Stairway to heaven

It's 8.30 am and I'm halfway up a mountain. Gazelle-like octogenarian Chinese men bound past me, one hefting a chunky grandchild over one shoulder and casting a curious, vaguely pitying, look over the other at the out-of-breath laowai peering up against the sunlight in desperate hope of spotting a plateau or two. Preferably, one with a comfy chair and a footbath.

Sadly this is not some, sweaty baijiu-inspired flashback from which I am about to awaken and fumble thankfully for the air-con rem-con. Rather it is me. Halfway up a mountain. In the southern Chinese province of Jiangxi. And yes, there really is a gaggle of young Chinese blokes halfway up the next stone staircase pointing me out to their mates and encouraging a chorus of, "Jia you (come on)!"

Suddenly, this is no longer merely a matter of one out-of-condition Brit looking half-longingly at the obviously well-off, if slightly effete, Chinese tourists who have offered to tip a couple of burly bearers their own weight in yuan to ferry them up the peak in a shoulder-born sedan. No, this is now a matter of national pride, perhaps, as the only pasty-faced expat of any nationality currently visible at this altitude, actually a matter of international pride. Now, the last, best hope of a whole hemisphere, I resume my ascent, pondering, between rasping wheezes, just what bought me here

The immediate answer to my question lies just a few dozen meters behind me and is currently setting off on its return journey to the foot of the mighty Mount Sanqingshan, the current scene of my hyper-ventilating humiliation.

Mount Sanqingshan is, undoubtedly, the pride of this northeastern corner of Jiangxi province. Balancing, somewhat precariously, on the top of the highest of its three summits would place you some 1,817 m above sea level.

Accorded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008 and voted the Fourth Most Beautiful Place in the World by the readers of China National Geographic magazine, Mount Sanqingshan is breathtaking in ways entirely unrelated to the steepness of its ascent.

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