Saturday, October 16, 2010

Close to Heaven

My ears popped as the cable car ascended the green mountains around me. Large gorges and rocks jutting out from the mountain were all around. I was traveling with a few Chinese and foreign co-workers, one of whom muttered some random statistic about the probability of us falling to our doom.

Just then, the cable car passed over some low lying trees revealing the scene above: a temple on top of Mount Tai (Taishan) about a mile above sea level and entrance ways called the Gates of Heaven.

Well, if we were all going to die here, at least we’d be pretty close to heaven, I thought.

Taishan, in Shandong Province, is one of China’s sacred mountains. It’s a place of cultural and religious significance – there’s a few temples and worship halls at the peak – and is the best place to catch a great sunrise or sunset and feel spiritually awakened or reborn, so our guide said. We were there midday, so there was no chance of such revitalization for me.

From base to peak it can take up to 10 hours walking (at a leisurely pace) along paths and a 7,000-plus step staircase.

The chairlift took less than 10 minutes, and although lacking the enlightenment – in spirit and altitude change -- I was sure to feel taking the stairs, I was fine with taking pictures of the paths and steps to heaven from the cable car.

The mountain heights had been developed in proper tourist fashion. Large walkways facilitated a mountain of tourists on the mountain’s peak. Even in the off travel season, landmarks like Taishan, which is one of China’s UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites, draw huge crowds.

And like all tourist areas, there were people trying to sell me things I really didn’t need, but wanted nonetheless – who can say no to an ordinary rock with red Chinese characters on it, or stones washed in “sacred water” from the mountains?

A large telecommunications tower loomed next to the Daoist temple, an out of place obstruction from the modern era that detracted from the natural beauty of the ancient mountains. But hey, even Daoist monks need cell phone reception.

Our group ate at a restaurant in a hotel near the mountaintop. Looking out through the window, we could see the clouds below. Our guide told us they were rain clouds and that Tai’an City below would be getting wet, but not us. Naturally, the food and beverage was overpriced, but we figured there was some kind of transportation charge for getting it up the mountain on top of the inflated prices for tourists.

Taishan even has a beer named after it, although the taste was far from heavenly.

Taishan wasn’t nearly as impressive as the mountains I’d seen in Xinjiang on my August adventure, but the air was fresh, the sights beautiful and the trip relaxing. And since I didn’t have to take 7,000 stairs to get there or walk up winding forest paths, I’ll mark this one down as a fun trip in my travelogue.

GROUP PHOTO: Foreign experts along for the trip included Michael Fuksman (American), myself, Patrick O'Dea (New Zealand) and Christian O'Brien (Great Britain)

BARE PEAKS: Patches of rock jut out from the Taishan range

PICTURE PERFECT: A couple looks sits on a path at the peak of Taishan mountain, watching the mountains roll off into the distance

TOURISM IN THE CLOUDS: Taishan, a UNESCO site, is a popular tourist destination. Even in the off tourist season, there was a mountain of people on top of the Taishan

Some photos by Liu Xinlian, Beijing Review

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