Last Sunday, three friends and I hopped on a high speed train from Beijing to Tai’an City in Shandong Province. We came to climb Taishan, China’s most sacred peak. For more than 3,000 years, religious pilgrims, philosophers, and emperors have come to trek up 7,000 stone stairs to offer sacrifices to the gods and obtain spiritual favor.
We came seeking adventure and an escape from big city Beijing. Personally, I dedicated my efforts to raising money for New Day Foster Home, hoping to make a positive impact on the lives of some very special orphans. You can read more about my fundraiser on my previous blog post Climbing for Kids
Our Chinese guide met us as we exited the train. With a buzz cut, glasses and a button down oxford shirt, Asher looked more like he was dressed for the office than for hiking. His miniature backpack was barely large enough to hold a toothbrush. Does he remember we are planning to spend the night at the top in sub-freezing temperatures?
At 32, he told us he’s been guiding for 10 years and has been up to the summit more times than he can remember. We forgot to ask him whether he actually hiked up, or took the cable car.
After dinner of Spicy Rice Noodle Soup with Lamb, it was back to the hotel for an early bed time. Explorers need their beauty sleep.
The breakfast buffet was heavy on beer, baijiu and baozi. I decided to stick with the Pop Tart and instant Starbucks I brought along.
We drove 15 minutes to the foot of the mountain. “Everybody, follow me, follow me,” Asher said waving his hiking pole as he led us through the parking lot toward the Red Gate where we will start the day. It’s about 10 kilometers to the top with 1,400 meters of elevation gain.
The pavement path leads us past bamboo forests, temples, stone tablets, and ancient cypress trees.
“Can you see the signs on the trees?” Asher asked. “Some of them are between 500 to 1,000 years old.” In places, the trees curve and bend over the path, forming a tunnel. It’s a cool, fragrant forest, a welcome respite from the recent heavy pollution and sandstorms in Beijing.
And because it’s China, there’s no shortage of souvenir shops and snack vendors on the lower mountain. I’ve never thought of bringing a whole cucumber or radish on a hike, but they’re popular here.
Asher pointed out historical markers along the way, but I confess I was more interested in listening to the birds sing and the river rush by. I’ve never been very good at keeping the Qing and Ming dynasties straight.
But even with my embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chinese history, knowing that I was walking in the steps of Confucius was heady. Did he hike in straw shoes and a flowing robe? I was thankful for my Gortex-lined boots and practical hiking pants.
“Whether a man thinks he can or cannot, he is right.”
I pondered this as the path became steeper. The breathing around me got louder, punctuated by the occasional “jia you!” as the Chinese shouted encouragement to each other. It translates as “add oil (to the fire)” but it means something like “you can do it!”
“Woo-woo-woo-woo,” Asher started belting out the occasional primal shout that shattered my quiet thoughts.
“Why is he doing that? What is that noise?” I asked my hiking buddy Andrew, not wanting to offend Asher in case he’s engaged in some sort of religious ritual.
“It’s bloody irritating, is what it is,” replied Andrew. “It sounds like a mutant monkey in mating season.”
Maybe Asher thinks we’re getting tired, and he’s trying to revive the esprit de corps, or he’s sounding an alarm to the souvenir shops around the bend to tell them the gullible foreigners are coming. I added it to my “It’s China, don’t try to understand” list.
After about two hours we arrived at the Middle Gate, where hikers normally rest before starting the steeper second half to the top. There’s a small restaurant and vendors selling instant noodles, roasted sweet potatoes and cold beer.
“Here, have some drinks,” Asher offered as he pulled out some pouches of milk that have likely been sitting in his backpack next to his toothbrush since yesterday. I’m sure he didn’t want to carry them any further, and I felt bad rejecting his hospitality but I just couldn’t stomach warm milk. I drank some water and ate some crackers I brought, along with a piece of cheese, which actually had been sitting in my backpack since yesterday.
We set off again, and got the first glimpse of what lay ahead.
We arrived at the section called the 18 bends, where the slope of the stairs is close to a 70 degree angle. I’m thankful for the railing. The steps are small and steeply pitched, almost like a ladder.
Near the top, the steps are uneven and some are loose, making it difficult to find sturdy footing. I kept going, knowing something beautiful was waiting at the summit. I hope the same will be true for the orphans on their difficult journey through life.
I was thankful for all of the subway stairs I did in preparation, but still my legs started to shake.
I started counting steps to keep myself going, and pictured the orphans with their leg braces, walkers and wheel chairs. Ten steps for Freddy, ten steps for James, ten steps for Titus…..this became my meditation that carried me to the top.
Asher propelled himself up the mountain with his battle cry vocalizations; one elderly woman held a small red recording device that played the ancient Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.”
Seven hours after we started, we reached the South Heavenly Gate, where Taoist followers feel a sense of Nirvana, believing they would become immortal. We just felt tired and hungry, and celebrated with chocolate chip cookies and Snickers.
The true summit lies at 1,545 meters, which meant we still had a bit more climbing to do to reach Jade Emperor Peak.
