The Pilgrimage (Part 1)

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By Gabriel Palmer

It didn’t start well. Well, if I am honest about it, none of my adventures ever start well, or for that matter end well. I’m not sure why I thought this would be different. It’s not as though the fact that my flight was cancelled, that once I got a flight it was on a plane that I am fairly sure had to be wound up before it could take off, or that said plane’s sole flight attendant looked as though she might have been alive during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 for non-history buffs or anyone not dorky enough to remember useless details) inspired any amount of confidence, but I suppose I am an eternal optimist (or just profoundly shortsighted). In any case, I was determined to climb the sacred mountain.

When the plane touched down in Jinan, and after I said countless prayers of thanks to Guanyin the bodhisattva of compassion, I began to walk through the airport to search out transportation to Tai Shan, one of the five most scared mountains in China. Being that Jinan is not exactly high on the list of places tourists choose to visit (hard to imagine why), I had little expectation of finding any help in English, but was surprised to encounter a large sign that read “Tourist Information.” As I approached the desk, the two women who had been very contentedly chatting away stopped their conversation and began staring at me with what seemed to be a measure of contempt. Now, I am not well versed in Chinese cultural standards or the nuances of non-verbal communication but on some level an angry stare is an angry stare. Ignoring this less than hospitable welcome, I decided to be my normal charming self.

“Hi, nice day out huh? So, I’m looking to get to Tai Shan, any suggestions?”

They both proceed to get up and leave.

“Umm, sorry, did I say something wrong?”

They continue walking away.

“Excuse me, I’m just… Hello?”

Yup, they just walked out of the terminal.

I have traveled around the Middle East and New York so I am use to bad customer service, but this took things to a whole new level. It would be one thing if they were working someplace else, but I would have thought that employees at the visitor information center would be at least a touch friendlier, or at least not run away (it was actually more of a slow walk, they didn’t even seem inclined to give me the courtesy of extricating themselves from the situation quickly). I would have lodged a complaint but I quickly remembered that I don’t speak even a phoneme of Chinese.

As nonplussed (which actually means totally surprised even though people tend to use it the other way – it does sort of sound like a negative form of plussed, but plussed is not a word even though it definitely should be) as I was by this encounter, I was not discouraged. Not that I actually had the option of being discouraged since living in the Jinan airport did not, and still till this day does not, seem like a particularly attractive option. Rather than setting up camp in the airport, which I suppose given enough time might have led me to learn enough Chinese to ask someone how to leave, I decided to track down the bus stand with the outside chance that there might be a sign in English, or even better, someone who spoke English.

After 10 minutes of wandering in circles, I finally realized that rather than trying to read the signs I ought to just look at the pictures. When I arrived at the bus stand I was excited to find that there was indeed a sign in English sitting on the bus dispatcher’s desk. This is where my excitement ended. As I picked up the sign he quickly snatched in out of my hand.

“No bus.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Is there a bus to Jinan?”

“No bus for you.”

“Wait, there is no bus, or no bus for me.”

Silence.

“Excuse me sir, is there a bus or not.”

Silence.

“Could you point me in the direction of the bus?”

Silence.

“Would you like a free trip to the Bahamas?”

Silence.

Now I was starting to get plussed (yes, I am inventing a new word). I looked around for a while trying to find the bus, or for that matter any bus, for myself without any success. I decided to just take a taxi into the city and then take a bus from there, somehow deluding myself into believing this would be a more successful tactic.

As I was one of the few people at the airport, I was also just about the only person at the taxi stand, or in this case taxi sit since all of the drivers were sitting outside of their cabs chain smoking and, once I arrived, staring at me as though I was a ballerina on a battlefield.

“Jinan please”

This received confused and largely disinterested stares.

“Jinan”

Still nothing.

Realizing that Chinese is a tonal language and that maybe the problem was my pronunciation (yes, wishful thinking at best but sometimes false hope is better than no hope at all) I pulled out a page that I had ripped out of a tour book with the name of the city written in Chinese characters. I brought the page over to the gaggle of drivers, pointed at the name, and then put my phone in front of them so that they could type in a price (a useful tactic whenever you can’t speak a language). One driver made a comment, followed by another, and then all of them engaged in a yelling match about some indeterminate topic which likely had nothing to do with taking me to Jinan.

