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The largely rebuilt Shàolín Temple is a commercialised victim of its own incredible success. A frequent target of war, the ancestral home of wǔshù was last torched in 1928, and the surviving halls – many of recent construction – are today assailed by relentless waves of selfie-shooting tour groups. The temple’s claim to fame, its dazzling gōngfū (kung fu) based on the movements of animals, insects and sometimes mythological figures, guarantees that martial arts clubs around the world make incessant pilgrimages.
A satisfying visit to the Shàolín Temple requires, rather than bestows, a Zen mentality (to handle the visiting hordes and looped recordings broadcast from competing loudspeakers). But if you explore away from the main areas, you could spend an entire day or two visiting smaller temples, climbing the surrounding peaks and eking out crumbs of solitude.
Coming through the main entrance, you’ll pass several wǔshù schools. On the right, about 500m in, is the Wǔshù Training Centre, with entertaining shows featuring novices tumbling around and breaking sticks and metal bars over their heads – an integral part of the Shàolín experience.
The main temple itself is another 600m along. Many buildings, such as the main Dàxióng Hall (大雄宝殿, Dàxióng Bǎodiàn; reconstructed in 1985) burned to the ground in 1928. Although the temple seems to have been founded in approximately the year 500 (accounts vary), some halls only date back as far as 2004. Among the oldest structures at the temple are the decorative arches and stone lions, both outside the main gate.
At the rear, the West Facing Hall (西方圣人殿; Xīfāng Shēngrén Diàn) has depressions in the floor, famously (and apocryphally) the result of generations of monks practising their stance work, and huge colour frescoes. Always be on the lookout for the ubiquitous Damo (Bodhidharma), whose bearded Indian visage gazes sagaciously from stelae or peeks out from temple halls.
Across from the temple entrance, the Arhat Hall within the Shífāng Chányuàn (十方禅院) contains legions of crudely fashioned luóhàn (monks who have achieved enlightenment and passed to nirvana at death). Past the main temple on the right, the Pagoda Forest (少林塔林; Shàolín Tǎlín), a cemetery of 248 brick pagodas, which includes the ashes of eminent monks, is well worth visiting.
Further along, past the Pagoda Forest, paths lead up Wǔrǔ Peak (五乳峰; Wǔrǔ Fēng). Flee the tourist din by heading towards the peak to see the cave (达摩洞, Dámó Dòng) where Damo (Bodhidharma) meditated for nine years; it’s 4km uphill. From the base, you may spot the peak and the cave, marked by a large Bodhisattva figure. En route to the cave, detour to the Chūzǔ Temple (初祖庵; Chūzǔ Ān), a quiet and battered counterpoint to the main temple. Its main structure is the oldest wooden one in the province (c 1125).
At 1512m above sea level and reachable on the Sōngyáng Cableway (嵩阳索道; Sōngyáng Suǒdào; return ticket ¥50), Shàoshì Shān (少室山) is the area’s tallest summit. The area beyond the cable car is home to the peak, and to Eŕzǔ Nunnery (二祖庵; Eŕzǔ Ān; ¥2) with four wells where you can sample its various tasting waters (sour, sweet, peppery and bitter).
Perhaps the most famous hike, however, is to neighbouring Sānhuángzhài (三皇寨), which takes about six hours return and covers 9km one-way (and 7398 steps!). The path goes past precipitous cliffs along a roller coaster of a route that often hugs the striated rock face to the 782-step Rope Bridge (连天吊桥; Lián Tiān Diào Qiáo). The scenery is superb.
Consider bypassing the initial 3km with the Shàolín Cableway (少林索道; Shàolín Suǒdào; one-way/return ¥50/80), which conveys you effortlessly to the start of the most dramatic section. No matter how you do this hike, start early and be prepared for some noise – it's very popular and the echoes are a big draw. Once you get to the first suspension bridge (one hour), most people turn around and the crowds thin out considerably.
To do this hike one-way – probably the most satisfying option – you can start from the end (catch a cab to Sānhuángzhài from Dēngfēng; aim for ¥30) and walk towards Shàolín. You can do it the other way too, but you're at the mercy of the drivers (assuming there are any) when you finish. Note that the bridge may be closed at times for repair or during inclement weather. Food is plentiful along the part closest to Shàolín.
To reach the Shàolín Temple, take a bus (15 minutes) from Dēngfēng’s west bus station (¥3.50) or main station (¥5). A taxi to the temple from Dēngfēng will cost ¥30 (unofficial fare, no meter). Alternatively, take a minibus from either Luòyáng (¥19, 1½ hours) or Zhèngzhōu (¥29, two hours).
From the ticket office, it's then a 20-minute walk to the actual temple (passing the Wǔshù Training Centre on the way); electric carts (one-way/return ¥15/25, 7.30am to 6pm) run from the ticket office to the main temple entrance and beyond.
Note that tickets to the scenic area (including all hikes) are valid for 10 days, except for the temple itself, which can only be visited once on the date of purchase.