Mount Tai, or Taishan in Chinese, is one of the ‘five great mountains’ of China. It stands 1545m tall and has been a place of worship for over 3,000 years. Associated with sunrise, birth and renewal, it is said that those whom successfully reach the top of the 7,000 steps and walk through the Gate to Heaven, will become immortal. Many an emperor (72 according to historical records) – not forgetting Mao Zedong – visited Mount Tai to offer sacrifices and meditate at the peak, where the original temple still stands. When I realised this UNESCO world heritage site was just an overnight train-ride away, I headed there for an action packed weekend away.
It made a nice change to arrive in a nearby city to a popular tourist spot, not to be bombarded by taxi’s, old ladies trying to sell maps and a line of buses all headed in the same direction. Instead, getting off the train in Tai’an, I was left standing outside the station scratching my head.
Lonely planet assured me bus 3 headed to Mount Tai. After wandering around for a good 20mins in search of said bus, I wearily asked an official looking man “Taishan..?” and put complete faith into bus Z39 instead. At just 20p a ride, it wouldn’t matter too much if I ended up in Timbuktu.
As I wandered through the Red Gate, starting point to the central route up the mountain, I observed the many stalls lining the steps – all selling the same tacky trinkets. Carrying a wooden sword or a large engraved rock to the top might have encouraged more unwanted stares, so I reluctantly decided against it.
It didn’t take long for my scepticism of 7,000 steps to fade away – one hour in and I could almost hear my thighs screaming as my toes balanced on the next narrow ledge, barely 3 inches higher than the last.
Beautiful distractions came my way; first detailed calligraphy in the rocks, and then well preserved bridges crossing the (currently dry) riverbed.
The best distraction however, had to be the 70+ year old gentleman silently ascending the mountain. One hand gently held the stone wall to his right, the other onto the walking stick that helped guide his feet. My Chinese failed to ask him, but my guess is he didn’t mind how long it would take to reach immortality.
Thankfully the heavy cloud cover prevented a clear view of the final ascent to the Archway to Immortality. It was a case of head down as I set myself a snail pace and pretended in my head that I was in fact a 21st century Chinese emperor (made more believable by the numerous hello’s and blatant photographs).
Alongside the Jade Emperor summit and the remaining temple, there was an interesting peak made up of broken rock and very tall stone fencing. Upon further investigation I found a sign reading ‘Life Abandonment Peak’. As the wind howled and I realised I was the only one in sight, goosebumps tickled my neck and I fled back to the warmth of my dorm for the night.
It just seemed a bit too soon to test out my newly acquired immortality.