Higher calling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am

Visiting Shanxi can be like stepping back through 2,000 years of, often turbulent, history. Although it is developing as rapidly as the rest of the mainland, the central province is home to many ancient temples and shrines, and the country's newest Unesco World Heritage site, the sacred Wutaishan (Mount Wutai). For hundreds of years, pilgrims and travellers have been spellbound by the serenity of this holy peak.

Home to the Bodhisattva Manjusri, the embodiment of enlightenment, Wutaishan is one of Buddhist China's four sacred mountains (the others being mounts Emei, Jiuhua and Putuo). There were once 200 temples stretching in a broad arc around the village of Taihuai - of the 108 remaining, 47 are open to visitors.

From provincial capital Taiyuan, the road to Wutaishan winds northeast through increasingly barren landscapes, twisting and turning upon itself like an enraged snake. Here, farmers still wear the old peasant uniform of peaked cap and drab Mao jacket. The road at Wutaishan's South Peak affords panoramic views across to some of China's greatest temples, clinging to the valley's slopes.

Emil S. Fischer, a journalist and diplomat living in Shanghai who visited Wutaishan in 1917, described his experiences in The Sacred Wu Tai Shan, published in 1925. He mentions staying overnight in Tayuan Temple, 'where the largest of all the White Bottle Pagodas stands'. Some 30 years later, in 1948, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other revolutionary leaders stayed briefly in the same temple. Amid the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Taihuai villagers intervened and managed to prevent the Red Guards from destroying the temples.

The earliest temples here date back to AD68 and after the lifting of travel restrictions in 1985, the area has blossomed as a tourist destination; last year, Wutaishan played host to three million domestic tourists and 18,000 foreigners. A multilane highway set to open next year, reducing the travelling time from Beijing to a mere three hours - a far cry from the early 1900s when it took Fischer three days to reach the mountain - will help inflate those visitor numbers considerably.

An exploration of the temple complex could start at the Bodhisattva Summit's Pusading Temple, overlooking Taihuai. Pusading was built by Tibetan Buddhists between AD471 and AD499 at the behest of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty and a former monk, who was keen to get China's Tibetan and Mongolian minorities on side.

Pu-Sa-Ting or Pusading (meaning the abode of Manjusri) stuns all the senses at once. The brilliantly coloured figures of the temple's characters - the Medicine Buddha, Tara and Guru Padmasambhava and the Five Wrathful Deities - located in Vajra Hall, make a powerful impression and the rest of the day passes in a kaleidoscope of swirling colours, stories and sounds.

On a steep stone staircase of 108 steps, devotees make prostrations during their ascent. Fischer described Mongol pilgrims 'crawling up all these steps in reverence'. Although there are more Tibetan than Mongol pilgrims today, the same air of reverence and tranquility remains.

Below Pusading, the expanse of the Xiantong Temple complex is impressive. This compound of more than 400 halls, pavilions and monks' quarters is the second largest in China, after the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and was built a year after the country's oldest, Henan's White Horse Temple. The head priest welcomes pilgrims and visitors with tea and a blessing.

The Tayuan Temple, home to the Great White Pagoda built by King Ashoka of India, incorporates a walking trail along which pilgrims circumambulate the compound, spinning trailside prayer wheels as they pass.

Another construction lauded by Unesco is Foguang Temple, built around the same time as Pusading. At one time it was the biggest and most popular temple on the mountain. However, during the mercifully brief reign of Emperor Wuzhong (AD845-AD847), Buddhism was outlawed, and nearly all of the temple's pavilions were destroyed. Reconstruction commenced in AD847, with the east main hall supplemented by the Manjusri Pavilion, with its outstanding collection of vibrant murals.

According to Unesco, Wutaishan's temples 'present a catalogue of the way Buddhist architecture developed and influenced palace building in China over more than one millennium'. It's a pretty impressive citation - and no visitor to Wutaishan should miss the new Expo Centre, with its displays of the mountain's geology and history, as well as a theatre showing documentaries in several languages, including English.

'Mount Wutai has successfully combined the worship of Buddha and Bodhisattvas with the worship of natural mountains and landscapes,' claims a display in the centre.

You cannot argue with that.

Getting there: Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) flies from Hong Kong to Beijing, from where China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com) runs a service to Taiyuan. Local trains run from the provincial capital to Wutaishan station, taking four hours, from where you can take a one-hour shuttle to Taihuai village. Alternatively, buses leave from Taiyuan's Wuyi Square and take about six hours to cover the 230 kilometres to the mountain. Private minibuses cover the same route (and are often slightly quicker) and depart from outside Taiyuan train station. Buses cost 20 yuan (HK$23) per person, one way.