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Climbing the Mountain

Tai Shan is a challenging but manageable climb. Two trails lead up to the midway point, Zhong Tian Men (Middle Gate of Heaven): a shorter but less-often hiked western route (7.8km/4 3/4 miles) which starts at Dai Miao but detours west before Hong Men; and the much more popular eastern route (11km/6 1/2 miles) which runs from Dai Miao up to the main entrance on Hongmen Lu. As the former imperial way, the eastern route features more cultural and religious sights. The relatively fit should allow a total of about 4 to 5 hours to reach the summit: It's 2 hours to the halfway point, where there are some hotels and a cable car, and another 2 hours minimum to reach Nan Tian Men (South Gate of Heaven) near the summit. Water and snacks become increasingly expensive the higher you climb, so pack enough beforehand. A walking stick, which can be purchased in stores in town or at the mountain's entrance, can come in handy. Temperatures at the summit can differ considerably from Tai'an's, so dress in layers. Climbing Tai Shan would not be complete without viewing sunrise from the summit. Some Chinese climb at night, making it to the top just in time to catch the first rays, but this is not advisable for the average foreigner. If you plan to overnight at the top, be sure to pack warm clothing and a flashlight.

By Bus & Cable Car -- Those not inclined to climb day or night can now take one of three cable cars up to Nan Tian Men, though you'll still have to walk another 1.5km (1 mile) to the summit. The first and most popular option involves taking bus no. 3 (or a taxi) from the railway station to Dazhong Qiao (Tian Wai Cun also), where you transfer to a minibus (¥30) to Zhong Tian Men. You will have to purchase a ticket for entrance to Tai Shan, which costs ¥125, here. (There are also direct buses to Zhong Tian Men from the railway station, but these only run in the morning.) From Zhong Tian Men, the 10-minute ride to Nan Tian Men on a six-person cable car costs ¥80 one-way, ¥140 round-trip. The second cableway runs between the Tianjie Suodao Zhan and Taohua Yuan (Peach Blossom Ravine) on the western flanks of the mountain and costs ¥80 one-way. The third option connects the summit to the more rural Hou Shi Wu (Rear Rock Basin) and Tianzhu Feng (Tianzhu Peak) on the northeast side of the mountain; the cost is ¥20 one-way.

Entrance Fee -- Prices used to vary by entry point, but in early 2007 a standard ¥125 (plus the mandatory ¥2 insurance) admission was decreed, regardless of whether you enter at Hongmen Lu, Wan Xian Lou, Taohua Yuan, or Dazhong Qiao. The price drops with seasonal temperatures to ¥100 (Dec-Jan).

Eastern Route -- Heading north from Dai Miao, visitors soon pass through the Ming dynasty Daizong Fang, a three-portal gate that leads to Yi Tian Men (First Gate of Heaven), which marks the beginning of the imperial ascent. Just inside is another arch commemorating the site where Confucius is said to have rested when he visited the mountain. North of the arch is Hong Men Gong (Red Gate Palace), which is also the main entrance to the mountain. Purchase your ticket about 200m (656 ft.) north of here. One kilometer (2/3 mile) farther is Doumu Gong, a Daoist nunnery whose origins are obscure, though the temple was completely renovated in 1542; it houses a statue of the goddess Doumu with 24 heads and 48 hands and eyes in the hollows of her palms. Behind Doumu Gong, a 1km (2/3-mile) detour to the east leads to Jingshi Yu (Stone Sutra Valley), an enormous flat piece of rock carved with the text of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra. Another 1.8km (1 mile) farther along the main path, an arch, Huima Ling, commemorates the spot where the Tang Xuanzong emperor had to dismount and continue by sedan chair when his horses could no longer navigate the steep twists and turns.

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Less than a kilometer away, Zhong Tian Men (Middle Gate of Heaven) marks the halfway point up the mountain (elev. 850m/2,788 ft.), as well as the intersection of the eastern and western routes. There are restaurants, snack shops, and very crude hostels, as well as a cable car that runs to Nan Tian Men. A little farther on, those continuing on foot approach Wu Song Ting (Five Pine Pavilion), where the Qin emperor Shi Huangdi sought shelter from the rain in 219 B.C. He later conferred on the sheltering pine the title of fifth-grade official, hence the name of this spot. Just to the north, Yingke Song (Welcoming Guest Pine), immortalized in countless paintings, extends a drooping branch in welcome. Recharge at Dui Song Ting (Opposing Pines Pavilion) before the final assault on the daunting Shiba Pan (Eighteen Bends), the steepest and most perilous 1,633 steps of the mountain. Allegedly built in the Tang dynasty (618-907), the steps lie at a gradient of 80 degrees and rise over 400m (1,312 ft.) in height. Emperors used to be carried up this final stretch in sedan chairs. Today's climbers can only cling to the side railings as you straggle up the steps.

