Mount Tai by Night

Climbing a mountain to beat the sunrise – by Elijah Dove


As we approach the staircase, flashlight beams sweep through the midnight mist-smog. Chanted words drift from behind them, and as we draw closer, shambling figures reveal themselves as street vendors, hawking canes, incense and assorted trinkets. No rest for the working. We walk briskly past them and begin our ascent on steps leading up between hulked, darkling shadows; shops by day are now become anonymous, shuttered spectres.

We are on our way to climb Mount Tai, the most renowned of China’s five great mountains. It carries the claim of being the most-climbed mountain not only in China, but in the world. People – and emperors – have been climbing it for thousands of years to offer sacrifices at the top. It’s the premier thing to do in the city of Tai’an, and a source of great pride for Shandong province. In order to catch daybreak on the peak, we set off shortly after midnight.

We pass through the Red Gate and are heading to the ticket booths when a silhouette approaches. It's a man offering to lead us around the gate for half the price of the tickets. Our new Chinese friend from the hostel, Tom, translates for us. It’s tempting, but we'd rather not be caught in some sort of scam. Or international incident. Instead, we purchase tickets from a bleary-eyed woman for 100 yuan. There’s no joy in her face, but maybe that’s just the hour.

Past the ticketers, it’s easy going, our way lit by the nearly-full moon that grows brighter as we escape the city’s smog. We work our way up, occasionally passing fellow pilgrims. We’re the only foreigners on the mountain.

Roosters crow in the darkness, eerie cries that feel out of place. Here and there, we pass shops offering snacks and souvenirs – shining oases in a desert of night. By the time we reach the halfway mark, we’re warmed through and tired, and the clump of shops there offers welcome distraction. Prices rise with the elevation, but we had planned for this and packed much of our own food and drink. The climb continues, and the scattered shopkeepers become a litany of the same refrains. I begin to think of them as stock characters in a video game, or as isolated automatons that activate by motion sensor.

There’s an otherworldly air about our hike – an almost tangible sense of the weird and the ancient. It’s easy to imagine long-dead emperors trekking this route, lanterns swinging in front and behind, aides whispering pious counsel, on their way to parlay with the heavens. How many thousands of people have climbed these steps? How many millions?

We reach the bottom of the peak with hours to spare. The moon is lower, but undimmed. With a heavy chill up beyond the smog-line, we decide to leave the last push for just before sunrise and try to find somewhere warm. There’s a miniature village up here, but it's savagely capitalistic, survival by wallet. If you want anything, you had better have the cash. They’ll suck you dry if you let them.

We investigate a restaurant, to see if it’s warmer. It’s not, and at this hour, they’re only serving drinks. Not that we would shell out for food if they offered it. 380 yuan for a dish, 50 for a cup of tea. We settle for the ten yuan cups of hot water. They try to charge us an additional ten a head to sit at the table, but we interject and cajole and manage to stick around just long enough for my sweat to cool. Then it’s back outside, wandering from hotel to hotel, killing time and warming up, filibustering until they catch on that we’re not actually looking for a room.

With nowhere left to try, we pick our way up towards the peak. It’s still a good hour until sunrise, but maybe there’s warm shelter up there. Maybe.

There are more signs of life now, with some shopkeepers starting to think about opening. Trinkets hang lackluster, longing for light that will give them their glittering appeal. A man lights up what could be the beginnings of a fire, or perhaps incense. The temples are still shrouded in darkness. Our fellow pilgrims stamp up and down stairs. No doubt, they’re as cold as we are. Out beyond the mountain’s edge, far below, the lights of Tai’an glitter and glow like gems obscured by murky water.

The sky hasn’t begun to lighten yet. If anything, it’s even colder up here. Through a cracked gate, we glimpse an empty, ill-lit courtyard. With a gentle push, the door swings open, beckoning. How can we resist?

There's a bathroom with heavy curtain over the door, protecting against the cold. We find unexpected refuge next to the sinks and heaters, and spend the next hour thawing back to life. There’s an irregular stream of priests and workers, half-asleep and silently bewildered at our presence. Clearly, they don’t often find tourists in their bathroom, but no one says a word to us. Somewhere outside, someone begins sounding a gong. A call to prayer, perhaps? One of the men from earlier returns to kindly tell us sunrise is in twenty minutes.

We return to the cold and the mountain. Everything is now lit by that pale light that preludes the sun. People are walking past us, towards the east. Tom, the only one who has done this before, urges us the opposite direction, up a different staircase. That way lies the actual peak, he says, and the best view of the sunrise.

The stairs are steep and it’s getting lighter every second. I want to run, but my legs are having none of it. I’m forced into a half-stagger that makes me feel like a hobbled elephant. The path is winding, and every temple door we pass is closed. I’m beginning to doubt Tom. Maybe we should just turn around and follow everyone else, but it’s too late now. We can only soldier on

The path twists to the east, and we begin jogging. Any second now, the sun will break the horizon, and I haven’t come this far just to miss it. The trail wraps around a building, and on the other side is an abrupt edge facing out towards the imminent sunrise. There are one or two others nearby, and the rest of the pilgrims far to the right, crowded together on a small plateau.

It turns out our hurry wasn’t necessary. We have time to relax, and soak in the beauty. Below us is an ocean of fog, with smaller peaks rising up out of it like breaching whales. The sky grows lighter by the minute, then all chatter dies away.

Out of the fog rises a vibrant red crescent that slowly grows into an orb. It almost looks as if it’s emerging from in front of the horizon. Breathing suddenly isn’t necessary, and it's impossible to look away. It's the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen, and I understand now why some worship the sun; it looks like some great god is peering into our world.

It's 7:23am. After several more minutes, the sun has risen fully, leaving the mountain top awash in a warm, friendly glow. We begin our descent, but I can’t help but look back and continue to marvel.

Elijah Dove teaches in Heilongjiang, and keeps a blog called Dove Tales, where a version of this post first appeared. He sorely laments the state of China's peanut butter