The year is 2014, I had only three months before going back to Brazil and I wanted to take every opportunity I had to explore the country, until that moment I didn’t imagine I would return to China any time soon. I was invited to climb a mountain with a small group of Chinese, all university students. I accepted right away. Even though I had never climbed any mountain, I didn’t think I would have much difficulty. I considered myself sedentary, but I believed that it would be okay to walk a few hours in contact with nature.
The plan was to take a train in the early afternoon, a taxi to the park that gives access to the mountain, climb it during the night/dawn (it was summer), reach the summit before 5:00 AM to see the sunrise, descend the mountain and take the train back to Tianjin. I took a small backpack with my wallet, washcloth, and a coat because on top it would be cold.
Even before the day of the trip I was starting to feel uneasy, as much as I really wanted to go I knew I was going with younger people with no experience in traveling with foreigners. It may seem silly, but unfortunately, around here it’s not always straightforward, you can’t stay in any hotel, buy tickets, or anything that requires an ID, sometimes it’s very complicated. When I tried to explain that because I’m a foreigner, we’d have to go to the train station earlier to pick up my ticket (today we don’t need it anymore), it took some time for them to understand. The person responsible for purchasing the tickets also had difficulties in reading my passport and entering the information, but in the end, everything worked out.
The long-awaited day arrived, we met at the station and shortly after we entered the waiting area for boarding, one of the Chinese said: “We’ll have to take turns who’s going to sit”. It was my turn to have difficulty processing the information. I had traveled by train in China and had not seen anyone traveling standing. He showed me the tickets and only three of them had the seat number. We were still in Tianjin and I wasn’t going to be let down by that. It’s okay that being able to sit down and rest would be much better for the climb that awaited us, but we would take turns and everyone would sit down for a while.
The wait on the platform was different from other times, even though I wasn’t alone, it was impossible not to notice curious eyes staring at me, the Chinese people who were with me started to feel a little uncomfortable too. As the train arrived, unlike the fast trains, a metal extension was needed between the train and the platform to facilitate boarding, the process at the station took much longer than I was used to in China with fast trains.
The train, although clean, was a little more compact than the other one (okay, it was pretty tight in my opinion). We found our seats, one of my colleagues managed to change places and we could sit next to each other, I ignored the looks as much as I could and the only thing I thought was “It’s only four hours, it’ll pass quickly, I’ll share the car with the same Chinese people, they will soon get used to it, everything will be fine”.
As soon as the train left, the expectation for what awaited me became even greater, there was no turning back. What I didn’t imagine is that the adventure had already started. Our car was full, we weren’t the only ones standing. I started the journey sitting down, the car was like a restaurant where the seats face each other. The seat was actually like a booth where three people could sit, which by the end of the trip we were already able to fit four, and only one of us had to stay standing.
One of the Chinese in front of us couldn’t hide his curiosity and bombarded the girl who was with me with questions about me and our group (at least that’s what they translated to me).
The trip went on and we stuck to our plan. Standing up wasn’t the problem, the hard part was squishing against the “seats” so the vendors could pass with their carts every 10 minutes (water, instant noodles, cigarettes, playing cards, it was an impressive variety).
The heat was starting to get in the way, we were glad we made the right decision to climb the mountain at night. After the first hour of the trip, many passengers started to eat and it was impossible to ignore the odor. I was hoping the trip would end soon. Later on, some started playing cards, most of the children calmed down, and the train was a little quieter.
Just before we arrived, the same Chinese turned his attention to my companions. He noticed that one of them had a different accent, she was from the south of the country (considered less developed) and they kept asking her to repeat different words to compare. She was the foreigner for about five minutes and I had some fun not being in the spotlight. 🙂
We arrived at our destination. It was getting dark and we had to find a taxi to take us up the mountain. We left the train station and I was surprised by the countryside aspect of the city. I believe we were on a side exit and the street was unfinished, many people on the sidewalk offering illegal taxi service, local businesses were simple, the transit system was precarious and disorganized. I’ve never been so grateful for being on that trip with Chinese people.
They believed that if we moved a little farther away from the station, it would be easier to find a taxi. It didn’t take long and we found one that would take us for a reasonable price (it was an illegal car). He suggested that we stop to buy raincoats because, according to him, on the top of the mountain it used to drizzle in the morning and, of course, if we left to buy later we would pay triple. We stopped, bought water and raincoats (which ended up being very useful).
We arrived at Taishan Mountain 泰山 within our expected timetable. There was a small line to buy tickets, apparently, we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see the sunrise. When we entered the park it was already dark, most of the stores were closed.
I confess that I was finding it a little strange the amount of shops and concrete in the park, I’ve never climbed mountains, but I’ve been to many ecological parks in Brazil and I’ve seen many documentaries on TV and in these places the priority is to preserve the nature. Anyway, I believed it was the entrance to the park and that soon we would be on the mountain and the concrete would be left behind.
We took some pictures before starting our climb, all happy and excited by the adventure. It’s impossible not to notice how we didn’t know what awaited us. I don’t have any photos of the climb because, in the beginning, it was very dark, in the middle I had to worry about not falling down and by the end, I barely had the strength to move the muscles I needed to complete the climb. Sometimes we had to use our phone’s torch to be sure where the flights of stairs started and not to step on any of the vases with offerings and money on the way (no one could tell me what they meant).
