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Tai Shan: Capturing “The Look”

“Why can’t it just be over?”

3-3-3 Tour: Day 16 continued

Looking across at the South Gate to Heaven on the sunny summit of Tai Shan with the sea of clouds in the background.

South Gate to Heaven, Tai Shan

So the rain and mist of the first day’s climb had cleared and we’d seen the sunrise after all. A few of hours spent exploring the summit area after that and it was time to begin the long trek down.

People were already flooding through the South Gate to Heaven and unloading from the cable cars as I made my way through the crowd to reach the steps. It was still a little before 11 am but I was quickly realising how lucky I was that the previous day’s rain had – as I now suspected was the case – put the tour groups off their trip. Unfortunately for them, however, every tour group in Tai’an had evidently had the same idea, and as I was preparing to head back down the Stairway to Heaven, it seemed like half of China was already gasping their exhausted way up to greet me.

It always seems, though, when climbing these mountains, that the way down appears much longer than the same way up. Logic, I know, would have it that the torturous trek towards the summit – with the burning legs, the lack of breath and general feeling of near-collapse – should seem like a never-ending trial of will against fatigue. But then, when you get to going down, there’s always that sudden realization that you did indeed manage it yourself, somehow, the day before. While you bound down the steps with the breeze in your hair and the anguished faces pass you by, there’s always the thought that: “surely I didn’t climb all that way yesterday.”

Age shall be no barrier to reaching the summit.

Age shall be no barrier to reaching the summit

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.

I’d only just started my descent when I decided to stop for a second to take in the scene. The mist had returned, albeit not as impenetrable as the night before, but the sun was still shining and those heading up were not exactly looking like they were on their way to a picnic. There was sweat and panting, opened mouths and groans of anguish. Shirts had come of along the way and been thrown over shoulders. Kids were being cajoled into carrying on. There were young ones and old ones, fat ones and skinny ones. There was even one girl taking her dog up there, strapped in a baby harness, as if nothing were amiss.

I didn’t laugh at these unfortunates. Not outwardly at least. Though it wasn’t unamusing. Instead, I took my camera out and started taking pictures. I was standing about half way down the stairway on a level area a few feet wide. It was the point at which people were pausing from their ordeal to catch their breath before making that final drag towards the summit. And I noticed something as I stood there. Heads down, the crowds were trudging up and up, one step after the other, until they reached our little haven of relief. And when they did so, finally looking up into the mist towards the South Gate to Heaven and all those steps to come, it was as if, in one collective, inaudible groan, they said with all hope gone: “why can’t it just be over?” I called it The Look. And here it is …


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