At the top, Nan Tian Men (South Gate of Heaven; elev. 1,460m/4,788 ft.) is probably the most welcome and most photographed sight of Tai Shan. Originally built in 1264, this two-story red arched gate tower was completely renovated in 1984. A little farther on, the shop-lined Tian Jie (Heavenly Lane) brings you to a small Ming dynasty Wen Miao (Temple to Confucius) rebuilt in 1995, and above that the hotel Shenqi Binguan. Below, on the southern slope of the summit, is Bixia Ci (Temple of the Princess of the Azure Clouds), built in 1009 and renovated and expanded during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Admission is ¥5; hours are from 8am to 6pm. The roof of the main hall is covered with copper tiles, while those on the side chambers are cast with iron to protect the buildings from the fierce elements on the summit. Elderly and female pilgrims flock here to burn incense and pray to Bixia and her different incarnations, Yanguang Nainai (Goddess of Eyesight), and Songsheng Niangniang (Goddess of Fertility).

Northeast of the temple, Daguan Feng is a gigantic sheer cliff face carved with inscriptions by different emperors, including the Tang Xuanzong emperor and the later Qing Kangxi and Qianlong emperors. A little farther north of here is the highest point of Tai Shan, Yuhuang Ding (elev. 1,545m/5,067 ft.). A temple, Yuhuang Miao, houses a Ming dynasty bronze statue of the Jade Emperor, considered by many Daoists to be the supreme god of heaven. Outside the temple is the 6m-high (19-ft.) Wuzi Bei (Stele without Words). One version has it that the first Qin emperor had this tablet erected in A.D. 219, but years of exposure to the elements have weathered away the text. Another story tells of the stele being erected by the sixth emperor of the Han dynasty, who modestly left it blank to suggest that the virtue of the emperor was beyond words. About 200m (656 ft.) to the southeast is Riguan Feng (Sunrise Watching Peak), where hundreds of bleary-eyed visitors wrapped in thick jackets congregate every morning around jutting Tanhai Rock to watch the sunrise. On this peak emperors such as the Tang Gaozong and Xuanzong emperors and the Song Zhenzong emperor conducted the Feng and Shan ceremonies. In 1747, two boxes of jade inscriptions by the third emperor of the Song dynasty, once thought to be lost during the Ming dynasty, were unearthed here.

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If you choose this route, you should take a minibus to Zhong Tian Men (Middle Gate of Heaven) for ¥30 and then climb to Nan Tian Men (South Gate of Heaven) yourself. You can then ride the cable car (¥80) back down to Zhong Tian Men, as it is rather steep to climb down.

Western Route -- This route has fewer cultural attractions than the eastern route and emphasizes more natural sights such as pools and forests. The trail (not always clearly marked) converges at times with the main road running to Zhong Tian Men. A little over 3km (2 miles) down from Zhong Tian Men is Shanzi Ya, strangely shaped rock formations named for various animals they resemble. About 2km (1 1/4 miles) farther down past Changshou Qiao (Longevity Bridge) is the main attraction, Heilong Tan (Black Dragon Pool), a pleasant enough waterfall in the summer and early fall. Another kilometer (1/2 mile) brings you to Dazhong Qiao and the terminus for the Zhong Tian Men buses. The path continues to Puzhao Si (Temple of Universal Light), a Buddhist temple built during the Northern and Southern dynasties (A.D. 420-589) and rebuilt in the Ming. Between 1932 and 1935, Feng Yuxiang (1882-1948), the "Christian General," stayed in the hall in the back of the temple complex. Born in Anhui Province, Feng was a warlord of the north who supported Sun Yat-sen but who later mounted a challenge to Chiang Kai-shek in 1929. He used to baptize his troops with a fire hose, and is buried on the southern slope of Tai Shan. From the temple, it's another 2km (1 1/4 miles) to the Dai Temple.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.