After we spent a few days in Qufu, we headed up north to Taishan. This area is most known for its mountains; most notably, Mount Tai, one of the five sacred Taoist mountains within China. It boasts an elevation gain of 5,000+ feet over 7,000 steps, which ancient Taoist monks would climb every day in order to reach the temple at the top of the peak. We got to our hostel at around 1 in the afternoon and decided we would do the night hike that evening as we wanted to see the sunrise the following morning.
We, and about 10,000 other tourists set out on our pilgrimage (ha!) to the top of the mountain at around 11 pm. Once again, I found myself completely thrown off by my underestimation of the tourism here. The mountain was completely packed with people, men and women, children, elderly, and everything in between. Interestingly, out of all those people, we were still the only foreigners on the entire mountain.
Everyone we spoke to said it would take us over five hours to reach the top (we did it in less than four). The weather was nice at the bottom, probably close to 70 degrees F with light rain throughout. It wasn’t until we got to about 3/4 of the way up that the temperature dropped significantly. As soon as we reached the town at the top of the mountain peak, the temperature dropped to the low 30s, 60 mph winds began to pick up, and fog so thick that we could barely see more than 15 feet ahead of us rolled in.
As we sat around waiting for the sunrise, we couldn’t help but think of what a bust the trip was going to end up being if the weather didn’t clear up. We tried to duck into a restaurant at one point for some hot tea and an escape from the cold and ended up being charged 10 Yuan each for a bowl of hot water (seriously? Seriously.) After about a half hour in the restaurant, we made our way outside to climb the last bit so we could wait at the peak.
Here we were, 5:00 in the morning- sitting in the freezing cold, with these Soviet-style Army jackets that we had rented in town, waiting for a sunrise that we became more and more doubtful that we would even see. As CJ and I sat around waiting for the other half of our group show up, we began to lament our lack of foresight and common sense. We tried to come to terms with the fact that we would have to walk all the way back down in this miserable weather, and that it was no doubt going to suck. Our pessimism was soon proven wrong, as at a quarter to six, a mere ten minutes before the scheduled sunrise, the clouds and fog began to clear up and we were able to see the sun shine clear and bright after all.
My overall perception of the experience was pretty mixed. On one hand, I felt quite proud that I was able to accomplish such a physical feat (7,200 stairs carved into a mountainside is no picnic, especially when you throw in the rain and fog). However, I thought I would see more people connected to the Taoist faith and treating this hike as a rite of passage. I was surprised and appalled when I witnessed the complete lack of reverence people showed for the site.
There was trash littering the walkways, people spitting and hacking all over the mountain, and trinket stands set up every couple hundred meters selling typical tourist junk. Along the first couple hundred stairs starting out, they had these cheap, ceramic statues that looked like something you would see in a Vegas casino set up for people to pray to and give an offering. Out of all the people we passed on the mountain, only two had actually stopped to pray and drop money down. After about the third statue we passed, however, I could tell that even the Chinese people saw it as a scam.
I understand that tourism is how this area and the people living there survive. I’m not criticizing or disputing the fact that people need to earn a living, but it seems to me that something is seriously wrong when the pursuit of money and tourism cheapens the entire experience, to the point of sacrilege. This mountain is hailed as the most sacred site to those of the Taoist faith, and yet there was no sacred feeling or sense of wonder that I could distinguish from the people traveling along it, or the people working there at all. As a person who is interested in philosophy and anthropology, I found the disconnection to be confusing and quite frankly, disheartening.
Anyway, though I did not come away with any new insight into the practices and beliefs of the Chinese people, I still came out with a sense of accomplishment for completing this physical feat and some decent photos of the mountain(sea of Iphones and all.)