When researching things to do on the weekend near Zibo, China, Taishan Mountain in Tai’an popped up. It was about an hour away by high speed train from Zibo, and included many things that our family typically enjoys: hiking/time outside, history, and cultural significance. Taishan mountain is the most important ancient sacred mountain in China. Many emperors of China traveled to Tai’an and hiked up to the top of the mountain to offer sacrifices. Mount Tai is accessible by a series of staircases going up the mountain. Along the way, large stone tablets commemorate important visitors and trees planted thousands of years ago by famous visitors still stand alongside the path. Temples dot the path up the mountain- built by especially devout worshipers on their pilgrimage to the top. The earliest emperor to visit the mountain came in 219 BC to pay respect to the mountain gods after unifying China. Needless to say, as we prepared for our hike, we were psyched to be climbing up the same path that emperors had climbed for thousands of years!
There are many ways to get up to the top of the mountain. The most hard-core way involved climbing more than 7,000 steps up to the top. The path starts at the “red gate”, which is easy to find as souvenir and hiking shops line the beginning of the trail. The hike to the top takes 4-6 hours depending on fitness level, length of rest breaks, and speed. Halfway up the mountain, a cable car can take weary hikers up to the top of the mountain. For those who do not want to hike very much, there is a bus that runs between the base and halfway point up the mountain. The bus is 30 rmb/person/way, the cable car is 100rmb/person one-way. The entrance fee is 127 rmb. Needless to say, hiking Mount Tai is not cheap. Getting to the top without hiking too much involves spending over $50! What I did not realize is that even taking the easiest option (bus-cable-car to top and back), there is still a fair amount of hiking just to go from the bus drop-off to the cable car, and then from the cable car station to the actual top of the mountain. I was really excited to see the incredible temples on top of the mountain, but we’ll get to that later.
During weekends and holidays, Mt. Tai can be very busy with tourists attempting to hike the mountain. There were a few blog posts in English about people’s experiences hiking the trail, but most of them were older adults that didn’t seem to be in great shape. We’ve taken Landon on many hard hikes in Asia, so we thought he would do great on this one. Because it seemed like a very long hike for a four-year-old, we decided to hike to the halfway point and take the cable car from there up to the top of the mountain. I tried to prepare Landon for the hike and get him excited for all of the history we would soak in on the way.
I must admit that Taoism was familiar from various history classes throughout the years, but I did not remember much about it. It is a very ancient Chinese religion that I still can’t quite wrap my head around. Laozi is said to be the founder and author of one of the sacred texts, which was written about 400 B.C. It promotes principles of naturalism with yin and yang, spontaneity, detachment from desires, and following “the way.” It incorporates many ancient Chinese customs. It may have been a reaction and counter movement to Confucianism, and included ways to achieve immortality or increase longevity among other things.
On certain days, sacrifices of food and animals are made to the deceased or gods at the temples. Fortune telling and fasting are also common practices. Taoism intermixed with Chinese Buddhism and so distinguishing them can be tricky! We wandered through several temples on our way up the mountain. I think this was a Tao temple, but I’m not sure.
This trip just didn’t start out very good for us. We decided to take the train to Tai’an the night before so we could get going in the morning. So, the boys were up later than normal as we took an hour night train ride, followed by a half hour taxi ride from the Tai’an high speed rail station to our hotel, Four Points Sheraton, which was fairly close to the entrance to the mountain. The next morning, it took a long time to get the boys ready, and Landon was having trouble with constipation. He tried to go potty several times, taking over an hour out of our morning! I was trying to deal with him, so Austin was packing for our hike.
When we arrived at the Red Gate to start out, I asked Austin how much cash he had (cards don’t work most of the time in China). He answered that he had 500 rmb. I took out a bundle of cash for this trip, and I thought Austin took 500 rmb from my wallet to supplement what he already had in his wallet. My wallet was in our hotel room, and we did not want to take the taxi back to the hotel because it was a big ordeal to get out of the hotel room with the two boys in the first place, and Landon was excited to get going. I started doing the math in my head and I knew we couldn’t all take the cable cars up and pay the entry fees with the cash we had. Austin tried to get more cash out, but the ATM near the start of the trail did not take his card. So, things started out on the wrong foot. We decided to start climbing anyway. I should have known it was going to be bad when Landon got tired and didn’t want to walk anymore before we even made it to the ticket gate. Before we reached the ticket gate, there were several temples to explore, as well as bathrooms. Landon tried again to go to the bathroom (in a disgusting, smelly, public squat toilet), but he couldn’t. It was getting hot outside, and we hadn’t even really started!
Typically when we hike, Landon will hike with us as long as we tell him stories, pretend with him, and take plenty of rest and snack breaks. That was not the case with this hike. The first part of the hike, from the base to the midpoint of the mountain, is supposed to be easier and less steep. However, the entire trail is comprised of staircases up the mountain. So, it is still a difficult hike.
