Today we climbed the 5,000 ft Tai Shan. Mt. Tai (Shan means mountain) is one of the five holiest mountains in China. It has been in use heavily for the past 3,000 years as a center for religious pilgrimages and worship. The mountain has two paths that can get you to the top, one that starts about mid-way of which most tourists take, and one that starts at the bottom. Being native mountain climbing Coloradans, and strong willed American’s at that, how could we NOT start from the bottom? There were some that thought our ‘we can do anything’ spirit was a bit much so we split into two groups that started at each respective location. I can’t do much these days without thinking, “if you are going to do something, do it right” so I couldn’t help but join the long-walk group. This ideal of ‘doing it right’ along with the other ‘I can do anything’ are American sentiments I realized we as American’s take for granted; my Chinese friend Zhu Qin calls it the ‘American Spirit.’ I like it. I don’t mean the sentiment ‘I can do anything’ in the same light as our government does in invading Iraq or nuking a city full of children, but more in the sense that it is within my own power to fulfill my goals. American’s know what I mean. Like Hemmingway noted on his time in Paris, I have learned more about being an American by NOT being in America.
Anyway from the bottom the hike had us walking up 7200 stone steps – and that’s not a typo. It was a hell of a hike, and worth every stony step. Coloradans know the feeling well of hiking the famous 14’ers in our state and the gratification you receive by accomplishing a summit. The sentiment was the same, but instead you were surrounded by thousands of Chinese. What I learned from Tai Shan is truly how much the same human beings are. For example, during the hike there wasn’t a single participant that wasn’t trying to help one another. We saw young boys helping elderly women and men up and down the climb, we witnessed parents encouraging their children, and then the rest of the lot encouraging everyone else. The spirit of encouragement was inspiring; it seemed natural and intrinsic to everyone’s human nature – a very encouraging thought.
Though the mountain was extremely busy, you couldn’t help but be taken back by the awe of climbing stone steps that emperors, even Mao Zedong himself, had climbed. The base had us traveling along a well-maintained path through dense forest next to streams, waterfalls, and lush terrain. As you climbed, you were met with Chinese characters carved into the mountainside by dynasties (and other people), some thousands of years old. There were many small temples along the path as well, typically each belonging to a ‘god.’ Most of the temples were Daoist based deities, and though at first it seemed they were simply being preserved for everyone to see, it become apparent that these temples are still very much in use. These are functional temples. Many of the climbers would pay their respects by kneeling in prayer to the goddess of the mountain or the great Tai mountain god. Some would give you luck, other fertility, yet others wealth.
Once you reached the top, you were met with a huge complex of temple buildings that had unfortunately been converted into restaurants, shops, and even a four star hotel. Still, the view was impressive, even through the thick fog (that seems to follow our group everywhere we go in China). Our group made it to the top in record time, and near the end, had passed the group that had started in the middle!
Hats off also to Zhu Qin, our Chinese companion for taking the initiative to accompany us native Coloradans from the bottom. Even though he did some exchange work in Colorado, he hadn’t done much in the way of hiking or climbing there, and certainly not in China. The hike was essentially his first and though we were a little behind the lower group (I stayed with Qin, which worked out great because I could take lots of photos!), he totally killed it. Great job man, between you and Lilly, our group can’t help but be inspired by how bright China’s future is with you guys in it.
To continue, as a special treat if you climbed a short 20-minute route from the top complex around the front side of the mountain, through another small temple grounds, visitors were met with what turned out to be the best part of the hike. In the side of a giant portion of the mountain, huge engravings painted gold were carved into the rock, dwarfing everyone below. It was spectacular. David and I had to book it back to meet up with the group at our specified time, but as has become our mantra “Who knows when we’ll be back in China, let’s do it.”
The commercialization problem also reared its ugly head on Mt. Tai. Along the entire path were little shops, probably a hundred of them, to buy little trinkets and knick-knacks. I didn’t seem to mind the shops as much going up, but the ones at the top again had me irritated that such beautiful history was being exploited and mocked once again. The worst part was something I found out later. As I mentioned, there are beautiful Chinese carvings done right into the mountainside all along the path up Tai Shan. At one point, however, there was a string of characters that were a light blue, and were directly under an old set of carvings of which looked rather beautiful. Turns out, it was an advertisement for a travel agency, carved right there into the actual mountain. After returning to the bus for the day, I heard this and followed the news with a long string of curse words, almost as reflex. Advertisements carved into the most holy mountain in China? Are you kidding me? My blood is still boiling.
Anyway, the trip concluded with a rather scary, but much appreciated ride in a cable car back down them mountain. All in all the hike was beautiful, and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone visiting China. I maybe more sensitive to the commercialization than most, but am developing a sort of ‘tune out’ method that is also serving me well in some photography. It’s my goal to try and take shots that involve as little of the ‘noise’ as possible, focusing on the color that is really there with the people or places we visit.
Take care back home,