Mount Tai, also known as Mount Taishan (it is called this on the UNESCO World Heritage website, even though it is redundant: Shan means Mountain) or Tai Shan, isn’t high by world mountain standards, at a mere 1545 meters above sea level (5,069 ft) but to ascend is to climb a whole lot of stone steps. Mount Tai is in the Shandong Province. In the fall of 2015 my son got a couple of days off work when I was visiting and we took a quick trip to check it out. In the photos he is the one with the pony tail and grey athletic pants.
The recorded number of steps varies, most sources put it fairly close to 7,000. Some sources attribute the differing numbers to how many of the temples and shrines one visits along the way. I personally believe that when one is ascending it is too easy to loose count, and honestly, how much does it really matter. It felt like a million to this slightly over the hill mama, and I didn’t even go the whole way afoot.
Near the halfway point there is a cable car that takes you to a spot a bit above the famous entrance gate. You then follow a path that takes you down a bit and through the entrance gate.
I felt like it was cheating but my son was obviously relieved when I gave up the idea that I was going to make it all the way. He had been once before [he has also climbed both Mount Olympus (7.980 ft) and Mount Rainier (14,411 ft-although the climb starts at about 5,400 ft)]. He had been trying to figure out how he could carry both of our packs up the steepest part (known as Shiba which means eighteen, a nearly vertical stretch of eighteen steps) and stay behind me to keep me from an unbroken fall. Sometimes he can be very sweet! I am not the best balanced person in the world.
My decision was eased by two things: visibility was low so I wouldn’t get any views to compensate for the labor…and I learned that emperors didn’t climb the whole way themselves, they were carried up in litters to near the gate the walked through the gate themselves. Before that I was being very impressed by the level of fitness expected of an emperor!
Even taking the cable way there were plenty of steps to experience between the station and the top.
At the top of Tai Shan there is a round gate called the “eye of the tortoise”. The tortoise is one of the nine sons of the dragon.
The gate itself is pretty cute.
Eye of the tortoise gate on Tai Shan.
View of the “eye of the tortoise” gate on Tai Shan.
Post sunrise exodus.
The eye of the tortoise is a gate to a viewing area. This is one of the places people come to watch the sunrise (to read about our sunrise experience check out Sleeping Dragon Slowly Opens One Eye). More famously, it is where Confucius came to view his territory, the stae of Lu.
I have wondered about the significance and connection between this formation and the bixi, which are a statue of a tortoise carrying a stele on its back. Mount Tai is a very old place of importance and it would be interesting to know if this granite formation helped shape the mythology of the region.
If you recall we were trouping, somewhat bleary eyed, out of our hotel. We were more awake than many of the others since we had to battle with the alarm on our door.
Watching the sunrise on Mount Tai is, to quote the commercial, “what you do”.
As we walked out of the hotel we were joined by others, and as we walked along toward the viewing area groups of folks who had come up in the night joined the throng. There were vendors renting big army looking coats for 20 RMB and photographers that would take your picture then “photoshop” you into various wonderful, but, in many cases, geographically impossible backgrounds.
I was awfully glad that we had sent James the high-vis hat which made him easy to spot in the dim light and crowds. The pictures are blurry, even with a mono-pod it was hard to stay still in the chilly morning as I tried to keep track of James (I gave up trying to keep up with him years ago) and keep out of the way of more vigorous others (pretty much everyone).
Why were we all there?
The sunrise on Mount Tai is splendid and one of the marvelous spectacles of the summit of Mount Tai and is also the important symbol of Mount Tai. While the first beam of sunlight tears the last beam of darkness before dawn, the east sky turns dull black to grey, to red and then to dazzling golden yellow jetting out rays of morning sun and brightening the whole sky. Finally, one fireball suddenly jumps out of sea of cloud. The whole process is like a peak of perfection which likes thousands of polychrome pictures brought by a lofty magician.
There came a point when both the clock and the amount of ambient light indicated that the sun had risen. But no one wanted to give up and walk away.
Then someone started pointing and others joined in. There it was, the sun.
My son said “sleeping dragon slowly opens one eye…then hits the snooze button.”
We were now free to file out through the “Eye of the Tortoise” and find some breakfast.
Train tickets safely tucked in my neck pouch, we began to ascend Mount Tai.
