My Trip to Tai Shan

In one of the previous posts, I mentioned China’s Five Sacred Mountains and how I wanted to see all of them. Well, last month I went to one of them – to Mount Tai, which is the eastern of the Sacred Mountains and is considered the most important one of them. So I went there during my “weekend” which is on Monday and Tuesday since I am working as a teacher now.

Tai Shan is located in Tai’an city, Shandong province. There are two main train stations in the city, Tai Shan station and Tai’an station. Slow trains (trains starting with letter K – 快车 kuàichē) reach Tai Shan station (which is closer to the mountain) and fast-speed trains (starting with letter G, 高铁 gāotiě) reach Tai’an station which is bigger and newer, but also further from the scenic area of Mount Tai.

In China, if you take a slow train (train numbers starting with letters K, T, Z or without any letter) you can choose to buy a sleeper. They are divided into hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò) or soft sleepers (软卧 ruănwò). Hard sleepers are arranged so that there are six beds in a compartment, three on each side; the thing is that that there actually are no compartments in hard sleeper cars, only partitions between each set of six beds. But in soft sleeper cars, you only have four beds and there are doors to the compartment that can be locked.

Also, on slow trains like these, there are sinks in which you can wash your face and brush your teeth but that’s it – obviously no place to take a shower.

(It seems that nowadays, on some of the longer routes fast trains also have sleepers, but there are very expensive).

I like taking night slow trains with sleepers when I’m going to be aboard long enough to get a full night of sleep. That way I’m not only getting to a place I want to go, but I also have a place to spend the night (and the cost is lower than the price of a high-speed train and a night at a hostel combined). So I do it pretty frequently when I have the chance, and I usually sleep pretty well on the train on top of that. Also, upon entering the sleeper car, you will be asked to exchange your ticket for a card that is corresponding with your bed number – that way the train staff knows where everyone on the train is going to and in the morning they will come to wake you up and give you your ticket back (you need it to exit the station).

So on the way from Nanjing to Tai Shan, I took the night slow train, which seemed like a great idea to me. The ride was supposed to take around 9 hours so I assumed I would have enough time to get plenty of sleep and be rested for the next day. Unfortunately, even though I was very tired, I couldn’t fall asleep for many hours; I’m not sure why that was, maybe it was because my sleeper was next to the toilet and people were walking back and forward all the time; or maybe it was because the ride was quite bumpy – the train was riding very fast and then was standing on the station for quite a long time to wait for the departure time (and this riding rhythm was quite unnerving to me). Anyways, I think in the end I got like 4-5 hours of sleep and was not rested at all when the conductor came to wake me up before 6 a.m. So I made myself some instant coffee in my cup and I was sipping it while the train was approaching my station.

After breakfast and more coffee (in KFC…), I first went to the Dai Temple (岱庙). I walked there on foot, it was around 2 km.

The Dai Temple is dedicated to the God of Mount Tai, worshiped in the Chinese (Han) folk religion (民间宗教) which shares a lot with Taoist beliefs (in some cases those two are inseparable). He is the personification of Mount Tai and according to legends, he served as an envoy between Heaven (God of Heaven) and people on Earth and was a protector of Chinese emperors. Also, since Mount Tai is located in the east – the place in which the Sun rises and where all living things originate from – the God of Mount Tai was also thought to be able to decide on one’s life and death. He was also a patron of other matters such as keeping the country strong and its people secure, practices leading to extending one’s life, becoming an immortal etc.

The temple was first built in Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and then rebuilt and changed many times throughout history.

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The plate in front of the statue says “东岳泰山之神”, meaning “God of Mount Tai”

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In the temple, next to incense burners you can find some incense sticks to burn free of charge.

Afterwards, I went to the southern entrance of the scenic area. The distance was again only around 2 km so I walked there on foot. The route leading through this entrance called the Red Gate (红门 Hóng mén) is the most popular one. You can buy tickets and start climbing there. It’s also possible to take a private bus that is going to take you to half of the mountain, and there you can ride a cable car to the summit; the same on the way back. However, my goal was to reach the summit by foot.

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In the back you can see the wall of the Red Gate

I must say that I think I packed a bit too much; since I was planning to stay on top of the mountain for one night, I had to carry all of the necessary things with me. I was walking in my down coat and I was wearing some warm clothes underneath (which I then took off, but they proved to be useful later) and another pair of shoes, because I didn’t know if there would be a lot of snow higher up and if I would need a change of shoes (in the end I didn’t).

