The entrance steps to begin the climb up the mountain. // © 2014 Christopher Batin
Feature image (above): Many stations or shrines along the route up to the top of Mount Taishan have a multitude of ribbons. // © 2014 Christopher Batin
One of China’s greatest unheralded natural attractions, Mount Taishan offers visitors a range of historical and cultural experiences and is an extraordinary geological site.
Located north of the city of Taian in Shandong Province, Mount Taishan is the main draw of the Mount Taishan Global Geopark and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more than 3,000 years, emperors, scribes and sages journeyed here to gain inspiration and to worship Chinese deities. Few of the world’s mountain ranges can match its ragged yet elegant pinnacles.
Mount Taishan is also one of the world’s sacred places, and the mountain emanates an aura of awe and reverence that is different for each individual. Visitors must climb the 7,200 steps to reach the top of the mountain and receive the benefit of long life and prosperity. The climb is more of a pilgrimage than a hike for many, who climb at a slower pace to absorb the wisdom of Chinese sages and scholars of different dynasties carved and painted onto 1,018 sacred obelisks and monuments along the way. Some sayings are made of huge letters on sheer rock faces, while others are boulders with Chinese symbols painted in red.
Along the way, stalls sell a variety of religious and cultural items specifically indigenous to the area. It’s a good idea to bring a backpack to carry back relics of your pilgrimage to your home, as many of the Chinese visitors do.
Visitors start the climb by passing through the Red Gate Palace. The steps wind through bamboo and dense forested glades, with ravines on one side and numerous shrines along the way. There are huge brass urns, kettles and a 300-year-old Pagoda Tree as well.
Tell clients to watch for short detours that offer natural and cultural attractions on the climb. A personal favorite of mine is Cypress Cave, which is a grove of cypress trees that creates the illusion of being in a cave. Another is the Dragon Spring Temple, with animals carved from huge boulders and countless pieces of rock, each placed by hand, that create a wonderment of steps, bridges and embankments snaking to the top.
The midway point is the Halfway Gate to Heaven, a center of commerce also known for its numerous geological faults and formations. Visitors would be wise to rest here and refresh at various restaurants and food stalls before continuing the climb.
From here, the climb requires more rest stops and a slower pace. The 18 Twistings, with more than 1,600 stone steps, trace the old mountaineering path from Ancient China. It’s aptly nicknamed “Heavenly Ladder” due to its vertical height of 400 meters. Hold onto the railings while climbing the steeper sections, especially after the Shengxian Archway.
“Flying in Heaven Street” is the appropriate name for the winding walkways bordering the steep cliffs at the top.
While clients can complete the climb in four to five hours, most visitors who stop to take photos, admire the shrines and enjoy the scenery should plan an entire day to make the climb.
Spring and summer attract large crowds to view the blossoming trees. Many climb in the dark for the additional wonder of watching the sunrise atop the mountain. Winter attracts fewer people. On my climb in December, I observed only one other Western pilgrim, scattered groups of younger Chinese climbers and workers carrying supplies up and down to the various rest stops. It can be chilly on top, so take gloves, a jacket and a warm hat.
Many climbers choose to take the cable car down to the mountain base and catch the bus to the main gate, which will allow clients to keep their pride intact and save their feet.
To get to the area, I recommend the three-hour high-speed train from Shanghai to Taian. Once there, the Four Points by Sheraton, Taian, is a short distance from the mountain’s base, where the climb begins. Also within walking distance of the hotel is the Shixia Scenic Area, with its geological highlights.
I recommend three days to adequately tour the area, but try to plan five days to take in all the sights. The do-it-yourself entrance price to Mount Taishan is about $21. Cable car fees run an additional $3 to $17. Guided tours are available through China Century Tours, among others.