We passed through the Southern Gate of Heaven, and the world opened up around us. We were past the trees, and now the view of the summit and the world below captured our thoughts. We climbed even more steps, and finally reached the summit, where we posed for a celebratory photograph, and went about exploring.
At sunset, the soldier, who had accommodation elsewhere on the mountain, said his goodbyes, and Yvone and Zhu invited me to share a room with them and the young couple. This time I readily accepted the invitation. Our shared experience climbing the mountain together had sown the seeds of a bond between us, and I was able throw off the wariness I had developed in Beijing. I reflected on the morning’s encounter with the girl on the bike – and winced at the image of her dismayed face now burned into my memory. I had a sense that this was to be a special journey for me.
We found a hotel, and I got a great shock when Yvone told me the price, 18 kwai. Surely she meant 80 kwai?
“18 yuan”, she repeated, using the formal term for the currency. How could I knock back a bed in a room for only $3 (Australian dollars)? The money bought us a room with 3 single beds and a bathroom. The five of us fitted into the room. Just. After a dinner of local food, accompanied by a glass of warm water (which seemed to be the norm in Shandong province), it was early to bed.
Our Tai Shan experience continued again at 4:30am the next morning, when a knock at the door was the call for us to awake to see the sunrise. The hotel loaned us thick, heavy, ex-military overcoats and we were taken to the viewing point to see the spectacular sunrise. On this particular morning however, the top of the mountain was enveloped by thick clouds and we could see nothing but each other shivering in the cold. We gave up on the sunrise, and decided instead to visit the Temple of The God of Tai Shan.
The Temple of the God of Tai Shan, shrouded in mist as it was on this morning, demonstrated just why Tai Shan holds such a special place in Chinese hearts. The climax of the journey is the lighting of incense, and the clamping of a gold padlock at a rail in the temple. Yvone placed one here. You can place a padlock for any number of reasons – for family, for prosperity, for loved ones – the ceremony of clamping a padlock is a symbolic gesture for locking your wishes in place. I did not ask the reason for her placing a padlock here – the look on her face told me that she had performed an act of great significance for herself.
Our breakfast that morning, sitting on plastic stools in the cold mountain air, was mungbean cakes and warm green tea. I paid my last respects to the mountain. We returned the jackets, hoisted our heavy backpacks onto our tired backs and walked down to the waiting buses to take us to the town. Once underway our bus hurtled down the mountain, branches from the trees lining the road whipping it as we made our rapid descent. Shards of shattered leaves flew into the bus through the open windows. Zhu and I sat together, and she asked lots of questions about myself, my life, and my future plans. It was then that she explained that she wanted a new English name. I had never before named anyone, and it was a great honour to be able to do so. I think that Suzanne is a much more suitable name than Yo-yo.
The bus took us back to the train station at Tai An. We bought our tickets for our onward journeys, and went to KFC to kill some time. We found our army friend again. Yvone caught up on the sports news, checking the performance of her favourite Finnish F1 driver. The northerners chatted and joked. Having shared the experience, we were like old friends – we had grown comfortable in each other’s company, despite having known each for one short night.
Later we returned to the train station to wait for our trains. My friends were returning to their homes and their everyday lives, and I was continuing my travels, first to Nanjing, and then Shanghai. I was the first to leave. Yvone urged me to go and line up for my train, and led me to the waiting area. She sat me down and went to talk with a nearby group of six young women. They cast nervous glances my way, but then came over, led by Yvone. Yvone bid me farewell, explaining that these young women would see that I got to Nanjing safely. The group were medical students returning home for the holidays. They were typical of a lot of Chinese students – intelligent, polite, very hard working, and intensely curious about the world outside China, although they would never admit to it openly. When the train arrived their polite and reserved demeanor changed and they pushed and shoved their way onto an incredibly crowded train, and shouted at me to urge that I do the same. I did some shoving and pushing and got to first base – a hand on the rail beside the door. Another few shoves and I was on the train. A bit more squeezing and pushing and I was able to rejoin my companions. I took their smiles as a sign that I had passed my “hard seat” initiation with great aplomb. You may be surprised, but all of this effort wasn’t a battle to win a seat – just a place standing on the train.
To travel in a “hard seat” carriage in China is an experience in itself. It is full of people and bags. Meal carts constantly