Mist and history on the most famous Chinese mountain of them all
3-3-3 Tour: Day 14 & 15
When it comes to mountains, they don’t come any grander or any more renowned in China, than Tai Shan. It is neither the tallest nor the most spectacular of China’s famous peaks, but having been visited by anyone who was ever anyone in Chinese history – from the first emperor Qin Shi Huang to Confucius and Mao Zedong – the mountain today, like Tiananmen Square in Beijing, is a place of pilgrimage for the Chinese people, a chance to connect with thousands of years of Chinese history and tread the same steps as those nation builders that came before them.
After my supposed three weeks, three mountains, three provinces tour had turned into something a little more grounded, I couldn’t return to Hong Kong without doing at least a little of what I’d set out to do those fourteen days before. Two weeks of typhoon dodging and big city trekking may have ruined any chance I’d had of making it to the top of the three mountains I’d originally intended, but with my time in China almost at an end this time, the moment had arrived to set foot in front of climbing foot and get heading skywards.
I arrived in Tai’an at the foot of the mountain after another six hour chugger from Qingdao. It was already dark by the time I stepped out of the station, but if I’d been expecting another one-street, two-hostel town as I’d found at Emei Shan the year before, the lights, hotels and high-rises that confronted me were evidence that this may be a different kind of mountain experience all together.
The short taxi ride from the station to my hostel took me along wide roads, past banks and buses. There were fast food joints, a Pizza Hut, and all the usual trappings of a modern Chinese town that had grown into a place of modest substance thanks to the cash that its well-oiled Tai Shan tourism industry continued to attract. We were, as well, only forty minutes away from Jinan, another of this wealthy east coast’s prosperous provincial capitals, so maybe it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise that I hadn’t exactly found myself stranded in the middle of nowhere with the only thing to look forward to being a night spent in the nearest stable. The room I eventually bedded down in was pretty far from being the Tai’an Hilton, but by morning I was rested, and ready to tackle the mountain.
Often regarded as the greatest of China’s Five Great Mountains, Tai Shan has been a place of worship for at least 3000 years, with evidence of human activity dating back as many as 400,000 years. It is even considered one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization itself. Chinese emperors of almost every dynasty have made the pilgrimage to the mountain to offer sacrifices and pray to the gods of heaven and earth that their dynasty may be as immovable as the rocks on which they stood, while centuries of poets, artists and scholars have sought inspiration on the mountain, amongst whose number Du Fu – perhaps China’s greatest poet – composed his famous poem Gazing at Mount Tai on a visit to Tai Shan during the 8th century.
No less than four inscriptions of this poem appear on Tai Shan at different levels along the main route, along with hundreds of other inscriptions from every era of Chinese history. In this respect, Tai Shan is unique amongst the mountains of China. Aside from its natural beauty and the geological treats it holds, no other mountain boasts such a wealth of historical and cultural value as Tai Shan. 12 imperial ceremonies are recorded on the mountain and around 1800 stone tablets and inscriptions can be seen. There are 22 temples and 11 gates, 14 archways and 4 pavilions. All of which makes Tai Shan not just another mountain to climb, but a living museum of Chinese cultural history.
The rain that had been falling since I woke had stopped by the time we breached the clouds around half an hour before we reached the summit. The constant drizzle that had followed us up had been replaced instead by a rather persistent mist that gave the final steep climb up the infamous Stairway to Heaven an even more interminable feel as the steps appeared out of the whiteout in front and disappeared into the whiteout behind without any sense that we were ever getting any closer to our goal. It had taken around five hours of climbing, but this last thigh-burning, calf-knotting drag towards some kind of relief was a wonder in itself. The young and the old, the fat and the frail, they were all scrambling up the steepening incline. Even pets were being carried through the clouds to make the pilgrimage. This wasn’t simply an exhausting excuse to see the sunrise and take some pretty photographs. It was a Chinese right of passage.
When the summit finally did arrive, with the South Gate to Heaven emerging out of the gloom as the mist closed in and darkness fell, I had the 7000-step leg shakes and just time enough to search for a place to spend the night before I was left relying on the light of my wind-up torch to find my way around. There was none of the wind-swept next-to-nothing I’d anticipated when I reached the top. Indeed, as far as it could be described as such, there was a town up there, or at least two streets of one. There were a few hotels and restaurants, some flashing neon and music coming from somewhere not too far away. Hardly the spirituality you’d expect from China’s most sacred mountain. I found a place for Y100 a short walk from the commotion, and though I’d briefly head out again for a spot of nighttime exploration, I was in bed by 9pm hoping that when I woke, the mist would be gone, and the sunset that I came to see would be as miraculous as the 3000 years of legends promised.