I also had some food with me because I was afraid that the prices on the peak would be very expensive. So, the bottom line is that it was a bit challenging for me to go all the way up with my backpack and I cursed myself for taking so many things. But even though it was tiring to carry my heavy backpack, I knew that I would reach the peak if I kept going, it would just take me more time to do it. So in truth, my pace wasn’t really fast at all.

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On the way I met a friendly cat

I started at the Red Gate around 10 a.m. In the beginning, the climb was quite gentle with some steps and flat parts of the road. After around 2-2.5 hours I reached half of the mountain (半山 bànshān – the point that can be reached by a private bus). Then, after a walk on a flat road I had to go up some more steps to reach the Midway Gate to Heaven (中天门 Zhōng Tiānmén). Then the biggest challenge came – there were many more steps leading to the peak. Soo many stairs…

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It’s always nice to look down and see how much you already climbed…
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…and then look up again

This part of the climb is called Shíbāpán (十八盘), meaning “18-level stairs”. I had to take numerous breaks during this last part of the climb and I was really exhausted.

When I finally reached the South Heaven Gate (南天门 Nan Tiānmén) on top of the stairs, I first crawled to my hotel (which was right in the opposite of the gate). I wanted to leave my backpack there because as I mentioned, it was quite heavy. I wanted to point out here that the hotels on the peak are quite expensive, especially if you don’t book them beforehand and instead choose to do it at the reception. In the hotel I stayed in the prices ranged from 1200 to 2000 per night and when I booked it through an application on my phone (Qunar), the price was only 200. (I’m not sure who would book the hotel directly at the reception desk if you can just take your phone out and then book it through an app right there and then… but maybe the hotels leave some rooms out of the app and then during the busy season you have no choice but to book on the spot? Who knows?)

After leaving my things, I went out to go to the highest peak called Jade Emperor Peak (玉皇顶 Yùhuáng Dĭng, 1545 m above sea level) that was some stair steps away. On the way there I passed some viewing platforms and also visited the Shrine of the Blue Dawn (Bìxiácí). The Shrine is dedicated to the Goddess of Blue Dawn, also called “The Lady Tai” (泰山娘娘) which is considered to be a female counterpart of the previously mentioned God of Mount Tai – either his daughter or his consort, according to different accounts.

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Stairs leading to the Jade Emperor Peak and the shrine of the Goddess of Blue Dawn

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 From there, I went to the peak that gets its name from another deity – Jade Emperor, who is present in the folk religion and in Taoism as well. Jade Emperor is the personification of the supreme God of Heaven or just “Heaven” which makes him one of the highest deities in the Chinese pantheon.

On the peak:

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Throughout history, Chinese artists and officials inscribed their calligraphy on rocks to make them even more beautiful.
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“五岳独尊”, meaning “The first among the Five Sacred Mountains”, inscription from the beginning of 20th century made by an official named Yu Gou from Tai’an. Nowadays, the stone with its inscription is featured on a Chinese 5 yuan banknote.

In China, when people go to climb mountains and stay in hotels on the summit, their goal often is to see the sunrise. I did not do it though. I was thinking about it, but first of all, I was pretty tired from the night before (on the train, when I thought I would sleep more but I didn’t). Also, I must say that there was a thick layer of smog over the city below the mountain (I guess pollution is heavy there in the winter). So I really didn’t think the sunrise would be worth getting up early and frankly, I went there for the mountain views and the hike rather than the sunrise.