I, in my inexperience, after 10 minutes of climbing stairs and walking on concrete started to question myself how long it would take to climb the mountain if we weren’t even on the mountain yet.
We were still laughing and talking when we started noticing the people coming down, and none of them looked very happy. Some told us words of encouragement. It was when a man, who looked 40 years old, was coming down the steps and his legs were shaking, he was holding a bamboo stick for better support and there was someone walking next to him, almost making sure he didn’t fall. He had an exhausted expression and it was impossible not to be frightened.
I confess that my biggest concern was delaying my group, as they were younger than me and had more experience, but I also began to doubt if I would make it up the mountain.
Another twenty minutes of steps and we arrived at “a first station” (I’m not sure what they call it) with stores, some closed, others open, all with hiking poles from the simplest to the most professional to sell. I started noticing that a lot of people had some kind of support (stick) and I even considered among my group that I should maybe buy one, but they assured me that I would be throwing money away, that Chinese like to do that: “They offer things that you don’t need it because you don’t know, then you buy it and regret it after”. I believed.
Another half-hour and the steps became flights of stairs, everything was narrower and now there were other groups close to us. I knew something wasn’t right.
An hour and a half up the mountain, and the steps were uneven, sometimes you had to wait because there were a lot of people going up at the same time and not everyone kept the same pace. I realized that I was on the mountain, but for how long? I had prepared myself to climb, get in touch with nature, and not stairs surrounded by people on all sides.
Second station, we decided to stop to rest and eat some fruit. It was impossible not to question if this was how people climbed mountains in China. The positive response gave each calf a squeeze. I wondered more and more how much longer I could stand it.
The stop had been a bad idea, maybe we had been resting for too long. I just know that I felt more tired, the steps became even more difficult, at times it was necessary to wait because the steps were so steep that it was possible, even while standing, to put your hand on the next step. Other times it was necessary to go to the sides of the stairs, where there were chains to hold on to climb. We were all starting to feel the fatigue of the climb, and we stayed in silence most of the time.
We continued, there were groups with stereos playing traditional music at full volume, parents carrying very young children, some carrying them on their shoulders. It was frightening to see how natural it felt for them to climb the mountain surrounded by so many people and with so many stairs.
The next station has arrived. I bought something to drink, took a very short break, and prayed we were close. I could see my group was starting to get worried if they were going to see the sunrise if they kept waiting for me, but I was beyond my limit already.
It was three in the morning, we had been on the mountain for at least 3 and a half hours, at least three hours going upstairs and my body would happily stop right there, but I insisted.
After a while, I had to ask them to go on without me. I didn’t know if I could make it up and I didn’t want to be responsible for them missing the sunrise. I said I would find them when I got to the top, we all had cell phones and I would send a message to find them. Some still insisted and I had to be a little firmer in ensuring that everything was fine.
With one less worry, I could focus on what I needed to do. It was me and the stairs, and one step at a time, at my pace, and it would be fine if I missed the sunrise. At that moment, if my legs would allow me to reach the top I was already counting on a huge success.
It was the longest half hour of that night, I was wearing a Brazilian jersey, a yellow dot in the darkness, climbing infinite stairs alone and almost as fast as a slug. A little later the steps were back to be like at the beginning of the mountain and I knew that it was just a short distance away. It wasn’t long before I found two of them sitting on the last part of the stairs waiting for me.
I made it. At 4:10 in the morning, I had reached the top.
Like us, other people were also exploring that area, there were some tents too, but it was dark and you couldn’t see much. It was possible to rent coats because it was impossible not to notice the drop in temperature (I don’t think we were the only ones going up for the first time and with little preparation).
It was time to find the right place to see the sunrise. We didn’t quite know where to go, but like all human beings, we followed the majority and came across an area where many people were sitting. It was just hope they weren’t wrong.
It was starting to lighten, but the sky was a little overcast and we weren’t sure if we’d see the sun come up. We started to accept that we should be content with the trip, having made it to the top, and enjoying the rest of the day. A few minutes later, the sky cleared up and we could see the first signs of the sun.
That’s when we started to have a better dimension of the number of people who were sharing that moment with us. I thought there were a few hundred people there, but I don’t doubt there were more than a thousand.
Watching the sunrise on top of a mountain is something I don’t ever want to forget in my life. Seeing people applauding and saluting the sun, for a few moments leaving all the tiredness aside to appreciate nature, something so pure, it’s impossible not to reflect on our smallness, how insignificant we are compared to the greatness of the world in which we live. It was an inexplicable experience in many ways, and after four hours of climbing stairs, it sure becomes even more rewarding.
We stayed there for some time. We took pictures, explored the area at the top of the mountain (it was much bigger than I expected). There were temples and buildings in various parts of the top. I expected more nature and less construction, but I confess that I was delighted by what they were able to do, especially considering that many of the constructions were made years ago, meaning you had to take everything up the mountain using the very same stairs I did. Many pictures later and it was time to go down.
What I didn’t know is that my day was far from over and that I still had a lot of surprises waiting for me before going up the last seven flights of stairs of the day, cleaning the banister of my building, because my legs just gave up on me, but that’s for part 2.