The seventy peaks of the Song Shan (嵩山, sōngshān) range stretch over 64km across Dengfeng county, midway between Luoyang and Zhengzhou. When the Zhou ruler Ping moved his capital to Luoyang in 771 BC, it was known as Zhong Yue, Central Peak – being at the axis of the five sacred Taoist mountains, with Hua Shan to the west, Tai Shan to the east, Heng Shan to the south and another Heng Shan to the north. The mountains, thickly clad with trees, rise from narrow, steep-sided rocky valleys and appear impressively precipitous, though with the highest peak, Junji, at just 1500m, they’re not actually very lofty. When the summits emerge from a swirling sea of cloud, though, and the slopes are dressed in their brilliant autumn colours, they can certainly look the part.
Given its importance to Taoism, it’s ironic that the busiest sight at Song Shan today is in fact the Shaolin Si, a Buddhist temple famed not just as one of the earliest dedicated to the Chan (Zen) sect, but also where Chinese kung fu is said to have originated. A major Taoist temple survives, too, in the Zhongyue Miao, though it’s by no means as busy. The mountain ranges themselves are another draw, with numerous paths meandering around the valleys, passing temples, pagodas and guard towers, and some wonderful views. Unlike at other holy mountains, there is no single set path, and, as the slopes are not steep and the undergrowth is sparse, you can set out in any direction you like. Song Shan’s sights aren’t close to one another, so you won’t be able to do more than one or two a day and count on getting back to Dengfeng before nightfall.
You can visit Song Shan on a day-trip from either Luoyang or Zhengzhou, though it’s more satisfying – and certainly less rushed – to base yourself in the town of Dengfeng, from where you can explore Shaolin Si, Zhongyue Miao and a couple of other nearby sites at your own pace. Buses from Luoyang pass Shaolin on the way to Dengfeng, so you can always get off here first. Maps of the area are included on the back of local maps of Zhengzhou (available in Zhengzhou, and possibly Luoyang), or can be bought at Dengfeng and Shaolin.
Around 13km west of Dengfeng, through rugged, mountainous countryside and a main road lined with martial-arts schools, Shaolin Si (少林寺, shàolín sì) is a place of legends. This is the temple where the sixth- century founder of Buddhism’s Chan (Zen) sect, Bodhidarma, consolidated his teachings in China, and also where – surprisingly, given Buddhism’s peaceful doctrines – Chinese kung fu is said to have originated. Today, it’s a tourist black spot, packed with noisy groups and commercial enterprises, and a complete non-starter if you’re seeking any form of spiritual enlightenment – though as an entertaining look into modern China’s kung fu cult, it’s a lot of fun. In September, the place is particularly busy, filling up with martial-arts enthusiasts from all over the world who come to attend the international Wushu Festival.
The original Shaolin Si was built in 495 AD. Shortly afterwards, the Indian monk Bodhidarma (known as Da Mo in China) came to live here after visiting the emperor in Nanjing, then crossing the Yangzi on a reed (depicted in a tablet at the temple). As the temple has been burned down on several occasions – most recently in 1928, by the warlord Shi Yousan – the buildings you see here today are mostly reconstructions in the Ming style, built over the last twenty years. Despite this, and the incredible density of tourists, the temple and surroundings are beautiful, and the chance to see some impressive martial-art displays here make it well worth the trip.