Climbing Mount Tai, China’s most sacred mountain

TAISHAN, China — Taishan, or Mount Tai, is China’s most sacred mountain. For centuries, emperors climbed it to pay homage to heaven and earth. Philosopher Confucius is said to have stood at the towering top, looked down and pronounced the world a small place indeed.

While it isn’t one of China’s tallest mountains, the way to the top is still a challenge consisting of more than 6,000 stone steps, with the option of taking a cable car halfway. Walking the whole way can take anywhere from three to seven hours.

Louise Watt, The Associated Press

Colorful flowering trees mark the route down Mount Tai through Peach Blossom Valley. Mount Tai is China’s most sacred mountain.

I’d heard stories about elderly groups and others resolutely marching up the mountain in the dark and arriving in time to see the sunrise, but I decided, with some friends, to start in the afternoon and see the sunrise after spending the night in a hotel at the top.

We entered through the Red Gate at the south foot of the mountain, stopping to look in temples with burning incense and at some of the hundreds of stone tablets that dot the way up. We were surrounded by serene greenery, punctuated every so often by a rousing round of mainland or Taiwanese pop music from tourists carrying personal stereo systems for all to hear.

Two 7- and 9-year-old brothers offered me a welcome excuse to rest from climbing when they asked “auntie,” one of the few foreigners on the mountain, to pose for a photo with them.

Then I continued to follow in the footsteps of the emperors. In 219 B.C., Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty, held a ceremony on the summit to announce to the gods that he had successfully unified China.

For thousands of years, Taishan has been a source of inspiration for poets and thinkers, and a place to worship. The mountain is the most venerated of China’s five sacred mountains. This is because it is the easternmost, and in Chinese culture east is regarded as a sacred direction because that is where the sun and moon rise.

Confucius, whose hometown Qufu is not too far away, declared from the summit: “Climb Mount Tai and the whole world looks small.” His words express how Mount Tai looks large against its low-lying surroundings, and also the more philosophical musing that the higher you climb, the greater your vision.

Louise Watt, The Associated Press

Hundreds of red hangings are tied to the outside of an incense burner at a temple on Mount Tai, China’s most sacred mountain. People choose charms with their Chinese zodiac and write on them to pray for blessings or make a wish.

For me, the higher I climbed, the more steps I saw, until finally I got to the steps leading up to the cable car station. Of course, Confucius wouldn’t have taken the cable car, but I wasn’t Confucius.

And two hours of climbing steps was enough of a climbing experience for me.

On top of the 5,069-foot mountain, lodging is limited. There are a few basic hotels, and travelers…

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