7000 Stairs to the top of the most holy mountain of China#By
All photos were taken as slides by the author in July 1982. They are part of the author's archive "Pictureflood Jontes".
Translation in preparation#
China has several holy mountains, but one stands out. It is the Tai Shan, the “Illustrious Mountain”, located in the province Shandong in China’s northeast. Even though the Emei Shan is higher, the early records of its historical significance, beautiful scenery with awe inspiring harshness, along with numerous temples and rock inscriptions and also the natural phenomena accompanying sunrise make Mount Tai not only a spiritual highlight of China. Today modern tourism is dictating the mountain's affairs. So the original pilgrim route to the top has been mitigated by a modern cable car system. The author of this essay has climbed the mountain for the first time in 1982 without this help and has also descended the same way.
The Chinese view such mountains as points, where the earth is firmly bound to the “disc”. In the ancient view of the world this disc was the primary source of all physical existence. It is therefore no coincidence that Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor and unifier of China – today best known for his Terracotta Army – proclaimed the unification of the empire from the top of Mount Tai. Following him 71 other emperors have made a pilgrimage to it. And even Mao Zedong is linked to it as one of his poems is dedicated to the mountain.
The Tai Shan is only 1532 m high. But since it towers straight over a plain there is still a difference in altitude of 1400 m to climb. There are many routes to the summit. Amongst these the so called Imperial Route is the historically and generally most important one. It also offers the best scenery. It is 7.5 km long and consists of 7000 steps – all of which the author has climbed. The path is very steep and the stony steps are mostly too narrow for a whole foot to step on them. Taking only short breaks on the many small plateaus an ascent takes about four hours. Since a visit should not be made in the rainy season, the ascent is best started early in the morning. Even then the air is already hot, humid and hazy. A real challenge!
Every journey starts with a single step, so does every staircase!
The bizarre rock formations have been a source of inspiration for Chinese Landscape painting for thousand years.
Steep cliffs surrounded by deep drops, narrow lines of rock offer room for scots pines. They symbolize the lively growing element of nature in an otherwise rough rocky landscape.
Along the Imperial Road live people, who tend to the pilgrims and observed the first European climbers with awe.
Before the erection of the cable car coolies were still employed. They did the necessary construction work and supplied the army’s radar station at the summit with goods.
Wherever people observe nature closely, interpretations of landscape structures follow soon. Many Chinese still believe in the existence of dragons. The Chinese dragons (chin. long) are – contrary to Europe’s fire breathing, men slaying beasts – benevolent towards humans and according to traditional believe responsible for the even distribution of rain as an agricultural blessing. They are regarded so highly that they are the ultimate symbol for the emperor. On Tai Shan there are many small streams. Locals still believe that some dragons live and hide in several of the many small pools.
The Chinese writing consists of characters for every single term. Therefore it is a logographic writing system. The mastery of aesthetic characters -called calligraphy - is considered a part of the fine arts, equal to painting, sculpture and architecture. Well educated Chinese can recognize poets and even important historical figures on the basis of their hand writing. Originally the characters were scratched on pieces of bamboo. Later they were painted with ink and brush onto paper. A schooled eye can perceive the dynamic and composition of the writer by observing the brush strokes. On Mount Tai many inscribed rock walls can be seen. Therefore all the small characters were transcribed in detail and with all their individuality onto the monumental walls. Consequently there are several inscriptions with symbols that are meters high.
Calligraphy by Mao Zedong – aesthete and mass murderer
The Tai Shan is of great importance to China's main religions. Therefore there are many temples and shrines dedicated to Taoism, Buddhism and the worship of Confucius. While climbing the last steep staircase on the exhausting route, the sight of the Shrine of the Blue Dawn announces taht the summit is close.
Having conquered the Tai Shan one should not turn around right away, but prepare for an impressive natural spectacle, the next morning's awe-inspiring sunrise. Today a couple of big hotels exist whereas in 1982 there only used to be a rather primitive inn. And every grain of rice and every piece of meat consumed had been carried up by coolies, one was painfully aware.
The mornings are quite cool, but still many people wait for the ascending sun. The grey of dawn soon turns into a symphony of colors in the east. It is a striking sight when the mountains in the distance seem to grow from the night’s mist, while creating a wonderful feeling of spatial depth at the same time by being lined up right behind each other as if they were put there on purpose.
The rising sun warms the air and breezes of air remove the rest of the night’s mist. The spectacle is over. Different atmospheric layers create the illusion that the sun leaps for joy three times when looking upon the holy mountain. For the Christian occident a similar mythical notion exists: When the sun rises on Easter day it jumps three times as well for joy about the resurrection of Christ. Miracles of nature inspired belief!