Longing for a place to escape the crowds, the heat, the smog and bustle of Beijing, you're soon on the bus to Wutai Shan. Fresh mountain air, ornate temples, a peaceful and spiritual atmosphere: pretty much the features of this area. But now I am conveniently omitting the seven-hour devil's ride over winding mountain roads, past polluting coal mines, long hours waiting in an endless traffic jam of roaring trucks ... And I am right to do so, because Wutai Shan is still a place well worth visiting.
Wutai Shan is one of the first places in China where Buddhism had a foothold and is considered one of the four sacred mountains of China. Each of these four shrines is dedicated to a major Bodhisattva: one who does not accept the enlightened Buddhahood and rather prefers to help earthly creatures to achieve nirvana (enlightenment). It all started with an Indian monk who, a few decades after the birth of Christ, during a visit to Wutai Shan, had a vision in which he met Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. Since then the mountain is known as Manjushri's earthly residence. In the temples you'll find dozens of great images of the Bodhisattva: sitting on a lion, in his female left hand a book on wisdom and in his right male hand a sword to get rid of ignorance.
For centuries the area was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Asia. Especially during the Tang dynasty (from the 7th century), when more than two hundred temples stood in the valley and monks and pilgrims came from far and wide, from Japan to India. This bloom was unfortunately followed by a period (9th century) in which Buddhism was formally sentenced and all the temples were targeted. Only during the Ming Dynasty arose an emperor who was interested in Wutai Shan, and another wave of popularity followed. This time, mainly Tibetans and Mongolians came to the area because Manjushri plays a special role in their perception of Buddhism. The Cultural Revolution was once again a threat, but fortunately at that time it was difficult to access the area and the Red Guards of Mao Zedong could not do much harm to the place.
Today not only pilgrims come. No, especially the tourists have discovered the area. And I do not mean the western tourist - we have just spotted a few during our five day stay. I mean the Chinese themselves, in the high season they all head this way. The streets of Taihuai - the central village where it all happens - are clogged with buses that give the visitors a few minutes at each temple, to transport them to the next temple a few feet away. Chinese people do not care to walk, or do not wish to waste time walking. Yet the area is quiet, especially compared to other parts of China. When you venture off the beaten path, you will not meet a soul.
Wutai Shan literally means mountain of five terraces. Because amid the partly wooded, partly barren mountains with an average altitude of two thousand meters, the five sacred peaks get all the attention. The North Peak, with its 3058 meters is the highest and most visited. But also the South, West, East and Central Peaks with their bare, windswept summits - each topped with a small temple - are popular destinations. Die-hard pilgrims visit all five, on foot. Tour Buses depart regularly from Taihuai, at an altitude of 1680 meters, to the North Peak, but it is said that the South Peak is the most beautiful of the five.
Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred ... we count the steps during the climb to the Pusa Ding, it should be one hundred eight, but again the number is not correct. We understand, it's nice to hold on to the magic number 108: the number of Buddhist rosary beads. Each bead throws a mantra in the air. Of most of the temples in Wutai Shan it is said that one hundred eight steps lead to their gates. They stand for the 108 concerns of mankind. With each step, a care less. It is even said that there are 108 temples in Wutai Shan, however, this number quite exceeds the truth. With the strenuous climb to the terrace of Dailuo one can even relieve one's cares ten times as much - there are as many as 1080 steps. Monks and pilgrims are eager to use this stairway and literally crawl on their knees to the top: two steps forward, one step back. Pausing to pray at every step. It looks grueling. But theirs is the splendid view of the village, the mountains and - weather permitting - the snowy peaks of the North Peak. The many souvenir stalls at the foot of the steep stairs can be seen far below in miniature.
Of the many (the exact number varies with each new source of information) Taihuai temples, the Xiantong Temple is the largest and one of the oldest. In the Hall of Manjushri you will find a wonderful statue of the bodhisattva: with no less than a thousand arms and fifteen faces! And in the pavilion you can find as many as ten thousand small Buddhas. But the ultimate symbol of Wutai Shan is the white stupa of the Tayuan Temple. The stupa rises far above all other temples and dominates the skyline of the village. Pilgrims come here in large numbers to give the prayer wheels a push at the bottom of the stupa. Nuns, monks, lamas, they often come from far. Japan, Thailand, Nepal, Korea and so on. All the temples are still in operation and you can see shaven monks in their orange or dark red robes walking their rounds.
Nanshan Temple is also very impressive. This robust temple is located about two kilometers south of the village and is built on seven terraces. In each room you will find completely different and very interesting images, like the eighteen Arhats (enlightened students) made of clay or the white marble effigy of the female Guanyin, where newly wed couples come to make a sacrifice hoping to give birth to a son.
Besides the many temples in Taihuai there are twenty to be found in the surrounding mountains. However, I must finally admit that the number of hotels exceeds the number of temples - maybe up to ten times as many. Cheap guesthouses with dank, damp rooms can be found immediately north of the village, as also the basic restaurants and stalls selling all kind of things, from souvenirs to snacks. In great contrast are the huge luxurious hotels that line the road to the south of the village for miles and miles, beginning just across the river Qingshui. Huge hotels, of which many close down off-season. One night in the cold room of a guesthouse, where the bedroom floor floods after having taken a (chilly!) shower, convinces us to move to one of the better hotels.
© 2009, Monique van Gaal
The dutch version of this story has been published in Azië Magazine, June / July / August 2010.