Hiking the Stone Treasure Mountain known as Shibao Shan in Chinese (石宝山) is a must-do for all travellers who stay in Shaxi (沙溪), the ancient trade post on the old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) in north Yunnan province.
The mountain is famous for its red rock formations called Danxia landscape (丹霞风景) and the Buddhist grottoes that feature unique stone-carving. The latter contributed to Mount Shibao being known as the ‘Mogao Caves (莫高窟) of Yunnan’, in reference to the famous Buddhist frescoes in the desert of Dunhuang (敦煌) in northwest Gansu province.
Mount Shibao is also famous for the singing festival (石宝歌会) during which features the best Bai singers gather for a unique competition that takes place in late July every year in August.
Buddhist relics from the Nanzhao Kingdom
Specialists put Shizhong temple’s Buddhist grottoes on the same level as Shanxi province’s Datong Yungang cave (云冈石窟), Luoyang’s Longmen caves (龙门石窟), the lesser-known Dazu Buddhist rock carving (大足石窟) near Chongqing and the Mogao Caves (莫高窟).
On Shibao Mountain, after a three hours walk up a steep slopes, hikers arrive to the Shizhong Temple (石钟寺), home to a unique cluster of Buddhas and other Buddhist figures carved on the rock. This is not the only temple which features impressive Buddhist rock-carving that precedes the arrival of Han-Chinese in Yunnan (they are scattered throughout Mount Shibao), but it is in Shizhong temple that they are concentrated and the most representative.
Behind Shizhong Temple, there is a flight of steep stairs leading to the Temple of the Jade Emperor (玉皇阁) which is used as a storage room at the time of writing. Nothing to see from up there, but the view.
The rock-carving of Shizhong Temple took shape during the late years of Nanzhao Kingdom (南诏国) when Buddhism had been introduced to Yunnan and the Dali region directly from India, a religion that the local Bai people knew as Azhali (阿吒力). No wonder why Boddhistavas and statues of strange multi-faced, multi-legged anthropomorphic figures as well as angry guardians carved directly on the rock look radically different from anywhere else in China.
The Baoxiang Temple
Baoxiang temple (宝相寺) was built at the end of the 13th century, when Yunnan was formally integrated in the Chinese Empire, after the Mongols invaded the entire country, much of Asia and founded in China the short-lived Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).
Unlike Shizhong temple, there are no Buddhist rock-carving to be found there. On the contrary, after coming up a long flight of stone stairs through the forest, the shiny colourful new statues of Guanyin and Maitreya, the smiling Buddha, are visible from the main gate. They are situated on the passage which links two overhanging temples.
Baoxiang temple is marketed as the sole and unique overhanging temple of Yunnan which is not true. On Mount Qianshi (千狮山) in nearby Jianchuan (剑川), there is a small overhanging compound of temples dedicated to the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝) who presides the councils of Heaven and to ‘Three Pure’, a trinity of revered Taoist immortals from which the view on the valley is more impressive than Baoxiang temple.
How to get there
There are two ways to visit Shibaoshan. Hike or rent a mini-van from Shaxi (沙溪).
If you decide to hike, you will be able to see only the Shizhong Temple (both temples are far apart). Start from Shaxi’s historical village of Sideng and walk on the main road towards Jianchuan. After one kilometre, turn left when you see the Shadengqing village (沙登清) sign. Follow the road until a trail start at the bottom of steep valley. At the end of the valley, a long flight of stairs will take you to a temple at mid-level. From there, a series of steep stairs and trails in the forest will bring you to the Shizhong temple. Count at least 3 to 4 hours. You’ll have to pay the entrance fee directly at the temple if you hike from Shaxi (i.e. without going through the main entrance).
Hiring a mini-van from Shaxi will not spare you walking in the mountain for a couple of hours. In the past, drivers stopped at the Baoxiang Temple first then drive you to the Shizi Pass where you have to walk down and up a very steep slope to get to the Shizhong Temple. Today, thanks to the development of tourism in the area, things are different. All cars must park at the main car park in front of the main entrance where visitors buy the entrance fee. Visitors are then required to walk through the gate and take a bus (there is a bus every 15 to 30 min). The first stop is Baoxiang Temple, the second is the car park behind Shizhong Temple.
Entrance fee : there is a 60 RMB entrance fee at the main gate. Add another 40 RMB for a mandatory bus ride (round-trip). Count only 20 RMB if you decide to hike back to Shaxi from Shizhong Temple.