October 1st marks the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. China celebrates by giving a seven-day national holiday from October 1-7, known colloquially as “Golden Week,” when an estimated 589 million Chinese hit the road to vacation in China’s various tourist destinations.
In 2014, I headed to Xi’an with some friends to check out the Terracotta Warriors, and ended up with this photo:
Yep, that’s what we had to deal with at the Warriors. I vowed to never again travel over National Day.
…until a Chinese family invited me to join them on their vacation. Their daughter, Belle, is my student. The only hiccup was that my passport is currently at the immigration bureau getting a residence permit, meaning my only methods of travel were by bus, car, bike, and foot. Surprisingly, the Lü family was not enthused by the idea of a 300-kilometer walk (I’m joking).
So we all hopped in the car headed for Mount Tai, a 6-hour drive that quickly turned into an 8-hour drive thanks to classic National Day traffic. We arrived in Tai’an in the evening, ate some dinner, and prepared for our hike up the mountain the next day.
Mount Tai is one of the five sacred mountains in China: atop its 1532-meter peak Emperor Qin Shi Huang proclaimed his unified kingdom in 289 BC. It was here that Mao Zedong proclaimed, “The East is red.” Emperors, Buddhists and Taoists alike have come here to pay their respects, been inspired to write poetry and songs, and carve into the cliffs. And then they pretty much took all of the natural beauty of the peak away by building shops and tourist-trap temples, selling “local delicacies,” souvenirs from the international crap factory, and ridiculous pictures.
It was a hard walk up. There were many, many stairs and we often had to take breaks between the other thousands of people to catch our breath.
I’ll admit that this makes it sound as though it wasn’t enjoyable. I absolutely did enjoy myself, though I wish I had gone at any other time of year (direct quote from my Lonely Planet guide about Taishan: “Definitely avoid holidays”). The view completely obscured by heavy fog was also a bit of a shame.
We descended the mountain by cable car (after waiting over an hour in line – no one was willing to face all those stairs again). Mr. Lü kept going on and on about some kind of fish he really wanted to eat and later asked our taxi driver for recommendations. Our driver dutifully obliged, and when I saw the character for the fish that Mr.Lü had been on about I was confused. I had completely misheard: partially due to his heavy Qingdao accent (but mostly because my Chinese is 不太好, not very good), I thought he had been saying was “zha yu,” which I took to mean “deep-fried fish.” He had actually been saying “jia yu.” Yu means fish, and unfamiliar with the meaning of jia in this context, I checked my handy-dandy dictionary app. The result left me stunned: soft-shelled turtle. Fantastic. A recovering vegetarian about to sit down to eat soft-shelled turtle.
Luckily Mrs. Lü was more sensitive to my western diet, and I got away with trying only some of the shell, which had been stir-fried in alcohol and then boiled in goose stock. “Americans don’t eat this stuff, do they?” she asked, to which I responded by shaking my head. “That’s ok, just eat the goose meat!” I’ll admit, the goose stock was rather good (though very salty), but the goose didn’t seem to have much of a distinctive flavor. Never would I have expected to be grateful to be eating goose meat. Mr. Lü and Belle absolutely raved about the turtle, though, and proclaimed its health benefits.
The next day, we got back in the car and drove south to Qufu (choo-foo), Confucius’s hometown. It was a mere 90-minute drive and we (shockingly) didn’t hit any traffic. After getting settled at the hotel, we had a late lunch and headed to see the Confucius Temple and the Kong family mansion (note: “Confucius” in Chinese is “Kongzi,” where his family name is Kong). Despite the masses of people, it was beautiful and somehow still peaceful. There was a lovely garden where we took a break (and made friends with a family from Tianjin, who raved about Yu Zhengsheng’s success as Qingdao’s mayor back in the early 1990s). Since Confucius was known for his teaching philosophy, Belle took the opportunity to (pay money in order to) pay her respects:
We ate dinner at the hotel and prepared for our return to Qingdao the next morning.
The biggest complaint of our few days of travel? “China has too many people!” Honestly, I was surprised that the Lüs were surprised by the amount of tourists. Despite the crowds, though, it was a wonderful trip. I’m so grateful to the Lüs for taking me along as part of their family.