A guaranteed highlight of any visit to China is spending a day or two exploring one of its amazing sacred mountains: those lofty eminences shrouded in a misty veil for much of the year, studded with ancient monasteries inhabited by grizzled old monks, and chockablock with stunning vistas, cloud-kissing peaks, and the occasional hanging monastery clinging to a sheer cliff face. Lion’s Head Mountain (Shitoushan; 獅頭山) is Taiwan’s answer to amazing Buddhist (and Taoist) sacred mountains in the Middle Kingdom such as Huashan, Emeishan or Mt. Jiuhua, and while you’ll won’t see wizened old monks or centuries-old buildings on your visit, it’s a very special place in its quieter, less spectacular way.
While Lion’s Head Mountain is still only beginning to appear on the radar of foreign expats and tourists, it’s far from being off-the-beaten-track among the Taiwanese, attracting crowds on sunny weekends. Not even hordes of people, however, can spoil the beauty and unique atmosphere of this rather special place. For all its popularity, Lion’s Head Mountain covers a large area, with many kilometers of marked trails, and only at peak times are the most popular paths likely to seem too crowded for comfort.
Lion’s Head Mountain, about 25 kilometers’ drive south of Hsinchu city, is one third of the Tri-Mountain National Scenic Area (叁山國家風景區), established in March 2001 to protect three upland regions in central Taiwan. The other two are Lishan (梨山), in eastern Taichung City, and the Mt. Bagua (八卦山) range of hills near Changhua. This last is another major draw for the island’s Buddhists; a temple in the hills here right above Changhua city has a famous, 22 meter-high black statue of the sitting Buddha.
Lion’s Head Mountain is a rocky eminence, and most of the main temples on the mountain are built into small natural caves or overhangs in the rock face. The largest is Shueilien Cave (水簾洞; Water Curtain Cave), close to Lion’s Head Mountain Scenic Area Visitor Center, on the lion’s “tail.” The walk down to the temple, through the small but attractive gorge of the Shijing Stream, is nice, but the cave itself is aesthetically challenged; its main feature is a tall and very ugly wall, which detracts from the beauty of its cave setting. Downstream (but reached by a different trail from the road above) is the very short (half-kilometer-long) “Sticky Rice” Bridge Walk (糯米橋步道). This is a more scenic experience, dropping into a short length of especially narrow and dark gorge, crossed by a century-old bridge, the stone blocks of which are cemented together with mortar made from (believe it or not!) a mixture of rice, brown sugar and lime!
Almost opposite the trailhead of the sticky rice bridge trail, a road passing through a temple gate is the start of the walking route that connects most of the temples on the ridge, from “tail” to “head.” If you’re short of time (or energy) the temples on this side (and the “trail,” which is a surfaced road most of the way) can be safely skipped, to allow more time at the opposite end of the ridge. This is the setting for Lion’s Head Mountain’s most impressive set of temples, and to reach it drive or catch a shuttle bus from the visitor center. Here at the lion’s “head,” nestling on the steep, densely forested mountainside high above a large car park, is probably the most aesthetically pleasing ensemble of temples and monasteries on Taiwan.
The main structure of the group, Qinhua Tang (勤化堂), is a magnificent edifice of classical Chinese prayer halls, pagodas and gates, each crowned with bright orange-tiled roofs which shine in the sunlight. It’s complimented by a series of smaller structures, including the Morality Gate (道德門), Kaishan Temple (開善寺), and Lingyun Cave (凌雲洞), which all share the same photogenic classical architecture (reinforced concrete and uninspired functionality are almost nowhere to be seen) and combine to create a truly impressive scene. A couple of the temples, such as Lingxia Cave (靈霞洞), which has a florid, baroque façade, even show distinctly Western influences.
The ensemble looks beautiful from the car park below, but to get a closer look, take the steps up to Qinhua Tang, after which the path is more-or-less level along the base of the cliffs, passing a succession of temples built into caves and natural overhangs at the base of the rock. After the fine Morality Gate, the path climbs again, steeply at first, but this is a lamb in lion’s clothing, and it’s a fairly easy and brief climb to the base of the impressive Shishan Rock Face (獅山大石壁, below), near the summit of the mountain. Turn left here and you’ll probably have the path to yourself as it follows the base of this lofty and impressive wall of rock. It eventually loops round and rejoins the outward route at the Morality Gate, passing a string of peaceful, little-visited cave temples on the way.