I’ve heard the top of Mount Tai itself looks spectacular, if only it were possible to see clearly. As expected in these winter months, a thick fog was clinging tightly to the mountain and the pink sun was only vaguely visible until it descended into total obscurity behind clouds a fair margin above the horizon. In the end, we didn’t even notice that the sun had set. The summit of the mountain is not so much a peak as it is a very gently sloping, wide space filled with hotels and telephone masts. This is accompanied not by the sound of silence, but rather by speakers blasting out modern Chinese heart-wrenching power ballads, the most memorable of which was called “Mum, Don’t Cry” (妈妈你别哭 Māmā Nĭ Bié Kū). My personal highlight, though, was the “Terrace for Viewing the State of Lu”, where Confucius had supposedly stood. We were not pilgrims expressly following in his footsteps, but it was a strange feeling to stand in the very spot described in one of our first year Classical Chinese texts. Even if the view was simply looking into a thick cloud.
After we had sufficiently explored the summit of the mountain and had sat down briefly inside to thaw, the really exciting bit began. Night had well and truly fallen, and here we were, at the top of a 1,532 metre-tall mountain, without a hotel, faced with 6,293 steps down. Thankfully, one of our group had brought a handheld torch, and we eventually perfected the formation whereby one of us could shine the torch to allow all of us to place our feet carefully on each step. We were clambering down the main route up which the majority of tourists climb, and so we met a fair amount of puzzled faces questioning our reasoning for coming down at night. The path was wide and well made-up, but seemed never-ending. Shops and stalls passed by and the route snaked down the mountain, every step as sheepishly trodden as the last.
It was a good few hours until we reached a wide tarmacked bus stop. Being dark, we assumed that the bus services had stopped and continued to follow the stairway. It led us to another, considerably smaller and unpaved track which led us into a darker forest and definitely didn’t have the air of a main route. We were sure we hadn’t missed any large turnings. Confused but resigned to the absence of alternatives, we carried on and hoped that it would lead us back onto the main drag soon. This was certainly a hope which it didn’t really fulfil. We must have scrambled for at least three-quarters of an hour along a dusty track through the forest, one person wide, leading over large boulders and tree roots, in the pitch black of night, aided only by the weak light of our mobile phones. It would have been the perfect setting for a horror film. At one point, it directed us down what I’m sure was at least a 30% slope. It was definitely a case of putting your head down, focussing on your feet and not on what you could see of the distance, as what was ahead would just make you hope that there was a house round the corner.
Which there was! It was a real godsend that the path, at long last, led us back to the main steps. There we were welcomed with looks from Chinese people more disapproving and bewildered than ever before. How much further, we asked… another hour. It was ambitious to ever hope that we’d reach the end of the path so easily, so we carried on climbing down the steps. Legs feeling categorically like jelly, now.
Aside from the blip of the, let’s say, unofficial routing, the rest of the descent was not too bad. After such a long day of walking, my mind had been sapped of energy and I now struggle to have any distinct recollection from any time after our emergence from the shrubbery. The epic journey concluded when we found a taxi hanging around after just dropping off walkers climbing up the mountain. To our surprise it had only taken us three hours to come down (even with our slight detour), yet it still felt like we had spent longer coming down the mountain than we had spent going up. We rode back into the town, all resolutely sure that we had earned a huge McDonald’s. After getting back to the hostel, straight to bed. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep so fast.
Again, it was nice to escape the crowds which, to our surprise, didn’t seem to be present on Mount Tai. I have heard that the mountain is a tourist magnet due to its historical significance, yet there was gladly no sign of that at this time of year. The summit might not have lived up to expectations due to the fog, yet the climb up Mount Tai presented simply stunning scenery, and the climb down provided one of those silly little stories which make you laugh later on. We may have done it better if we had heeded the Chinese naysayers and not done it the “wrong way round”, but I can still say that it was an enjoyable and fully worthwhile excursion.