We had spent several hours in a cramped minibus winding up the mountains. When we finally reached the pass of the mountain, the Wutaishan (五台山) valley lay before us. A group of Buddhist fellow travellers got off the bus to climb to the temple at Yedou peak, one of the five holy mountains after which the area is named.
Wutaishan is one of China’s sacred Buddhist mountain ranges. More than 100 temples, most of them Lamaist, are scattered across the area. Because of the remoteness of the region, they have survived the cultural revolution nearly intact.
Mountains for a Buddhist pilgrimage
The temples with their strings of colourful prayer flags, their photographs of important Lamas and their prayer wheels were beautiful, but it was the atmosphere that got us. Taihua, where we stayed, is a small tourist village in the centre of the Wutaishan valley. Nearly every house was a restaurant, souvenir shop, or lodging. Apart from a few Western and some more Chinese tourists, their customers included scores of monks and nuns belonging to various Buddhist sects.
During the day we saw them eagerly touring the temples, praying and chanting. Some ran clockwise around the white stupa containing Buddha’s relics or approached a mountain temple in the slow traditional pilgrim’s way of kneeling and stretching out on every third step.
In the afternoon and evening, however, they had some time off. Then they went shopping around for religious goods in their vivid robes (red, orange, yellow, grey or brown, depending on the sect). Like the other tourists they had an ice-cream or a Coca Cola and showed off their new sunglasses and sunhats. Once we saw a nun ringing the various models of prayer bells in a shop, trying to find the ideal one for her.
Hiking like a Buddhist in the Wutaishan mountains
A group of about 10 young Tibetan monks stayed at the same hostel as we did. All of them were very curious about foreign countries and we regretted our poor Chinese. We went off hiking in the surrounding hills for a day. Although the mountains are not that high, there were few trees but many alpine flowers, including Enzian and some sort of Edelweiss (at least we think so). Cows were mowing on the green meadows. None of the paths was clearly marked. Some just disappeared somewhere in the pastures, but occasional stone heaps and scarlet cloths in the bushes indicated that these were also used by pilgrims. So we were again on a Buddhist pilgrims’ route!