Must see Shaolin Temple during your China visit

Having ducked and weaved through the masses of Beijing and Shanghai, I was aching for that unique Chinese experience. One that didn’t liken China to a massive super power, taking over western civilisation. Something that represented the country at its roots.

Like me, if you are searching for a truly unique experience during your travels in China, then look no further than the Ultimate Guide to the Shaolin Experience.

Kung-Fu Village, Shaolin Precinct

How to get to the Shaolin Monastery from Beijing

The Shaolin Monastery falls in the city of Dengfeng (Henan province), which is close to a 2-hour journey (via the high speed trains) from Beijing. If you’re exploring the North-East and you’ve decided to travel to the Shaolin Temple, make sure you get the train to Zhengzhou from Beijing. You can take the bullet or high speed train, which will get you to Zhengzhou in just over 2 hours. Alternatively (and my personal preference), take the slow train that will get you to Zhengzhou in anywhere between 5-7 hours. Plan ahead and give yourself enough time to get the slow train. The sights and sounds on the way provide a genuine Chinese experience, from ghost-towns with unoccupied 20-storey high towers to the very best of rural China. Of course, 7-hours in a train means you’ve got plenty of time to mingle with your neighbours. I got dragged into an intense game of poker! Less said about the results the better. When you get to Zhengzhou, take a taxi or bus to Dengfeng. As in most cases, the public transport option is more cost effective and will give you that extra cultural experience. I took the bus and it was a nice smooth ride to the entry area of the Temple precinct. Either mode of transport will get you to temple in no more than 2 hours.

Songshan Mountain/Shaolin Precinct

To enter the temple area you will have to pay 100 yuan (about $20 Australian dollars). The main Temple area is about a 20-30 minute walk from the entry gates, so make sure you’ve got your walking shoes on. As a photographer, I am continuously looking for inspiration and out of that need, I’ve come to the conclusion that inspiration is borne in individuality and uniqueness. So if you are looking for an unique experience in China, here’s your perfect Shaolin itinerary.

A student of the arts puts on an impromptu display of skills

Where to stay in the Shaolin Precinct

I recommend allocating 3 days/2 nights to gain the complete Shaolin experience. One of the most unique experiences I had in China was staying in the small kung-fu village about 20 minute’s walk from the temple precinct. The humble village is where budding Shaolin masters practice their art, but also a place for them rest and rejuvenate. The Kung Fu hostel is the perfect place to spend a couple of nights in the village.
The village is small but it comes equipped with convenience stores, restaurants and transportation to and from the temple precinct. Venture into some of the family owned make-shift restaurants. With a generous assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, from garlic vegetables to pork noodle soup, they will do their best to cater to anyone that comes in peace.

The Shaolin Kung Fu Show

The famous martial arts show is an extraordinary ensemble of skills and discipline, as well as an opportunity for brave crowd members to get involved in the act. Many of the students are taught in the local school at the precinct, a short walk from the Martial Arts hall.

I recall a surreal moment when one of the students put on amazing impromptu display of martial arts with a steel-rope. A crowd of his peers gathered around the budding monk, watching in silence as he rolled, ducked and jumped, but the greatest mark of appreciation came from his teacher, standing arms folded behind his back, watching in admiration. It’s times like these that make the hours of slogging around a SLR all worth it. See image above. Make the most of your time in the precinct, wander around the temple, schools and halls and you are bound to capture something truly unique.

There is a set structure to the shows, so make sure you plan ahead. The school will typically host 6 shows during the day, the first beginning at 9:00am and the last at 4:00pm. Check before you travel as seasonal changes do occur.

How to lose money on a China train trip. Shaolin bound

Visit Mount Song and Dharma Cave

The temple area sits neatly among the Songshan Mountain ranges. With many surrounding peaks and treks, some longer and more difficult than others, the region is truly a hikers delight. The Dharma cave walk was suggested to us by the lovely Hostel hostess. Buddhists believe that Bodhidharma arrived from India and introduced Zen Buddhisim to China after meditating for years in the cave – now appropriately known as Dharma Cave.

Approximately 7km one way, the trek up Mt. Songshan is certainly not long by hiking standards but be aware, a significant portion of the climb does involve steep (and I mean really steep!) staircases – which makes for a fantastic work out to burn off all those noodle soups and dim sims! – which was certainly the case for me. My friend and I elected to chow down some noodles before the steep journey ahead in a conveniently located take-out place at the beginning of the climb. On a less lighter note, the steps are certainly not for the faint-hearted, so if you are carrying any niggling physical issues, you may want to sit this one out.

The mountains are not immune to the Chinese street seller syndrome, so prepare yourself to be encouraged to purchase incense sticks, key chains, jewellery and of course, food! If your answer is “no” to all of the above then perhaps a photo? Everyone loves a family portrait! The man in the Tiger claw mould actually gave us a lift back to Zhenzhou! We met him on the walk. It’s not always recommended to take lifts from strangers but we felt we’d assessed the crowd well, so this adventure was definitely on!

As you ascend, remember to look back from time-to-time because the views over the ranges are exceptional. Dharma himself will meet you at the peak, meditating, as he looks over the Songshan mountain ranges. Away from the selfie sticks, baseball caps and waiting lines below, the Dharma Cave experience provides the peace and harmony that you typically associate with places of worship. The cave is usually accompanied with a sitter who will help you pass on any gifts, flowers, incense etc. that you have to offer.
Just after the sun had set behind the ranges, we began our journey down the mountain and back to the hostel. I recall embracing a new found feeling of wonder after our meeting with Bodhidharma. Having spent time in Shanghai and Beijing, I needed a culture dose and the hike to Dharma cave certainly reunited me with that feeling. Without having to travel thousands of miles, overnight or by flight, this was the alternative mainland China experience I was searching for.

Wander the Shaolin precinct

There is good chance that a morning visit to the temple will include rubbing shoulders with the masses i.e. other travellers. While incomparable to a walk down to the Bund in Shanghai, the Monastery is a major tourist attraction for nationals and as we all know, when the Chinese travel, it’s in herds.

But remaining positive, I went looking for history and inspiration around the temple grounds. Almost immediately I was taken away by the tumultuous history of the region, dating back from the 5th century to as recent as 2018, when the temple for the first time raised the national flag to make a stance on patriotism. Ultimately, after so much destruction, unrest and dispute, the Pagodas, schools, halls and temples still stand strong, reflecting the resilience of the monks and their supporters. At the foot of the Shaoshi Mountains is the remarkable Pagoda forest, an area marking the tombs of many high ranking monks and affiliates. The concentration of Pagodas date back to as early as the 8th century. In various sizes, detail and meaning, the forest is an unique example of Zen spirituality.

green trees in china
As if it reverberated through the canopy on Tiger Hill

In summary:

  • Take the slow train from Beijing. You’ll be in Zhengzhou within 7 hours. Save cash, gain experience!
  • Give yourself enough time to truly experience this unique part of China. Organise a 2-night stay in the Kung-Fu village, just a 20 minute walk from the temple. Wake up to students practising martial arts and indulge in some humble home-cooked cuisines
  • The Kung-Fu martial arts show is a must-see. The entry fee is covered as part of your temple entry cost
  • Re-connect with your spiritual side with a hike to Dharma Cave
  • Immerse yourself in the Temples, Pagodas, Relics and Monuments of ancient China and the inauguration of Zen Buddhism

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