Hengshan is one of China’s most sacred mountains and receives hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. The scenery, however, doesn’t match that of other famous scenic or holy mountains we’ve visited. The paved road continually cuts across the stone path and the drone of traffic is never too far away, reducing the feeling of spiritual isolation that the pilgrim trails of other holy mountains such as Emei Shan, Kongdong Shan or Jiuhuashan can still provide.
Nevertheless, a day hike up and down is still a great way to experience the mountain. Foreign tourists are conspicuous by there absence, and the spiritual atmosphere at the temples along the way is extremely reverent and more serious than at some other religious sights. Experiencing the pilgrims devotedly burning incense and kowtowing to the beat of a gong and the chants of the monks more than compensates for the strenuous climb. One of the most striking aspects of Hengshan are these large groups of pilgrims and devotees following a master monk in and out of every temple, like the Taoists described above. We trailed this particular group of friendly Taoists on their decent of Hengshan, and for a while almost became part of the group.
The stone temple on the summit is a striking construction. Its simplicity and austerity is in stark contrast to the other, more elaborate temples on the mountain. However, it oozes ambience and the scene of hundreds of pilgrims tossing massive joss sticks into the fire is a sight difficult to forget.
The assault on Hengshan begins and ends on a golf buggy; the only transport to the ticket office (5 Yuan a person). The 80 Yuan ticket price doesn’t include the bus that whisks pilgrims half-way up the mountain, stopping on the way at a few important temples and sights. We decide to fork out the extra 13 Yuan and take that bus, for even at 7.00 am in August the weather on Hengshan is already scorching. The bus stops just short of the Xuandu Temple, from where a nearby cable car can spirit you up to the summit or, as we did, you can begin walking the pilgrims’ path. The path is steep in parts, but the sweeping views over the Hunan plains below are superb. A few slightly overpriced stalls along the way sell drinks and offer shade from the heat.
From the summit, you can take an alternative, more secluded path all the way down. This path ends up near some pleasant, man-made lakes, where soothing Buddhist mantras are piped out from speakers disguised as rocks…
The town of Nanyue, which is the base for the assault on Hengshan, is quite interesting too. Its centrepiece is the enormous Nanyue temple, which boasts some lovely murals and interesting carvings. However, the most interesting part of Nanyue by far are the streets filled with carpentry shops, where young boys are busy carving statues of the Buddha and many other deities of all shapes and sizes.
Nanyue’s main drag is literally lined with hotels and restaurants. We chose the Fenghuang Hotel. The rooms at 100 Yuan were quite good. However, don’t take a room at the back, as the generator is started up at about 5.00 am and you might seriously think that the hotel is about to
launch into orbit. The front rooms over the street are much better.
There are loads of family restaurants to choose from and the food is pretty tasty, especially if, like us, you like the fiery Hunan cuisine. Almost next to the Fenghuang Hotel is an excellent modern looking restaurant where delicious snacks and elaborate dishes are served with a friendly service. Many dishes are displayed in front of the kitchen and it is easy to point and choose. Despite its elaborate appearance prices are pretty reasonable.
Coming and going:
There are regular departures to and from Changsha throughout the day for the 2 – 3 hour trip. Buses to Nanyue leave from Changsha’s enormous Southern Bus Station.