Following in the footsteps of Confucius and Chairman Mao never seemed easier. All I had to do was climb a literal mountain to understand the world as they saw it: “the world is small” (Confucius ) or “the East is red” (Mao). I wondered what my great insight would be after climbing the 7000 steps of Tai Shan (Mount Tai), the holiest mountain in China. Would climbing it bring me a revolutionary idea?
We had decided we were going to make this pilgrimage properly, by walking from the temple at the foot of the mountain to the top, then back down. The little research we had done indicated it would take roughly four hours ascending and two declining. Planning on six hours of walking we loaded up on snacks and water in town, then walked to the starting point.
One of the Scholarly Trees where past pilgrims bettered themselves.
Quickly we realized we were the only people walking towards the mountain. The local “hikers” don’t start at the temple, they drive the 1.5km to the entry gate, which they arrive at by taxi. Of course we don’t take shortcuts on holy mountains, we’re too pious, we walk as the true believers have for centuries prior. Or, it could be that we’re too cheap to pay for a taxi and couldn’t communicate with the driver anyway. Reasons notwithstanding, we came here to walk and walk is what we did, full of excitement, not knowing what the future would hold.
Arriving at the gate we were excited to start our climb. Like most things in China we weren’t the only excited ones, there were hundreds of people in line to buy their entrance tickets. We quickly realized when Lonely Planet says that this is the most popular of the five holy mountains in China it means there will be crowds. Crowds there were, all the way to the bus and cable car stations, which is the mode of travel for the modern pilgrim. The benefit of the bus and cable car is that fewer people are crowding the stone steps that scale the mountain, the downside of it is that fewer people are probably having the life and world changing epiphanies that Confucius, Mao and soon I would have that are undoubtedly generated by the journey as much as the destination.
The euphoria of the start continued on for about a mile, reaching a climax as we stared up a very steep incline, to what must be the top. Counting the temples on the rudimentary map we were given, it seemed as though we had passed enough temples that the end was near after only about two hours of hiking from our hostel. Knowing that time estimates in the Lonely Planet and online tend to grossly overstate the amount of time it takes for frenetic hikers like us, it was possible this gate was it: Heaven’s Gate. I surged ahead, taking steps two at a time, passing the winded locals to reach…the halfway point?
Not only had we reached the halfway point, but worse, it wasn’t the physical halfway point, there was still about two thirds (~4 miles) of the hike remaining. I gathered myself, ate one of the sandwiches we had brought with us and started to wonder, what had we gotten ourselves into? Many of the people we hiked with would be taking the bus from here, but we were committed to hiking due to the simple fact we didn’t have enough cash with us to pay the bus fare.
We hiked step-by-step, past gorgeous scenery and worn out travelers, towards an unknown end.
Weaving among their weary bodies as we steadily climbed. At any point had LOCAVORista suggested we bag it and descend I would have responded, “great, can we stop at KFC on the way home?” Alas, LOCAVORista doesn’t have the quit button, so I was out of luck, I was going to Heaven, and knowing my life-to-date, this was probably the only way I was getting there.
Reaching Heaven’s Gate and crossing into Heaven I was glad St. Peter was off-duty. As quietly as I could, I proceeded deeper into Heaven to find it not as I expected. There were a lot of overpriced stalls selling soda and Chinese treats. There were also maddening crowds everywhere, crowds of people that were not sweat soaked, that were wearing their Sunday best. I saw people in full suits while I looked as though I had emerged from the jungle. These people were not real pilgrims, they clearly had taken advantage of locomotion to arrive here in such a pristine state.
Sadly I learned Heaven is not the top echelon of spirituality, no, there is more, higher up. This means more stairs, more climbing, but surrounded with thousands of meandering vacationers.
While I sat down for a sandwich LOCAVORista was accosted by locals that wanted a photo with a blonde making the hike. Such photos have become normal for us, but this instance required she take over a dozen photos with different people.
We continued on to see all of the temples of Heaven, see the sights that have been a center of worship for over 3,000 years. We paid homage to heaven and peered out across “the world”. No matter what I tried I didn’t feel any the wiser. The only insight I gained was that when offered a few thousand granite stairs or a cable car, the wise man takes the cable car.
We descended exactly as we had climbed, walking ourselves straight back to the hostel, having covered 15 miles, most of it at an incline, in about 7 hours. After over 14,000 granite steps I am still waiting for my Confucius moment.
WHEN YOU GO:
- Bring water and food. There are many vendors along the way selling any Chinese food imaginable, soda and water, but the prices are high. Bring some snacks and drinks with you.
- Bring extra money. You may be wise enough to take a bus or cable car in one direction and it will cost 30-60 RMB a person.
- Be prepared to walk, even if you take the cable car and bus.