Spring onions cascade around me as an elderly woman dumps her shopping bags, overflowing with fruits and vegetables, onto my feet. The public bus is heaving with passengers as we drive towards Laoshan, the mountainous national park just outside of Qingdao. My flatmates and I have decided to see it for ourselves, setting off early in the hope of avoiding the midday heat. Having deciphered travel websites that are largely in Mandarin, it seems that the most reliable transport to Laoshan is the bus, but as my toes begin to ache I can’t help but wonder if a taxi would have been more comfortable. Luckily, the woman reclaims her rogue vegetables and hobbles off a few stops later, and my personal space is renewed.
After about an hour, the bus deposits us on the side of a road marked ‘Laoshan’. Green and imposing, the mountain looms ahead of us as we follow signs for the visitor’s centre. Walking up the long, open drive, we’re surprised to see a race set-up, complete with banners, a podium, and a finish line. A plethora of stands cover the ground, offering water, food, and massages for weary runners. I can’t even imagine undertaking a mountain race at the hottest time of the year, but as there are no runners at the finish line, the event is clearly ongoing. Joking about whether we should join in, we stride through the doors of the centre.
The airy hall bustles with various tour groups who stand together under bright flags waved by trip leaders, dressed in matching yellow caps. The young woman in the ticket booth eyes us with confusion as we attempt to ask which passes we need, but even here, at a tourist destination, no one seems to speak English, so we point to an option on the Mandarin information board and hope for the best. Tickets in hand, we emerge back into the bright sunlight, where a row of identical buses are waiting to take sightseers into the national park. Our bus pulls out of the visitor’s complex and winds along a narrow ocean road, with picturesque sea views. The scenic journey takes a terrifying turn as a similar bus hurtles past in the opposite direction, down a road that was only ever designed to fit one wide vehicle, but, minus a few skipped heartbeats, we continue unscathed. A short drive later, we come to a stop at the base of the mountain. Locating our position using large map at the side of the path we realise there’s a direct route to the summit from here and decide to climb it.
Turning away from the map, we walk through an ornate archway heralding the entrance of the national park. To our left stands a Chinese temple, ringed with terracotta walls. Inside, a vast statue of Laozi, the founder of Taoism, with flowing robes and one finger pointed, looks sternly down upon the visitors milling through the temple’s gardens. To our right, unexpectedly, is a KFC. Although the designers have made a half-hearted attempt to disguise the fast food joint by decorating it like a Chinese pagoda, the restaurant is certainly discordant with the historical temple, although it does appear to be attracting just as large a crowd. Passing the throngs of people queueing up for a burger, we find a paved path that curves to the right of the temple’s walls and start walking. The slope is gentle, and we pass the yellow-capped tour group as we walk upwards. After a peaceful twenty minutes, we reach the top of the path, and see the elusive runners at last. They’re congregated alongside a main road, gathered around more pit stops for water and food. Most are decked out professionally, with water bottles hanging off their backpacks, and wide-brimmed hats to avoid the burning sun. A steady stream of runners is crossing the road and climbing a flight of steps that appear to be heading up the mountain. We realise they must be heading for the same peak, so we follow them towards the stairs.
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Immediately, the steps that lead up this section of Laoshan are much steeper than the tilted path we took up from the temple. The crowds of tourists have also considerably thinned, and it’s just us and the runners, who breeze by occasionally, using sleek poles for grip as they climb step after step. The spindly trees that line the mountain path are occasionally tied with pink bands, a reassurance to the runners, and now us, that they’re following the right route. Whilst our calves are beginning to burn, and our faces redden, we’re rewarded with uninterrupted views that stretch all the way down to the coast. Now we’re the ones gazing down on the statue of Laozi, reduced to a toy-sized figurine below us. The effigy shimmers mystically in the rays of heat that drift around the mountain. Climbing higher and higher, I wipe a sticky trail of sweat from my face and envy the runners their athletic outfits.
Swinging above our heads, the wires of a cable car lurch occasionally as egg-like cars bob along them, glinting in the sunshine. I realise that might have been a smarter route up the mountain, as we’re rapidly draining our limited supply of water. The flow of runners passing us has slimmed down to only the most elite athletes, rippling with muscle as they strain to climb each step. We share a sympathetic look of exhaustion with them as we stop for a precarious rest break on the side of the mountain, anxiously attempting to empty the last few drops from our water bottles. After an eternity of climbing, we finally sight the summit, and haul ourselves up the last few steps to collapse alongside a group of even wearier runners at the top. Noticing our dishevelled state, a few offer us spare bottles of water, which we gratefully accept.
Looking around, I suddenly realise there are no other tourists in sight. Runners are beginning to pick themselves up from the dusty ground, smiling and laughing as they applaud their climb. “Where are the other sightseers?”. I ask in bewilderment, as I observe the ongoing celebrations around me. A glint of colour far below us catches our eye, and we look down from the summit of the mountain to see a much lower peak buzzing with small figures in yellow baseball caps. The realisation dawns that whilst we may have successfully climbed Laoshan, we’ve climbed the steepest peak, especially opened for this endurance race, instead of the one for tourists. Still, as we catch our breath and gaze over the picturesque views from the summit, we realise that perhaps it was worth the climb after all.
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