If you were a young boy growing up in Australia during the 80s and early 90s, you have probably seen an episode or two of Monkey in your time. With sexually crazed Pigsy, cannibalistic Sandy, and the irreverant actions of the Monkey King himself – Monkey was hugely popular in Australia, the UK, and Japan.
Lianyungang’s HuaGuoShan (Mountain of Flowers and Fruit) is a popular tourist destination due to it purportedly being the birth-place of the legendary Monkey King, so it made sense that a child of the 80s such as myself would be drawn there when I was sent to teach in Lianyungang earlier this year.
I’ve actually been to the home of the Monkey King twice now. Once while living in Lianyungang when a student from Nanjing took me to see the sights and a second time more recently when I took my girlfriend back up to my former stomping grounds to give her a break from the hustle and bustle of Nanjing. The photos and stories below will be a mish-mash of happenings from both trips.
Located on the north-eastern coast of China’s Jiangsu province, Lianyungang isn’t a city at the head of many ‘to do’ lists in China. It’d be hard pressed to rate a mention even on a to do list in crowded and popular Jiangsu. Reachable by long distance train (10+ hours to Nanjing or Shanghai) or by bus (4-5 hours to Nanjing or Shanghai), Lianyungang is an industrial city typical of modern China. That is to say that old China is being forced aside as skyscrapers and modern conveniences flood in.
There are certainly reasons to visit Lianyungang beyond the mountain; it does boast some passable stretches of beach and some finger-licking seafood, but HuaGuoShan is probably the city’s sole real draw for foreign tourists.
Made famous by the classic novel Journey to the West, HuaGuoShan as it appears in the book is a mountain inhabited by demons and monkeys. And while there are a few monkeys to be found in cages along the way, demons were (thankfully) notable in their absence. But the water curtain cave behind which the Monkey King lived can still be found, and it’s to this somewhat manufactured facade that many tourists make their pilgrimage on a daily basis.
On both visits to the mountain I was lucky enough to have Chinese company and a private car. The mountain itself is a good 20-30 minutes drive from Haizhou – a fringe suburb itself approximately 15 minutes from the city centre. The drive itself takes you through somewhat picturesque country being bulldozed and built over to make way for apartment blocks and new government buildings.
A large parking area at the bottom of the mountain marks hopping off point, and from there a ten minute walk takes you past a number of stalls selling foods, tacky souvenirs, and comfortable shoes for those who weren’t prepared for the hike ahead.
Visitors have three options when it comes to seeing the mountain’s more famous sights:
- Opt to either walk up the road to the temple (not recommended. I’d imagine it takes upwards of an hour and you share the road with notoriously bad Chinese drivers).
- Take a cable car to the very top of the mountain and make your way back down.
- Pay 8RMB for a shuttle to the temple and climb to the top.
I should note that there is also a fee to enter the park, but string pulling got we pale-faces in for free on both visits.
First time around we took our private car all the way to the temple, but for our second visit we opted for the bus due to having two Chinese families in our company. The bus ride rivaled any amusement park ride I’ve ever been on when it came to heart-stopping action – it takes the sharp turns around sheer cliffs without pause. Add to that cars flying down the road in the opposite direction and you’ve got a pretty hair-raising experience.
The first stop on a typical visit to HuaGuo Mountain will be a Buddhist temple that marks the beginning of the ascent towards the mountain peak. This picturesque temple is your gateway to the famous water curtain cave and the highest point in Jiangsu province, but don’t rush by it. Not only is it quite beautiful in its own right, but it’s your last reprieve before you begin a climb that would have to feature at least 1000 rather steep stairs.
With its stunning views of the valley below, there’s a sense of tranquility at the temple that I’ve yet to find anywhere else in too-crowded China. Much like Unjusa and Daewonsa in South Korea, the mountain temple has quiet corners where you can get away from the crowds and just soak in the natural majesty of the place.
Monks go about their business, petitioners pause at the various shrines to pay their respects, and that unusual blend of modern society and old traditions can be seen as iPhone touting teenagers suddenly prostrate themselves in front of a towering gold statue. It’s a delightful contrast.
Realm of the Monkey King
Once you’re past the many pagodas and you’ve stepped over the many thresholds of the temple, you’re met with a somewhat grueling climb to get to the famed Water Curtain Cave behind which the Monkey King once lived. It’s not going to exhaust a relatively healthy person, but you’ll certainly feel it in your calves when you finally get to the waterfall.
On both of my visits a man with a trained monkey was in attendance. For 10RMB you can pose for a photo with the adorable (and somewhat mistreated) little monkey. But be careful of her nimble fingers; she made off with Heather’s heart!
With the cheesy tourist photos done, it’s time to step into the cave that (allegedly) acted as home for the Monkey King. Water Curtain Cave seems suspiciously man made throughout – from the false waterfall to the poorly carved ‘furniture’ to the strings of LED lighting that line the walls – but it’s still an experience to emerge (somewhat damp) from beneath the waterfall and step into the cool of the caves beyond.
After the slight let down that is the tacky interior of the cave, you’re confronted with two options. Head back to the bus (which we did on my second visit) or continue climbing until you reach the highest point in the province (which I did first time around).
Truth be told, the steep uphill really isn’t worth the view unless it’s clear out. My first visit was on an overcast and misty morning, so I wasn’t afforded the best of views. There are some sad looking deer in a muddy enclosure and allegedly some wild monkeys closer to the top, but they’re nothing you can’t see at your average roadside petting zoo.
My first visit did end in rather nice fashion; my student’s father treated us to a traditional Chinese banquet lunch before we made our way back down to the base. Not a bad way to follow up a climb, eh?
Do it with a local
I was lucky enough to have a local guide for my visit thanks to work connections. Have you ever checked out an off-the-beaten track location with the help of a local? Sites like Arribaa specialize in putting you in touch with local experts who have inside knowledge on the best things to do because they know the place inside out.
They’re unfortunately not in China yet, but check out their site for some fantastic personalized tours organized by locals on the ground in places across Australia and (soon) the world.
The team at Arribaa have even organized a special 15% discount for Aussie on the Road readers who make a booking through them in 2012. Click here for a 15% discount on your next Arribaa experience.
Have you ever visited a place because it was in a TV show or movie from your childhood? I know I have; I visited Astoria to immerse myself in a personal Goonies tour back in 2009.
Have you seen Monkey before? Did it not rock your world?