Hangzhou’s Lingyin Scenic Area, with Lingyin Temple as its centerpiece, is said to be as old as 1,700 years. Legend has it that an Indian monk named Huili took a liking to the spot and founded a temple there. Over the following centuries, the various kingdoms and dynasties that controlled Hangzhou left their mark on the sacred spot, either in the form of additional temple buildings or intricate carvings on the cave walls.
Today, Lingyin Temple is one of Hangzhou’s most visited spots, with people from all over the country flocking to this Chan Buddhist temple – some as tourists, and others as pilgrims. But there’s a lot more to the area than Lingyin Temple itself. In addition to the Buddha carvings of Fei Lai Peak, the nearby Yongfu Monastery is perfect for those looking to escape the crowds. And for the more adventurous, a hike up the Northern Peak rewards trekkers with a panoramic view of the Hangzhou skyline.
Fei Lai Feng: The Flying Peak
Before reaching Lingyin Temple itself, you’ll come across another one of the area’s highlights: Fei Lai Feng. Translating to “Peak Flown From Afar” or just “Flying Peak” in English, the area was named by the monk Huili, who noticed an uncanny resemblance to a scared spot in India nicknamed “Vulture Peak.” He was convinced that the same peak must’ve flown all the way to China, hence its nickname.
This area is mainly known for its Buddha carvings, which altogether number in the hundreds. A majority of them date back to the Wuyue Kingdom (907-978), the kingdom that ruled Hangzhou during a relatively brief period in Chinese history that saw China divided up into a number of smaller territories.
Interestingly, you’ll also come across many carvings from the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368), when China was ruled by Mongol invaders. As devout Tibetan Buddhists, the Mongol rulers added dozens of new carvings to the area in the Tibetan style, such as the Buddhas in the upper right picture.
Meanwhile, the carvings from the subsequent Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) are largely based on characters from the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West.
In addition to the large outdoor area along the water, Flying Peak is also home to a number of small caves, with each cave containing carvings of their own. The Yuru Cave, for example, is also known as “Arhat Cave,” because of the numerous carvings of Buddhist saints found there.
Just outside the cave you’ll come face to face with the Li Gong Stone Pagoda. Not only is the pagoda the only remaining one from the Ming Dynasty, but it’s said to contain the ashes of none other than Lingyin’s founder, Huili, himself.
Also around the area is the chance to do a bit of hiking, though most of the peaceful trails don’t seem to really lead anywhere. Despite hiking around in the heat up the highest point in the area, I encountered nothing more than a dead end surrounded by trees. You’d be best off saving your energy for the North Peak, which we’ll cover down below.
Finishing your walk around the Flying Peak area, it’s time to enter Lingyin Temple just nearby. Though you’ve already paid an entry fee for the Lingyin Scenic Area, you will need to purchase a separate admission ticket just for the temple. (Neighboring temples like Yongfu, however, are free.)
Lingyin: The Temple of The Soul's Retreat
Walking through the entrance to Lingyin Temple, you might have a difficult time deciding where to start. In all directions are all sorts of halls, corridors and towers. It doesn’t come as much of surprise then, that the temple complex was once home to thousands of monks during its heyday. And more recently, the temple acted as a refuge for Buddhist monks from around the country, coming to escape the destructive chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Below are a few of the main halls to check out during your visit, though there are still lots more buildings to explore.
GRAND HALL OF THE GREAT SAGE: The centerpiece of this hall is the massive Shakyamuni (historical Gautama) Buddha image carved from camphor wood. Though produced in the 20th century, it was created in the ancient style of the Tang Dynasty and is currently China’s largest wooden statue. At the back of the hall is a standing sculpture of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion.
HALL OF HEAVENLY KINGS: In addition to a statue of the Maitreya Buddha, here you’ll find statues of the four heavenly kings. Each king guards one of the four cardinal directions and they’re said to reside in the heavenly realm of Cāturmahārājika.
HALL OF FIVE HUNDRED ARHATS: A more recent addition to the temple complex. As the name suggests, here you’ll find 500 bronze statues lined up on either side of the inner walkways.
What is Chan Buddhism?
Chan Buddhism is often attributed to a 6th century West of South Asian monk named Bodhidharma. The tradition emphasizes mental awareness over scriptures, as it’s believed that most fundamental truths are beyond words.
Most people have heard of Zen, the Japanese brand of Buddhism known for its rock gardens and unsolvable riddles. But ‘Zen’ is merely the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word ‘Chan.’
Though both Chan and Zen Buddhism are essentially the same, Chan Buddhism maintains a stronger influence from indigenous Chinese Taoism. There’s also slightly more emphasis placed on sutras than in Zen, while Chan temples are home to Buddha statues reminiscent of other Chinese sects.
Yongfu Monastery & The North Peak
Though originally established as places for quiet reflection and meditation, the tour groups which flock to Lingyin Temple and the Flying Peak every day can make the experience somewhat overwhelming. But as it turns out, there’s another outstanding temple you can visit just nearby which lacks the maddening crowds of the two main attractions. During your visit to the Lingyin Scenic Area, make sure to stop by the Yongfu Monastery, known for its multi-armed Guanyin statue and scenic views.
