If only the Great Wall were this well paved
Sacred Taoist mountains just aren’t what they used to be. Back in the good old days, firm believers and those seeking spiritual enlightenment could scale the peak of a mountain in relative solitude, abandoning their thoughts to the misty veil of waterfalls and the chatter of birds.
Now, climate change has lifted the veil on the waterfalls, solitude has been replaced by tourism on a massive scale, clean air has been clogged by buses and factories, and silent meditation at the peak is shared with thousands of cap-wearing, happy-snap snapping tour groups, vendors with loudspeakers and view-blocking mobile phone towers.
The reception is FANTASTIC up here!
That said, making your way to the top of Tai Shan, one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains, is still a fun and worthwhile experience, if you don’t consider being at the top your main goal. The seven kilometre walk up the mountain winds through tall trees, over bridges, past small temples and tea houses and by steep, rock-lined cliff faces. These sacred mountains are extraordinary both for their natural beauty and for the way that Chinese spirituality has changed and shaped them over the centuries.
Emma attempts to translate an ancient inscription on the way up the mountain
The 1545-metre high Tai Shan in Shandong Province has been a place of spiritual pilgrimage for 3000 years. According to Lonely Planet China, it is the most climbed mountain on earth and in 2003 attracted 6 million visitors. As a result, infrastructure has cropped up to cope with the demand. Now, you can get a bus half way up the mountain, catch a cable car to the top, spend a night at one of the hotels on the peak and eat at one of the many restaurants. Not sure if any of this takes away from your spiritual experience, but it’s there all the same.
“Well I do have a broken foot, Emma”
You can always try the fast-track to enlightenment by throwing a coin in the pond at the Dragon Spring Nunnery
We decided to walk to the half-way point, Midway Gate to Heaven, and then catch the cable car to the top (the weather was being contrary and the rain took away some of the enjoyment of walking). There are dozens of vendors selling food, drinks and trinkets along the way. The vendors weren’t as annoying as they can be, and when you think that they, too, had to carry all their goods up the mountain, you get a new appreciation for them (did I say that there are some 6600 steps?).
Yin and yang pouches for sale outside a temple
Could this be the most well-protected tree on earth?
We stayed the night in one of the hotels at the top and declined the 5 am wake-up call to see the sunrise – it was obvious the clouds weren’t going to clear by the morning. Even by about 6 pm, the peak was cloaked in thick mist and many of the tourists had gone. The temples and gates were well-lit, casting shadows on the swirling clouds, and all you could see over the edge of the mountain was a vertical drop-off into darkness.
The gateway along the Road to Heaven
A tourist poses for his girlfriend in the nighttime mist