Tai Shan- a journey to the heavens
Mount Tai is associated with the Chinese creation myth of the trials of the giant Pan Gu. As he grew up, Pan Gu took it upon himself to divide the earth from the sky, and the taller he grew, the further they were divided. After completing the great task the giant died from exhaustion. His blood became China's great rivers, his eyes the sun and the moon, and his limbs and head five sacred mountains of China. Tai Shan, the most celebrated of the five mountains, represents Pan Gu's head. After some 5000 years of emperors, poets, dictators, locals and tourists struggling to reach the top, Tai Shan remains a place of pilgrimage for the Chinese, and a challenging experience for all who undertake to climb it.
I arrived at Tai'an around 1pm and saw an english sign for "tourist information." Went inside and to my surprise no one there spoke any English. Eventually bought an English map of Tai'an for 5 yuan and set out on the adventure. Planned to start my ascent at 4 pm so that I would reach the summit for sunset.
Explored Tai'an, the small city spread around the base of the mountain before starting my climb. Had a sweet potatoe from a vender on the street for 2Y- cheap and delicious!!. I boarded bus no. 3 (1Y) which brought me to Dai Miao, a temple at the foot of Tai Shan. Chinese emperors would come to offer sacrifices and pay homage to the god of Mount Tai before beginning the climb. The temple is massive and I could have easily spent hours exploring and sitting under the trees relaxing. I saw a huge statue of the god of Tai Shan (for 80Y you can have your picture with it). Spent an hour winding my way through the temple and eventually found this awesome wall which depicted on it the Zhenzong emperor from 998 and his ascent up Tai Shan. What an awesome mural! After a makeshift lunch I departed for the mountain, starting my climb just after 3 pm.
The trail through the first gate was paved with massive grey stones. Along both sides was a lengthy series of vendors selling fake jade, hand carved walking sticks, drinks, ice cream, and a variety of other small trinkets and souvenirs. A number of vendors were selling fresh cut pineapple on a stick, a fruit that appears in abundance during the spring and summer months all over China.
I began the ascent by walking through the Archway Under Heaven at the base of the mountain. The steps rose gradually at first, as we passed small gardens and rundown shacks across the valley. Then the stone walkway began to narrow and bend. Handsome stone bridges crossed the valley and rose to where the flat walkway disappeared. The steps looked like great accordions stretching upward to peaks and plateaus where people were already beginning to stop and catch their breath.
About 2 hours into the trek I began to get nervous. According to my guide book "The relatively fit should allow a total of about 4-5 hour to reach the summit: 2 hours to the halfway point, and another 2 hours to reach Nan Tian Men." I showed my English map to a man along the way and was surprised to find out that instead of climbing up the mountain I had somehow taken a detour and for the past hour had been climbing zigzag across the side of the mountain. After some pointing and motioning I was (I hoped) on the correct path. The steps now steepened intensely, a quarter of the total climb behind me.
After nearly three hours I reached the halfway point at the Midway Gate to Heaven, a cluster of small temples, lodgings, gift shops and lookout points, from where the city of Tai’an below us was no more; it was lost in the smoggy haze, thick as storm clouds. Above us I could see the mountain's summit, though the stairs disappeared through the trees a third of the way up. I rested, enjoying a drink of water and set out quickly. In my mind I could still reach the summit by sunset.
I stopped near the Archway to Immortality for another drink, nearly five hours into the climb. I could hear a commotion further down the stairs. Coming up the right side of the stairs was one of the famed porters of Tai Shan. For centuries the porters have carried supplies and goods up the steps literally on their backs, as there are no roads to the summit. The shops, restaurants, and few hotels have no other way of receiving their supplies. Many of the porters are continuing a family tradition practiced for centuries, with some of their ancestors having been the men who carried the emperors and dignitaries to the top. He climbed one step at a time, careful to balance the weight evenly, likely wanting to climb unnoticed. He kept his eyes to the ground, carefully making one step at a time.
There is a saying in China that the people of the East all walk with their heads down, walking uphill, while the people of the West walk proudly with their heads held high, unaware that they are walking downhill.
I was losing the light quickly, and two Chinese boys that were making the trip down informed me that I likely wouldn't make the summit before sunset. They were correct and about 3/4 of the way up the mountain I was able to see the sun setting below the foggy landscape. After taking a long rest, I made the final ascent, coming upon the South Gate to Heaven, the third and final celestial gate, after nearly six hours of climbing. Together with the twenty or so Chinese people in the group which had formed once the dark set upon us, I sprinted the final section of stairs, using whatever energy I had left, wanting to work for those last few steps to heaven.
The summit of Tai Shan is a growing town of stone temples, shops, hotels and restaurants. I was beginning to think twice about my idea to sleep outside. It was snowing/sleeting and the wind was blowing so hard that I had to hold onto the side of the wall as to not be blown over. After asking the prices of rooms at a few places I caved and paid 40 yuan ($5) for a room in a rickety looking house. By then I was cold, wet, hungry, and my legs were about to give out from the thousands of steps that I had just climbed. I fell into a deep sleep around 9:30 pm, exhausted, but satisfied at myself for making the trek.
A heavy hand knocked on my door at 4:30 am for the wake-up call. I dressed and headed out the door following the droves of Chinese. I have learned that sometimes it’s better not to ask questions and just follow the masses. There was hardly enough light to see the person walking in front of me and I began to wonder if I had slept at all. The night before I thought I had reached the top of the mountain, but now we were ascending once again and I knew that even in heaven there is no end and nowhere to rest. We came to the Jade Emperor Temple built 1545 meters above sea level on the highest pinnacle of Tai Shan. In front of the temple is the Wordless Monument, a huge stone stele erected thousands of years ago by an emperor who was dissatisfied with what his scribes suggested as an inscription. Rather than make his mark in words, he left the stone blank, leaving it up to the viewer's imagination.
I was joined by a steadily growing crowd of people moving in the same direction as us. Soon we reached the eastern edge of the summit, the North Prayer Rock, the suggested point for the best view of the sun coming up. From my book I read that the sun would be rising at our feet, from far below, as we already stood in the clouds. I walked to the edge of the promontory which was covered in a dark misty haze. We wouldn't be able to see the sun gradually rising; it would have to split through the fog and surprise the crowd that was now gathered along the edge of the cliff. There were hundreds of people massed together between the jutting rocks, most of them young, and all turned their faces to the east. Half of them were wearing long heavy green trench coats you could rent at the top of the mountain to fight off the piercing winds. These were the old coats of the Red Army. Many of these people had slept outside, huddled together on the summit, some had just finished the climb as it is a custom for Chinese men to start the climb at 0:00 and reach the summit for sunrise. Suddenly the crowd began to stir. A few voices shouted out as an orange sliver of light cut through the fog. The murmur became a cheer. Faces lit up all around me warmed by the sun. The people laughed, pointed, and embraced each other as if with the relief that comes at the end of a great struggle. The sun rose as a flaming orange ball through the fog. It was an amazing experience!! Less than 5 minutes after the sun rose, the masses started moving back down the mountain. The sleet started again, and I bundled up for the long descent.