Mount Tai, a block uplift formation, rises somewhat abruptly from a plain. It has been a center of worship for time out of mind. Both as a location for and as the subject of worship. The origins of its significance are related to it forming a physical connection between the earth and the sky.
It is a place where myth, legend, mystery and history intermingle.
It reminds me of the “old magic” that is referred to in literature such as the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, the Dark is Rising series and other fantasy genre books. One almost expects that one of the nearby peaks, barely visible through the haze, might house an oriental version of Hogwarts.
But when you start up the thing you most notice is the stairs.
Mount Tai is well known for stairs. Many sources give step counts, 6660 to 7000 is the most common range.
As we climbed up the stairs I had to “stop to take pictures” pretty often, especially on long steep stretches. A few times I got lectured by my son that I shouldn’t stop except on landings, because he was afraid I would topple over. What he didn’t realize was that the stopping was in part needed to preventing the toppling. The scenery was okay, it would have been better had it been less hazy. Few pictures I took were all that great. If the air had been a bit clearer the fall colors and mountain scenery would have been “just like a Chinese painting”.
As we started up the dominant traffic was folks coming down. I wondered how many of them had come on the train with us. There were people of all sorts coming down, young and old, hale and ones that were being assisted, a fair number of folks were limping a bit or seemed like their feet were hurting. As the morning wore on the downhill traffic slowed to a trickle and, while it was never a wilderness experience, it wasn’t crowded any more. It took us about 4 hours to reach the Midway Gate to Heaven (Zhong Tian Men).
Travelers who don’t need to “stop to take pictures” as much as I do will do this in about half the time. After lunch we assessed the situation and decided that
I was already dragging, and it would be after dark before we reached the top.
We had packs on that affected our (especially my) balance. James was talking about carrying both packs and staying behind me in case I fell as we went up the steepest part, which was very, very steep (his concern warmed my heart , but the plan seemed like it would set up a domino effect more than it would prevent a disaster).
It was pretty hazy so visibility wasn’t terrific, we weren’t going to miss any spectacular views.
We wouldn’t have any time or energy to explore at the summit if we continued up on foot.
So we took the cable way.
In some ways this follows the tradition of emperors, who were carried up on litters then got off to walk through the South Gate to Heaven, reputed to be the way to immortality. The emperors probably walked a shorter distance than we did coming downhill from the cable way to the gate.
Guess what you did after going through the gate?
Our hotel was just below the Jade Emperor Summit, about a half a mile up stairs from the gate! Boy was I glad we weren’t going through that gate well after dark to learn that we still had a fair ways to go!
We explored until dark.
View from pathway exiting cable way.
Panoramic view of the summit, a bit too hazy.
Did I mention that this is not a wilderness experience?
This sign makes it sound like the rocks are either profound or a little kinky.
Rocks described by sign.
View toward the southeast.
View from pathway near Azure Cloud Temple.
View of Confucius Temple from Shenqi Hotel entrance.
View of Qingdi Palace and Shenqi Hotel from Jade Emperor temple.
We think this may be a weather station…it looks a bit like something Dr. Seuss might have drawn.
Evening fire lit at Qingdi Palace.
The Shenqi Hotel, which calls itself a three star hotel, was comparable to the hard sleeper on the train. The beds were a little wider and we didn’t have to climb up to them, but the room was barely large enough for the two beds and a modest walkway between them. We had kind of a scary incident when we realized that our door did not lock. The maid for the floor came over locked the door with her key then took our key away to fix it while we were out doing the exploring that resulted in the gallery above. That meant that our belongings were in a locked room for which we didn’t have a key…we weren’t sure if that was an improvement over the previous foray when, unbeknownst to us, it wasn’t locked at all.
When we got back she had made the key work, but an alarm went off every time you shut the door…a loud one. It always took several tries before the door would stay shut quietly.
The towels were threadbare, the shower cubicle moldy and the toilet made a little noise when flushed but nothing actually disappeared. We were told that hot water would be available for showers from 8 to 11 pm.
In spite of hard beds, alarming door and cold water wash up, we were so tired we slept through the hot shower window. We were awakened by the call for folks to go out for sunrise. We bundled up and trundled out.
In the middle of the night I received an email saying “no we really couldn’t get you train tickets.”
