The road up to our hotel, high on Mount Wutai, was a whole town, with hotpot restaurants and souvenirs and print shops, consumerism nestling comfortably in the valleys of a great natural mountain. It seemed thousands of people live here at the bottom of this mountain (monks or otherwise!) and only a faithful few would make daily prayers at the most sacred temples in Shanxi Province. Mount Wutai (Five Plateau Mountain) is one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China, in other words it has been an imperial pilgrimage site for ages past.

We were due to hike up,, but were somewhat inhibited by torrents of rain that soaked the afternoon, so we went straight to the sites we’d come for. The first wasYouguo Temple, where narrow balconies enclosed a small quadrangle of prayer rooms, study rooms and shrine rooms, too similar to other Buddhist temples I had come across. My spirits became as damp as my clothes as we darted between the covered corridors to stay as dry as possible, and  I felt thankful we only really had time for a quick look. That was until we reached the exit. Suddenly, a strong breeze drenched my face and the claustrophobic corridors became a sheer flight of slippery marble steps plunging downwards into the valley below. Beneath scopic hills, the roofs of several holy temples and the White Pagoda of Wutai Mountain looked meekly up at me. To the left and to the right, the rumps of low clouds settled on rocky outcrops and rainy fog swept over the whole scene. (Silly me, I lost the photo that I took so you’ll have to imagine it!) I could have looked a little longer, had I not been jostled out of the way by two old ladies with pink anoraks…

I don't have many pictures of Wutai myself so this one is credited to @rdinbj (Instagram)
I don’t have many pictures of Wutai myself so this one is credited to @rdinbj (Instagram)

Mt-Wutai-2Youguo

I was being beckoned by one of the group, so I started the steep climb down the steps, hoping that I wouldn’t have to slide half the way. Thus, we reached the second temple. Xiantong Temple. I suppose it were almost as interesting as the first temple really, except that the traditional buildings were mixed up with the added grandeur of gold plated pagodas and miniature towers. Here, the rooms did not seem to have any particular order. Shrines, staircases and cells were thrown together as if the architect were desperate to fill up every available space.On the four corners of every roof, a small parade of animals had been carved. It is not uncommon to see dragons, birds, or lions stand proudly atop a pagoda, but I was surprised at this temple to find only horses. Why horses?

WP_20150717_006Youguo temple

We visited one or two other spots on the way down, but they were so unremarkable I can hardly bear to talk about them! There was one shrine which was particularly lavish, and it seemed to be filled with hundreds and hundreds of gold ornaments, and plenty of fresh fruit. The wealth of the Buddhists who had inhabited this temple was, as always, very obvious. We commented on the nature of modern Chinese Buddhism, a religion which strives for independence from material objects, but gathers so many riches.

One last observation: I saw a fight between two monks! The two holy men nearly came to blows, had a third man not come to stop them. I asked oneguide why they were fighting, and she claimed that one monk had stolen the other monk’s chair! That made me laugh, until another tour guide told me that the little he’d heard suggested the monks were of two different sectors of Buddhism…

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