Imagine a 4km hiking trail that's built into a sheer rock face, looking out onto a forest of fantastical granite spires and a gorgeous canopy sprinkled with white rhododendron blooms. This is only one of the walks you can do at Sanqing Mountain (三清山), one of the most underrated national parks in eastern China. It's underrated not just because of the unique scenery but also because it's relatively unknown and less crowded than other Chinese mountains.
Unlike its more famous neighbour to the north, Huang Shan, Sanqing Mountain also has a spiritual legacy and has been a place of retreat for Taoist adepts for centuries. The name Sanqing means 'The Three Pure Ones,' in reference to the three main peaks, which are believed to resemble Taoism's three most important deities. One hike leads to a secluded stone temple (三清宫) established in the Ming dynasty, one of the few - if not the only - Taoist temples in Jiangxi province to have survived the Cultural Revolution. Today, the temple is home to a small community of monks and nuns, who sit in the cool interior studying texts and guiding visitors through the proper worshipping techniques.
There's no shame in the chairlift
You can reach Sanqing Mountain (admission Y150) from the town of Yushan (玉山), in Jiangxi province. There are two ways to the summit area: by cable car or by foot. The cable car (索道; Y125 return) leaves from the eastern base (东部). The porter's trail - a sweaty 90-minute walk (2.5km) - leaves from the southern base (南部). There's no shame in taking the chairlift as the most spectacular hiking is at the top; don't be afraid to save your energy. There are enough trails that you could easily spend two days up here, though one day is also doable.
The main loop (roughly 8km) runs through the Nanqing Garden area (you won't do this section if you hike up) and on to the 'West Coast' (西海岸), an exposed trail that was built into the cliff face at an average altitude of 1600m. This will take you to Sanqing Temple and the surrounding sights (the founder's tomb and the Dragon-Tiger Altar). Continue following the 'Sunshine Coast' (阳光岸), which winds through a forest of ancient rhododendrons, sweet chestnut, bamboo, magnolia and pine, and at one point even features a glass-floored observation platform - not for the faint of heart.
There are a gazillion steps on the Sunshine Coast trail; make sure you take it on the way back from the temple. From here you can either head back to the cable car or the chairlift.
You can sleep in three areas: on the mountain, at the foot of the mountain or in the town of Yushan. Note that the hotels here provide you with a roof over your head, but not much more.
How to get here
Sanqing Mountain is a little over an hour away from the town of Yushan, on the Shanghai-Nanchang railway line. Minibuses (Y15; 6am-5.20pm) leave from the bus station for both the eastern and southern bases; make sure you specify which place you want to go to. Yushan is about seven hours by train from Shanghai. If you can't get to Yushan, try Shangrao (上饶) instead; it's only an hour away and has more connections. A taxi from the train station to the bus station in Yushan will cost about Y10.
Of course, there's work to be done...
China wouldn't be China if there wasn't construction going on, and at the moment a new chairlift is being built at the southern base (expected completion date end of 2010). Consequently there is a lot of work along the trail up, but you can get good discounts at the hotels here since no one is using them.