After hanging around on the peak, I went back to my hotel. My room wasn’t exactly nice, but I was only going to stay there for one night so that was ok for me. However, there were two problems with it: first, there was no running water on the mountain, neither in public restrooms on the path leading up to the peak, nor in my hotel. Supposedly now it’s the dry season on the mountain so there is no water; there might be some during summer but I’m not sure. Anyway, the bathroom in my room was locked and only the common bathroom could be used; in there, there was a barrel filled with water to use to flush the toilet. However, this water was too dirty to bathe; the hotel provided some drinkable water so I used it to wash my face. Frankly, even if there was more water, it was just too freezing to bathe – and that was the other issue. The temperature on the peak was around -8 . And even though my room had AC, it was not very efficient. That day, I went to bed around 8 p.m. because I didn’t have anything to do in such a cold temperature. Even if I wanted to watch TV on my phone or do something else on it, I would have to do it under the quilt due to the temperature so I gave up. In the end, I had to sleep in my hat, covered by my coat and THREE quilts (I took one from the second bed in my room and then asked for another one at the reception). At that moment I didn’t curse myself for having taken too much stuff anymore – I put all the clothes I had on for the night. So maybe if someone decides to climb the mountain in the winter and stay there for the night, they will need to take the lack of water/possibility to shower into consideration.

In the morning (I woke up around 7:30, so definitely missed the sunrise) I lounged around in my warm bed before finally getting up; outside, I got some Tai Shan specialty: a leek pancake (bing) – 煎饼卷大葱 (jiānbĬng juǎn dàcōng). It’s a thin pancake (more like a crepe) with very salty sauce and leek inside. You can add an egg or a sausage if you want; the price ranges from 10 to 15 yuan (on the peak; it’s less expensive on the way up to the peak).

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After walking around for a bit I decided to go down. I didn’t want to take the same route as I did when I climbed up, so I checked the Baidu map and it showed that I could take the path down to the eastern side of the mountain; I asked someone (I guess it was a guard or someone working at a cable car station) to make sure that I could walk there and they confirmed. I also made sure to check that there was transportation from the eastern exit to the Tai’an station (the one that high-speed trains stop at), since I was supposed to take the train back to Nanjing in the evening.

First, I went to a gate called the North Heavenly gate (北天门 Bĕi Tiānmén) and then turned right to start going down (again, stairs!!!). It was really pleasant to walk there in terms of the atmosphere – there were absolutely no people, at least in the beginning and it was really quiet. I must point out here though that on this route there was no shops, restaurants, and public restrooms. My guess is that during the peak season like in the warmer season, there might be some vendors going there (because there were some huts on the way, albeit closed) selling things, but in the winter you must be prepared that there will be no place to buy a snack or go to a bathroom until you reach the bottom.

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On this side, I could see some different views than when climbing from the south. Sometimes I would encounter some people, like I ran into a whole unit of soldiers, probably climbing as some sort of exercise. At some point, I was caught up by some elderly Chinese people (their stamina was impressive and they were moving very fast) and we chatted for a bit.

I think going down the stairs is much more straining on the legs than going up (for the next few days my calves were killing me and I was walking in a funny way); so after some time I got quite fed up with it, but it’s not like I had a choice. To cheer myself up, I was often checking the distance left on Baidu Map (of course, since I was going down, the distance wasn’t decreasing as fast as it would do on a flat ground). I finally reached the eastern exit after around 3 hours. I took a bus to the city (bus no 19). This bus doesn’t go straight to the train station so I had to get off at some point; I also wanted to get something to eat. Unfortunately, after getting to the city center it took me quite a while to find a place that was open, because some restaurants in China, especially in smaller places, are open only during rush hours, so around 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and then again for dinner, maybe from 5 p.m.

After a while, I found a place and got some dumplings.

dumplings

After eating I went to the train station where I waited for my train. Tired, but feeling accomplished!

Address (Hongmen entrance): 山东省泰安市泰山区红门路126

Price: 102 Yuan for a full price ticket

How to get there: fast train to Tai’an station or slow train to Tai Shan station. From Tai’an station there are buses no. 61 or 37 to Hongmen station (红门、泰前办事处 or 红门). From Tai Shan station there are many direct buses = no. 2/3/37/39/ to Hongmen (红门、泰前办事处 or 红门、虎山公园).

Is it worth to go there: absolutely! If you like hiking and climbing mountains, and also are interested in Chinese culture (since Tai Shan is an important mountain in it) then it’s a place for you.

Tips: if you take the most popular route from Hongmen to the peak, there will be many places selling food and water along the ways, so there’s really no need to pack as much food and water as I did. The prices are reasonable, you can get some noodles for 10-15 yuan, buy water, tea to drink or some snacks.

Note that in the winter, there’s no running water on the higher levels of Tai Shan; so also in public toilets – make sure to have some wet tissues or just enough water with you.

Sources: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

 

 

 

 

 

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