The bus had huge open windows. Great for photography and absolutely terrifying. At each switchback a yellow-rimmed dome mirror gave us a glimpse into the future, though no amount of looking around the corner would have helped us avoid a collision.
It was the morning of May 21, 2008 and all the buses were headed up the mountain.
Climbing Tai Shan, from the first gate near Tai’an to the summit, takes between two and six hours on foot. The bus dropped us at the Midway Gate to Heaven. There is a cable car that travels up the side of the mountain from the Midway Gate, but it seemed inappropriate to take the easy way, all the way.
If you are going to climb a sacred mountain, the least you can do is sweat a little.
Just past the Midway Gate sets of wide stone steps, interspersed with gentle dirt inclines, cut a path up toward the peak. Some of trees beside the path were tied with strips of red cloth–blessings of good fortune for those who climb Mount Tai.
The ribbons cost 1 yuan each if your Chinese sounded like mine. I spoke a rare dialect of tourist, critically acclaimed for its comprehensive knowledge of basic numbers and common bartering phrases. Bù shì is all I remember now.
Hikers tied the strips on every available branch. On railings, people placed locks. Then they turned from the vendors and continued up the mountain. The shade of the trees and the gentle slope betrayed the strenuous ascent ahead.
I bought a handful of cloth from an old woman and tied a strip to a tree. It was a prayer for myself, that I would reach the summit and discover something. I tucked the rest of the ribbons in my backpack and turned up the path.
My companions and I quickly drifted apart. The mountain called to each of us with a different song, and we followed different tempos as we climbed toward the top. We would be reunited eventually at the peak. For some time, I climbed alone.
At one point I paused just below a massive rock outcropping. A stream slipped over the side, and trees clinging to the cliff above provided shade. While leaning against the rock, a couple approached me.
“Nǐhǎo!” I said
They replied in kind with broad smiles and tinkling laughter–perhaps inspired by my awful pronunciation. Chinese is a tonal language in which pitch is used to distinguish words. Inflection is everything and meaning hides in the complexities of tone.
“Are you American?” the man asked me.
“Yes,” I replied.
He explained that he was a college student, and always took a chance to speak to an American or a Brit or an Australian when he saw one. He wanted to practice his English.
There wasn’t much to practice. His English was stiff but clear. We took a picture together, but on his camera. I did not think to take my own.
After a few minutes of pleasantries we parted and continued up the mountain on the same path but at different paces. I did not see them again.
Shops, shrines, and hotels cover the summit and the steps teem with tourists, vendors, and porters. To me, the climb was exhausting. To the porters it must have been mundane.
Two of the many people who passed me as I climbed stood out. One man coming down the mountain carried two massive tarp bundles, balanced on a plank of wood over his shoulders. He was carrying trash down from the summit.
The second man who passed me was going up the steps with a few dozen black, clay tiles balanced on his shoulders. He did not sprint by. He took the steps at a measured pace and did not seem aware of the people around him. The casual way in which he bore that heavy burden might have been a metaphor if this were a different sort of story.
It took me more than two hours to climb from the Midway Gate to the last stretch of stone steps. Beside me, a woman clung to the handrail, pulling herself up. A man stood with his eyes turned toward the fortress-like gate at the top, his body somewhat collapsed with exhaustion. We were within sight, grasping a tangible belief that the summit was attainable.
After I’d climbed to heaven and returned to earth, I wrote only two lines in my journal.
I climbed Tai Shan. I never thought I’d do it. But, I did.
It was unbelievable.
Every year as May approaches, I dream of Tai Shan. I feel trickles of sweat down my neck and the pain of the climb in my calves. I remember the companions with whom I reunited at the summit and the ridiculous jokes we shared.
I hear the chatter of birds and see the red ribbons fluttering on the tree limbs in my closed eyes. I smile, knowing that I still have that mountain inside my heart.
You cannot really explain heaven. It can only be experienced.