A sixty-degree incline of stone stairs stood in front of me – 103 stairs to be exact.
Atop the stairs was Beiyue Hall, a splendid Daoist temple halfway up Mount Heng in the Shanxi province of China. Mount Heng, or Hengshan, is one of the five sacred mountains of China.
Already, I could smell the incense burning inside the temple. Standing just outside was my taxi driver and a woman from Sevilla I met the day before. I was surprised that Oscar, our middle-aged, portly taxi driver, was making the trek with us.
When I reached the top, I found Oscar drenched in sweat; the last time he made the climb was 10 years ago. Still, he told me later, he would like to visit all five of the sacred mountains.
The five mountains were the favorite pilgrimage points of Chinese emperors during the last 2,000 years.
The five mountains are delineated by their direction: North (Hengshan), South (Hengshan as well, confusing right?), East (Taishan), West (Huashan) and Center (Songshan). Emperors from all major dynasties made pilgrimages to the mountains. They were, in effect, surveying the edges of their empire.
Supposedly, Hengshan is the least important Sacred Mountain.
The five mountains are strongholds of Taoist temples, although they also contain smatterings of Buddhism as well. Due to Hengshan’s northerly location, Chinese commoners mostly overlooked it in favor of the other, more accessible mountains. According to Wikipedia, Hengshan is the least important religiously of them all.
Which makes Hengshan less crowded.
As we hiked up, we passed a few groups of Chinese tourists on their way down. Since it was late in the day, they kept telling us how long it would take to get to the top. Three hours, then two hours and then there were no more tourists on the mountain besides us at all. Not that surprising considering the Lonely Planet guidebook for China doesn’t even note Hengshan as an attraction (LP recommends Yungang Grottoes and The Hanging Temple).
Even though it’s the least popular, the hike is well posted.
Just because it’s not as well-known as some of its more popular siblings, it doesn’t mean the local government has left it in neglect. In fact, the signage contained little nuggets of Chinglish knowledge that we enjoyed all the way to the top. Compared to the other mountains (especially Hengshan in the south), Hengshan North is very easy to navigate.
Don’t underestimate Hengshan.
Earlier that day, over a gelatinous tofu lunch, Oscar, our driver, confessed he couldn’t pass the government-mandated test to become a tour guide. He tried twice in the early 2000s and then gave up. He had an 18 year-old daughter that accounted for 40% of his take home income. He had responsibilities.
That’s why he drove a taxi.
I was incredulous. I had come across guides that were much less competent than him. He offered explanations on all five mountains and how they each related to a Taoist element. He had given us a stern lecture about how China was hurtling too quickly into capitalism. He was educated and bright and well spoken.
But here he was, stuck somewhere between a guide and a taxi driver – overlooked and underestimated.
Which made Oscar a fitting guide for Hengshan – not as dramatic as the steep precipices of Huashan, not visited by the same number of emperors as Taishan, not as interesting as the Shaolin based Songshan and not as beautiful as Hengshan in the South, Hengshan north has struggled to find it’s own identity. As other tourists pass-up Hengshan in favor of mountains with more illustrious titles, I prefer the diamonds in the rough.
As we reached the top, I looked back on the small accomplishment of the day. Tiny pine trees dotted the side of a jutting cliff off to my right. A couple of them were sticking out from the rock-face at precarious angles – half way between toppling over into the abyss and staying planted firmly on the rock.
I asked Oscar why he doesn’t take the test again.
After all, he had a history degree and his English was certainly good enough. He stood there and just shook his head, staring off in the distance.
A taxi ride from Datong to Hengshan (and the Hanging monastery, they are very close to each other) will run you about 300 Yuan round trip. Alternatively, catch a bus at the Datong main bus station for 30 Yuan (one-way) to Hunyuan and haggle with a taxi driver for a good price to the mountain. Be aware, there is at least 5 km of road between the ticket office and the trailhead, so make sure your taxi driver doesn’t desert you at the ticket office. The hike up takes about three hours. The ticket office closes at 4:30 in the off-season, but they may try to leave early if it’s not busy. Get there by four at the latest. Admission fee is 55 Yuan.