My Taoist pilgrimage (Mt Tai shan)

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China is not an obviously religious country, by that I mean their everyday lives and religion rarely intersect, unlike our countries where religion is embedded in everything we do; we start national events with prayer, we don’t work on Sunday’s to allow people to attend church and there are nationally recognized religious holidays. China doesn’t do any of that reason being that the ruling Communist party is atheist. This has actually helped in making the country more tolerant of different religions. The party however does recognize the country’s 5 main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Surprisingly only 15% of the Chinese population is actually atheist. The most influential religion is Buddhism followed by 185 million people, 33 million are christian or have belief in a god and 12 million are Taoist.

I find Taoism quite interesting for reasons I won’t get into now because I may bore y’all to death with Chinese philosophy. The reason I have mentioned it though is because Mt Tai shan or Peace mountain (泰山) happens to be a sacred taoist mountain. Mt Tai shan is part of a group of 5 sacred mountains also called Wuyue  (五岳) which includes Tai shan, Hua shan, Heng shan (Hunan province), Heng shan (Shanxi province) and Song shan. They don’t have exclusive religious association with Taoism but because there are so many Taoist temples located on them they are also regarded as Taoist mountains. There are however Buddhist and Confucian temples also located on these mountains. These mountains have been locations of imperial pilgrimage by emperors, scholars, poets, philosophers, artisans etc throughout ages and are still held in high regard today.

The travel squad!
The travel squad!

During the Chinese national day holiday (which is actually a week long for students, for the rest of the country it’s October 1st), some friends and I decided to go on a group holiday to Tai’an city (specifically to climb Tai shan) and to Jinan which is a neighboring city. We spent the whole of the first day in a bus, took us about 10 to 12 hours to drive from Baoding to Tai’an, spent a night in a hotel in the outskirts of Tai’an, then went mountain climbing the following day. We were not ready. The tour guide had warned us that it would be incredibly crowded and that ideally we should leave the hotel at dawn but we were late, as foreigners here usually are (the Chinese adherence to time is impeccable) and left around 8:30am. By the time we arrived at the mountain area traffic was intense and parking spaces were sparse. Our tour bus parked some distance away and we walked the rest of the way to the ticket office. Along the way I bought a walking stick only because they were so cheap (2 rmb)-I didn’t think I would actually need it however I discovered later on that I had made a wise decision.

At the main entrance we had to wait 30 minutes or so while our tour guide went to get our tickets. After we got our tickets, she explained the climbing route we had to take and our options when coming down (bus or cable car) then sent us on our merry way. We broke off into smaller groups pretty early on since some are faster climbers than others. The mountain path way was quite congested with people going up and coming down, I could not have imagined just how crowded it would be! At some points on the steps there were be no gaps between me and the people behind and in front of me, it was a pick pocketers paradise! Fortunately there was no thievery.

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IMG_6940IMG_6973Having climbed 3 other mountains here in China, I must say this one was the most physically exhausting. The stairs were really steep and never seemed to end. The walking stick really did it’s job at the steep points, I was so happy I had bought it! There were children as young as 5 making the climb as well as old people who did not look a day under 60, they are the main reason I refused to give up-if they could do it so could I! We took a lot of short breaks mainly at the temples and by the gates that marked how far up you were.

Midway gate
Midway gate

Being a tourist hotspot we packed our own food and water because the prices at the base of the mountain were already higher than usual and as you got higher up the mountain the food became more expensive. By the time you get to the Jade peak a bottle of water is almost 20 rmb, while at the base it’s 5 rmb. The stall owners are immune to price negotiating because they know you have no choice, where else are you going to buy food? The specialty in this area is jianbing (煎饼) which is a flat pancake with a stick of onion and sweet sausage inside, very underwhelming flavor wise but they seemed to be very popular.IMG_7046 IMG_6841

It took a couple of hours to reach the summit which was not that visually stunning to be honest. The guide had already stated that Tai shan is not one of China’s most visually stunning mountains because the surrounding environment is very dry. It’s importance lies in it’s location (in the east) and cultural and historical significance. At the top is the Jade Emperor Peak (in Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor is the most powerful god in heaven) with an altitude of 1,545 meters.

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Also located there is the Jade Emperor’s temple, a Confucius temple, a few scenic spots for photos and a bustling little collection of shops for souvenirs and food and small hotels. Apparently nothing beats watching the sunrise or sunset at the peak so some people climb the mountain before dawn to catch the sunrise at the peak or simply stay there overnight and wake up early.

One of the more popular photo spots is actually also on China’s 5 RMB note…

IMG_69995rmbWe were occasionally stopped by curious Chinese tourists for photos or mini “interview” sessions where they ask where we’re from, what we’re doing in China, how we learned Chinese etc. Chinese people are generally very curious and once they have a chance they will ask as many questions as they can.

We did of course wander into a few of the temples to take a look. I noticed the Taoist temples had massive collections of gold locks which apparently signifies happiness and good health for your family and friends. You could also throw coins into small ponds for good luck, throw some money into a big stone vessel or rub one of the statues that attracts wealth to your life.

The journey back down was certainly easier than the one going up. At the halfway point there are buses and cable cars that can take you down the rest of the way. For now I think I am done with mountains, I’ve had enough. I live in a mountainous province so there is no shortage of climbing to be done but I prefer looking at water so hopefully my future trips will involve more rivers and lakes. I am happy to have climbed one of China’s sacred mountains though and to have seen some Taoist temples. That’s one for my China travel bucket list!

Note: All the nice photos are by my friend Shuvro (Shuvro Photography). Shout out to him for letting me use them!

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