Located 200 mi/322 km west of Qingdao and halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, Taishan (or Mount Tai—shan means "mountain" in Chinese) is the holiest of holy mountains in China.

Mount Tai is where a succession of Chinese emperors went to ask for blessings of the gods and where Mao Zedong is reported to have climbed to the top and declared: "The East is Red." Confucius, who was born nearby, is also known to have climbed the peak and said, "The world is small."

The mountain itself, with nearly 7,000 stone steps to the top, draws an estimated 90,000 visitors on a busy day. Taishan is known as the First of Five Sacred Mountains of Taosim, all of which are located in China's central plains. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Visitors can get to Taishan via daily one-hour flights from Beijing to Jinan, the nearest city, which is about 40 mi/64 km away. Travelers also can get there by train from Beijing (seven hours), Shanghai (11 hours), Quingdao (three and a half hours) or by private bus.

In ancient times, Taishan was a mecca for emperors, poets and millions of travelers. Legend has it that Taishan rose from the head of Pan Gu, the creator of the world. The first things a new emperor would do is climb to the top of the mile/kilometer-high peak and, in doing so, it is said, he proved his fitness to govern all that lay below him. Of course, it helped that the emperor had an entourage to see to his every need and he was often carried up the steep steps on a sedan chair. They even used horses until it got too treacherous.

Taishan also offers plenty of natural beauty. Lofty peaks, deep valleys, spectacular waterfalls and centuries-old pine and cypress trees line the pathways to the top. The official four wonders of the mountain are the Sunrises from the East, the Sunset Glow, the Sea of Clouds and the Golden Belt along the Yellow River far below.

There are four different ways to climb the mountain: the East Route, the West Route, the Peach Blossom Ravine Route and the Tianzhu Peak route. The most preferred is the East Route, which is also known as the Imperial Route because it is the one the emperors most often took. Starting at the Dai Temple, the path passes by the Dai Zong Archway, Red Gate Palace, Jing Shi Valley, Hu Tian Pavilion and, toward the top, the Eighteen Bends.

The Dai Temple, at the base, is where the emperors stayed and offered their sacrifices. It was built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and was later expanded during the Tang and Song dynasties. With 600 buildings, it is the biggest and most complete temple complex on the mountain.

There are at least 6,600 steps along this route, and it takes an average climber about four hours to reach the top. The steps vary in pitch and width and, in the warmer seasons, it's not unusual to have human traffic jams. There are the typical souvenir hawkers along the route, but there are also man-made wonders. Stone tablets, 22 temples and thousands of inscriptions carved into the cliffs attest to the millions of tourists that have made the climb over the centures. Some of the trees are estimated to be more than 1,000 years old.

At the very top of Taishan is a small village that is a wonder to behold, especially after the long climb. The main street is called Heaven Street, and it is lined with restaurants, noodle shops and souvenir stands. Beyond the Ming-style buildings are incredible vistas that stretch for hundreds of miles in either direction. A hotel and several guesthouses also are found at the top.

The descent from the mountain isn't nearly as taxing as the climb up, and weary travelers often opt to take a tram to the base, although the wait in line can sometimes take several hours. You can also take the tram to near the top, but you still must climb a ways to make it to the summit.

However you get to the top, it's worth it. And, as a bonus, Chinese legend says that if you climb Mount Taishan, you will live to be 100 years old.

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