Wu Tai Shan


“Today, at a temple on the side of a mountain, I felt compelled to walk through the falling snow across the frozen courtyard and give my gloves to a Buddhist monk. Have I had a spiritual experience? I have cold hands, I can tell you that much.”

Suffice to say, it’s been another weird week. It started with a strangely enjoyable journey. I don’t know exactly why the journey was enjoyable. The bare facts suggest it was Hell.

There’s no direct train from Shijiazhuang to Wutai Shan, so I had to get a ticket to Yuanping and then negotiate myself a ticket on a train from there. I didn’t care, this is the holy mountain range of northern Buddhism. It’s got scores of temples and monasteries all nestled around an elevated valley, surrounded by five mountain peaks. I wanted to see it!

Only a little over a week after Chinese New Year, the trains were insane and making use of China’s relaxed attitude towards health and safety to pack as many people on as possible.

I spent four and a half hours jammed in a corridor outside the toilet with people pushing their way past every minute or two.

When I got to Yuanping, I found the dialect is not too strong at all and I had no trouble getting a ticket on the next train to Wutai Shan; another hour and a half or so jammed in a passage, this time next to the hot water dispenser, jostled around by the endless queue of people clutching their instant noodles.

 

Golden Buddha, Wu Tai Shan

As the holy mountain of northern Buddhism, Wu Tai Shan's five peaks are littered with scores of temples and monasteries.

 

Somehow though, the Chinese people manage to make this a community experience.

As the only Westerner in who knows how many miles, even with my dodgy, limited Chinese, I was drawn into conversation again and again.

At Yuanping station, the guard had me tell him all about what I was doing in China and what my favourite Chinese foods were.

On the train the discussion, I think, was about how small they can make MP3 players these days.

I’m not sure what people were saying half the time and my answers, I’m sure, invariably didn’t make a jot of sense, but one thing you can guarantee getting around here is plenty of smiles and patience.

At about 8:30pm, I rolled off the train at Wutai Shan station, with the help of a student I had met on the train, since the stations on the local lines didn’t seem to have signs, as far as I could see.

I wandered out into a small, backwater town and, after an hour of lugging my backpack through empty, unlit streets devoid of anything more helpful than a stray dog, or a pile of burning rubbish (they do that, not sure why), having found myself at one point way out of town on an unlit dirt highway, getting buzzed by passing aggregates trucks, I found my way back to the station, where I met a man who told me I was in the wrong town.

It turns out that Wutai Shan train station is about 30 miles from Wutai Shan. I should have thought of that. How could you possibly get a train that high into the mountains?

So I went back to the train station and the guard told me I had to get the bus to Wutai Shan in the morning. He directed me to the cheapest hotel in town (there are two hotels – one on the left of the station, one on the right. The one on the left is the cheapest) and I bedded down for the night.

Head for the hills!

“I’d been expecting Wutai Shan to be a regular tourist trap, with all the facilities that come with it. In fact, we got kicked off the bus at a temple and I couldn’t see any actual town anywhere.”

The next morning, I caught the minibus that would take me into the mountains, just me, a few Buddhist monks, two sacks of vegetables, half a dozen of locals and … a guy who didn’t fit.

He was carrying an expensive camera, had his laptop out on the bus and seemed to have everyone around him in constant laughter.

Half way up the mountains, the bus began spewing oil and, as we waited to get going again, he introduced himself.

Huok, it turns out, is a Chinese travel journalist, but speaks some English, because he once worked for the International Hotel chain.

He was keen to practise. That was it, the rest of the journey, as we limped up the mountain trails, stopping every few minutes for the engine to cool, was taken up with Huok telling me how in England, football very popular, Beckham, very good, and so on.

Wu Tai Shan

Thanks to its inaccessibility, Wu Tai Shan escaped most of the purges of the Cultural Revolution.

He seemed to be relishing the opportunity to try his English, so we chatted like that for the rest of the trip. What I didn’t know at the time was how good this man was going to be to me.

The bus didn’t take us directly to Wutai Shan town, but went via a couple of temples first, a good opportunity for some sightseeing.

