“The world is small” – Confucius
“Thank you very much, very nice mountain” – Michael Palin
Upon reaching the summit of Taishan (泰山), the great sage Confucius surveyed all below him and declared that “The world is small”. Many of China’s emperors ascended Taishan upon ascending the throne, and Mao Zedong is known to have made a pilgrimage there. This is because Taishan is one of the Five Great Mountains of China (as is Huashan, which I’d climbed a few weeks before) and its position as the most sacred of the five gives it great importance for both Taoism and Chinese Buddhism. But I wasn’t there because of religion or Confucius or any other Chinese historical figures… I was there because of a bumbling Englishman, Mr. Michael Palin (for those who don’t know him, Palin was a member of Monty Python and later became one of British television’s leading travel presenters).
In his travel series Full Circle, in which he and his crew circumnavigated the Pacific Rim, Palin arrived in China (by ferry from Korea) at the port city of Qingdao before travelling inland and climbing Taishan. His words upon reaching the top: “Time to pay respects and give heartfelt thanks to the greatest deity on the mountain, the Princess of the Temple of the Azure Cloud; Thank you very much, very nice mountain”. Not quite as snappy or profound as the words of Confucius! But it was Palin’s written words that had brought me there – the year before I first visited mainland China, I’d gone to New Zealand and worked a ski season in the bars of Queenstown. While living in a shared house there, I’d read my housemate’s copy of the travel book authored by Palin (also titled Full Circle) following the shooting of the series, and thought a Taishan hiking trip sounded like it’d be a good addition to a future Chinese travel itinerary.
So, a year or so later, when I was en route from China to Japan via Korea following my Trans-Siberian journey, after leaving Yangshuo I did the reverse of Palin’s route and climbed Taishan on my way to Qingdao, from where I would take the ferry to Korea. And it did indeed turn out to be a most interesting place, probably the most interesting mountain I’ve ever climbed from the perspective of human cultural heritage – the mountain continues to be an important place of pilgrimage and the pathway up is lined with incense-scented temples and the lines of pilgrims visiting them.
The main Taishan hiking trail itself is a tad dull, being basically just one long staircase from bottom to top, wide enough for large numbers of people, pretty steep towards the top. According to Wikipedia, from the First Gate to Heaven (一天門) at the foot of the mountain to South Gate to Heaven at (南天門) the top of the stairs, there are over 6,000 steps (the vertical gain is about 1,400m). Far more interesting than all those steps are the temples and the large amount of calligraphy carved into the rocks and cliff faces around you as you climb. According to Wikipedia again, there are 22 temples, 819 stone calligraphy tablets and 1,018 cliff-side inscriptions on the mountain. The most impressive of these are found near the top, where there are several large temples and some famous inscriptions carved by various historical figures; one marks the spot where Confucius is said to have stood and declared the world to be small. (A lot of people climb this mountain at night in order to see the sunrise, due to the Taoist association the mountain has with sunrise as the easternmost of the Five Great Mountains – but on this occasion I decided I’d prefer to do the Taishan hiking trail by day to enjoy all the temples and calligraphy without messing around in the dark and waiting around in the pre-dawn chill)
As is so often the case for a foreign tourist in China visiting a site popular with Chinese visitors, I found myself attracting a lot of attention. Though it can get a bit tiresome after a while, for many rural Chinese you may be one of the few foreigners they’ve ever met; they’re curious and friendly, and the best thing to do after shaking hands, attempting to communicate, and posing for their cameras, is to turn your own camera on them! These are a few of the folks I met on Taishan:
Another interesting, though far less pleasant, thing I noticed from the top was that you could actually see the dividing line in the air between the brown layer of smog down below and the clearer blue air at the top of the mountain – once you’re above the smog band you can literally see where it stops, and that was on a fairly clear day, when the Airpocalypse wasn’t too bad:
Taishan is located right next to the city of Tai’an (泰安) in Shandong province, which lies along the Beijing – Shanghai bullet train line making access pretty straightforward. When I climbed Taishan, though, I actually arrived on a sleeper train from Tunxi (after visiting another famous mountain, Huangshan), then took a taxi to a hotel (picked from the Lonely Planet) near the mountain. Then I got up at 5 the next morning and walked up the street to start my climb; I was so early the ticket office wasn’t open yet and I just walked through, but you do normally have to pay an entrance fee of 125 yuan (correct at time of last update in 2019). The climb up just takes a couple of hours, but then I did a lot of lingering at the top before heading down to catch an afternoon bus to Qingdao (for the ferry to Korea). There is also a cable car from the mid-point of the mountain near the Midway Gate to Heaven (中天門) up to near the summit, and a road (and buses) from the city up to the mid-point. You could use these if you don’t have time for the full Taishan hiking trail but still want to see it.
For more hiking in China, click below:
Fragrant Hills (Beijing)
Have you climbed Taishan? How was it? Any questions about the Taishan hiking trail? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Accommodation: search & book rooms in Taian. Use the map view function to find somewhere near the mountain – Taishan International Youth Hostel is well-situated, fairly central but just a 15-minute walk to the trailhead (I stayed at a random fleapit hotel in the same area which I very much doubt had official permission to accept foreign guests – something which the government’s been cracking down on in recent years)
Don’t forget to sign up for a VPN service (what’s a VPN and why do I need one?) before you arrive in China:
Also, make sure you have a good insurance policy. World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas – most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand.
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