We decided to drop our backpacks at the hotel and rest for a few minutes before continuing. We had been told that the accommodations on the top of the mountain would be very basic, so we were pleasantly surprised at how nice our hotel was. I wonder where Confucius slept on his journey.
It was late afternoon by then, so we headed to top, stopping at the Bixia temple (built 1009 AD) on the way. Every year thousands of Chinese couples make the trip to the top of the mountain to pray for the blessings of a child from the Goddess Bixia Yuanjun. I love my boys, but I kept a respectful distance from Yuanjun’s statue lest any utterances on my part might get lost in translation on the way to fertility goddess.
We take a few obligatory photos at the summit marker, and head back down the hill.
We have a few minutes rest at the hotel before a short walk to see the sunset.
After dinner at the hotel it was time for bed. We’d scaled 1,441 meters of vertical by climbing over 380 flights of stairs. It was time for a rest.
We got up at 4:30 (that’s a.m.) to hike to the best spot to view the sunrise.
It was below freezing with a brisk wind, and I was thankful for my down jacket. For those who came unprepared, long military-style coats were available to rent.
We had a quick breakfast at the hotel (which was not served with alcohol this time) and started down the mountain.
Instead of retracing our steps, we took an alternate route down through a pine forest, with more steps of course. There are very few dirt hiking paths in China; most trails are cement stairs or paved paths. It takes a bit of “nature” out of the experience, but the Chinese believe that a more stable path is safer.
As one of the world’s most climbed mountains in a country with over a billion people, having the forest to ourselves was a delightful surprise. Our plan of coming during a weekday in low season was paying off.
I’m savoring the views and tranquility of the pine forest when Asher starts again with the strange noises. Is he yodeling? Listening for an echo?
“Why are you making that noise?”
“I’m calling the monkeys,” he said.
Asher had been slowing down and limping visibly. Maybe he was calling out in pain.
“You guys, let’s wait up. I’m getting a little concerned about Asher. He’s falling further and further behind,” my friend Mil said.
“What happens when your guide can’t continue?” I ask.
“You call the tour company and tell them you want a new guide, because the old one is broken,” Andrew responded practically.
We can’t just leave him behind. Maybe we could run back up the hill and get the sedan chair I saw at the summit and carry him down.
“I think I underestimated you,” Asher said to me at one of our rest breaks, which had become more frequent as he rested his knee.
“I think you underestimated all of us,” I said. Did he think we were a bunch of middle-aged out of shape tourists? We hike together regularly in Beijing, and the rough unrestored section of the Great Wall had been excellent training ground.
“I think it will only take 2-3 hours to get down, not 4,” he said.
We make our way down through the forest dotted with the occasional spray of wildflowers, punctuated with Asher’s caterwauling. It’s really annoying, but I don’t have the heart to ask him to stop. I think his shrill howls are his way of giving himself a pep talk.
The path is steep, and curves at such an angle it disappears into the horizon like an infinity pool.
It’s hard to trust the unknown road, but like life, the path is filled with surprises. There’s an unexpected waterfall around one corner and a gazebo around another.
At one rest break, I tied a traditional prayer flag on tree. It fluttered in the wind, sending out my prayers for the orphans that “forever families” would come soon.
As we got closer to the end of the trail we saw local villagers collecting plants on the hillside.
“In ancient time people in China were very poor, so they had to eat whatever they could find. This is the reason they like to collect plants, for medicine and to eat,” explained Asher. “But we don’t eat snakes or rats and most people don’t eat dogs,” he said.
I think about the dog meat hanging at the markets we visited in Yangshuo, and Peter Hessler’s article in the New Yorker “A Rat in my Soup,” about the specialty rodent restaurants in Guandong province.
Some things are best left unmentioned.
We finished the hike uneventfully and headed to a local restaurant for lunch, which thankfully, served neither rat nor dog. Instead we celebrated our accomplishment with a few local specialties: braised pork with chestnuts and scallion pancakes.
As we travelled back to Beijing, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. I was grateful and humbled by the opportunity to do something that I love – hiking in the mountains – while raising money for some very special kids. If you didn’t have a chance to donate to my fundraiser, there’s still time. You can donate by Clicking Here
Just write “Mt. Tai” where it says “add a note.”
Thank you for coming alongside me on this journey. I hope your calves aren’t as sore as mine.
Last week a friend and I made a quick overnight trip to the city of Datong in Shanxi province, home to two famous Chinese landmarks, the Yungang Grottoes and Hengshan mountain scenic area.
Datong is less than one hour by air from Beijing, but the experience was a world apart. My head is still spinning from the dizzying mountain heights, spectacular scenery, friendly people and one insane Didi driver whom I’m still trying to forget.
We headed straight from the airport to the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating from 450 AD.
This series of ancient Buddhist temple caves is comprised of over 50 caves and some 50,000 plus statues.
The caves, some of which are several stories high, contain ornate carvings and paintings, with golden Buddhas and colorful scenes of emperors and religious deities. Out of religious respect, photos are not allowed in some areas.
The largest statue is over 60 feet high, and the level of ingenuity required to construct these beautifully decorated sandstone caves is mind-boggling.
