Such Great Heights

Mount Taishan is a trek well worth the climb

By: By Jim Calio

The Details

Most tour operators can customize trips from Beijing to Taishan.  

Absolute Travel
Absolute Travel offers a two-day, one-night excursion from Beijing for $1,200, including airfare from Beijing, ground transportation, a four-star hotel stay at the base of the mountain and a guide. Agent commission is 10 percent.

Cartan Tours
Cartan Tours will customize trips from Beijing to Taishan that include two nights and three days. Because Cartan only offers custom-group programs to China on a request basis, these extensions are available only to groups and not for individual bookings. Price includes air, hotels and meals.

Cox & Kings
Cox & Kings offers two nights and three days at $590, not including flights, with a stay at the Sofitel Silver Plaza in Jinan. Cost is commissionable to travel agents at 10 percent (or 12 percent to Virtuoso agents).

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Scroll down for more information on tour operators with Mount Taishan-specific itineraries

Mount Taishan, the holiest of holy mountains in China, is located about 200 miles west of Qingdao and halfway between Beijing and Shanghai. It is where a succession of Chinese emperors went to ask for blessings of the gods (and offer a few human sacrifices) and where Mao Zedong is reported to have climbed to the top and declared, "The East is Red." Confucius, who was born just several miles away, is also known to have climbed the peak and said, "The world is small." In fact, the mountain itself, with nearly 7,000 stone steps to the top, draws an estimated 90,000 visitors on a busy day.

Along the route, stone tablets recount the stories of previous generations who have made the trek. // (c) Kanegen
Along the route, stone tablets recount the stories of previous generations who have made the trek.

This is not a tourist site known to many Westerners, at least until now. Taishan is known as the First of Five Sacred Mountains of Taosim, all of which are located in China’s central plains. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

"This is a destination that’s seldom requested or visited by our clients," said Dianna Upton, director of sales for Cox & Kings. "They usually go for the major sites in Beijing or Shanghai or Xian."

But all that may be changing as China opens up to more tourism and clients look to get off the beaten track.

"We find that the more sophisticated traveler wants to go to more out-of-the way places," said Don Williams, vice president of sales and marketing for Long Beach, Calif.-based Cartan Tours. "And they don’t want to go with a group. We found this to be true during the 2008 Olympics, when clients wanted to get out of Beijing and experience something different so long as they were there."

There are daily one-hour flights from Beijing to Jinan, the nearest city, which is located about 40 miles away. Travelers can also get there by train from Beijing (seven hours) or Shanghai (11 hours) or by private bus, and several tour companies will now take their clients there overnight as part of an inclusive tour of the area.

In ancient times, Mount Taishan (the Chinese simply call it "Taishan" or "Mount Tai" since shan means mountain in Chinese) was a mecca for emperors, poets and millions of travelers. Legend has it that Taishan rose from the head of Pan Gu, the creator of the world. The first thing a new emperor would do is climb to the top of the mile-high peak and, in doing so, it is said, he proved his fitness to govern all that lay below him.

Of course, it helped that the emperor, whomever he was — 72 were said to have made the trek — had an entourage to see to his every need and was often carried up the steep stone steps on a sedan chair. They even used horses until it got too treacherous. You can still see workers climb the steps to the top with huge loads of food and other supplies strapped to their backs today.

The natural beauty of Taishan, which rises to 5,068 feet above sea level, has also drawn visitors for centuries. Lofty peaks, deep valleys, spectacular waterfalls and centuries-old pine and cypress trees, their branches gnarled as if by a human hand, line the pathways to the top. The official four wonders of the mountain are the Sunrises from the East, the Sunset Glow, the Sea of Clouds (also visible from the base) and the Golden Belt along the Yellow River far below.

There are four different ways to climb the mountain: the East Route, the West Route, the Peach Blossom Ravine Route and the Tianzhu Peak route. The most preferred is the East Route, which is also known as the Imperial Route because it is the one the emperors most often took. Starting at the Dai Temple, the path passes by the Dai Zong Archway, Red Gate Palace, Jing Shi Valley, Hu Tian Pavilion and, toward the top, the Eighteen Bends.

The Dai Temple, at the base, is where the emperors stayed and offered their sacrifices. It was built during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) and was later expanded during the Tang and Song dynasties. It is the biggest and most complete temple complex on the mountain with 600 buildings.

There are at least 6,660 steps along this route, and it takes an average climber about four hours to ascend to the top. However, there are also some exceptions. The record for climbing the 6½-mile route is 57 minutes and 30 seconds, set by a young Chinese man several years ago during the annual Taishan Climbing Festival.

The steps vary in pitch and width and, in the warmer seasons, it is not unusual to have human traffic jams, with progress up the mountain slow and sometimes grinding to a halt. There are the usual souvenir hawkers all along the route, but there are also manmade wonders. Stone tablets, 22 temples and thousands of inscriptions carved into the cliffs attest to the millions of tourists to have made the climb over the centuries. Some of the trees are estimated to be more than a 1,000 years old.

The very top of Taishan is a small village that, while not quite reminiscent of Shangri-la, is a wonder to behold, especially after the long climb. The main street is called Heaven Street and it is lined with restaurants, noodle shops and even more souvenir stands. Beyond the Ming-style buildings are incredible vistas that stretch for hundreds of miles in either direction.

Although there is one hotel and several guest houses at the top, many Chinese visitors will rent huge, green Chairman Mao-style army jackets and wrap up in them overnight, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sunrise the next morning. But this is only for the heartiest, as temperatures drop precipitously at night, even in the summer.

The climb down the mountain is not nearly as taxing as the climb up, and weary travelers often opt to take a tram to the base, although the wait in line can sometimes take several hours. You can also take the tram almost to the top, but you still have to hike the last mile to make it to the summit of Taishan.

Either way, it’s worth it. As a bonus, Chinese legend has it that if you climb Mount Taishan, you will live to be 100 years old.