By David Rutter
“What is your English name?” I asked.
“Yo-yo. My English teacher gave me the name”, she replied.
“Well, what name would you like? What is your Chinese name?”
“Well”, I said, “Zhu sounds like the English name Sue. And Sue is short for Susan or Suzanne”.
“I like Suzanne”.
“Well, good, Suzanne, that can be your new English name”.
There are five Sacred Taoist Peaks in China, and Tai Shan is the most revered of them. It is the place where the first emperor of China, Qi Shi Huang stood and proclaimed the unity of the empire. Chairman Mao stood on its peak and announced “the East is Red”. Confucius, who lived in nearby Qufu, observed that “the world is small” from the summit. Each year, many Chinese make the pilgrimage to the mountain, climb its 6,293 “Official Mountain Walkway Steps”, and stand on the peak at 1545 metres. I had decided to leave Beijing, where I was living at the time, and make the pilgrimage too. This journey was meant to be a chance for me to experience the open air outside of a big city, but by the journey’s end I would meet people like Zhu, who would show me just how hospitable the Chinese people can be.
My starting point for this trip was Beijing. The train departed in the morning, and weaved its way out of the large flat city, and through the countryside. Tai An is the closest town to Tai Shan, and I arrived there late in the afternoon. Having found a hotel I set out to explore the city on foot. As I ambled around the dusty streets many of the locals called out to me – “Hello!” they’d call out, and then turn shyly away.
On the morning of the climb I went to a local supermarket to buy food for the day. Water, iced green tea, and feather-light brioche were my selections. Finding a local map, I set off walking to the mountain. Walking is a great way to see a city, especially in China where most people don’t own a car. I found a park that I had assumed would be the Dai Miao temple which lies at the base of the mountain – but soon a local student on her pushbike pointed out that I was a long way off course.
“Dai Miao is over here”, the student said, pointing at a location on the map far from where we were. “I can take you there“.
“On your bike?” I asked, as she was pointing at the flimsy rack on the rear of the bike.
“Yes, of course”.