"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

Mount Taishan Shandong Province China.

Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“This is pretty kooky,” I laughed, admiring the large, black and white canvas of Audrey Hepburn at reception. “I wonder if they have Oscar-winning rooms too”. Tickled, I asked the grinning receptionist if we could see one of their doubles, before making a self-satisfying joke about Gregory Peck. But of course she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.

“Hotel name is movie?”

she asked, after my somewhat messy explanation. She looked genuinely confused, her furrowed brow dislodging a flake of her pristine makeup. I found myself wondering how long she’d worked here and what exactly she thought the giant painting above reception was in reference to. 

Tai'an Shandong Province China.

The city of Tai’an in Shandong Province, China.

S and I had just arrived in the city of Tai’an. For the first time on our trip, we hadn’t sorted out accommodation in advance. Hence we’d spent over an hour searching for digs, working our way down Hongmen Road, the city’s lengthy, hotel-bloated main street. Our hunt had taken in several places, including a grubby hostel and a palatial boutique with frankly crazy nightly rates. Finally, here in the amusingly named Roman Holiday Hotel, it felt as if we’d found the right balance.

The room turned out to be great, a spacious, tastefully decorated space with a framed Roman Holiday movie poster above the bed. The advertised rate had been a reasonable 150RMB a night. Yet I managed to charm the receptionist down to 120 with my amazing film knowledge. “Yes, an Oscar is like a prize”.

Roman Holiday Hotel Tai'an Shandong Province China

Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

“You climbey mountain?” enquired the reception girl, handing me the keys. “Yes ma’am!” I confirmed, feeling a sudden rush of adrenalin. “Oooh, very good!” she giggled. “You know in China we say the one who climb Tai Shan live one hundred years!” Hmm, I’d never really wanted to be that old. Nevertheless, I figured it would be shrewd to keep my options open and grab any extra years on offer.

We didn’t know much about Tai’an, a booming city of five and a half million with a tourist industry dating back to The Ming Dynasty. Our visit was all about its sacred mountain, one of China’s so-called five greats. Standing 1540 meters above sea level, its peaks were clearly visible from Hongmen Lu as we left the hotel for an afternoon stroll.

Two Men and a Refrigerator a short story from China.

Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

Like Beijing and Jinan before it, Tai’an proved a dizzying mix of the ancient and modern. A contradictory blend of ramshackle market streets and shiny shopping malls. There was an abundance of rickety food shacks, but just as many upmarket restaurants inhabited by droves of beautified waitresses.

Outside a massive McDonalds, located next to an even larger KFC, a shaggy woman sat on the ground peddling handcrafted wooden animals. She’d laid her goods out across a pair of old towels. Not one of the swarming masses of pedestrians paid her any notice.

At the southern end of Hongmen Lu the crowds thinned out. Soon after, we came upon the delightful Dai Temple, a walled Taoist complex dating way back to 960. It was gorgeous inside, with bronze pavilions, two thousand year old cypress trees and an immaculate bonsai garden. We could have spent hours there, but the day was already melting into early evening and our stomachs were grumbling.

Dai Temple Tai'an Shandong Province China

At Dai Temple, Tai’an.

Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

On our way back to Roman Holiday, we stopped at an indoor food market. Inside, we found ourselves drawn to the smell of freshly cooked potato and onion pancakes. In preparation for the following morning’s insane 4am rise, we decided to put together a picnic for our great ascent. Thus we darted around the market grabbing bits and bobs, much to the curiosity of the sellers. By the time we were done, we’d amassed a handful of peaches, a bag of almonds, a pack of banana chips and two large bottles of water.

Indoor food market Tai'an Shandong Province China

Tai’an Indoor Food Market.

“Oh, movie sooooo romantic!!!” cried Ms. Reception, back at basecamp.

At my recommendation, she’d actually downloaded Roman Holiday! Moreover, she seemed utterly absorbed. “We can watch together!” she giggled, pressing play to resume her viewing. However, it took no more than a minute of Audrey Hepburn speaking in Mandarin to scare me off. Making our excuses, we headed up to the room to get an early night ahead of our big day on Tai Shan.

Roman Holiday Audrey Hepburn Gregory Peck.

“Have you ever climbed Tai Shan, Gregory?” “No, ha ha ha ha!”

