Héng Shān

Mountain in Heng Shan

Image by China Tourism Press Getty Images

Seventy-two peaks spanning 400km comprise Héng Shān, but most visitors focus on Zhùróng Peak, rising 1290m above sea level.

The lung- and knee-busting, 13km ascent up winding paths, steep staircases and, in places, a road busy with tourist shuttle buses, takes around four hours one way, although it can fill the best part of a day if you take in the many temples en route. Alternatively, tourist buses, or a combination of bus and cable-car, can ferry you almost the whole way up in a sedentary posture.

If you want to take the bus, buy the bus ticket (车票; chē piào; ¥80 return, including cable car), along with your entrance ticket (门票; mén piào; ¥120) on the 2nd floor of the modern tourist centre, where you can also store luggage (¥10 per bag) and pick up a free leaflet with a map (地图; dìtú) on it. Buses depart directly from here to the mountain's halfway point (半山亭; Bànshān Tíng; 15 minutes). From there, you can either take the cable car to Nántiānmén (南天门; five minutes), or change to another bus. From Nántiānmén, it's a 30-minute hike to Zhùróng Peak.

Note, the mountain is open 24 hours, but the buses and cable car only run until around 6pm. It's worth packing a waterproof jacket, although you can buy plastic ponchos (¥10) from hawkers.

If you decide to hike up the mountain (a wise choice, as you'll miss most of the temples if you take the bus), it's nicer to start up the tree-lined road 300m east of the tourist centre marked by the stone Shènglì Archway (胜利坊; Shènglì Fāng). This road leads to another entrance, where you can pay admission, and then to a tranquil path that winds 5km past lakes, waterfalls and streams in Fànyīn Valley (梵音谷; Fànyīn Gǔ), almost to the cable car departure point at Bànshān Tíng. Along the way, you can stop to see the colourful figures of Taoist and Buddhist scripture on display in Shénzhōu Temple (神州祖庙; Shénzhōu Zǔmiào), the grand and dignified Nányuè Martyrs Memorial Hall (南岳忠烈祠; Nányuè Zhōngliècí), dedicated to the anti-Japanese resistance, and a stele inscribed with a dedication from Kuomintang leader Chiang Kaishek celebrating the pine forest. Before you jump on the cable car, take a break at Xuándōu Guàn (玄都观), an active Taoist temple. The couplet carved at the entry reminds weary climbers that the path of righteousness is long, so don’t give up halfway through!

The next 4.5km up to Nántiānmén frequently takes the busy road and scattered staircases, but there are plenty more inspiring temples along the way. Once you reach Nántiānmén, it’s a chilly (outside of July and August) 30-minute ascent to the peak – you can rent coats (¥20) by the cable car station.

At the top is Zhù Róng Palace (祝融殿; Zhù Róng Diàn), an iron-tiled, stone structure built for Zhu Rong, an ancient official who devised a method of striking stones to create sparks. After his death, he became revered as the god of fire.