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’.
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