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Question: Why are Chinese mountains mostly scaled by steps/stairs instead of winded paths?
Is there something traditional / practical / religious / spiritual about it that I fail to see?

When hiking up some of the sacred mountains in China, I noticed that a significant portion of the walking uphill was done via stairs, as in this example from Huangshan:

enter image description here (source: Wikimedia Commons)

It hurt my (usually trained) legs a ton after a short fraction of the walk uphill, as I was not used to making that many stairs. Basically half of the walk was as in the picture if I recall correctly.
In Europe instead I was used to winding paths (known to me also as serpentines) as in the picture below. Personally (but that may be just me) I find the latter much less strenuous and efficient even in terms of walking time.

enter image description here

(source: Wikimedia Commons)

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    Stairs can reach a much steeper angle than paths, so if you are out of space, stairs are the better solution. Also, for medium to heavy use, steep trails erode quickly and badly; stairs basically not at all. – Aganju Jul 20 '16 at 12:28
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    When it has stairs it's safe, more tourists?? – Nean Der Thal Jul 20 '16 at 13:48
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    @Relaxed I'd say it defs was not speed, the Chinese I was with made sure that did not happen. It is the muscles you are using when you are taking the stairs and not the cableway. – mts Jul 20 '16 at 18:21
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    Based on my visits to Chinese mountains, I would say it's because they expect VAST HORDES of visitors and the stairs are more practical with such crowds. – Spehro Pefhany Jul 20 '16 at 19:54
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    We also have such stairs and railings here in Europe where there are pilgrimage centres in the mountains. Pilgrims and crowds aren't expected to go hiking. For example, you can see a lot of stairs in Montserrat in Catalonia commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sant_Jeroni_escaliers.JPG . If you don't like stairs (which I understand), you may try avoiding "sacred" mountains. – Pere Jul 24 '16 at 9:44

10 Answers 10

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Stairs are easier to walk than rocky paths. In ancient times they allowed royalty more leisurely access to sacred mountains symbolizing their high rank in society, while commoners were likely restricted to walking older foot paths (if they were even allowed on top). Today all 'pilgrims' are afforded the ease of stairs.

In Europe a lot of mountain top destinations were fortifications, so they didn't want easy stairs to the top. And today they try to preserve them as they were.

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    +1 but my legs disagree with "are easier to walk". I also assume the royalty was carried up the hill, which is now available for a fee. – mts Jul 20 '16 at 14:39
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    If you look at the angle of ascent for the stairs, your legs would be burning trying to walk a path of similar steepness ;-) – user13044 Jul 20 '16 at 14:54
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    @Tom That's why trails use switchbacks. – gerrit Jul 20 '16 at 14:55
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    @Dronz interesting perspective but at least Huangshan to my knowledge has never been fortified in that sense. – mts Jul 20 '16 at 15:49
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    The stairs provide a higher intensity of effort, which is what your legs are disagreeing with, but in terms of overall sum of effort (eg total energy your body expends) the stairs require less overall effort. – T.R. Jul 22 '16 at 6:23
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To add to the other answers, some paths my be susceptible to soil erosion - from foot traffic and rainfall. This eventually makes some sections almost impassable for some people, as well as damaging the terrain and surrounding vegetation. I have seen this first hand in Hong Kong. For example:

Maclehose Trail stage 4, Hong Kong

So in many places, steps are built. In HK these were originally made just with basic wooden risers, kept in place with metal stakes and a few rocks and earth as treads . Many of these were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, though these also suffer from soil erosion, though obviously less so than if just left alone:

enter image description here

When funding and manpower are available, eventually these are replaced with concrete steps:

enter image description here

enter image description here

In most of the mainland, hiking trails are a relatively (compared to Hong Kong) new phenomenon and so modern (ie concrete) construction methods were used from the outset in many places.

To address a comment on another answer, often concrete paths are built but these are not possible where the terrain is steep.

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    These photos are an accurate representation of what is going on in Czechia, too, except the erosion is a little less pronounced. But I still prefer natural steps out of roots than an equally steep smooth slope that keeps shifting as you step on it. – John Dvorak Jul 23 '16 at 5:09
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When many people climb the same path every day, natural rocks become smooth, slippery and dangerous. An example in Europe is the path to Château de Montségur in the french Pyrenees.

Stairs are less prone to such wear over time.

