“Ummm…” I replied. My non-committal response designed to allow me to procrastinate a little and consider my options, and decide whether I would trust this person. My recent big city conditioning left me reluctant to trust a stranger and I decided to take a taxi instead. The girl looked a little dismayed that I would turn down the offer, and this vision was burned into my mind as I sped away in the taxi.
The temple complex of Dai Miao is the starting point for the Tai Shan pilgrimage. It is one of only three structures in China modeled on the Imperial Palace, and was once upon a time a bustling town. Today, within its walls, apart from the muffled exclamations of the visitors, there is nothing but the harking of crows and chirping of sparrows to interrupt the silence. Stone statues of bixi, mythical tortoise-like creatures, stand throughout the complex with their sharp fangs and stirring eyes, demanding that even the casual wanderer stop to heed the message carved into the stelae on their backs. The bixi are both protectors and messengers for eternity. The faithful, cloaked in white, prayed in silence before clouds of incense. I shed my shoes and did the same. I took my time at Dai Miao, visiting the centerpiece, Tian Zhu – the Palace of Heavenly Blessings which was built in 1008, and sought out the ancient trees in the complex.
I left Dai Miao and started up Pan Lu, the tree lined Pilgrim’s Path to the summit. Soon after, I noticed that I was keeping stride with a young member of the Red Army. He was lean, sharp, and amiable, and within a short time we were making attempts at a basic conversation. My Mandarin was too poor for anything but the basic formalities, and soon we were walking along in an easy silence, content to use gestures to point out interesting sights, or for my friend to demonstrate the protocol at shrines. He bought a red ribbon souvenir for us both which we tied around our necks.
Along the path we came across a young woman struggling with her cargo of plastic shopping bags stuffed with goods to be sold at the kiosk she worked at further up the mountain. The bags were cutting into her hands, turning her fingertips purple, and she only too gladly handed them over to myself and my Red Army friend to carry. The path became steeper, and changed into steep, shallow steps – too thin for my big western feet. These thousands of steps twisted and turned up the mountainside, forcing pilgrims to stop and rest at intervals. Seeing that I found climbing these steps a bit awkward, my army friend demonstrated the best technique for ascending these stairs. In short, you