the train station. Across the station, we bought tickets for Tai’an, a city 80 km south and home to Mount Tai. Lonely Planet (LP) said the mini-bus was preferred over the public bus. Well, not our mini-bus. The experience was similar to our Beijing bus trip: worse in quality (they turned the AC off after 10 minutes, the vehicle had exhaust issues, and it was packed–with some people sitting on crappy stools in the aisle) but shorter in suffering. John sat in the front next to a street kid (maybe only about 7-10 years old) who rattled off to him in Chinese. I was crammed in the back row and received the least amount of air anywhere on the bus. The 90-minute ride, through what seemed like the dust bowl of China, offered disturbing glimpses of the countryside. Naked young children played in the dirt along this major road while farther down, women– dressed in their sexiest outfits–tried to coax drivers into stopping for the night. We saw fields, streams, and livestock. Herders managing their goats, sheep, or oxen; people bathing in the dirty surface waters along the road. It was bizarre.
We finally arrived in downtown Tai’an around 6:30pm. At that point, I had to call and book a hotel. Fortunately, Ctrip (the Chinese, inefficient version of Travelocity) was helpful this time and by 7pm, we were in our hotel room. After a short break, we went out on the streets again– looking for food. After wandering around, we randomly picked a place to eat. We ordered a chicken dish, which John said tasted good initially. Then, he noticed the meat texture was different– not like chicken. He stopped and we both lost our appetites. You see, a few months ago, my friend Helen emailed this file documenting a street vendor’s process of preparing a “chicken” dish starting with dead rats as the meat ingredient. Both John and me started seeing these unpleasant images, and dinner was over soon after that. On the way back to the hotel, we strolled through a night market. I was harassed by a beggar child who grabbed my shirt and just wouldn’t let go. It was not a pleasant end to the night.
The next day, John and I got up early. First stop: Dai Temple in Tai’an. Actually, it didn’t do much for me, because I was preoccupied. World Heritage site or not, I really wasn’t up for climbing Mount Tai–a 1,545-meter high mountain, ascended by many ancient emperors to worship the gods and give sacrifices. Four hours later, John and I made it to the summit. Supposedly, those who climb Mount Tai will live 100 years! We’ll see. The 10-km climb, albeit paved with stone steps the entire way, took John and me about four hours. It was exhausting. The moutain air was wonderful and we were so high up, the air was the best we’ve had over here. Still, the sun was merciless and some parts were so steep.
Strangely, vendors and little side shops lined much of the path. Their goods are all carried up manually. It is absolutely insane, especially since there’s a bus route to the halfway point and cable cars to the summit. But I guess China can afford to do inefficient, ridiculous things when there is an unlimited supply of cheap labor. John and I encountered several human beasts of burden on our ascent, and all we could do was get out of the way and stare in both shock and horror. The men ranged in age, although it’s difficult to say with certainty how old they were: manual laborers often look older than they are. They had dark tanned skin. Their bodies were slim yet very muscular, especially their calves and their necks. They carried their loads of melons, eggs, apples and such tied on each end of a 2-inch wide wooden beam. Without pads or cushions, the beams were set behind their necks on their lat muscles. Every several steps, they would switch sides, moving the weight from one lat muscle to the other. These men ascended a a slow and steady pace. Their shoes were the shittiest shoes in the world– probably just one step up from flipflops. Each step was careful and calculated. After watching these men, I stopped all my complaining immediately.
We reached the Mount Tai summit around 1pm. For 70 USD, we got a room at the Shenqi Hotel, located at the mountaintop. Our room was dark, dank, and musty with beds harder than nails and limited hot water (8-10pm), but John and I were just happy for a place to lie down. We awoke around dinnertime. Ate some mediocre foods at the hotel restaurant and then went back to bed. Got a wakeup call around 4:30 am to watch the famous Mount Tai sunrise. Unfortunately, the morning was completely foggy and there was absolutely nothing to see. Oh well, we were due for some uncooperative weather. We rode the cable car down the mountain to the halfway point. The descent to Zhong Tian Men (Middle Gate) took 10 minutes. Then, we hopped on a bus, again headed for some unknown destination in Tai’an city. From there, we cabbed over to the train station and got tickets to the port city of Qingdao.
The train ride was supposed to take 4.5 hours, according to LP. Our journey took 8. Yup, our entire Saturday was spent playing musical chairs on the train. After realizing at 5 hours that the trip was going to take an eternity, I finally caved and used the train potty. It was disgusting. Really disgusting. And I used research solid waste landfills so waste is not supposed to faze me! As the train ride went on, I witnessed people spitting on the train floor and watched the train crew’s tidy up: collect all garbage; open the tilt window; place garbage on the window; slam the window, slinging the garbage along the train tracks. Yeah, just ignore the bright sign inside the train which says NOT to throw garbage out the window. Argh!!! No wonder China has all kinds of pollution problems (including non-potable water).
Qingdao was a really cool city. The second largest port city in China (Shanghai is the first), QD is home of Tsingtao beer. The place has a totally different feel than anywhere else we’ve been in China. Historically, it was colongized by the Germans– they built the brewery. The architecture is very hodge-podge but clearly shows more western influences. There are six beaches in Qingdao and all of them are against the stunning backdrop of rocky mountains. What a refreshing change QD was: clean air, wide roads. The only downside is that QD covers a lot of area, and the only form of public transportation is bus. Plus, because of the mountains, bikes aren’t very popular. For the most part, John and I got around by cab. We went to one of the beaches– it was unexpectedly clean; the sand was dark brown; and the water was warm and clear. The beach was really crowded, but people appeared to be enjoying themselves. It was nice to see the Chinese in a different setting. There was a lot to see in QD, but unfortunately, John and I were pretty tired. We wasted a lot of time traveling from one end of the city to the other (LP really screwed us over in QD), and then today it was pouring rain. Luckily, John and I got to enjoy the beach, see the coastline, and swim some at the hotel pool (contrary to what he’s always told me, John can actually swim a little!). Today, traveling back to SH was a bit tiresome because of the heavy rains, but it’s okay. I want to take my parents to Qingdao. I think they’d like the instant gratification of having the mountains and sea so close. Plus, QD is very clean; it has a new international airport (the sailing component of the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be in QD); and the seafood is excellent. Oh, just so happens, QD was having its annual International Beer Festival this week. John and I had the good fortune of seeing the Chinese in a festival/carnival setting. That was interesting. At least John got his roasted sandwich fix. Meanwhile, I got a good look at a roasting pig.