My biggest complaint about Beijing is the pollution. Nothing saps the energy out of me first thing in the morning quite like looking out the window and not being able to see a building that I could probably hit with a baseball. It’s depressing and bad for my health.
But I put up with it because I live near the heart of a booming metropolis. Public transportation is great. The food is cheap. And, when I need a respite from the congested streets and noisy shopping markets, there are plenty of art museums and well-maintained parks to get lost in.
I recently traveled to Tai’an, in the eastern province of Shandong, to climb one of China’s holiest Buddhist mountains with a friend from college. We left in the morning, on a high-speed train from Beijing’s South Railway Station. A light haze hung over the city.
As we sped into the countryside, the buildings got smaller and fewer, but the smog was just as thick as it had been in Beijing. By now, we were traveling 300 kilometers an hour. In the distance I could see farmers in rice hats picking fruit and digging in the ground. Occasionally, we’d pass a cluster of rickety homes. Some had gaps in the roofs, which looked like they were made of discarded pieces of tin. They were the kind of structures that looked as if they could be flattened by a sudden gust of wind.
The roads connecting the farms and homes were narrow and made of dirt, and the only streetlights I saw were those built along new highways. There were no bus stops, subway stations or bustling fruit markets – just a heavy gray smog blocking the horizon and drowning out the light from the mid-afternoon sun.
Once we arrived at the base of Mount Tai, the air became clearer. The climb up 1,533 meters to the top took three and a half hours. It was almost all stairs, at least 6,000 of them.
Along the way I could hear some of the Chinese talking about me and my friend, trying to guess which country we were from.
“They look Russian.”
“They’re probably English.”
“No, I think they’re American.”
“They can’t be American. Americans are fat.”
By the time we reached the top, it was early evening, and the sun was beginning to set. The view was impressive, but – with the pollution from the city below – partially obstructed.
We stayed in a hotel on top of the mountain. While checking in, the receptionist said we’d receive a wake-up call at 4 am the following day so we could watch the sunrise. Unlike most early wake-up calls, this one wasn’t optional. Catching the sunrise was the main reason people stayed there.
The next morning, at about 4:30, I walked to one of the peaks, where a hundred or so people had gathered to watch the sun come up. I steadied my camera near the edge, hoping to get a good shot. But all everyone could see was a familiar haze that turned lighter as the day grew later.
I was disappointed, but mostly thought about the people who live and work below, on the farms and fields, the ones who have to breathe the pollution. Are they as happy about the economic progress of China as the people who live in the city?
I imagine on some days, it’s got to be hard to aim for the stars when you can’t see them.