After 10 minutes of watching them argue, I was about to leave when one of them grabbed my phone out of my hand and typed the number 250. The page that I had torn out of my tour book had said that the taxi ride should cost in the range of 100 Yuan, so I was quite sure that I was being ripped off and equally sure there was likely little I could do about it. I typed the number 100 into the phone, which clearly was not a good idea since it set off another 10 minutes of heated arguments. I decided to just sit down and wait it out as there was not much else to do anyway. At the end of the argument another driver came over and typed 175 into my phone. Recognizing that it probably wasn’t going to get much better and that I had now been at the airport for almost 2 hours I just gave up and agreed.

The fact that he started walking across the parking lot away from the other taxis probably should have been a sign that something might be wrong, but my desire to leave won out over the modicum of common sense that I occasionally exhibit. He led me to a car at the far side of the parking lot that had more rust than metal and was powered by what sounded like a hamster running in a wheel – it might have been a guinea pig. Again, the desire to leave won out over common sense.

As we pulled away the driver whose 4 remaining teeth were deeply yellowed from cigarette smoke turned to me and went on a 5 minute monologue in Chinese. When he finally finished I simply replied that I don’t understand. He then proceeded to laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh directly at me for the next hour, only interrupted by breaks for wheezing, coughing, and lighting cigarettes. I am not quite sure what was so funny, but I did grow increasingly concerned that me, my belongings, or one or more of my organs might be at risk. Surprisingly, though, he did actually take me to the bus station in Jinan, and all of my organs remained inside my body where they belong.

You might think that if the airport was bad the bus station would be a fiasco, but expectation is the root of all suffering. I walked in, went to the first ticket window, told the woman where I wanted to go and she informed me which bus I needed and even where to find it. With a new found sense of purpose and the belief that from this point forward everything would be okay, I walked over to my bus.

Bus is a fairly generous descriptor for the vehicle that was parked outside the gate. It was barely larger than a 1973 Ford Pinto, but with about as many seats as a regular bus, creating a situation in which the available legroom made budget airlines look like the first class cabin of an Emirates A380 (if you haven’t seen it, which I haven’t first hand due to being, what I like to call financially challenged, you should really look it up online – two words: steam showers). Luckily I am a fairly flexible person and was able to contort my body into a position that allowed me to squeeze into the seat. I think the position I ended up in, with my knees up near my chin and one arm tucked beneath my body with the other over my head, was either an advanced yoga position or somewhere in the Kama Sutra. Meanwhile, squeezed next to me was woman who was, for some reason, so terrified of me that she pressed herself up so tightly against the window that I was convinced she going to jump out at the first chance she got (which would have provided me with a bit more room but a bad conscience at having frightened her to death, so I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted things to play out).

Two hours later when I arrived at Tai’an my legs had long past the point of falling asleep and were in a state of numbness that I was quite sure indicated that they were going to fall off, my arms were so strained that the joints in my shoulders were close to dislocating, and my back was so cramped that my hunch would have made Quasiomodo jealous. Happily though, the woman next to me did not throw herself out the window so at least my conscience was clear. Having finally arrived I figured that the worst was behind me. When I was able to dislodge myself from the seat, and regained some use of my legs, I went to flag a taxi to take me to my hotel. Apparently though, my last cab driver must have called ahead because the moment I walked up to the taxi stand everyone began to point and laugh. Being too tired to question why they were laughing, I just decided to join in, which apparently threw them off since as soon as I started they all stopped.

Realizing that transportation had not served me well and that any further attempts at interaction will likely lead to either laughter or fear, I decided to just find a hotel and call it a day (or week). After trying 6 different hotels, seeing 7 different rooms, and being told 14 different prices I decided on a charming place whose sign read “Welcome customers with smile from all  ” I’m not sure what all  was but the smile sure sounded nice, and by that point as long as I wasn’t moving anything was good.

The scared mountain was going to have to wait till tomorrow.


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