By now, all I’d had to eat in 24 hours was a bag of crisps I’d managed to buy at a late night mini-mart near my hotel the night before. I was amazed to find I wasn’t feeling any ill effects.

I’d been expecting Wutai Shan to be a regular tourist trap, with all the facilities that come with it.

In fact, we got kicked off the bus at a temple and I couldn’t see any actual town anywhere. Huok and his colleague, Li Hua, suggested we look around the temple, then get lunch, after which they would help me find my hotel.

I had my full rucksack on my back, which isn’t the best way to go sightseeing, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of looking around with a couple of professional travel journalists.

An hour and a half later and a little way down the road, we spilled into a little cafe and I was more than happy to drop my bag off my back. When the tomato and noodles arrived, I was in heaven.

After lunch, Huok and Li Hua had to go on to their next destination, but not before helping me find my hotel, which no one seemed to know about.

In the end, Li Hua called the hotel and got them to meet me and take me there.

But she didn’t stop there. She came with me, made sure I was sorted with a decent room and settled in before leaving. You can’t help being affected by kindness like that.

Labouring at Wu Tai Shan

Alongside the many monasteries up here, there is a sizeable lay population, who serve the monks and the modest pilgrim and tourist economy.

My hotel was cheap, and right next to the main monastery. The downside was that it had no apparent heating, no hot water and was based in a ramshackle group of breeze-block houses, behind a heap of rubbish where the children play.

I don’t care. The staff were the nicest people you’ll ever meet and even though my morning routine has been to run out of bed, wash as best I can , while running in circles under the cold shower, watching my breath hanging in the air, before shooting back under the covers to get my body temperature back up, I would still recommend it. It just seems right.

I later found the hotels are mostly some way to the south and some of them are pretty nice.

The next day, Huok texted me. They were at the famous West Lake and I was welcome to meet them, if I wanted to, but by then I was two-thirds of the way up a mountain peak. It was the first time in weeks I’d been able to get off a footpath or road into open countryside, away form the Chinese habit of regimenting everything. I was on my own, in the wilds and I was loving every second of it.

I don’t know why Huok and Li Hua went so far out of their way to help me, but they’re by no means the last people at Wutai Shan to leave me wondering that.

Random Acts of Kindness by Litter Louts

“It’s the kindness of the people here that messes with your head though. To them, I’m just another crazy foreigner travelling on his own, who probably has lots of money and definitely speaks terrible Chinese, but that’s not how they treat me.”

Let me tell you a little about Wutai Shan. It’s one of the sacred mountains of Buddhism and exists geographically as a giant basin surrounded by five mountain peaks. There are more temples here then you can count.

Alongside the monks is a lay population that serves the pilgrims and, I guess, tourists, though it being February and absolutely freezing outside, I am presently the only foreigner here.

To the South is a new looking set of buildings serving the newer hotels where the richer pilgrims stay. To the north, where the greatest concentration of temples is, stands the old town. It’s a ramshackle set of filthy mud alleyways and stray dogs.

As a result, I have a small, cold room with no hot water and a five foot high pile of rotting garbage outside, reducing the bridge it’s on to single-file foot traffic only, When people have waste, they just tip it on one side of the bridge entrance. No one cares.

The flipside is that, on the other side of the garbage pile, across the bridge, rises a magnificent Buddhist monastery. You go out for food, you end up chatting to a Buddhist monk on the trail. The folks in the south town can keep it. I like my garbage heap and my monks. Okay, I covet their hot showers, but I’m happy with my lot, is the point I’m making.

It’s the kindness of the people here that messes with your head though. To them, I’m just another crazy foreigner travelling on his own, who probably has lots of money and definitely speaks terrible Chinese, but that’s not how they treat me.

On my first night, I went to a cheap restaurant and ordered cheap food – hardly their best customer. The next time I went there, the waitress came running to the door to greet me, beaming, not because I’m foreign, but because I had chosen to return to their establishment.

Gazo Nimen Lama

His name is Gazo Nimen Lama and he was the only person on the whole mountain who spoke any English.

