Barely two weeks have passed since we ventured into the great outdoors of the Great Wall at Jinshanling, and already the rigours of Beijing urban life have been starting to grind again. I find that every day spent in this sprawling city of 19 million is increasingly leading me to crave fresh air and open spaces. Plenty of activities are in the pipeline for the very near future (including a visit from a group of seven friends from the UK and imminent visits to Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing and Huangshan), and thus our free time in the coming months will be at a premium. Faced with a single free weekend, and a startlingly long checklist of not-to-be-missed activities, we were overcome by a rush of carpe diem. Arguably the most sacred mountain in China can be easily reached by a two hour train journey from Beijing, so what were we doing wasting time in the city?
Mount Tai (泰山 Tàishān) stands in the eastern province of Shandong, looming over the city of Tai’an (泰安 Tài’ān) at 1,532 metres, and is a site that has been venerated throughout the course of Chinese history. The First Emperor proclaimed the unity of the Chinese states at the summit of the mountain in 219 BC, but it also seems that anyone who’s anyone has also done something important here. Mao Zedong and the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu have visited, and even the big man himself, Confucius, once stood on Mount Tai and got all wax-lyrical about “considering the state of Lu small”. (I can’t vouch for him on this one though, thanks to the thick fog). Thanks to its central position in Chinese history, the mountain is regarded as a truly significant site, and hoards of people climb the mountain to attain the blessing of a hundred-year life, which is said to be bestowed upon all those who climb the mountain on foot.
We reached the city of Tai’an, nestled at the southern foot of the mountain, by fast train, as the city lies on the high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai. These ‘G’-mark trains are spotlessly clean and race along at 300km/h, contrasting hugely to the regular, slow and dirty trains which trudge around China’s section of normal railway. Tai’an itself, as a city, is unremarkable. In Chinese terms, this means grey, filled with dreary tower blocks, and stretching in every direction for as far as the eye can see. We only used the city as a point to rest up, so there is little to comment on the city itself.
We soon found out that, according to curious Chinese people who forced themselves upon us in conversation, our trip was “very poorly planned”. Such conversations invariably consist of me starting up conversations with people on trains, with initial enthusiasm to practise my spoken Chinese, only to regret the over-bearing nature of the ensuing dialogue and trying to withdraw all traces of interest. In this case, a young woman on the train sat next to me and, after finding out that I am a student of Chinese, started to grill us on our plans (of course, this followed the ubiquitous ceremony of “Where are you from? Are you American?” – “No, I’m British” – “Where do you study?” – “At Peking University” – “Wow, do you find Chinese hard?” – “The writing and the tones are hard, yes” – “Do you like China?” – “Not anymore”. The last one was thought, not said). It transpires that Chinese people like to climb the mountain at midnight to be at the summit in time for sunrise, then climb down immediately afterwards; the lady on the train greatly disapproved of our plan to climb during the day, maybe stick around for sunset, then climb down in the evening.
We decided to ascend by the less-trodden route, which led up the back of the mountain through the Tianzhu Peak Scenic Area. After a little confusion about how to reach the launching point for this route, we commenced the slow and steady five-hour climb to the summit at around midday. The sun was out with the blue skies, yet the air was bracingly chilly. A wide ravine scarred its way up the steep mountain side, getting gradually thinner as it twisted its way past sheer cliff faces and forested slopes. Rivers once poured down this course, punctuated by waterfalls of varying height, now frozen over by the harsh winter. We were greeted by new cliffs and rocky promontories which became increasingly spectacular the further we progressed up the mountain. Every now and then, we came across temples with curious names such as “Hurrah at the mountain temple” (呼山庙 Hū Shān Miào) which provided fantastic vantage points up, across and down the valley. The whole route had concrete steps, only occasionally giving way to sheets of ice and snow. Five hours of climbing later, a sense of elation descended upon the group as we could peer down the dramatic slopes that we had just scaled and had reached the summit.