Beyond Words – Reflections on Tai Shan

For more than 3,000 years (with the possible exception of the iconoclastic upheaval of the Cultural Revolution), China’s Tai Shan (Peaceful Mountain) (泰山) has been a pilgrimage destination for emperors, politicians, scholars, common folk, and even the occasional visiting Canadian. It’s a memorable climb up the 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) of path and reputed 6,660 steps to spend the night in a lodge at the top, then join the pre-dawn crowd to watch sunrise over the eastern sea, just as Confucius did 2,500 years ago.

As far as I could tell, I was the only non-Asian on the mountain and couldn’t help but be amused by the number of youngsters wanting their picture taken with this gray-haired foreigner; one young couple even posing proudly as I held their baby. I suspect a mischievous Chinese friend was hinting that I was either an incognito celebrity or else Norman Bethune, the legendary (and unfortunately long dead) sole Canadian member of the Communist Party’s pantheon of revolutionary heroes.

Yunbu Bridge
Yunbu Bridge

The elderly, unfit and mere tourists have the option of taking a bus to a cable car that will carry them comfortably to the top. But for those who want the full pilgrimage experience, the primary route is straight up the centre, along rocky tree-lined paths and steep steps, flanked by a profusion of ancient rock inscriptions, shrines and natural features of historic or mythic significance. Athletic types may make the entire climb in a couple of hours, but for us normal folk, especially those who like to savour our experiences, six or seven hours is a more realistic target. There are plenty of vendors along the way who have carried up their bundles of snacks, drinks or trinkets on poles across their shoulders and, at the appropriately named Midway Gate to Heaven, there is an opportunity for a welcome pause at one of several small eating establishments before tackling the steeper and more grueling stairway of the Path of Eighteen Bends to the top.

Last legs on the Path of Eighteen Bends

Some sources suggest that Tai Shan is the most climbed mountain in China, so there is no shortage of company along the way. Initially there are frequent exchanges of smiles and friendly gestures, but further up, as familiar faces pass and re-pass each other, it becomes more a return of good natured but weary acknowledgments of mutual suffering. Near the top, one poor teenage girl was almost on her hands and knees, looking close to tears but plodding upward with commendable determination. We smiled at each other, and she grinned as I pointed to my gray hair and made a “Come on, if an old guy can do it, you can do it” gesture. And on we plodded, passing through the Archway to Immortality – named for the ancient legend that those who do so will become celestial beings – and finally through the South Gate of Heaven into the busy little hilltop town, still a half-hour walk below the Jade Summit where tomorrow’s sunrise will be observed.

Hotel near the South Gate of Heaven

After dinner and a good night’s sleep in a modest but comfortable hotel we slip out in the pre-dawn darkness, wrapped for warmth in surplus army quilted greatcoats, joining hundreds of others, some of whom had climbed up overnight, finding suitable spots and waiting patiently until the sun appears like a glowing orange hole through a curtain of pollution – the 21st Century’s poor substitute for the gentle mist over the eastern sea of earlier generations. Once the sun is well above the haze, and its warmth begins to penetrate the cold, the crowd slowly disperses and makes its way back to the town for the long descent (or cable car ride) back to the plain below.

For some reason, the wordless exchanges while climbing Tai Shan put me in mind of an incident 20 years earlier and half a world away. During the war in disintegrating Yugoslavia I’d been heading up a team monitoring a body exchange when a last-minute demand for some document or another meant leaving my interpreter behind to cross the front line and get the appropriate form from the police station on the other side. Somehow the police chief and I managed to communicate what was needed and I was able to return with the appropriate paperwork, and the body. Some weeks later we met again, this time with an interpreter, and I still remember his warm observation that, with no common language, we had communicated so much with just our eyes.

Like the smiles and gestures on Tai Shan, this Balkan vignette is a reminder that the deepest of gulfs between languages and cultures can be overcome, as long as there is a genuine embrace of common humanity. People are people, no matter what political posturers, nationalist exceptionalists, religious literalists and cultural snobs would have us believe.