Yongfu Monastery is said to have been established around the same time as Lingyin Temple. And like its more famous neighbor, it’s seen additions and renovations throughout China’s various dynasties. And also like many of the other temples in Hangzhou, most of the current structures are relatively recent replacements for buildings destroyed by fire and war. You’d have a hard time figuring that out just by looking, though.
The temple complex is spread out not just horizontally, but vertically as well. Along the mountain known as North Peak, you can find an additional courtyard with even fewer people. Take in the peaceful setting and rest your legs for awhile, as you still have the opportunity to ascend even higher up the mountain.
During my visit to the upper level of Yongfu Monastery, I noticed that one of the staircases kept on going. Curious, I decided to continue walking, not sure of what I would find. I soon found myself in a secluded forested area, ascending a seemingly endless set of stairs. Drenched in sweat, I still had no idea where I was going, but I guessed it would be somewhere with some pretty good views. Finally, around 45 minutes later, the hard work paid off.
I found myself at the very top of the North Peak, some 300 meters above sea level. But despite encountering only a handful of people on the way up, I was far from alone at the top. It turns out that there was an option to take a cable car up the mountain all along! Regardless of how you get there, the top of North Peak is well worth a visit for its excellent views and yes, yet another temple.
Once at the top, you’ll find some vendors selling cold drinks and snacks. Spend some time in the temple and enjoy the views the nearby mountains and West Lake in the distance before heading back down – either by cable car or on foot.
Back at the bottom, you’ll find yourself in a peaceful rural neighborhood surrounded by rice fields. Fortunately, it’s not too far from the bus headed back to town, making it easy to return to the city center, or to spend the evening along the lake.
The best way to reach the Lingyin Scenic Area is by local city bus. Simply hop on bus number 7, which rides through the central Hangzhou area and then over the north part of West Lake. If you prefer to take a taxi, the area is so famous that all drivers will know it.
The admission system for the Lingyin Scenic Area is somewhat confusing. You will first need to buy an admission ticket which costs ¥45 RMB. This will give you access to the Flying Peak Area as well as Yongfu Monastery and the North Peak. As you enter the area, you’ll find a number of ticket stalls with queues in front.
However, to visit Lingyin Temple itself, you’ll need to pay an additional ¥30 RMB. You can buy this ticket near the temple entrance. For some reason, you can’t just buy both tickets at the same place.
Most temple and religious monuments around the world have some kind of special etiquette or rules to follow. For example, when visiting temples in Southeast Asia, it’s necessary to take off your shoes and wear “modest clothing,” which at least covers the shoulders and knees. But is there any proper etiquette you need to be aware of before visiting a place like Lingyin?
As magical as the atmosphere of the Lingyin Scenic Area is, I have to say that I was pretty shocked at the behavior of the local Chinese tourists. In addition to the shouting, shoving and line cutting that’s all too common at crowded places in China, plenty of the visitors decided to treat the caves of Flying Peak as their personal smoking lounge.
Furthermore, men walked around with their shirts lifted up and their bellies exposed. Apparently, this is a common practice in China on hot days. But as a newcomer to the country, I was surprised to see people walking around practically shirtless on temple grounds, especially after being used to the conservative rules of Southeast Asia.
So are there any particular rules you need to know before a visit to the Lingyin Scenic Area? Perhaps on paper there are, but you’d really need to make a conscious effort to behave any worse than many of the domestic tourists, unfortunately. This is all the more reason to visit Yongfu Temple and the North Peak, which many of the tour groups skip.
Generally, the closer you stay to West Lake, the better. There are lots of luxury hotels just across the street from the lake in various sections. There are also many hotels, from luxury to lower budget, in the busy area to the east of the lake.
I stayed at a place called Hangzhou Fresh House Hotel and the location couldn’t have been more ideal. I was right by the Longxiangqiao subway station, which meant I could easily get to the bullet train stations for day trips. There are also plenty of restaurants and shopping malls nearby.
Best of all, the hotel was only about a ten minute walk from the eastern edge of West Lake. It truly was the best of both worlds.
The downside of Fresh House Hotel would have to be the language barrier and customer service. Even when I was able to eventually get my point across using translation apps, some of the staff members were unwilling to help me out with simple matters (like reserving an early morning taxi to an obscure bus station I needed to get to).
Aside from the service, the location is probably the best you’re going to find in all of Hangzhou for those who can’t afford 5 star hotels.
Remember, hotels in China need special licenses to even service foreigners in the first place, making options limited.
Getting to Hangzhou is easier than you might think. The airport has direct flights to and from cities like LA, San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
You can also take a direct bus to Hangzhou from Pudong Airport in Shanghai.
Hangzhou also has two bullet train stations and four bus stations, making it incredibly easy to travel to and from Hangzhou by train from pretty much anywhere else in China.