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Full Circle

Day 57: Tai an

Tai'an, China 
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Climbing Tai-Shan mountain. Only another two thousand steps to go.
Michael Palin - Full CircleTai'an is at the centre of much Chinese history, and several strands of religion and philosophy come together here. Taishan Mountain, the most important of China's five sacred mountains, is an hour's drive away, and Confucius, whose philosophy, with its emphasis on discipline and respect for authority is still influential, was born 80 miles down the road at Qufu, over two thousand five hundred years ago.

All this may account for why they are playing 'The Ride of the Valkyries' over the dining room loudspeakers at half past six this morning. Wherever there is likely even to be a smattering of foreign tourists, western music, rather than Chinese, will accompany them. I would rather it didn't. It's not easy to eat a hard boiled egg to 'Ride of the Valkyries'.

Although we arrive at the base of the Exalted Mountain by eight o'clock, there is already a steady trickle of pilgrims on their way up. It is said that if you can climb to the top of the mountain you will live to be a hundred. An unlikely assortment of would-be centenarians push past me. Schoolchildren in parties, lithe and bony old ladies, women in high heels, newly-weds, and couples practically frog-marching elderly relatives onwards and upwards. The object of their efforts is the Southern Gate of Heaven, a massive two-tiered red arch. It stands way above on a sharp rocky ridge and can be glimpsed occasionally through drifting clouds.

Halfway up, at the Middle Gate of Heaven, are lines of souvenir shops, most of which sell hats and walking sticks for about a pound. There is also a cable-car station here for those who aren't so worried about living to a hundred.

After five thousand steps, we are surrounded by unmelted snow. The only people not stopping for frequent rests are the wiry, bandy-legged porters who ascend steadily with enormous loads of bricks, cement, roofing tiles, or food supplies slung from yokes across their shoulders. They make two trips a day and are paid thirty yuan (two pounds) a time, enough for three beers.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 57
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Tai'an
  • Book page no: 84

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