Climb­ing Mount Tai: 6,000 steps up China’s most sa­cred moun­tain

As­cend­ing Mount Tai can be spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence … and also very tir­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - LOUISE WATT TAISHAN, CHINA —

Taishan, or Mount Tai, is China’s most sa­cred moun­tain. For cen­turies, em­per­ors climbed it to pay homage to heaven and earth. Philoso­pher Con­fu­cius is said to have stood at the tow­er­ing top, looked down and pro­nounced the world a small place in­deed.

While it isn’t one of China’s tallest moun­tains, the way to the top is still a chal­lenge con­sist­ing of more than 6,000 stone steps, with the op­tion of tak­ing a ca­ble car half­way. Walk­ing the whole way can take any­where from three to seven hours.

I’d heard sto­ries about el­derly groups and oth­ers res­o­lutely march­ing up the moun­tain in the dark and ar­riv­ing in time to see the sun­rise, but I de­cided, with some friends, to start in the af­ter­noon and see the sun­rise af­ter spend­ing the night in a ho­tel at the top.

We en­tered through the Red Gate at the south foot of the moun­tain, stop­ping to look in tem­ples with burn­ing in­cense and at some of the hun­dreds of stone tablets that dot the way up. We were sur­rounded by serene green­ery, punc­tu­ated ev­ery so of­ten by a rous­ing round of main­land or Tai­wanese pop mu­sic from tourists car­ry­ing per­sonal stereo sys­tems for all to hear.

Two 7- and 9-year-old broth­ers of­fered me a wel­come ex­cuse to rest from climb­ing when they asked “aun­tie,” one of the few for­eign­ers on the moun­tain, to pose for a photo with them.

Then I con­tin­ued to fol­low in the foot­steps of the em­per­ors. In 219 B.C., Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dy­nasty, held a cer­e­mony on the sum­mit to an­nounce to the gods that he had suc­cess­fully uni­fied China.

For thou­sands of years, Taishan has been a source of in­spi­ra­tion for po­ets and thinkers, and a place to wor­ship. The moun­tain is the most ven­er­ated of China’s five sa­cred moun­tains. This is be­cause it is the east­ern­most, and in Chi­nese cul­ture east is re­garded as a sa­cred di­rec­tion be­cause that is where the sun and moon rise.

Con­fu­cius, whose home­town Qufu is not too far away, de­clared from the sum­mit: “Climb Mount Tai and the whole world looks small.”

His words ex­press how Mount Tai looks large against its low-ly­ing sur­round­ings, and also the more philo­soph­i­cal mus­ing that the higher you climb, the greater your vi­sion.

For me, the higher I climbed, the more steps I saw, un­til fi­nally I got to the steps lead­ing up to the ca­ble car sta­tion. Of course, Con­fu­cius wouldn’t have taken the ca­ble car, but I wasn’t Con­fu­cius.

And two hours of climb­ing steps was enough of a climb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for me.

On top of the 1,545-me­ter (5,069foot) moun­tain, lodg­ing is lim­ited. There are a few ba­sic ho­tels, and trav­ellers also come equipped with camp­ing gear. We stayed in a ho­tel and paid 100 yuan ($15) per per­son to sleep on mat­tresses in a room with 13 peo­ple. Out­side our door, other guests slept in tents or rows of beds lin­ing the cor­ri­dors.

An­other likely dif­fer­ence be­tween my ex­pe­ri­ence and that of Con­fu­cius: He prob­a­bly didn’t climb the moun­tain at the same time as thou­sands of other peo­ple.

In the morn­ing, we got up at 4 a.m. to po­si­tion our­selves for the sun­rise, ap­par­ently peak time on the moun­tain.

From Jade Em­peror Peak, sit­ting among hun­dreds of oth­ers, many in rented green army over­coats to keep warm against the strong wind, we were for­tu­nate enough to see a clear sun­rise, ma­jes­ti­cally bathing the moun­tain peaks in light.

Af­ter a breakfast of soy­bean milk and fried dough sticks, we hiked for about five hours down the moun­tain and through Tao Hua Yu, or Peach Blos­som Val­ley, a beau­ti­ful walk through pine trees and flow­er­ing peach trees, wa­ter­falls and pools of wa­ter, not un­like a land­scape you might ex­pect to find in Cen­tral Europe.

De­spite the many peo­ple, our weekend trip to Taishan was a re­lax­ing and en­er­giz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The green­ery up the moun­tain made for a pic­turesque climb, and the sec­ond-day val­ley hike was to me the high­light, and not just be­cause there were no steps up. It was serene, al­low­ing me to en­joy the land­scape and con­tem­plate the greater vi­sion I had gleaned from the top of Mount Tai.

LOUISE WATT, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pools of wa­ter are set against a stun­ning back­drop of pine trees glimpsed af­ter a hike down Mount Tai through Peace Blos­som Val­ley.

LOUISE WATT, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Tourists watch the sun­set at the top of Mount Tai in Shan­dong prov­ince, China’s most sa­cred moun­tain.

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