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The Hanging Temple of Jingxia Gorge 悬空寺


It’s hard to know where to avert your eyes when you’re two hundred feet above the ground on a rickety wooden structure about a foot and a half wide. Look down, and the cliff you’re precariously attached to leers at you through the cracks, look up and you’re likely to be overcome with vertigo and fall right over the knee high railing, the only thing protecting you from a deathly plummet downwards.

I’m swearing to myself under my breath quietly, repetitively and desperately: ‘fuck, fuck fuck, fuck fuuuuuck’ because it keeps my mind off my imminent death. I’m not that good with heights, or depths for that matter, or extremes of any kind. Thank goodness my children are out of earshot as I shuffle along, hoping this ordeal will soon be over and by default staring really intently at the back of the guy in front of me. 


I’m at the Hanging Temple (Xuánkōng Sì 悬空寺) in Jingxia Gorge, northern Shanxi Province, a legendary place built by a single monk, Liao Ran. I’m thinking he was fond of solitude, and heights. The temple and monastery clings to the western cliff face of the gorge, high above the water line and occasional floods, and far below the snow that sits atop the mountains in winter.

According to strict Taoist principles, temples are places of absolute peace, free of the disturbance of even a rooster crowing or a dog barking, which may be why it was built in this location. Whatever the reason, it’s an extraordinary feat of daring and ancient engineering, best appreciated from the ground. 

When standing on the structure itself it seems to be the worst idea anyone ever had for a place to build anything, even making it into the Time’s Top Ten Precarious Buildings. Right.


The temple clings to the cliff face via cantilevered posts sunk deep into the rock, supported by long and elegant poles stretching down like chopsticks onto narrow rock ledges below. There is speculation these precarious spindly poles the temple seems to perch on are purely for show, according to a Chinese travel website:

The temple is supported by more than 10 wooden props, of which some are not actually useful”

I only read that this morning, at the time of course believing these poles were essential to stability. When the man in front of me grabs one of the poles and gives it an almighty shake I have a small coronary and black out temporarily. Why do blokes have to do stuff like that? 

The smiling assassin. That unassuming pole-shaker in the button-up white shirt who nearly killed me.


Intermittently I build up the courage to take a photo, cursing to myself that I can’t hold my heavy Nikon camera with one hand, therefore condemning myself to death (in my mind) every time I take my other hand off the railing. 

Because let’s face it, that railing is having the life squeezed slowly out of it by my vice-like grip. 
Mind you, the temple wouldn’t be half so terrifying if I wasn’t constantly aware I was sharing it with four hundred other tourists at the same time.

You buy tickets at the base of the gorge, then climb up hundreds of stairs until you’re at the temple entrance. Here you must pass through a turnstile designed to limit the maximum number of tourists permitted on the aged and fragile structure at any one time. 

Excellent idea, I think, as I go through, realizing just a second after the turnstile snaps closed behind me that the guy manning it is fast asleep with his head resting on top of the turnstile’s hub. People are pouring through uncounted. I’m doomed.

Gates of doom. Note evil face door knocker.



Once inside you pass in single file along a series of rattling wooden paths, tiny wooden bridges, and through the compact rooms of the temple. There is no turning back because you’d have to fight your way through the crush of tourists behind you who all have a keen forward momentum inspired by the need to get quite quickly back down to ground level.

Once in the temple’s tiny rooms there is slight relief of fear, being closer to the cliff face and further form the edge and all, until the three hundred and ninety-nine behind you push you forward and out towards the drop-off again.  
‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?? That’s why we’re hiding in this cupboard!’I did survive though, perhaps thanks to the benevolence of Sakyumani, Confucius and Laozu, their statues representing Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism respectively. Hell, if it were up to me I’d have had Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Vishnu, and the Torah in there too.


If you can bring yourself to lift your eyes you’ll be rewarded with the magnificent view of folded stone layers of the gorge and the vast and oppressive sheer face of the cliff opposite. Nature in all its solid and enormous glory, and the inconsequence of man, clinging to a matchstick temple.


Downward. Yes please, as soon as possible.

