A little while ago, we decided we would climb a mountain in every country we visit. In China, we chose Mount Tai (Tai Shan), the most climbed mountain in the country. Here’s our practical guide to help you plan your Mount Tai adventure.
The history of Mount Tai
Mount Tai is the greatest of the Five Great Mountains, the most famous mountains in Chinese history, destination of imperial pilgrimages and sacrifices for over three thousand years. Their religious significance transcends faith; they have been associated with Confucianism and Buddhism, but their strongest relation is with Taoism.
Each of the Five Great Mountains is related to one of the five cardinal directions. Mount Tai is the mountain of the East; it is associated with birth, sunrise and renewal. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (of Terracotta Warriors fame) announced the unity of China from the summit of Mount Tai, two hundred years before the birth of Christ.
Nowadays, Mount Tai is a UNESCO World Heritage site, visited by six million people every year. There are dozens of temples, stone tablets and inscriptions lining the path to the summit, making the mountain a cultural as well as natural attraction.
Getting to Mount Tai
The gateway for climbing Mount Tai is the city of Tai’an, roughly half way between Beijing and Shanghai, making Mount Tai an ideal stop between the two cities.
Bus number 3 takes you from the city to the trailhead, from where it’s a short walk to the ticket office. Entry to Mount Tai is ¥125 (¥62 for students with valid ID). Alternatively, it’s possible to walk to the entrance from the town centre in about 20 minutes. It’s easy to find the way, just walk uphill.
Climbing Mount Tai
As Mount Tai is associated to sunrise in Chinese lore, so the climb is traditionally made at night, to view the sunrise from the top. No climbing or hiking experience is required; it is a strenuous walk over a paved path with 6666 steps climbing for 1400 meters from entrance to summit. Guides are not necessary as the path is extremely easy to follow, but may be useful to illustrate the significance of temples and stone inscriptions.
The steps are incredibly steep at times, such as in the section leading up to the South Gate to Heaven, that looks almost vertical from a distance. People of all ages climb Mount Tai, but it’s also possible to take a bus to the halfway point and a cable car to the summit.
Climbing to the halfway point (Midway Gate to Heaven) takes about 2 hours, and another two (tough!) hours to the South Gate to Heaven. Contrary to what it seems from the trail, the South Gate to heaven is NOT the summit. From there, it’s another hour to the Jade Emperor temple, the highest point and prime sunrise spot.
Climbing at night is a boring affair, in almost total darkness (don’t forget a headlamp!), meaning there are no views and temples are closed for visitors. An alternative is sightseeing on the way down, but chances are you’ll be so tired after the long climb up and suffering from jelly legs that you’ll be rushing to your bed.
It’s also possible to walk up during the day and spend the night near the top. Hotels charge extortionate prices for below-average accommodation, but they often offer discounts of 50% or more just by asking. There are also tents near the South Gate to Heaven, charging ¥200 for a 2 person tent.
Some more Mount Tai tips
You can buy water and snacks on the way. Of course, they’re more expensive than in town. Prices rise considerably around the Midway Gate to Heaven, then stay about the same all the way up.
The difference in elevation from bottom to top is 1400 meters, meaning that it’s likely to be chilly and windy around the South Gate to Heaven and the summit. If you haven’t got warm clothes, it’s possible to rent Chinese Army coats for ¥20.
If you start at 11pm, you’ll reach the South Gate to Heaven around 3am, about 2 hours before sunrise. If you want some shelter from the cold, there’s a tea shop where you can sit and have a drink for about the same price as a Chinese Army coat rental.
Don’t expect to be alone on the summit – Mount Tai is VERY popular with Chinese tourists. If you’re after a romantic sunrise, this isn’t the place for you. It’s still a worthwhile experience though. The climb up is a real challenge, but seeing the sun rise from a sea of clouds at the top and taking in the wonderful views on the way up (if you climb by day) or down (if you climb at night) makes up for the jelly legs and sore knees.