These little quests do matter: four and a half hours in a smoky hard sleeper at the beginning of a trip is fun, especially when followed by a night in a comfortable bed. Very different from the same train ride late on a day when one got up to watch the sun rise, then spent the day on one’s feet with a pack on, arriving just a few hours before one has to go to work.
So before we started exploring we found the office that sold train tickets…padlocked. Inquiring at the tourist information office next door we learned little except that she seemed surprised that it wasn’t open. She kept coaching her son in math during the interaction, which went a bit like this:
“You want train tickets? That is next door. What is three plus four?”
“They aren’t open? They should be. If you think six is the answer to three plus four you will not do well.”
We decided to try a little later since she seemed surprised that it wasn’t open yet. Our planned route changed not a bit:
We used the hour to explore Dai Miao. It is a Taoist temple to the God of Taishan. It is very old and includes a small palace for the emperor to stay at when visiting the mountain to perform key rituals. It is a large area with a lot of interesting things to see. Too many to try an capture in pixels in an hour or so. Here are a few that caught my eye.
Dai Miao north gate in daylight.
Snag in the temple wall.
Entrance to a bonsai garden.
Mother and child paying respects to God of Taishan.
Shrine of God of Taishan.
Tang Pagoda embracing her child.
My favorite snag viewed from top of the wall beside the north gate.
Back of the north gate.
From Dai Miao, just like emperors, Confucius, and even Chairman Mao we began our journey up Mount Tai.
First stop: train ticket office.
With the much desired fast train tickets in our possession, leaving at a very civilized 4:30 pm, which would allow us to both enjoy a leisurely morning on Tai Shan and arrive in Weifang at 6:20 pm, with plenty of time for hot showers, uniform washing, and a good night’s sleep, we approached the mountain with an “it’s all good” attitude. Surely, if we could get train tickets we could do anything?
I am a planner. Before I travel I research locations, accommodation and transportation options. I study maps and schedules and figure things out. I don’t just make a plan I also look at what can go wrong and figure out options so that if things go awry I have an idea about what to do.
I just returned from a trip to visit my son, who lives in Weifang, Shandong Province, China. I left home with a plan. I was ready.
On my two previous trips to China I did tourist type things, specifically Western tourist type things, as part of my visits. This time was different. The duration of this trip was shorter and I went primarily to spend time with my son, since I hadn’t seen him in over a year. Never-the-less I thought I would try to see a couple of things not on the typical Western tourist track, destinations fairly close to Weifang that are important to Chinese people.
One planned excursion was to Mount Tai, aka Tai Shan, aka Mount Taishan. There may be a few more akas. Mount Tai or Tai Shan (since shan means mountain to say Mount Taishan is redundant, although the UNESCO site does so). Mount Tai is a sacred mountain, they believe that it has held spiritual significance since the stone age. More about that later…first we had to get there.
My son was able to take a day off of work and come with me, but we didn’t find out until the evening before. Too late to get train tickets on a fast train.
James got done with work at about 10 am and we took the city bus from his place to the train station. We chose a ticket line and waited for our turn. We were the second from the window when the woman selling tickets picked up her glass tea jar and left. Some discussion (held by others then explained to my by my son) revealed that she was on her lunch break. This was clearly explained by the sign over her window (if you could read it). Since all the other lines were long and all the other workers were scheduled for lunch breaks the fasted alternative was to just wait until this gal got back. When she did we learned that all of the seats on the train we wanted were sold out. We opted to ride in a “hard sleeper” over taking a later train.
Yes, the hard sleepers are hard. There is also not enough room between the berths to sit up all the way. On the plus side they provided a pillow and comforter. I used my backpack as a foot rest and reclined on the pile of comforter and pillow. It wasn’t too bad until the woman below closed the curtain and her husband started to smoke (he didn’t do so in the compartment itself but somehow the smoke found its way in), then my bladder said “times up!”
To get up and down from our middle berth there is a flip down metal foot hold, about 3″ by 5″. I successfully maneuvered myself down and utilized the facilities without needing a clean up crew. I felt a bit cocky at that point, but still decided to sit the rest of the trip on a jump seat in the corridor where I could look out the window and the smoke could blow away.
One question still haunts me: could I have made it up onto the top berth if that had been our lot in life?