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Nan Yue Heng Shan

Hunan Province, 137km (85 miles) S of Changsha

"Those who mix medicines, who are avoiding political turmoil, or who seek quietude in order to practice the Way, have always gone into the mountains." -from The Master Who Embraces Simplicity, Ge Hong (283-343)

Located on the southwestern bank of the Xiang River in the middle of Hunan Province, Nan Yue Heng Shan -- known locally as Nan Yue (Southern Mountain) or Heng Shan -- is one of the five sacred peaks (symbolizing the four directions and the center) of Daoism. It was believed that these peaks were supernatural channels connecting heaven and earth. For Daoists, mountains were the sites where qi (cosmic energy) was at its most refined; herbs and minerals -- the ingredients of health and longevity elixirs -- were found on mountains; and it was on mountains and in mountain caverns that seekers were most likely to find transcendent beings.

As far back as the 6th century, Nan Yue was also a place of Buddhist worship; and it is the birthplace of the Nan Yue school of Southern Chan (Zen) Buddhism, which got its start here in the 8th century.

Late summer and fall are the best times to visit. Locals warn visitors to resist the temptation of shortcuts on overgrown and little-used paths, where you're likely to encounter snakes.

Getting There

Direct buses (Iveco or Turbo) depart from Changsha's South Bus Station every half-hour from 6:30am to 6pm for the 2 1/4-hour drive; the fare is ¥41. Buses leave the station when they're full. Return buses leave every 20 minutes from the same drop-off point in the town of Nan Yue. If you take an early bus, it is possible to make this a day trip. You'll have time to enjoy the mountain and its temples if you combine hiking with cable car, bus, or motorcycle taxi. A train also runs between Changsha and Nan Yue Railway Station, but the trip takes 3 hours, plus another 30 to 40 minutes from the railway station to the town of Nan Yue.

Getting Around

The bus from Changsha drops passengers off at the west end of town. To get to the mountain, walk east on the same road (Hengshan Lu) to the memorial archway (paifang) on Zhurong Lu. Inside the archway, minibuses take passengers to the entrance for free. If the bus is slow to fill up, you can pay a bit more to be taxied there alone. Price is negotiable, but ¥5 is about right. The distance is 1.5km (just under a mile). The mountain park entrance is at the north end of the village. Admission is ¥100 and covers entrance to all the sites and temples on the mountain. Tour buses charge ¥70 to major sites between the park entrance and below Nantian Men. The bus fare also includes one-way of the one mile-long cable car operates from the midway point to Nantian Men. The footpath from Nantian Men to top is 3.1km (2 miles) long and takes about 1 1/2 hours to walk at a comfortable but steady clip.

Exploring NanYue

The best preserved and most famous of the mountain temples is Nan Yue Da Miao at the southern foot of the town, outside the mountain park. Originally built in the Tang dynasty (618-907), it was destroyed by fire a number of times. The present temple dates to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The main hall is noteworthy for its double roof, which is supported by 72 columns representing the inevitable 72 peaks of Nan Yue. Admission to the temple is ¥40.

Halfway up the mountain, past the cable car entrance, is the Daoist monastery Xuandu Guan. Here, worshipers light firecrackers, kowtow in front of the white marble statues of three Daoist Celestial Masters, or cast their fortunes by throwing two halves of a wooden oval on the ground. Eleven Daoist priests live in this monastery. Lodging is available for up to 3 days here. There is also a vegetarian restaurant.

Daoist and Buddhist monasteries and temples are scattered over the mountain. Most are small and worth a peek, but they don't need lots of time. Zhurong Hall is at Nan Yue's highest peak, Zhurong Feng (1,290m/4,232 ft.), where the views are magnificent.

Where to Stay & Dine

To better preserve the natural environment of the mountain, the authority has ordered that buildings and inns that don't blend in with the landscape be torn down. Approximately 80% of buildings were torn down. But lodging can still be found at the summit near Zhurong Dian and midway up the mountain just above the bus parking lot, in the vicinity of the cable car. The best accommodations on the mountain are at the Caifu Mountain Villa (Caifu Shanzhuang; tel. 0734/566-2628), at Bai Shan Ting, built in 2000 and renovated in 2008. To date, its primary claim to fame is that Jiang Zemin stayed here while visiting the mountain in 2003. The unimaginatively furnished standard rooms go for ¥380, but it does offer the most comfortable stay on the mountain by far.

Near Zhurong Feng, Zhurong Feng Shanzhuang (tel. 0734/566-3178) provides standard rooms with communal bathroom for ¥220. Rooms are without character and basically clean. You can try to bargain with the hotel to get a better price.

In the summertime, you can stay in guesthouse of Shangfeng Si (Shangfeng Monastery) near the peak for ¥40 a bed, including breakfast and dinner.

On the mountain are some small restaurants in different spots. Since there are no English menus, you may have to go to the kitchen and point to your order. Settle on a price in advance or you may end up getting the most expensive dish on the menu -- or the largest serving. On average, each dish should cost about ¥25 to ¥40. In town, Deng Shan Lu, running from the memorial archway through the center of town, has lots of restaurants serving local food.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.