That time I climbed to the summit of Mount Taishan in China

As I am currently in quarantine and unable to leave the house, I take this opportunity to look back upon some travel memories. I tell you here about the time I visited Mount Taishan, one of the most sacred mountains in China.

I can’t remember exactly why my roommate and I decided to go to Mount Taishan. For the first time since arriving in China we had a few days off, and as it was also my birthday, we decided to mark the occasion with a hike to the top of Taishan. A 1500-metre summit for my birthday, nothing less!

Mount Tai, or Taishan (泰山 – shan literally means montain), is one of the five sacred mountains of China and is the highest peak in Shandong Province. In past centuries, several emperors from different dynasties have made the pilgrimage to the summit to participate in ceremonies or to make sacrifices. Even Confucius have left some inscriptions in stone there. The mountain has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1980s due to its religious, cultural and historical significance for China.

As Taishan is located along the railway that connects Beijing to Shanghai, it is rather easy to get there, and after four hours by train from the capital, we found ourselves right in the center of Tai’an, the small town located at the foot of the mountain.

The main gate to Taishan
The main gate: this is where our hike started

The start of the hike

We arrived in Tai’an in the evening, with the goal of starting our hike the following morning. From our hotel, we took the bus which quickly brought us to the gate of the main trail. There are several ways to get to the top of Mount Tai, but we decided to follow the most popular route, the East Route, the one traditionally used by the Emperors.

I knew we were going to come across many temples along the trail (there are 22 on the mountain), but I admit I didn’t expect the trail was going to be mostly stairs. At that time, my mountain hiking experience was mostly limited to the very small Mont Rigaud (and if you’ve been to Rigaud, you know that calling this a mountain hiking experience is a bit exaggerated). So when we started, I somehow thought that going up stairs was going to be easier than following a steep trail and that we would therefore be reaching the top in no time.

How naive I was.

Stairs to the summit of Taishan
So. Many. Stairs.

The main route is almost 10 kilometres long and has over 6,000 steps (!). But the first hour of the hike didn’t seem that bad to us. As Taishan is a very popular tourist attraction, there are several kiosks along the trail to buy food and drink, many stops to take a break and several temples to visit.

Above all, we were in no rush. Reaching the top of Taishan was our only plan for the day. We therefore took the opportunity to stop at all the temples we saw on our way.

Temples of Mount Taishan
So. Many. Temples.

The weather was not perfect (a thick fog covered the mountain) but nothing could alter our enthusiasm. After a month living in the urban chaos of Beijing, I had the impression of discovering the China I had imagined: the temples in the mountains, the hens pecking along the path, the characters carved on the rocks, the ruins overgrown with vegetation … Everything felt magical.

The mid-point gate

After three hours of climbing stairs, we arrived at a large parking lot. At that point, I was believing we were almost there, but to my despair realized that we only reached the mid-point gate. In front of us, the stairs seemed to go up as far as the eye could see.

Mid-Point on Taishan
When you think you’re done, but realize you’re only just starting

Many tourists start their hike from this point. This is also where one of the cable cars leading to the summit can be found. My friend and I had a serious discussion at this point: should we walk the rest of the way or take the cable car?

We decided to continue our hike.

It’s probably in this section that the scenery is the most spectacular, but it was difficult for us to measure the extent of the distance traveled, as the surroundings were covered by the fog. The only thing that seemed visible was the long stretch of stairs behind us, and the one that remained to be climbed in front of us.

Stairs in the mountains
Kilometres and kilometres of stairs

It is also in this section that the hike became more strenuous. The steps are narrower and higher. The climb is constant and grueling. I never could have believed that climbing stairs could be so difficult.

We were obviously not the only ones on the trail, but, strangely enough, we encountered few foreigners. In fact, there were so few foreigners that we attracted attention. Several people gave us curious glances, and a few stopped to chat or take pictures with us (shout out to all those Chinese hikers who have a picture of me exhausted and sweaty somewhere in their photo albums).

Arriving at Taishan summit

Our last few metres on the trail were made in the company of a group of Chinese hikers. They didn’t speak English, and our knowledge of Mandarin was rather rudimentary, but we still found a way to encourage each other and laugh at our exhaustion.

And when we finally walked through the gate at the summit, we hugged each other. You don’t have to speak the same language to understand the pride felt when you reach the top of a mountain!

Summit of Taishan
Finally getting to the top

The summit of Taishan almost looks like a small village with several restaurants, temples and even a hotel. We took the time to rest and eat, but since there was no view at all due to the fog, we didn’t stay there very long. In fact, I think that’s when I realized that the hike to the top of mountain is often more meaningful and interesting than the summit itself.

As we were quite exhausted, we opted to take the cable car back down. And I think there was no better way to understand what we just accomplished.

Cable car in Taishan
Going back done in the fog

Even today, my hike on Mount Taishan remains one of my fondest memories of China. Now that I’m a little more experienced hiker, I hope I can go back one day to explore the other trails!

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