Part 1: The Back Mountain
The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way
The names that can be named are not the unvarying names
If these famous lines have been puzzling you since your first lecture on the Tao Te Ching, chances are a visit to Qingcheng Mountain will not bring you closer to clarity. But feeling the soreness in your legs the day after your pilgrimage may fill you with regret.
Indeed, Qingcheng Shan (青城山) can be experienced differently depending which path you chose, the "back mountain"—the closer and commonly recognized as easier of the two—offers a shorter hike and more Taoist sites of importance. It's also more crowded with tourists and more expensive, but most likely your choice if you're only out for a day trip or generally not a hiking fanatic.
To the left of the back mountain's main gate is the ticket toll booth and to the right is the often-overlooked Jianfu Palace (建福宫), a Taoist temple built in the eighth century during the Tang dynasty that nowadays functions as a teahouse. As soon as you pass through the gates, you will begin hiking up thousands of stairs, passing the first pavilions, which feature traditional west Sichuanese architecture, and reaching the first of many junctions where hardy sherpas offer to carry you sections of the hike in an open seat (starting at RMB60, RMB580 for the whole tour).
You'll be well advised to make a right turn and experience the mountain hike counterclockwise. That way, the cable car can take you halfway up the mountain as opposed to down, as on the clockwise hike. Along the way, you'll pass the unspectacular Yucheng Lake (the short ferry ride isn't worth the RMB5).
At first sight hopping into one of the six-person cable cars dangling from the cable by a bent arm attached to two small rollers seems a frightful proposition, but in the worst case, there are indeed security hooks, and after all the design is based on time-tested Swiss technology. The couple-hundred-meter ride provides an overview of the lake and the first forest-covered mountains.
Next it's another hour-long hike up past more temples and pavilions until you reach the Donghua Hall, which offers scenic views or a look at the impressive mountains of cash donations that are counted in the room next to the shrine. For RMB40 you can light a big candle, or you could have your name engraved on a lock or your fortune told in Chinese.
Hikers pass you on their way down with sweat-soaked T-shirts glued to their bodies. You're just a few more last steps away from the very peak and the Laozi Pavilion (老君阁). Its rooftop, once accessible to hikers, is now closed off, so all there is at the peak is another look down the valleys from 1,260 meters up, but you won't see too far as the subtropical forests constant evaporation surrounds the summit even on Chengdu's rarer sunny days.
Once you descend from the peak you can choose to make a right turn to take the same way down, skipping all the other temples and pavilions by shortcutting with the cable car, or you can turn left and engage in a longer hike downhill, which doesn't go straight down but gently undulates up and down. Along the way you'll cross paths with fat squirrels and various birds as well as the abundance of grasshoppers, beetles, mantis, millipedes, butterflies, and other insects that live on the mountain.
A colony of exhausted and sweaty clockwise hikers passed heading in the opposite direction. They don't talk, laugh, or make jokes. But going down is just as, if not more, demanding as going up. The stairs are irregularly sized and spaced and the surface unpredictable, at times flat and slippery. Take your time; this sections is dangerous, and it's easy to fall (probably this is where the optional RMB10 insurance could pay off). But the reward is revealed when you arrive at the Tianshi Cave (天师洞)—spectacular cliffs, scenic gorges, and energetic mountain formations. The distance between the pavilions starts to stretch, and at times the beautiful towering trees give off a Jurassic Park vibe, and indeed, the gingko trees are a living fossil of that period.
The cave itself features a stone sculpture of former "resident" Zhang Daoling, a Jiangsu preacher who, after receiving a revelation from a deified Laozi, is said to have started the health cult Way of the Five Pecks of Rice here. His movement gained momentum, and for a short while, he even managed to gain power in north Sichuan but was absorbed into the Wei Kingdom after a military defeat by Three Kingdoms "villain" Caocao. This event marked the first time Taoism was exposed to a broad society, initiating its rise to a major religion in China and neighboring countries.
After the Tianshi Cave there are more pavilions and temples, some of which offer proper cuisine and accommodation. Apart from these, there are few culinary options on the mountain—mainly instant noodles or cold noodle dishes, but if you're patient, you could eat in one of the few hotel restaurants on the right-hand side downhill from the entrance.
In the year 2000, UNESCO named two sites in Sichuan—the Dujiangyan irrigation system and Qingcheng Mountain—world heritage sites. The latter was recognized as the birthplace of religious Taoism, which led to the foundation of a short-lived theocratic state in west Sichuan.
It's rumored that Qingcheng Shan was originally named Tiancang Shan (天仓山) but changed its name after a struggle with Buddhist missionaries for dominance in the area, a dispute so delicate that the emperor had to intervene and ruled out the Buddhist missionaries from the mountain. To signify the "clarity" of the Taoist mountain, the name would have started with the character 清 ("clear"), but a mistaken change to the homophonous 青 ("green") was made in the documents.
Unfortunately little of this history is spelled out on the many signs along the way. Mostly, the signs remind you that the post-Wenchuan earthquake reconstruction of the mountain is financially supported by Macao, although, to be fair, Shanghai and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage also chipped in. Alongside those are badly translated descriptions and fairy tales for tourists.
Tickets to the back mountain are RMB90, and there is an option for RMB10 insurance (beware of quakes and landslides). The posterior mountain is another 17 kilometers away, but entrance is only RMB20. The hike itself should take around five hours, and you'll likely need the following day to recover. Bring sufficient water and painkillers. If you're looking for a lighter hike, nearby Dujiangyan is an option. As usual, avoid the weekend crowds if you have a choice.
Although high-speed trains from the North Train Station in Chengdu reach up to 200kmph, the 70-kilometer ride may take up to 50 minutes due to numerous stops on the way. Bring your passport to reserve the RMB15 tickets (extra RMB5 if you purchase outside the train station). Trains leave roughly every hour, and advanced booking of return tickets is highly recommended. Alternatively, you could take Metro Line 2 to Chadianzi Bus Station or Xipu and transfer to a bus to Qingcheng Shan (青城山). If you're lucky, taxis back to Chengdu can be RMB50 per person.
From the Qingchengshan Train Station buses leave regularly to the parking lot of the back mountain. Avoid the RMB5 electric tourist trams, they are more expensive and drop you off before the parking lot. Buses stop operating in the late afternoon. Taxi driver are reluctant to use the meter and will ask for RMB20 for the short 3km ride—you may be able to bargain them down on the way back from the mountain to RMB10, or you could get a ride on a moto-tricycle for the same price.
Cable car rides are RMB35 one way RMB60 return.