Skip to content

Misty mountains, smoggy skyscrapers

June 25, 2013

Tai Shan is one of China’s most holy mountain, a shrine to Buddhism, Taoism

Ascending Tai Shan

Ascending Tai Shan

and Confucianism and many Chinese make the pilgrimage up the 6000 plus steps to the top at least once in their lives. I decided to make the pilgrimage too, thinking it would be a nice change for the polluted cities I’d been hanging around in.

A Chinese girl in my dorm, Casey, asked me if I wanted to climb up with her and suggested we camp over night so we could watch the sunrise the next morning. It didn’t mention anything in the guide book about camping, but this sounded cool, so I agreed.

Me, Casey and her boyfriend (both of whom, I discovered after I’d agreed to this adventure, where teenagers), began to ascend. It was raining, but we figured that would stop soon. Well, we figured wrong because it continued to rain all day, all through the evening and most of the night. It was supposed to take four hours to climb to the top of the mountain, but despite setting off at half past two in the afternoon, we were climbing up the final steps, which were virtually vertical, in the dark. Everything was sodden and when we finally reached the temples below the top, it was bitterly cold as well. We weren’t the only ones – there was a little city of tents already set up between the temples.

I was now so cold I couldn’t feel my hands, but we set the tent up and then found there was no zip on the door. Wang somehow procured a needle and thread and stitched it shut, and we hired some old Chinese army coats to keep us warm, which is the thing to do up there. Mine smelt really foisty, you know, a strong combination of Girl Guide tents and a vintage clothes shop, and the sides of the tent were transpiring to be porous and caving in. I used the Rough Guide to China as a pillow and managed maybe an hours worth of sleep.

DSC_0178We got up at four and joined the procession of the green army coats and pastel coloured ponchos making our way to the top temple. Despite it being so misty you couldn’t see anything of the surrounding mountains, the site of the Jade Emperor Temple in the mist, the scent of incense already wafting in the foggy air, was quite bracing. No sun rise though – either we missed it or the sun had decided to take a day off. It was still only 6am, but I felt surprisingly OK as we made our way back down, still, I don’t think I’ll be making a pilgrimage to Tai Shan again any time soon. The next day I was supposed to be off to Shanghai, only I missed my train, due to a station mix up, so I sent the day hanging around the hostel, cursing China and researching my next destination, Vietnam.

But I did eventually reach Shanghai. I wasn’t sure what to expect. My main

The Bund at night

The Bund at night

point of reference for the city is JG Ballard’s devastating, brilliant ‘Empire of the Sun’, based on his own experiences of growing up in 1930s Shanghai and then being taken prisoner by the Japanese at the outbreak of war. This 1930s heyday, when Shanghai was a party town for rich Europeans and a sanctuary for White Russians, divvied up into sections run by the British, French and [Russians], and then it’s demise due to World War II fascinates me, and I hoped I would be able to get a sense of that visiting the city.

I only had twenty four hours there so as soon as I dumped my bags at the hostel, I set out to walk to Bund, starting at the Russian embassy. I nipped in the lobby of the Peace Hotel, which used to be the Cathay Hotel, the most exclusive, notorious hotel in the city, to look at the Art Deco ceiling and imagine the fashionable European guests arriving here for cocktail parties as the world edged towards war again.

Now the Bund is all big banks an designer shops, but it still retains an air of classiness. Over the river, the famous Oriental Pearl TV Tower was just about visible through the smog, and you couldn’t see the famous square hole in the DSC_0208World Trade Centre at all, but still, the collection of skyscrapers is still quite a sight. I carried on walking, hoping I’d come to a metro station, but I got lost. I turned down a side road, and found myself in a narrow hutong-like street. There was a man having his hair cut on the pavement, people selling vegetables laid out of newspaper on the ground and the scent of fried meat emanating from the cheap street food stall. On one side of the street rose a huge, traditional Chinese building. It felt like Id walked into a different city. Further on, the road ended and I was now on a street filled with souvenir shops, pop music blasting out from almost every store. This was the Old City, where the native Chinese were effectively ghettoised in the 1930s. I finally found the metro here and headed to the former French Concession , which sounds impossibly glamorous. This was the part of the city that was governed by the French, but they were so lax with law enforcement it became a den for Shanghai’s most notorious gangsters and later, the communists. There wasn’t much sign off all that now – more designer shops, a lot of cheap clothing shops, not a croissant or an opium dealer in sight, which was a shame.

I’d spent the whole day looking for the past, so in the evening I went to the DSC_0224future. When darkness fell, I headed over the river to the financial district, rising from the metro into a landscape of neon, metal and glass, elevated walkways and sushi bars. The smog still curled ominously around the top of the skyscrapers and I felt like I’d being catapulted with supersonic force from JG Ballard to a Philip K Dick novel. I was gutted I couldn’t go up the World Trade Centre to see it all from a great height, but the visibility was so bad, it would have been a waste of a 150 Yuan. Maybe in the real future they will reinvent clean air.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>