It was still dark as we approached the ticket office at the base of Tai Shan. It was about quarter to five in the morning and the air was thick and sticky. In fact, there were already pools of sweat forming across our foreheads and on the backs of our necks.

God, we haven’t even started, I thought. 

Happily, the queue of Chinese hikers at the counter was a modest one. Having secured our tickets, we headed up the central pathway at a leisurely pace. It was so peaceful as we made our way, the trail informed by a bubbling stream, giant trees, fulsome bushes and bursts of wild flowers. Before long it started getting lighter, the sun rising in some unforeseen place. And then the birds began to exchange morning calls and a number of hikers came into focus in the distance.

Along the route, we passed a number of rock monuments. Each one embellished with hand-painted, blood-red Chinese characters. Most climbers stopped at each one to pose for photographs, chattering excitedly amongst each other. With no English translations available, we bypassed most of them in favour of pushing on.  According to the blurb on the map that came with our ticket, we were following in the footsteps of some of China’s greatest names. Confucius…. Chairman Mao… err… Jacky Chan.

Rock Monument Taishan Mountain Shandong Province China

One of Mount Tai’s many rock monuments.

Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

We’d been walking for over an hour by the time S and I reached the first of Mount Tai’s gargantuan staircases. That first one was a sharp, uncompromising elevation of punishing stone slabs. I was absolutely shattered by the time we got to the top. Only to be rewarded with the depressing sight of another one, just a few yards away. “Water!” gasped S. It didn’t take us long to polish off that first bottle.

Two staircases later we took our first extended break, resting a while at a little temple called Dou Mu Goddess Palace. Guzzling more water, I looked on as a team of brown-robed, shaven-headed attendants busied about the courtyard burning incense and sweeping leaves. Further along, a sizeable group of tourists stood huddled around a fallen tree. One of the Chinese men spoke a little English, and was keen to inform me that the tree had been planted by the infamous General Cheng Yaojin. “He big China hero!” laughed the man, driving an enthusiastic thumbs-up right into my face. 

“But also naughty boy, kill many people ha ha!!!”

Tai Shan Mountain Shandong Province China.

The challenging ascent of Tai Shan.

Back to the climb and the stone staircases came thick and fast, one after the other, not a slither of mercy. Stopping mid-stairway for a breather, we were treated to some great views of the countryside below. Among the many flurries of activity, we saw a group of hikers chanting as they walked. A tribal boom that echoed across the cliffs around us. Some of these chants were actually returned by unseen climbers above, a call-and-response type rhythm that felt strangely hypnotic. I’d never seen nor heard anything like it. 

Climbing Mount Tai Shandong Province China

Taking a mid-staircase breather, Tai Shan.

Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

Stone staircase… timeout… stone staircase… respite… another temple, this one hosting a trio of tree shrines. People had decorated them with pink ribbons and rolled-up banknotes, another with shiny padlocks. All of which, we discovered, were offerings to Pan Gu, the mountain’s mythical creator.

Two Men and a Refrigerator a short story from China.

Offerings to Pan Gu.

As we sat nibbling from our picnic bag, tourists came and went before us. A family solemnly fed incense sticks into the black stoves that lined the leafy courtyard. Then it was back to the ascent. Stone staircase… collapse… stone staircase…. moan/complain/guzzle water. Stone staircase… then something different! Suddenly, the ground levelled out and a large wooden sign greeted us. 

Midway Point To Heaven: Climbing Starts Here!

“Climbing STARTS here?” I cried in disbelief, as S dropped onto the ground with a defeated sigh. Midway point to heaven? Running my hands through my sweat-soaked hair, I feared that at this rate I’d be reaching heaven long before I got to the top of this damn mountain.

A few minutes later, bracing ourselves for the next leg, we came across a cable car station that whizzed people up to the summit in an efficient twelve minutes. “Yes!!!” cried S, whose recurring back issues had started playing up. 

“I’m taking the cable car, wanna join me?”

It was tempting… so tempting. And yet, a part of me felt I had to finish what I’d started. That living to be a hundred years old might be amazing after all! “I can’t…” I exhaled miserably, “I’ve gotta walk it”. And so it came to be that we parted ways at Midway Point To Heaven.


Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

Ten minutes later I was feeling more than a little grumpy. Negotiating giant staircase number 20485, I gazed uselessly upwards as cable car after cable car floated gaily above me. Their hidden occupants presumably sipping cocktails and receiving back massages.