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    I don't think that fully answers the question. They could have concrete paths, without the stairs. – Davidmh Jul 20 '16 at 14:48
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    @Davidmh Which would become just as slippery. I don't think that fully addresses anything whatsoever. – user207421 Jul 21 '16 at 2:16
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    @Davidmh -- nooo, you can't do that. Wet leaves on concrete is more slippery than mud. It's not much of a problem on flat ground, because you don't need much traction, but here in SF, any hill steeper than about 20° has steps instead of sidewalks and the roadway is typically one-way downhill. Source: my house. – Malvolio Jul 22 '16 at 16:10
  • @Malvolio concrete trails have deep grooves to avoid that. But perhaps that is more complicated than just putting stairs. – Davidmh Jul 22 '16 at 16:34
  • @Davidmh -- they do that some places here, but there must be some countervailing reason they mostly do steps (in a city, of course, switchbacks and serpentines are only rarely an option). Maybe it's that pouring the concrete in flat-but-not-level slabs becomes complicated; maybe it's just that the grooves fill up with gunk. – Malvolio Jul 22 '16 at 20:14
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European point of view:

Back in the times (or what I was told many years ago by some locals) is that they would let a donkey lead the group to find the path of least resistance. The natural instincts of the animal would find the best path for climbing (wonder what IQ is required ... as opposed to humans :) Considering they used the mules and such for loads/cargo that was a requirement for commerce and travel to be able to climb passes ... try that on stairs.

The stairs will kill your knees/muscles fast while the paths allow for a more "rested" climb (might require more time, but you can get there). It also allows for traffic if the path is wide enough.

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    The OP is asking about China though, how does this answer their question ? – blackbird Jul 20 '16 at 17:32
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    @blackbird57: Well, it seems that the answer insinuates the respective paths were not used for donkeys in China. – O. R. Mapper Jul 20 '16 at 21:20
  • The question is why China has stairs, so the justification for Europe not having stairs isn't an answer. Also, donkeys (and llamas) are still quite common in Peru, and yet Huaycán has stairs all over the place. – WGroleau Jul 23 '16 at 18:56
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I'm very familiar with the European alps, but not at all familiar with the sacred mountains in China. So I can only address why stairs are rare in the alps:

  • You mentioned hiking up the sacred mountains. The peak isn't that important in the Alps, so paths rarely take the shortest route to the peak. Instead you have a whole network of paths that link various places of interest (like lakes, or places with an incredible view) which you use to hike through the mountains, and if you go to a peak you very rarely take the same path when you return.
  • Traditionally, the paths were used for livestock. The average cow doesn't walk stairs, neither does the average sheep.
  • Protection of the landscape. Stairs are man made structures, while many of the paths higher up in the mountains are similar to animal trails and will revert to nature if left unused for 100 years.

On tourist-heavy peaks you are more likely to find man made structures like stairs, a restaurant on top, or cable cars, which leads me to the assumption that visiting the peak of the sacred mountains in China may be something that's rather popular with tourists, maybe?

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I have another possible explanation that I cannot corraborate with online sources at this time.

I visited Japan several years ago, and as one does (and should definitely do), I visited many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines while there. I believe it was a Buddhist temple (as opposed to a shrine) where I first noticed two sets of stairs. There was a steeper set, much like the ones pictured in the question above - not unusually steep, that led up the hill/mountainside and through the main gate of the temple.

Chion-in (知恩院), Kyoto main stairs:

enter image description here

Image source

Then there was also a much shallower set, with the flat part of each stair being slanted and perhaps as deep as six feet/2 meters, and the riser of each step being less than four inches/10 centimeters. These gentle, shallow "stairs" (more like stepped ramps) were hidden from the main view of the temple, and came up the back or side of the mountain to a plain entrance.

Chion-in (知恩院) "back" stairs:

enter image description here

Image source

I asked the walking tour guide why there were two sets of stairs, and I expected it had something to do with moving large statues or other mechanical tasks and services. According to the guide, however, it was actually meant to segregate the men from the women, to the disadvantage of the women.

At the time the temple (and many other temples besides this one) was built (according to the guide), women were required to wear clothing that greatly restricted their movement. They could only take short, shuffling steps because of the tightness of the wraps around their legs. That meant they could not climb a typical set of stairs. I'm not sure which fact led to the other, but the synergy was that women could not mount the main stairs and enter the main entrance to the temple along with the men. They had to shuffle up the back stairs which were carefully designed to be just climbable by women in the required clothing.

I have no knowledge of prohibitions on women climbing mountains to shrines or temples in China, nor am I aware of similar clothing restrictions. I only mention this because there are some cultural similarities between Japan and China, and when I saw the pictures of the steep stairs and the gentle switchbacks, it occured to me the stairs could have been made difficult intentionally.

A less sexist possibility is that since the stairs are likely leading to some place that has some sort of religious significance, the climbing of the stairs represents a sort of pilgrimage or penance, and therefore should not be made too easy on the penitent.