Almost as impressive as the scenery was the lack of crowds. We strolled leisurely, exploring the caves and stopping to enjoy an ice cream in the shade (My Chinese is just good enough to avoid the salted egg and red bean flavors in favor of a coffee one, thankfully).
Just like any good theme park, the exit from this attraction ended in an area filled with restaurants and gifts shops.
We took a break from sightseeing to sample the locally produced vinegar and admire the dried chilies from a safe distance (no sampling necessary).
Lunch of freshly carved noodles with ground pork and a few stuffed buns set us back about $3 each, including water.
It’s pretty cheap to travel around China subsisting on some kind of noodle dish, fruit, yogurt, bread or dumplings and tea, water or beer depending on how stressful the day has been. And these are all words I know how to say in Chinese, which makes things easier.
After a quick catnap at the hotel (our non-smoking room held strict warnings not to smoke in the bed), we explored Datong, which was once the beginning of the trade route headed to Mongolia.
We enountered some ghost town- like areas, with a shocking absence of crowds. After three months of living in China, I’m just used to wall-to-wall people. What a refreshing change.
We started out early the next morning, once again expecting large crowds. Our anticipated destination was the Hengshan hanging monastery, an ancient structure attached to the side of a cliff with spindly wooden poles. I had seen this feat of engineering in pictures, which is what lured me to Datong in the first place.
Does it count as getting lost if you don’t arrive at your intended destination but never actually lose track of where you are?
In our case I’ll just call it serendipitous that our crazy driver passed the turnoff to the hanging monastery and took us instead to Heng mountain scenic area. I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but after three hours with Driver Wang we were just happy to get out of the car. Anywhere. Alive. The actual destination was of secondary importance.
We looked up at all of the monasteries on the hillside and assumed we had arrived at our intended destination.
Fueled by chips and cookies from our backpacks and buying water along the way, we started out hiking. In China, at least everywhere I’ve been so far, hiking means stairs. And lots of them. I was thankful for all of the times I opted for the stairs over the escalator in the subway station.
Each set of stairs brought us to another vista – a monastery, a rock outcropping, a small temple, or a man with a thermos of hot water selling instant noodles.
The farther we went, the farther we wanted to go. Where does this lead? What’s over the hill top? What’s around the bend? It was impossible to stop. The views got more spectacular as we ascended.
And there was only one way to go – up. We climbed over 100 flights of stairs, gaining a few thousand feet in elevation.
The surrounding peaks, temples and valleys were our primary focus, but to our fellow Chinese hikers we were the center of attention. In this somewhat remote area away from Beijing, as a couple of foreigners we drew a lot of attention. I’m guessing for some, we might have been the first “weiguoren” they had laid eyes on. Everyone wanted pictures, wanted to know where we were from. It was a friendly curiosity, and we shared a spirit of commaraderie as we urged eachother on.
What we didn’t realize until we reached the top was that we were sharing a pilgrimage; we had summitted one China’s five sacred peaks.
This was not the hanging monastery we had set out to see, but something much grander that we achieved with sweat, quivering muscles and smiles from strangers.
It was breezy at the top, and I twirled around in exhilaration, taking in 360 degree views that spanned mountain ranges and neighboring provinces, unobstructed by human development. I can almost imagine what it was like as caravans of traders traveled from here along the Silk Road centuries ago.
We kept an eye on the clock, realizing we needed to return to the parking lot before evening came unless we wanted to spend the night on the mountain. We headed down, making more friends along the way.
In the U.S. such strenuous hikes might lure outdoorsy types who spend half their paycheck at REI, or at least weekend warriors and fitness buffs. Not here. From a four year old girl carrying a pretty red purse to a hunched over octogenarian, they climbed up the mountain. Sporting dressy pants, parasols, flip flops, cozy slippers, sequined tops and warm sweaters despite the upper 70s heat, our fellow hikers looked more prepared for a shopping trip or lounging at home than an adventure in the wilderness. They put us to shame with their level of fitness, earned from a car-less lifestyle where carrying groceries, cycling to town and climbing stairs in the subway were part of their routine.
Not wanting to chance it with another crazy driver, we took a public bus back to Datong, thanks to a friendly young couple who helped us buy tickets and find the right bus.
We travelled on small country roads, passing farms, stopping for passengers and taking our time. $3 and 2 hours later we arrived back in the city and caught a cab to the airport.
I’ve climbed high peaks in Mexico, trekked up hills in Nepal, visited Alpine mountain tops in Europe and seen some splendid wilderness in the United States. I found something special in each of those places. Being in nature (in the mountains especially) feeds my soul like nothing else. Maybe I feel closer to God because I’m high up on a mountain. Silly, I know.
But there was something different about this trip, about these vistas, about this mountain top that will stay with me. Perhaps it was the sheer adventure of getting there, navigating everything on our own without a tour guide, or not realizing we had just summitted a sacred peak until we saw the marker. Or the strangers encouraging us on the way to the top, surprised to see two foreigners in their midst. Or the freedom of a 360 degree view after being hemmed in in Beijing.
I’m not sure, but I loved it, and I’m hooked. There are many peaks to climb in China. I’ll let you know which one is next.
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