TAI'AN, China -- At the edge of this city of more than 5 million souls, factories churn out formic acid and construction cranes, high-pressure switches and silk threads. Up among resolute rows of apartment blocks and spikes of skyscrapers, a certain order also looms. But shift to the street, one turn after the next through the city center, and all is kinetic and quick: glare of sunlight, blare of horn, call of voices chasing home. Suited office workers stride to the noodle shop. Uniformed students sway toward school. Hustle battles haze of heat. Exhaust and spice waft. It is urban China, sweaty and swept, on the move.
That is why the old stone staircase at the end of a central street comes as such a surprise, as much for its grandeur, wide and solid and framed beneath a pillared gate, as its purpose: the start of the climb up Tai Shan , the First Mountain Under Heaven, beacon of the east, holiest of China's holy mountains. A total of some 7,000 steps continue over a distance of 6 miles, emerging from velvet forest to rocky summit 5,068 feet above sea level, a natural spike in the flat-baked sprawl of the Yellow River plain.
The steps are worn in the center, scalloped over centuries by millions of footfalls of those -- emperors and peasants, communists and capitalists -- who have come to worship gods and goddesses at secluded shrines and in soaring temples. The summit can be reached with good effort in an afternoon. The adventure, then, comes in joining the thousands of Chinese who still climb, seeking not adrenaline but escape, or salvation. Wander among monuments. Wonder at religion and ritual. Rise above the historic lands of the Middle Kingdom, and look within.
On a summer Saturday afternoon, the first few miles felt more theme park than pilgrimage. Cellphones chimed. Cameras flashed. Schoolchildren squealed. Calm couples, he so often in slacks and a collared shirt, she in a skirt and high heels, strolled. At vendor stalls: bottled water, carved canes, incense sticks, clay whistles, postcards, red tassels with a photo of Chairman Mao, red headbands with yellow characters.
A lanky teenager with short-spiked hair approached me. He spoke broken English, but confidently. He said he was 18, and lived in Tai'an. This was his first climb. I asked why he had come.
"Play," he said. "For fun."
He toyed with a beaded bracelet as we walked. Later, he would give it to me as a gift.
He asked if I was a father. I told him I was.
"You are happy," he said. "With you, I feel not alone."
He was taller than I, perhaps 6-foot-2, and wore a powder-blue basketball uniform and untied shoes; he did not play the game.
"Ping-pong," he said. "Very well. In my country, ping-pong is very well. I love my country."
We parted and reunited many steps later, where we sat on a covered terrace and drank tea.
"You are a gentleman," the ping-pong player told me.
"You are a gentleman," I said.
"No," he countered, "I am a boy already."
Earlier, walking alone in a thickly forested stretch, I stopped next to a pagoda tree. The air was cool and damp. The pagoda's trunk had rotted in the center; new branches grew through it. A sign elaborated, in English: "The sculpture is as if a great mother devoted all herself to her children and they depend on each other, murmuring."
A bit farther, I came to a temple honoring the Tao goddess Doumu , a powerful figure revered in part for her role as registrar of a person's birth. There are 22 temples on Tai Shan, more than 800 symbolic tablets, more than 1,000 carvings in stone. The courtyards of the Doumu temple held statues and urns. Incense smoke curled. Nearby, another sign, also with an English translation: "The palace known as 'The Dragon Spring Guan' (Taoist temple) and 'Miao Xiang Yard' in the old times, was renovated during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It is impossible to trace its history."
Humans were living here 400,000 years ago. By the time dynastic rule emerged more than 2,000 years ago, Tai Shan loomed as the holiest point at the eastern edge of the Yellow River basin, considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. Emperors, keepers of religion for the masses, climbed Tai Shan to communicate with the Jade Emperor , a powerful ruler of heaven and earth. Farmers followed the route in hopes of earning a long life. Rulers used the pilgrimage for political power: They built temples to honor a Tao goddess of health, important in the heavenly hierarchy for those seeking "the way"; to honor a Buddhist goddess of mercy; and even to honor Confucius, the great teacher who lived 2,500 years ago. Imperial parades, it is said, stretched from city streets to towering peaks.
The summiting crowd around me -- several thousand people marched upward throughout the day -- paused at modern monuments. Midway up the mountain, a particularly steep flight of steps opened on a concrete plaza with a hotel, snack stands, and, a few hundred yards beyond, a bus depot, where riders from below unloaded for the second half of the climb.
A signpost promised: "Happy walkway for a distance of three li." After the flat stretch, hardly the advertised mile, another sign announced the Eighteen Bends path, in which 1,600 stone steps rose in less than half that distance. Then came the South Gate to Heaven, where a gondola delivered visitors from the bus depot to a mountaintop crossroads with noodle restaurants, T-shirt shops, and three-star hotels.
The sun fell fast. Students rented thick, full-length Army coats and settled for the night in chattering packs against stone walls.
The temple gong, wood pole striking steel drum, sounded deep and long. It was 9 a.m., and the thousands who arrived the evening before were descending Tai Shan. Some waited for the gondola ride across a deep ravine. Others searched with sore feet for each stone step, 6 or 8 inches lower than the one above.
Most in the crowd had awakened at 4:30 to watch the sun rise. I slept three more hours, ate noodle soup for breakfast, then, as the downward flow thinned beneath the temple gong, left the South Gate to Heaven for the highest temples, set amid scrub and rock along Heavenly Street , and above.
Here, jutting rock and monuments merged in stunning symmetry: Concrete walkways climbed as ridges, temple roofs rose as peaks of their own. Beneath a staircase leading to the temple of the Azure Cloud goddess, a Tao spirit said to bestow fertility, a woman in madras slippers knelt and touched her forehead to the ground, rocking. Her husband clasped his hands and bowed at the waist. In the single courtyard of the Confucian temple, built in the 1560s during the Ming Dynasty, a middle-aged couple lowered heads. At the very top, a small group stopped near the Jade Emperor temple and a blank stone tablet said to have been erected 2,200 years ago.
For so long, the spirits worshiped here -- embraced by emperors, chased by revolutionaries, controlled by communists -- had dominated China's cultural terrain. What power did gods and goddesses still hold over those living in the world below, where computer chips calculate, farmers amble, and rice and cities grow so fast?
One woman lighted a single stick of incense, a silent conversation with heaven, and began her long descent.
I followed for a few minutes, until a sign pointed east toward the State of Lu platform. A trail crested a hump and descended to a simple stone ledge.
Confucius, a resident of what was then the state of Lu, just south of Tai Shan, is said to have climbed the mountain and noted that, up here, the world looks smaller.
Smaller, and similar.
I sat alone on the stone slab. Wind swept. Clouds fled. Details of Taoism and Buddhism, of belief and ritual sprung from Asian soil, dissolved. Was this mountain of monument not built upon the same uncertainties of earthly life felt in distant desert and sturdy New England towns?
I opened my notebook and wrote:
Birdsong. Cascade view of fading green into fog and urban floor below. To heaven. To thank for what have. To ask for more. Or something else. Amen. Space (God) or Time (history).
Tom Haines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.