Taishan in Shandong province is considered one of the most sacred mountains in China.
Huangshan in Anhui, with its distinctive pines and rolling clouds that seem to move like waterfalls over the mountains, has some of the most beautiful scenery.
Thousands of people climb the steps of their peaks every year. By plane, train and bus, my family managed to see both within a week in October, when the temperatures were mild and the weather cooperated, at least for some great views from Huangshan.
Huangshan, often translated into English as Yellow Mountain, actually is named for a former emperor. My parents, my sister and I planned to explore Huangshan with a tour guide and my dad's friends. We'd spend an afternoon heading up part of Huangshan, spend a night on the mountain and walk up the steps to Lotus Peak the next morning. From there, my family would split from the group and take a train to Shandong, where Dad wanted to take part in the ritual of staying overnight on Tai Shan and waking up in time to see the sun rise.
After flying into the town of Tunxi, we dumped our bags at a hotel and took only what we needed for one night on Huangshan. A bus was dropping us off at the mountain, but after a cable car took us part of the way up, we would still have to climb hundreds of steps with our belongings on our backs. (Even food and supplies for the lodge on the mountain go up on the backs of porters.)
On the steps, workers offered to carry visitors' backpacks for around $1 all the way up. For about $100, they'll carry YOU.
We got to the lodge in the late afternoon and arrived at the Welcoming Pine overlooking a steep staircase to one of the peaks, roughly a mile high. We got there in time to see a stunning sunset.
On one overlook, hundreds of visitors have bought "longevity locks," which looked like small, gold-colored padlocks, to hang from railings that keep people from toppling over the edge. Oftentimes lovers etch their names on the locks, lock them onto the railing and throw the keys over the edge.
The lodge was comfortable and even offered Internet service and televisions. But to use less energy, hot water was available for only two hours in the evening and for an hour in the morning. The nights are chilly, so the lodge provided extra blankets and coats.
The next day was our hike up Lotus Peak, with hundreds of other tourists on narrow mountain staircases.
Dad, my sister and I decided to climb to the top of Lotus Peak, with Mom opting for a shorter trip on lower trails. With our own water, snacks and short breaks, getting to Lotus Peak and back was no problem. With a little jockeying and a quick trigger finger, you can snap a quick photo next to a marker to prove you made it to the top before another tourist jumps into the frame.
We got lucky with a sunny, clear day and temperatures in the 70s and saw a thick sea of clouds.
After climbing down, we hiked up more steps to the Heavenly Sea, a wide flat peak with dips in the rock, and Brightness Peak. There's plenty more hiking to be had, but my family rode a cable car on a 2.8-kilometer path down the mountains so we could head on to Taishan.
From Huangshan, it was 14 hours on a train to Shandong, stuffed in a six-person sleeper car shared with other travelers. We looked longingly at the four-person private sleepers other travelers had managed to book. The private cars are worth the extra money, if any are available.
Taishan is the eastern peak among five holy mountains that played a role in the cult of the 6th century BC philosopher Confucius that Chinese emperors throughout the centuries supported. The five peaks represent the directions - north, south, east, west and central - and Taishan is considered the holiest because it is to the east, the direction from which the sun rises. Confucius supposedly visited, and a temple has been built there for him.
"Confucious is the Taishan among men, and Taishan is the Confucious among mountains," says a plaque at the temple.
A bus dropped us off at the bottom of 6,600 or so steps to the top at the South Gate. Four or five hours could get you to the top, but we opted for the cable car as sundown rapidly approached. At the top was a pathway of shops and restaurants on the way to a temple and a lodge.
Like the Huangshan lodge, it was a "green" hotel that limited energy use. Instead of heating the hallways, the lodge stocked rooms with winter coats to keep guests warm. A couple hundred of us bundled up in the same coats the next morning and watched on a rocky perch for sunrise. Alas, it was too cloudy to see much.
There's always next year.