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    -1 the whole sexist arguments seems extremely far fetched in the case of stairs on mountains. I'll be happy to upvote if you provide evidence. – JS Lavertu Jul 21 '16 at 18:46
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    I've seen similar steps and was told that they were for horses (et al). – Hannover Fist Jul 21 '16 at 21:26
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    @JSLavertu Yeah, I debated not putting this up since I couldn't find anything about it at all online. Then again, I couldn't find anything at all about why there are two separate sets of stairs for many temples in Japan and the explanation of the guide does fit the facts of those stairs. And furthermore, there's not necessarily any link to the stairs in China or anywhere else. In the end, I felt it was worth putting this out there, but no hard feelings about the downvote. – Todd Wilcox Jul 21 '16 at 21:55
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    @HannoverFist What if no one actually knows what the "back" stairs are for and each tour guide/whatever comes up with their own crazy story, and then they get together and have teppanyaki and plum wine and trade their favorite "back stairs stories"? – Todd Wilcox Jul 21 '16 at 21:56
  • I would be more inclined(pun intended) to believe that the larger tread steps to a plain entrance was for carts, like a service elevator. The gentle fabricated steps would prevent erosion. – Jammin4CO Jul 22 '16 at 15:15
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I would say just based on the photos (and I realize they are just examples) that whether or not you build stairs or switchbacks would depend entirely on the landscape, the composition of the mountain, and surrounding vegetation. If I were to try to plan a path to the top of the mountain, I would look at what I had to work with. If I had the real estate to make switchbacks, it would certainly make my job easier, but if I was looking at boulders and steep, heavily forested terrain, it would be much easier to just plow straight up. I would want to move as few rocks and cut down as few trees as possible. This would seem the most logical to me...

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Money.

The average wage in central Europe is five times that of rural China.

Which does not mean that the alpine states do not invest quite a lot into maintaining hiking paths. In Europe it's just more efficient to use methods which are less labor-intense and more machine-intense.

When you build stairs up a mountain terrain, you need to invest quite a lot of manual labor. Every single step needs to be planned and hand-build by workers. Serpentines, on the other hand, can be done quite easily with machines. When you have less people and better heavy machines, it's far easier to dig 100m of straight, slightly ascending path along the slope of a mountain, make a 180° turn and repeat.

Machine-built paths are also often machine-accessible paths. This allows the local forestry industry to move heavy machines up and down the mountain (large parts of the alps are used for forestry).

A secondary advantage of serpentines is that they also work as avalanche barriers. Avalanches can be quite a menace in the alps.

Another aspect is cultural. Serpentines are a far more severe change of the natural landscape than stairs. When you consider a mountain sacred, you want to damage it as little as possible. But there are no "sacred" mountains in Europe (Yes, Europeans like to put crosses on the summits, but that only makes the summit sacred, not the rest of the mountain). For the past millennium, the slopes were timberland and hunting grounds and the alms were farmland. The mountains were developed for economical reasons, not religious or cultural reasons. Economical use means you want to use carts to get stuff up and down the mountains, and serpentines work much better than stairs in this regard. The idea that the natural beauty of the European mountains must be preserved is (historically-speaking) a rather new idea. How much of the landscape is still "natural" is debatable anyway. Spruce and pine monocultures are definitely not natural, but people got used to them over the past centuries, so now they consider them part of the landscape. And so they consider serpentines.

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    it's a good point - they are "like the pyramids". an example of what can be achieved with an awful lot of (slave, or otherwise) labour. – Fattie Jul 21 '16 at 23:22
  • At least the serpentines shown in the question do not look machine-made. At least, they are far from your described technique of "dig[ging] 100m of straight, slightly ascending path along the slope of a mountain, mak[ing] a 180° turn and repeat[ing]". – O. R. Mapper Jul 23 '16 at 16:45
  • Furthermore, the statement "Serpentines are a far more severe change of the natural landscape than stairs." was surprising to me. Do you happen to know any examples that visibly support that point? Several of the other answers state the exact opposite, and I tend to agree with them, given that an irregular (and thus "natural"-looking) path that smoothly integrates with the hill changes the overall look a lot less than a more or less straight and handrailed stair above the normal surface of the mountain (similarly to how smoothly winding motorways integrate better than straight elevated ones). – O. R. Mapper Jul 23 '16 at 16:50
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According to physics, Work = Force X Distance. Therefore, the same amount of work is done to ascend a mountain by stair or by inclined path. What you will find is that with a stair, the distance is shorter and the work is greater; and with a path, the distance is greater, but the force is less.

And if you consider the same speed (distance/time), it will be faster to climb the stair, assuming no stops for rest. But, I would expect the same resting heart rate and calories burned by either way when measured at the time the last person gets to the top given rest breaks when needed.

P.S. You can't take a rolling cart up a stair.

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Based on pure speculation, I would think it is much less overall work to cut stairs into a suitable mountain, rather than create a terraced road using switchbacks.

I mean, imagine you, alone, are responsible for creating a path to the top and you only have a hammer and chisel...

Additionally, if you were continuously improving the original path, as it appears may be the case, from some of the photos in the OP, the original path was likely a straight line to the top. Most people needing to reach the top originally, would have likely followed the shortest-path to their goal. Thus, unless the geographical features already supported a switchback approach, the default would have been shortest path.

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    "cut stairs into a suitable mountain" - the Chinese mountain visitors stairs are often put on top of the mountain surface, made out of concrete (including a handrail that sometimes has a wood texture). – O. R. Mapper Jul 20 '16 at 21:21

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