Saturday, December 14, 2013

Climbing Mount WuTai (WuTai Shan), the holiest buddhist mountain in mainland China

In July of this year, while living in Beijing, I took a night train from Beijing to WuTai Shan railway station in Shanxi province, and then took a bus up to the mountain. Once you get-off the train and exit the terminal, it's easy to know what bus you take, because there'll probably be more or less pilgrims also going to climb the mountain as well (unless you are wanting to climb in Winter, which would be a risky feat, being the temperatures at night sometimes below -30 degrees Celsius).

According to the Tibetans, Wutai Mountain is also the mountain where the buddhist god that is represented by the Chinese emperor lived. Tibet had been for many centuries a Chinese protectorate, and so they revered and prayed for the Chinese emperor. And this mountain was seen as the most sacred one inside the Chinese territory.

China follows the Mahayana tradition of buddhism. One of the interesting things to know about WuTai Shan is that it was one of the few holy places that remained virtually untouched by the destruction spree during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. That was probably because of the inaccessibility at that time. Mt. Wutai is home to Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, who is one of the Four Great Bodhisattvas.

Having taken the train on Friday evening, we arrived at WuTai train station Saturday morning, at around 5 AM or so. At around 5 30 AM we climbed on the bus that would take us to the mountain. The bus was packed with tourists, most of them Chinese. As soon as we reached Mount WuTai base-camp, about 60 km. away from them railway station, we begin our ascent.

In total there are five peaks. The preferred way to do the pilgrimage if you follow the buddhist tradition would be clockwise, because counterclockwise would be inappropriate per tradition since it's a pilgrimage destination to a holy mountain. But anybody is free to clim as he pleases. My friends and I climbed counterclockwise inadvertently, with not more than just one questioning to one of my Chinese friends as to why she had done it counterclockwise if she was a buddhist.

I think the first peak we climbed was the North-peak. Being one of buddhism's holy mountain, you will find a monastery and at at least one temple on each peak. But you will also find more along the way. The truth is that WuTai Shan is packed with buddhist shrines, temples and monasteries, both new and old. And there were even some more in construction at the time I went there.

The total circuit was about 55 km. on foot, which we did on between Saturday and Sunday. Some walks are along a paved road, but most of on the grass, earth and rocks. At some very few points there will be checkpoints where they will try to charge a fee. But the fee should not be charged to pilgrims that are on foot. So, if somebody asks for a fee, you just have to specify that you are doing a pilgrimage (use the word "pilgrimage" instead of "tourism") on foot, so you shouldn't be required to pay. You may be requested to show your passport or ID and that's all.

Along the way you will meet countless pilgrims (locals) that will be bowing on their knees or even bowing with their body fully on the floor every three steps, or every six or seven steps, depending on the case. These pilgrims are wearing protection on their knees in order to protect themselves, because many of them come from as far as their hometown doing the full bow every three or six steps, until they finish the whole pilgrimage around the mountain. It obviously takes them several days or weeks to finish, and along the way they usually rely on other pilgrim's charity for a minimum of food and water. To add a heavy backpack to their shoulders to that penance would be perhaps too demanding.

Being a destination for pilgrimage, the monasteries usually take pilgrims to lodge there for free in a simple dormitory as long as they leave early next morning to resume their pilgrimage. Obviously men and women stay in different quarter. But the monastery's kindness even extends to offering dinner and breakfast to the pilgrims. It's a kind thing to do to leave a donation before you leave. Also, any soap, detergent, or kitchen utensil that you could donate would be highly valued at the monastery, no matter how old, broken or used it can be.

While staying at any of the monasteries don't expect a shower up there. Even the toilets are as bad as they can get. I mean, just a roof and low walls, where you have to squat among others and all the shit, piss and paper accumulates at the bottom of the whole (everything fall in the wild) for eternity. So, the view is quite abominable. But you are lucky if you go early enough to get some privacy.

The most amazing cloud-formations I've seen during my two and a half years in China was at dawn, at the monastery we stayed. But I don't remember on what peak that was. I guess it was the East peak, because the sunrise was impressive despite of (or perhaps mainly because of) the cloud formations that covered everything around you in a thick fog that would disappear 5 or 10 minutes after.

After we were back in the city, it was still early enough to visit the city's main temple (the city is very famous in China because of it's beautiful temples, many of which are quite old). But this temple we visited, which was along the main road before reaching the downtown area, was on a hill, and to reach the temple (or monastery) you had to climb 1080 or 1088 steps (108 is an important number in buddhism; that's why the rosaries have 108 beads). It was amazing to still see the same kind of pilgrims climbing on their knees and bowing flat on the floor (or on the steps) every so many steps.

You can also take the cable-cart up to the top, but it's more fun if you climb on foot. The climb is worthwhile, and the monastery on the top is really outstanding (not just one more Chinese temple). We were in time to see the 6 PM Puja (ritual) before the temple was closed.

I have to remark me experience going to the public toilets up there in the monastery. That was the nastiest toilet I've been to in my life! Not because of what you saw or the dirt, because at some point nothing can get worse; and living and traveling around Asia you get used dirty toilets. But here the stench just punched you in the face. I thank God I didn't start to bleed as soon as that otherworldly concentration of ammonia almost knocked me down. I insisted one of my girlfriends to go to the ladies and tell me if that wasn't worse than her worst experience near the frontier with Tibet, and she said it was.

Back in the city we took went in a hired car to the train station to take our sleeper back to Beijing.

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