Taishan (Mount Tai): a spiritual mountain climb

Taishan (Mount Tai), Shandong Province. 1 and ½ hours from Jinan, Shandong Province. Height at 1,545 meters.

Climbing Taishan mountain was a spiritual experience. According to Chinese folklore, climbing Mount Tai is one thing that every Chinese man should do once in his life. There are many different methods to reach the top. A mixed approach is what we took and, in my mind, it is the ideal way to experience Taishan, optimizing the balance between effort and convenience. We first took a mini-bus up to the "middle gate". From there, we walked step by step up hundreds of stone steps to the south gate, the north gate, etc. until we reached the very top of the mountain, where there was a small temple. The trip starting from the “middle gate” is still not a short one and this hike took us about four hours. Others who started from the very bottom of the mountain, probably needed an additional three hours to get to the middle gate. A round trip, only by walking the steps, could take 14 or 15 hours. Luckily for us, there were capsules suspended by cable, mini cable cars, that went up and down from the middle gate to the plateau of the mountain. We took one of these for the journey down, which was (in relative terms) heavier on the expense account but easier on the knees.

The approach to the south gate was truly a spiritual experience. In ancient times, Chinese emperors would come to pray on Mount Taishan as one of their first acts upon ascending the throne. It is said that, all in all, 72 emperors made the pilgrimage. In addition, artists have come to Mount Tai to seek inspiration for poems, literary works and paintings. Finally, Mount Tai has been a key spiritual home for both Buddhism and Taoism throughout Chinese history. In recognition of Mount Tai’s historical significance, it was listed in the World Natural and Cultural Heritage List by UNESCO in 1987.

The steepest parts of the climb are at the top. The climb, all at once, combines a sense of the historical significance of the location with a sense of camaderie with one's fellow man, and, to top it off, a sense of accomplishment. The other climbers, pretty much all local Chinese from various parts of China, were all sympathetic with one another as fatigue set in and colder weather at the top brought out latent coughs and stinging ears.

At the top, we reached the south gate and, from there, a street extended along relatively flat terrain until we reached a midway temple. Then, another moderately steep climb to reach the temple at the top. Along the street, 1,500 meters above sea level, were many shops and restaurants. We chose one and ate a bowl of noodles and some fresh vegetables. Although the meal was expensive, befitting a tourist mecca, the meal turned out to be one of the best we have had in China. The cabbage, in particular, was exceedingly fresh and crunchy, probably due to it being raised at high altitude. That plate of vegetables was among the best I have tasted in my entire life, not just in China! At the midway temple, which was rather large, one could pay a fee and go in to pray. We bypassed this and continued on to the top.

The temple at the top was relatively small - certainly smaller than the temple midway from the south gate. Looking down from the top, legend has it that Confucius is to have said "the world is small" and Mao Tse-Tung, from the same vantage point, is said to have declared "the east is red". My deep observation is that "the earth is round". Without needing to look at the stars, as Galileo did, one intuitively senses that the world is round from the top of Taishan. The horizon has a mild curvature and you can imagine that if you go a little higher, you will be able to see the earth as you do in pictures from spacecraft.