By Johanna Yueh
Are you looking for an adventure?
Do you like not knowing where you are going, if you're going to the right place or how you're going to get back?
Does the prospect of trying to get answers without understanding the local dialect make things sound even more exciting?
If you answered yes to these questions, a trip to the Hanging Monastery from Datong in Shanxi Province may be in the cards for you. In that case, read no further! But if you're itching to check out the Hanging Monastery or Hengshan, here are some things you probably should know before you go.
Know where you're going
Hengshan (shan means mountain, but you'll find references to this place in English as Hengshan Mountain), is one of the "Zhongguo Wu Yue," or China's five sacred Taoist mountains. It is also referred to as Bei Yue (North Mountain) to distinguish it from another Hengshan in Hunan Province. Here, a series of Taoist temples peak out from the trees of the otherwise-bare and rocky mountainside.
The bus to Hengshan dropped us off here on the side of the road, where a couple of taxis were waiting to take us to the Hanging Monastery.
The Hanging Monastery, or Xuankong Si, is part of Hengshan but located a few kilometers away from the rest of the Hengshan attractions. Built precariously into the side of the mountain and held up on stilts, visitors pack into the buildings in a queue, snaking their way through the monastery's tight verandas and peering over the rails to see rocks more than 50 meters below them.
Both places are worth a look and are best understood in conjunction. It's best to save the Hanging Monastery (which is actually more Buddhist and an amalgamation of the three most influential religion-philosophies in China) for last. Hengshan will take about two hours to see and the Hanging Monastery about half an hour.
Our story: I had been asking people how to get to Hengshan, thinking it was the same place as the Hanging Monastery. I got really confused when we arrived at the Hanging Monastery, and people were telling me it wasn't Hengshan. We got into the cab to go to Hengshan and had started on the road before I realized my mistake. It did, however, lead to a better deal than we originally got. I told the cab driver I didn't have enough money to go to Hengshan, the monastery and pay him, especially because I still had to find a way back to Datong. At that point, he offered to take us all the way back to the city for the same price as just carting us to the mountain, back to the monastery and then to the bus stop.
Be ready to spend some cash
These Taoist temples really know how to make money. The entrance fee to Hengshan is 20 yuan (US$2.93), which includes the drive up to the starting point and then the hike up to the Taoist temple area. If you chose to hike, don't be surprised to find another ticket gate at the top, forcing you to buy a ticket to enter the Taoist sacred place, which is why you chose to hike up the mountain in the first place. The entrance fee to the Taoist area is 35 yuan (US$5.12).
But some people, like me, got the idea to take the chairlift up to the top and hike their way down. In that case, a ride up is 30 yuan (US$4.39). Down tickets and round-trip tickets are available for 25 yuan (US$3.66) and 45 yuan (US$6.59), respectively. Therefore, if you buy an up ticket, you are forced to either pay the 35 yuan to enter the Taoist temple area or another 25 yuan to go back down the mountain on the chairlift.
The Hanging Monastery charges a simple entrance fee, 60 yuan (US$8.78).
Don't forget to factor in transportation costs, which vary widely.
Our story: We had only expected to spend the 60 yuan for the monastery and bus fare, but after the cab driver talked us into using his services to go to Hengshan, our trip's costs skyrocketed. At first, the 20 kuai to get into the mountain seemed reasonable. The 30 kuai for the chairlift ride up, which takes you over a breathtakingly deep gorge, seemed reasonable. But after that, being forced to fork over another 35 kuai to enter what we came for no longer seemed like a reasonable deal. And we still had to pay our cabbie 70 yuan (US$10.25) at the end of the day. Basically, we were talked into spending 155 kuai more than I had originally planned to spend.
Getting there from Datong and back
Hengshan and the Hanging Monastery are about an hour outside of the city. Bus tickets can be purchased for 25 yuan at the long-distance bus station or at one of its kiosks located around the city (there is one outside the train station, in the parking lot of Feitian Hotel). They depart about every hour on the half hour in the morning, starting at 7:30. If you should choose to take the bus, it will drop you off on the side of the road, where a cab will be waiting to take you to the Hanging Monastery. There, more cabs and some buses will be waiting to take you to Hengshan.
The cab drivers will hassle you about giving you rides to Hengshan and back to the Hanging Monastery. Most start around 80 yuan (US$11.71) per person, which is a complete rip-off. Make your driver take you back to the place where the bus dropped you off (where you can wait for the bus and pay another 25 yuan back) or all the way back to Datong (where you should probably make sure he will drop you off at a familiar place). At any rate, 80 yuan is too expensive for any of these options, so bargain hard.
If you want to bypass cabs altogether, try the buses, which are somewhat unreliable. The buses also service other places, so it's hard to know if there will be space available or even when the next bus will come.
Our story: My friend and I took eight different vehicles to get from our hotel to the mountain and monastery and back to our hotel. First, we were chauffeured in a van from the kiosk to the bus station, where we took a bus to the middle of nowhere. There, the cabbie took us to the Hanging Monastery, where we then took another cab to Hengshan. That cab broke down halfway up the mountain road, so another cab came and rescued us. Then, our designated cab driver bailed on us and sent another man to pick us up and take us to the Hanging Monastery. He then handed us over to another man to take us back to Datong in another car. That driver set us out on Yuhe Xi Lu (I still have no idea where that is), but we found a bus that stopped at our hotel.
That driver also had a really heavy Shanxi accent that made it even harder to understand him with my already poor grasp of Chinese. He kept cursing me because I had jokingly told the driver before him that I was Chinese. (In China, saying you're Chinese means you were born and raised in China). "What kind of Chinese person are you?" he would say angrily every time he said something to me and I just said, "Shenme?" and stared blankly at him. It didn't help that I could understand the other Shanxi people we shared the cab with when they spoke to me.
In a way, the journey almost makes going to the Hanging Monastery and Hengshan worth it by itself. If nothing else, it was a great lesson in braving the unexpected, finding random solutions and enjoying the challenge, almost every step of the way.