It is said that if you climb Tài Shān, you will live to see 100. Beyond Qin Shi Huang, 71 other emperors and countless figures also paid this mountain their respects. To follow in their footsteps, there are four routes up to the highest peak (1532m) that can be done on foot: Central route, historically the Emperor’s Route, winds 8.9km from Dài Temple to the summit and gains 1400m in elevation; Peach Blossom Park route climbs 13km on the west side; and the least travelled 5.4km Tiānzhú Peak route goes up the back of the mountain from the east. Western route follows the 14km shuttle-bus route and converges with the Central route at the halfway point (Midway Gate to Heaven), from where it’s another 3.5km up steep steps to the summit.
If this sounds like too much for your knees, there are alternatives: cover the Western route by bus to Midway Gate to Heaven and then take the cable car to South Gate to Heaven near the summit. Reverse the journey or nab a bus to get back down.
Sights on the mountain close around 5pm. Weather can change suddenly and the summit gets very bitter, windy and wet, so bring warm layers and rain gear. Wear lightweight but durable and waterproof shoes: you don't want to be dragging heavyweight boots all the way to the top. You can buy brightly coloured rain ponchos and, at the top, rent overcoats (¥30).
As with all Chinese mountain hikes, viewing the sunrise is considered an integral part of the experience. You can either do a night hike (with torches) or, easier, stay overnight at one of the (expensive) summit guesthouses to greet the first rays of dawn.
The Central Route has been the main route up the mountain since the 3rd century BC, and over the past two millennia a bewildering number of bridges, trees, rivers, gullies, inscriptions, caves, pavilions and temples have become famous sites in their own right. The central route is well paved so you won't need sherpas, climbing ropes, crampons or oxygen, but don’t underestimate the challenge of its 7000 knee-wrenching steps. Figure at least six hours from Dài Temple to get to the top.
As well as being a ne plus ultra stepmaster, Tài Shān functions as an outdoor museum of antiquities. Two of the most prized are Rock Valley Scripture, in the first part of the climb, a massive inscription of a Buddhist text that was once hidden behind a waterfall, and North Prayer Rock (拱北石; Gǒngběi Shí), a huge boulder pointing skyward and a site of imperial sacrifices to heaven, at the summit.
Purists begin with a south–north perambulation through Dài Temple, 1.7km south of the actual ascent, in accordance with imperial tradition, but there is no shame in starting at the bus stop by Guandi Temple, the first of many dedicated to the Taoist protector of peace. Passing First Gate of Heaven marks the start of the incline, though the ticket office is still a way further at Wànxiān Tower. The Red Gate Palace is the first of a series of temples dedicated to Bixia – the Heavenly Jade Maiden – daughter of the god of Tài Shān.
Take a detour into the Geoheritage Scenic Area for a look at unusual radial rock formations that mesmerised Confucius himself. Back on the main path is the Dǒumǔ Hall, dedicated to the Taoist Mother of the Big Dipper, first constructed in 1542 under the name ‘Dragon Spring Nunnery’. Continue through the tunnel of cypresses known as Cypress Cave to Balking Horse Ridge, which marks the point where Emperor Zhenzong had to dismount and continue by litter because his horse refused to go further.
The Midway Gate to Heaven marks the point where some travellers, seeing the stairway disappearing into the clouds, head for the cable car. Don’t give up! Rest your legs, visit the small and smoky God of Wealth Temple to seek inspiration and strength and stock up on calorific snacks.
If you decide to make a float for the summit, the main cable car is a 15-minute ride to Moon View Peak (月观峰; Yuèguān Fēng) at the South Gate to Heaven. Be warned: peak season and weekend queues can take two hours. Also, the cable car stops when there is any risk of lightning.
If you continue on foot you’ll come next to Cloud Step Bridge, once a modest wooden bridge spanning a torrent of waterfalls, and the withered and wiry Wǔdàfū Pine (五大夫松; Wǔdàfū Sǒng), under which Emperor Qin Shi Huang, overtaken by a violent storm, sought shelter. Across the valley, each character carved in the Ten-Thousand Zhàng Tablet, dated 1748, measures 1m across.
You’ll pass Opposing Pines Pavilion and then finally reach the arduous Path of 18 Bends, a 400m extremely steep ascent to the mountain’s false summit. If you have the energy, see if you can spot the small shrine dedicated to the Lord of Tài Shān’s grandmother along the way. There is an alternate route to the Azure Clouds Temple here via another steep, narrow staircase to the right. If you continue on the main route, at the top is the Archway to Immortality, once believed to bestow immortality on those dedicated enough to reach it.
The final stretch takes you to the South Gate to Heaven, the third celestial gate, which marks the beginning of the summit area. Bear right on Tian Jie (天街), the main strip, and pass through the gate to reach the sublimely perched Azure Clouds Temple, dedicated to Bixia.
You have to climb higher to get to the Confucius Temple, where statues of Confucius, Mencius, Zengzi and other Confucian luminaries are venerated. The Taoist Qīngdì Palace is right before the fog- and cloud-swathed Jade Emperor Temple, which stands at the summit, the highest point of the Tài Shān plateau.
The main sunrise vantage point is the North Pointing Rock; if you’re lucky, visibility extends over 200km to the coast.
At the summit, you can see another side of the mountain by descending via the Tiānzhú Peak or Peach Blossom Park route.
The most popular way to descend is by bus via the Western Route. These buses are also very handy for night hikes up to catch the sunrise. They zip every 20 minutes (or when full) between Tiānwài Village and Midway Gate to Heaven, not stopping in between.
Walking the route is not always pleasant as the poorly marked footpath and road often intercept or coincide, but it rewards you with a variety of scenic orchards and pools. At the mountain’s base, Pervading Light Temple is a serene Buddhist temple dating from the Southern and Northern dynasties (420–589). The main attraction is Black Dragon Pool, just below Longevity Bridge.
Tiānzhú Peak Route
The less-travelled route through the Tiānzhú Peak Scenic Area (天烛峰景区; Tiānzhú Fēng Jǐngqū) offers a rare chance to experience Tài Shān with fewer crowds. It’s largely ancient pine forest, ruins and peaks back there, so consider combining it with the Central route for an entirely different view.
If you ascend this way, get an early start to the trailhead, which is 15km by bus 19 (¥2) from Tài Shān Train Station. The challenging climb itself can take five hours.
It’s 5.4km from the trailhead to the Rear Rocky Recess Cable Car, which takes you from the back of the mountain to the North Gate to Heaven cable-car stop (北天门索道站; Běi Tiānmén suǒdào zhàn) and views of Tiānzhú Peak – when it’s running. Call in advance.
Peach Blossom Park Route
This route to the summit passes through a scenic valley of striking geological formations and trees that explode with colour in early spring and fall. It makes for an especially pleasant descent.
Near the South Gate to Heaven, take Peach Blossom Park cable car down to Peach Blossom Valley. This cable car operates infrequently, so call ahead. From the cable car drop-off it is another 9km on foot or by bus (one way ¥30, departs when full 6am to 6pm and midnight to 2am) to reach the park exit and bus 16 back into town.