However, what had really pissed me off were the busloads of Chinese tourists who’d been deposited at Midway Point To Heaven. Cheerful and sprightly from their air-conditioned journey up to the mountain’s halfway point, they flocked out alongside me, squawking at each other in excitement. There were so many of them it soon became difficult to continue. Everywhere I tried to turn there was some bumbling uncle, spitting grandmother or littering child getting in my way.

Climbing Taishan Mountain Shandong Province China

Invasion of the bus tourists.

I was desperately applying sun cream atop staircase 20490 when a pair of giggly girls asked if they could have their picture taken with me. I was not in the mood, but they were so wide-eyed and eager I felt it would be mean-spirited not to oblige.

“You so handsome!”

laughed one of the girls, as I stood there dripping with sweat, hair a mess, face screwed up in agony. A short while later I came across a crowd of people gathered around a bespectacled teen. He had a chained monkey perched on his arm! Shamefully, folk were paying him small change for a brief stroke. What’s more, he seemed to have amassed a sizeable pile of notes in the baseball cap atop his sports bag. Tired and dismayed, I left monkey boy to it and pushed on.

Monkey man Taishan Mountain Shandong Province China

Monkey Man, Taishan Mountain.

Two Men and a Refrigerator, a short story from China.

I was literally plodding up staircase 20494, feeling very sorry for myself, when I had an epiphany. Just ahead, moving forward at a painfully slow pace, were two bony Chinese men carrying a massive refrigerator! The bloody great thing was attached to a long wooden board, each end pressed hard down on their shoulders.

I was so in awe of them, I actually stopped in my tracks and let out an audible expletive. Instantly, my own burden seemed laughably negligible. If my achievement of scaling the mountain armed with only a small rucksack constituted the award of one hundred years, then surely these two dudes should be looking at at least two hundred each!

Mount Taishan Shandong Province China.

Two Men and a Refrigerator.

Motivated by this liberating new perspective, I gave the climb an extra burst of energy. And so I turned onto the infamous Path Of The Eighteen Bends, a particularly arduous set of staircases that led to the promised land of the summit. I was so desperate to reach the top I actually began jogging! The sun burning into the back of my neck, my calves complaining under the strain of the effort. Onto the final staircase I went, my legs like blocks of lead as I dragged myself up those final fifty slabs. 

Climbing Taishan Mountain Shandong Province China

Crossing the finishing line, Taishan Mountain.

The views from the top of Tai Shan made it all worthwhile. It was a gorgeous vista of low hanging clouds, dense greenery and distant peaks. The mountain’s highest platform was also big business, with a number of kitschy souvenir shops, half a dozen restaurants and even a four star hotel! We stayed for around half an hour, drinking in the views and picking out a few sections of the path we’d climbed.

Summit views Taishan Mountain Shandong Province China

Summit views from Taishan Mountain.

“So you will be old man!”

sniggered the reception girl, upon our return to Roman Holiday. “And you will die young! Ha ha!” she hooted, gesturing to S. Then she was back to her computer, hitting play for another viewing of Roman Holiday. This time, I noted, in English. “I’ve never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on” said Princess Ann, unbuttoning her gown. “With my dress off, it’s MOST unusual”.

‘Two Men and a Refrigerator’ is the fifth part of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.



  • Mary Phillips

    You had me sweating, panting and with muscles aching right along with you. Good on you for hiking the whole way.

    November 27, 2016 - 1:12 pm Reply
  • Avalanche Joe

    A really funny story, feel like I have to add Taian to my travel itinerary!

    January 19, 2017 - 9:04 am Reply
  • Mary Phillips

    That was a fun read.

    August 13, 2020 - 6:17 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Your picture of the steps up the mountain was enough to make me quit. Give me the cable car and a selfie camera.

    August 13, 2020 - 11:08 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    I’m all for climbing steps to get views at the top, but wow! The photos of the stairs at Tai’an look like no joke. Cable car is tempting, but especially after you see workers carrying a fridge to the top, it kind of makes you feel ashamed that you complain about the trek up. Perhaps it gives you motivation to keep going! The views at the summit were definitely well-worth it, from what I see. You did it, congratulations!

    August 14, 2020 - 12:24 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, thanks. If I had to do it again today, I might just grab that cable car half way up.

      August 14, 2020 - 12:32 am Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: