Maybe it didn’t actually seem as bad as those passing faces would suggest. Maybe, like child birth (or so they say), you forget about the pain and the hours of struggle once it’s over, and eventually look forward to doing it all over again. But as well as the nagging sense of disbelief at your own recent achievement, there’s also always just a twinge – just a tiny little crumb of an impulse – to stand on the steps as the crawlers crawl by, and, for want of less heartless phrase, laugh in their sweaty red faces. On my way down from Tai Shan, that’s essentially what I did.
7000 steps and over five hours climbing. It had rained almost all the way up until we’d climbed too high for it to rain any more. For the rest of the way to the summit we were passing through a whiteout that still hadn’t shifted by the time I went to bed. It didn’t look good for the sunrise. But you pay you money and take your chance. And if you can see no further than your outstretched hand on the only day you’ve got to go up there, you’d better be praying to everything you can on your way to the top for a clear sky in the morning. I’d set my alarm for 04:15. Sunrise was at 05:20.
When it comes to mountains, they don’t come any grander or any more renowned in China, than Tai Shan. It is neither the tallest nor the most spectacular of China’s famous peaks, but having been visited by anyone who was ever anyone in Chinese history – from the first emperor Qin Shi Huang to Confucius and Mao Zedong – the mountain today, like Tiananmen Square in Beijing, is a place of pilgrimage for the Chinese people, a chance to connect with thousands of years of Chinese history and tread the same steps as those nation builders that came before them.
Have you ever noticed, that when you start to notice something, you can help but notice the thing you noticed with increasing regularity? Like the time I found out that Volvos always drive with their headlights switched on. At first I didn’t believe it. But after I noticed one and then another of these Swedish behemoths happily going about with their lights all bright and shiny, it was soon as if every second car I saw became a Volvo I was seeing them so often.
Beer or beaches? Hear the word Qingdao and the thought of one or the other will no doubt be the first that springs to mind. But Qingdao’s trump cards are not the only cards it holds. Regarded by many as one of China’s most beautiful destinations, Qingdao was named the country’s most livable city in 2011, and with an eye to future development to match the legacy of its colonial past, it seems unlikely the city will want to relinquish that honour any time soon.
I’d walked down to the river as I’d done on my first night in Suzhou. Again there was the dancing, the kids on rollerblades, the breeze and general gaiety. I’d spent another day exploring the city, trying to figure it out. It had canals, but it was no Venice. It had gardens, but not nearly as numerous as before. I’d not been disappointed by Suzhou in so far as it had failed to live up to expectations. It was just that those expectations hadn’t exactly been trounced by wondrousness in the meantime.
Why do people go to Suzhou? I wasn’t planning on going myself until I got talked into it whilst I was in Nanjing. “It’s beautiful,” I was told. “You can see the canals and … there are lots of gardens.” I was skeptical.
Suzhou bills itself as the “Venice of the East,” a moniker my guidebook had referred to as a “hackneyed … chat-up line” that I was unlikely to fall for. It is a town, it continues, that has “had to contend with destruction of its heritage and its replacement with largely arbitrary chunks of modern architecture.” Though Marco Polo, everybody’s favourite China traveller, described it as “a very great and noble city … contain[ing] merchants of great wealth and an incalculable number of people.” He may have been writing seven hundred years before this 11th edition of my Lonely Planet China was printed, but I still didn’t know who to believe.
I arrived in Suzhou after a little over an hour’s ride on the high-speed rail from Nanjing. The weather had cooled from the previous week’s mid-30s sweatfest. A light breeze was blowing as I sat overlooking a small square next to the Waicheng River in the south-west of the city.
I was in another rich city of China’s central east coast. While the provincial capital Nanjing was busy transforming itself from aspiring player into 21st century metropolis alongside big brother Shanghai to the east, here in Suzhou, though still relatively small to be competing in the big leagues just yet, there was forward-thinking and an embracing of the economic good times evident all around.
So the best festival of the year (sorry Chinese New Year) has now been and gone. All those lanterns; all those lights. Tai Hang turned into a smoky vision of hell as the Fire Dragon wound around its streets. Victoria Park turned into a spectacle of burning candles, glowing ninjas, and … a massive yellow hedgehog thing. It was a rowdy, colourful and potentially flammable joy to behold.
Performed for well over 100 years in the Tai Hang area of Causeway Bay, the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance has grown from a village ritual into one of the most popular events of Hong Kong’s mid-autumn festival celebrations. It is hard to imagine when you visit the area now, but Tai Hang was once no more than a small Hakka village. Situated much closer to the waterfront than present day Tai Hang, the village was home to farmers and fishermen which, it is said, suffered first a typhoon and then a plague in the autumn of 1880.
There are so many things about China that seem bizarre when compared to life back home that I could be sitting here all night listing them one by one. China wouldn’t be China without the interesting public toilet situation. China wouldn’t be China without instant noodles and Abibas sportswear. But in the few years I’ve spent travelling between the mainland and Hong Kong, there are a few things in particular that, as a Westerner, have struck me as so typically Chinese that I couldn’t imagine China being the same without them.
Visit any major tourist site in China – or even any local point of interest for that matter – and you’ll likely witness it yourself. Maybe it’ll be the identical baseball caps you notice first, bobbing along in the collective safety of the sightseeing pack. Maybe it’ll be the tour buses you hear pulling up and emptying out next to some formerly tranquil beauty spot. Or maybe it’ll be the amplified screech of some half-frazzled, umbrella-wielding tour guide that lifts you from your scenic contemplation and dumps you right back down to earth in the crosshairs of the oncoming stampede.