At last, just when you’re heart can’t really keep it up, you’re allowed down.

And just how old is the place? That’s what everyone keeps asking, and I’m incredibly grateful I only discovered the temple’s age this morning while reading up on its history. 

It was built in 491. Four Ninety One. 

That’s about a thousand years older than I thought it was, and if I’d known beforehand it was more than 1500 years old there’s not a chance in hell I would have gone up there. 

Add it to the list of ‘Top Ten Sights I’m Glad to Have Survived’.


悬空寺


当你身处离地两百英尺且只有一英尺半宽的摇摇晃晃的木结构上时,你的目光会无所适从。往下看,你紧靠的崖壁透过木板的缝隙冷冷地斜视着你,往上看,你往往会头晕眼花,从仅齐膝高的栏杆处落下,那栏杆是保护你不从死亡高度垂直落下的唯一的东西。
我在心里默默地不停地祈祷,这样我才不会去想到近在咫尺的死亡。我有点恐高,或是诸如此类的深度,或是类似的极端的事情。我一个人慢慢走着,不由自主地专注地盯着前面人的后背,心中希望这种折磨赶快结束。
我在位于山西省北部金龙峡的悬空寺,一个由名为了然的僧人独立建造的传奇的地方。我觉得他是一个喜爱隐居,热衷高空的人。寺庙背依峡谷西面的绝壁,高居水线之上,得以躲避洪水,到了冬季庙宇则遥居于盘踞在山顶的皑皑白雪之下
依循道教的严格教规,寺庙是绝对宁静之地,远离鸡鸣犬吠之声,可能这就是寺庙为何建于此处的原因。不论是何原因,它是勇气和古代工程的杰出壮举,矗立于世的佳作。
寺庙靠着深插入岩壁的悬臂而紧紧依附在悬崖上,下面由长而优雅的柱子支撑着,看似筷子的柱子插在狭窄岩石的突出部分,根据中国游,有种说法是,这些看似危险细长的柱子其实仅供观赏。
寺庙由十多根木头柱子支撑,但其中一些并没有起到支撑作用。
我今天早上才看到这段介绍,而当时我坚信这些柱子是必要的支撑。当我前面的一个男人抓住其中一根柱子拼命摇晃时,我顿时大惊失色。人们为什么要那样做呢?
请注意,我始终意识到,我是和其他四百名游客同时站在上面,这让我的恐惧加倍。
在峡谷脚下购买门票,然后攀登数百级台阶到达寺庙的入口。在这里你得通过一个回转栏,这是为了限制一次进入古老斑驳建筑的最大客流量。
当我通过回转栏时,回转栏的门在我身后关上,管理员把头靠到木头栏杆上很快就睡着了。身后人潮汹涌,而我正好赶上,回转栏真是个绝妙的点子。
进入里面,你会路过嘎嘎响的木质通道,木质的小桥,穿过寺庙简洁的房间。一旦身处寺庙的小房间,你会生出一丝恐惧,因为靠近崖壁和边缘,直到你身后的三百九十九人推着你向前,走出房间,走向下一个。
我仍旧活着,也许得感谢释迦摩尼,孔子和老子的仁慈,他们的塑像分别代表了佛家,儒家和道家。要我说,我会在那里加上耶稣、圣女玛利亚、毗湿奴和摩西。
如果你抬眼望去,你会欣赏到峡谷的层峦叠嶂和对面极具压迫感的巨大陡峭的崖壁。自然界的坚实巨大的辉煌,人类的渺小和依附在火柴棍上的寺庙。
最后,当你心跳刚刚平复之时,你可以下来了。
这个地方有多长历史了?每个人都这么问,我在今早查阅它的历史时居然找到了。
寺庙建于公元491年。
把它列为十大我庆幸游览后仍幸存的风景之一。


The Hanging Temple

Xuánkōng Sì 悬空寺
Hengshan, Shanxi Province 
Open 7 days 7am to 7pm
Admission: Adults 130 yuan, children and students 65 yuan, under 1.3m free, parking 10 yuan.

Closest towns: Hanyuan 5km, Datong 65km