If the Chinese televised a pageant about mountains, it would be called “Best Mountain, Major Hero,” and Taishan would wear the sash. It’s been the place for imperial, Taoist, and literary pilgrimage for more than a few thousand years and has been immortalized in painting, song, and the 5 yuan bill.
Very unfit emperors in heavy silk brocade, and their entourages, also in weighty outfits, bowed and burned incense all the way up to the summit, a good 5,000 feet of elevation gained over nine miles, so the road has long been paved with scenic rest stops. The road continues to be maintained, as it has been since the beginning, by unsung workers who carry two boulders at a time on poles balanced on their backs. One of them, a compact man in torn plastic sandals and with a back bent from life, told me he makes it up and down at most three times and on his best day made Y80 (less than US$13) for fifteen hours of work.
My dad and I climbed Taishan yesterday. He’s 77 years old. When he came here on his own a few years ago, the park employees told him he was too old to climb–especially the steepest portion, a 2.5 km ladder of stairs called the 18 Bends (十八盘). This time, he went for it anyway. It was a slog, but we made it all the way up in four hours, ahead of many much younger people who were panting and pounding Red Bull. Along the way, we cheered on those who threatened to give up. My dad paused to read aloud and explain the poems carved in esoteric script on cliffsides for curious passersby. We shared sympathetic smiles with the four unfortunate men and women who were bent over, retching, from overexertion.
Apparently, it is as easy to underestimate the strength required to climb a mountain as it is the strength of people of a certain age.