I had Owen in our baby carrier backpack, and Austin was in charge of Landon. We ran into an issue when Owen was sick of being carried and wanted to walk, and Landon would not move up the mountain anymore. We were stuck halfway between the base and the midpoint. We tried everything, from cajoling, to playing pretend, to bribing, to giving plenty of snacks, rest breaks and water, to ignoring, to hiking up without Landon to try to get him to move on his own. The result of our efforts was that Landon spent almost the entire hike screaming and crying up the mountain, yelling not to leave him behind, and then when we waited for him, he would stop and cry that he was not taking another step. It was quite the show for all of the Chinese tourists hiking up the mountain with us. We were not the only ones with small children, either! We stopped several times to weigh our options, and I actually started thinking about trying to summon a helicopter to airlift us off the stupid mountain. We finally explained to Landon that we could not get him off the mountain immediately, but that if we hiked up a little more, we could take the bus down. If we turned around, we would have to hike all the way back to the start. That worked for awhile, but eventually, Austin ended up carrying him up the steepest section, and I had to carry him in the baby pack up a few flights before he agreed to walk the rest of the way. Needless to say, it was our absolute worst travel excursion ever. It was a terrible ordeal that made me want to pack up and fly back to the U.S. immediately and never go anywhere ever again.
Looking back, I get it. Landon was hot and did not get enough sleep. He needed to go to the bathroom and had not been able to go. He was uncomfortable and not in the mood. I just wish he had picked a day for all these things to happen when we were closer to home, and not doing something of such cultural significance. We came a long way to hike the path that the ancient emperors walked, and see the temples where they offered sacrifices for the kingdom. With our limited cash funds, there was logistically no way for all of us to get up to the top of the mountain, and even if half of us went up, we would have to hike back down because we didn’t have enough for a round trip cable car. We were just in a bad position because of errors in communication.
Once we reached the midpoint, Landon was immediately cured of all his whining. He sat down on the steps and took a rest. The views, even from the midpoint, were amazing! We were way up on the mountain, and it was crazy to see how much higher up people climbed to reach the top. The trail from the midpoint to the top is much steeper and more difficult. We wouldn’t know, because there was NO WAY we were continuing on. Austin offered to stay with the boys so I could go up the mountain, but I decided we needed to stick together since it was such a rough day for everyone.
From the midpoint, we could see the top of the mountain. The air was the clearest I’ve ever seen in China (which isn’t really saying much, but we had great visibility!)The cable cars were fairly close to the trail at the midpoint, but it seemed like there were still many flights of stairs from the cable car station on top to the summit. Just looking at those stairs up to the summit made me tired. If Austin and I were hiking on our own, we definitely could have made it up to the top. This day was just one of those days where we had to pull the ripcord and put our wants and needs aside for those of our whiny, tired kids. Such is the life of wanderers.
To reach the bus stop from the midpoint, we had to hike around to the trailhead going further up the mountain, then make a U-turn and head down many steep flights of stairs to the buses. A ticket booth near the bus stop sells tickets and buses run fairly frequently during the day. What I decided on our way to the bus is that this mountain is not for the faint of heart. Even the easiest option costs a lot of money and requires climbing many flights of steep, small stairs. I was amazed by the families with small children and older people with movement impairments that were slowly but surely making their way up the mountain. It was inspiring, but not for us on this day!
I wish we could say that we conquered Taishan mountain, but the mountain definitely conquered us! Here are some tips from our experience:
- Some people hike starting at 10 pm or midnight and hike through the night in order to see the sunrise on top of the mountain. Some shops along the path are open 24/7, and there are Chinese military coats to rent at the top when it’s very cold. For this option, plan on bringing flashlights or head lamps and packing more water and food because some trail side shops will be closed. The bus and cable car does not run at night, so only those willing to hike all 7,000 steps should attempt a night hike
- Pack plenty of food, water and snacks. We only made it half way up, but we went through a lot of water on a hot, sunny day.
- Bring sun protection (sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, etc). The trail is in the shade some of the time, but there are sunny stretches, and it is a long, exposed hike!
- Wear suitable shoes: We hike in our running/athletic shoes without any issues, but we saw some casualties along the trail attempting to hike in Converse or other casual shoes.
- If you have kids under 8: Plan on the bus-cable car-summit-cable car-bus route. We thought our little hiker could handle it, and it was a GIANT mistake.
- If hiking with young toddlers, a baby carrier or backpack should be fine, although it is a long hike and the babies may get tired of being carried. We saw SO MANY Chinese families with kids just carrying babies and toddlers up the mountain with no carrier. They are stronger than I.
- If you don’t want to rent Chinese military coats at the summit, pack a layer to wear. We packed one, but we just didn’t get up there.
- Bring plenty of cash. Like at least 800 rmb or more. That was our downfall for sure!For tourists passing through Shandong province, Tai’an is a beautiful place to stop to hike and take in the history of the area. Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, is nearby, and visiting Tai’an one day and Qufu the next day would be an enjoyable, but doable weekend trip. Learn from our mistakes, take the easy route if needed, and get up to the summit to visit the famous and historical temple sites on top!