At another place, the meal came to Y25, I only had a bunch of 20s, so instead of giving me change, they insisted I only pay Y20. These are not rich people. It takes me forever to form a coherent sentence in Chinese and they often have to repeat themselves two or three times before I can understand them (sometimes, we just give up), yet people take the time to converse with me.

There’s something special about this place. That’s not to say there wasn’t a blazing row outside my room the other night. People are people, after all…

Actually, the complete lack of English spoken here has improved my Chinese no end. I’m understanding people quicker and getting much better at expressing myself with my limited vocabulary.

The only English I’ve spoken since saying goodbye to Huok was yesterday to a Tibetan Lama who learned it in India. That was weird! I was on top of a muntain in China, speaking English to a Tibetan with a broad Bombay accent. I was overwhelmed by how sweet he was and accidentally invited him to stay with us when he comes to England.

Baggy Trousers, Dirty Knees

“You can’t leave at moments like that, just because your bum’s gone numb. You’re drinking something in. It hides when you try to see what it is, but it’s damned good stuff.”

So it’s with all these experiences of people taking an interest in the wellbeing of other people that I set off up the who-knows-how-many steps to Dailuo Temple this morning. The weather had changed since my trek up the mountains on day one and now the snow was coming down.

An endless stream of pilgrims huffed up the steps through the fog and the prayer flags and the banners. Every few steps, you have to step over a monk or a pilgrim doing it the hard way.

As a sign of dedication, they’ll walk a step, raise their hands in prayer, then prostrate themselves face down on the stone steps, raise their hands behind their heads in prayer, then place them down on the stones, before getting up and taking the next step.

Snow day is not the day to do it. I’d have waited for a break in the weather, personally, but I guess that’s not the point.

Other monks will sweep and re-sweep every step on the way up (and there are hundreds!). Why? I’m not sure. They know that no matter how many times they clean the step, it will get dirty again, but they also know that, no matter how many times they step gets dirty, they can always clean it again.

The step is only consigned to dirtiness if they give up sweeping it. It’s a powerful metaphor of hope and one that reminds me of a similar relationship I have with the dirt on my camera lens.

Pilgrim, Wu Tai Shan

I met this pilgrim part way up the steps to the temple. Despite the now settling snow, he was cleanng every step on his way.

At the top, I looked at the temple and found myself thinking about my own Buddha beads. They were given to me years ago in Singapore. A monk just walked up to me in the street and handed them to me, no money requested. I still wear them around my neck, partly because I like them, but mainly because the experience of someone with nothing giving to a stranger and asking nothing in return left me with more questions than answers.

It somehow felt like I was doing that monk a service that, all those years after he performed that act of generosity, his beads had travelled the world to finally be brought to this sacred site. I chased after him that day in Singapore and pressed some money into his hand, but that was payment for the physical object; now I felt like I was finally somehow repaying him for the selfless act. On a more down to earth note, my calves hurt. Too much clmbing.

Inside the temple, I found a thinking place. I sat on a stone step with the snow coming down around me and the chanting of the monks inside washing around the courtyard. Despite the cold, I didn’t want to leave. Despite the chanting, it seemed a perfect silence. Despite myself, I had no problems.

You can’t leave at moments like that, just because your bum’s gone numb. You’re drinking something in. It hides when you try to see what it is, but it’s damned good stuff.

I watched monks make their steady, inching progress through the snow to the altarpiece, step, raise hands, lie in the snow, raise hands, lay hands in the snow, stand up, step …

After reaching the altar and saying their final prayers, two of the monks sat on the step near me, the fronts of their baggy cloth trousers dark with mud and melted snow, their hands red after hour upon hour pressing into snow covered stones.

So yes, I gave away my gloves.

What does it mean? It means that by the time they got down from the temple, the monks had warmer hands than I did, but that doesn’t matter. Huok and Li Hua went out of their way to help a stranger, people give their smiles and their time to make a lone foreigner feel welcome, some odd looking guy in a leather jacket gave his gloves to men with cold hands.

It’s just what you’ve got to do. No thanks required, no revelation, just a reminder not to miss the opportunities when they come.

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