Tai Shan looms at 1545m high, and it’s about 8km from the base to the top. There are two main paths up the mountain: the grand historical eastern trail, and a quieter, more scenic western trail. The ascent takes four or five hours, half that if you rush it, and the descent – almost as punishing on the legs – two to three hours. The paths converge at Zhongtianmen, the midway point (more often than not, climbers using the western route actually take a bus to Zhongtianmen, costing ¥30). After Zhongtianmen, the path climbs for over 6000 steps to the summit, though the sedentary can complete the journey by cable car (¥100 one-way, ¥200 return).
Officially, both path gates are open 24 hours; evening hikers should bring flashlights and head up by the more travelled eastern route while descending by the western route (the circuit explained in the account that follows). For the eastern route, walk uphill on Hongmen Lu from the Taishan hotel, or catch bus #3 or #9 along the way or from the train station. To reach the western route, take bus #3 (¥1) to its other terminus, Tianwaicun, or a taxi (¥7). Cross the street, ascend the stairs dotted with decorated columns, then descend to the bus park.
Whatever the weather in Tai’an, it’s usually cold at the top of the mountain and always unpredictable. The average temperature at the summit is 18°C in summer, dropping to -9°C in winter, when the sun sets by 5pm. The summit conditions are posted outside the ticket windows at the park entrances. You should take warm clothing and a waterproof and wear walking shoes, though Chinese tourists ascend dressed in T-shirts and plimsolls, even high heels. The best time to climb is in spring or autumn, outside the humid months, though if you can tolerate the cold, the mountain is magnificent (and virtually untouristed) in winter.
If you want to see the sunrise, you can stay at the guesthouses on the mountain – though prices are almost as steep as the trail – or risk climbing at night.