I suspected things would be alright when the honeydew was brought out. I was an hour into the first day of hiking Wutaishan, North China’s highest point, and had followed the advice of a grinning old man, who had pointed straight up a peak and told us it was a shortcut. He was correct, in the way that using a hammer to cut up an apple is also a shortcut (our calves were the apple). It was 7am.
Wutaishan — five terrace mountain — is one of China's four holy mountains of Buddhism, a site of pilgrimage and worship for over a thousand years. (The others are Jiuhuashan, Putuoshan, and Emeishan.) It is believed to have been the home of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and is now a place where you can hike for days among grazing cows and horses, sleep in temples, and dine in silence with monks.
Rising out of the Taihang mountain range, Wutaishan takes its name from the five temples atop the five peaks of the mountain, and nearly 50 other temple dot the slopes and valleys below. It is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the parlance of national tourism planners, a AAAAA-rated national scenic area.
The sun was beating down and I still couldn't see the first peak when I ran into a group of modern-day pilgrims making their way down the mountain. They were sitting on the hillside, chatting and snacking, as they told me they were from Tibet, and then clarified, actually Melbourne, and passed around melon slices, chocolate and dried cherries, that morning's parting gifts from the monks. They had been hiking for four days, and had one last temple to find before returning to town.
"A Mi Tuo Fo" they told me as we parted, a prayer of good luck I’d hear constantly over the next few days.
I had started the hike from the town of Taihuai (台怀镇), the center of commercial activity on Wutaishan. All travelers to the mountain will invariably pass through Taihuai, either to book a van ride up, or prepare to ascend by foot. The van rides can be booked to any of the five terraces for between 50-100rmb, depending on your destination, or for a full day's journey to each peak for 300-400rmb. They leave continuously throughout the morning from the large parking lot at Dailuo Ding (黛螺顶). While I hiked straight from Taihuai, you can cut down on travel by booking a ride to any of the terraces and starting out on foot from there.
Unless you arrive in the very early morning, you probably want to stay in Taihuai overnight and begin your ascent the following day. Luckily, the town has dozens of hotels, and a commensurate numbers of salesman pressing you with shouts of binguan. Airbnb or Ctrip work just as well to find someplace to crash for 120rmb a night.
Besides hotels and temples, Taihuai also has numerous small grocery stores, shops selling Buddhist goods, restaurants, and temples. A local bus runs up and down the main valley road. The vegetarian lunch buffet for 38rmb inside the Pu Hua temple (普化神寺) was particularly delicious. The grocery stores were minimal but had enough supplies to assemble a makeshift snack bag for the hike.
From Taihuai, I hiked the mountain counter-clockwise, the recommended route. This took me to the East Terrace, then to the North Terrace, Central Terrace, and West Terrace, around 30km on the first day. This was a breakneck pace; I now have a mild case of tendonitis in my Achilles tendon.
Of the first day's temples, the East Terrace resembled a ziggurat on Tatooine, the North Terrace was half under construction, and by the time I reached the West Terrace, my sleeping place for the night, I was too exhausted to recall a comparison.
Half the route lies over a mountain dirt road, and the other half is spent following a route of stone pillars through fields of cows and horses. Mountain tops stretch far into the distance (although the poor air quality obscures what could be a stupendous view).
But more than the temples and scenery, it is the fellow hikers that make the journey worthwhile. Some are seriously geared-up, looking like they mugged a sports store mannequin, while others seemed to be happy plodding along in tennis shoes and pink visors. The occasional grey jacketed shepherd looked over his flock, and one young guy in an impossibly cool sheepskin coat hopped off his motorcycle to take a selfie with me.
Everyone was happy to exchange pleasantries, an attitude bred out of the shared suffering of walking up and down hills, as well as a Buddhist-on-a-holy-mountain-pilgrimage type of existential contentment.
One feature of Wutaishan is the number of hikers undertaking san bu yi bai — three steps and then a prayer — where they prostate themselves on their knees every three steps along the trail. This a practice more associated with Tibetan Buddhism than mainstream Chinese, and makes the average hiker feel particularly inadequate in their fatigue.
On the second day, I hiked from the West Terrace to the South Terrace, and then back down to Taihuai (another 30km). This route wound down the mountain road past the Lion's Lair temple all the way to the Jinge Temple, a silent stone courtyard surrounded by prayer rooms, some of them dating back to the Tang Dynasty.
From Jinge I passed by the village of Da Nan Zhuang, close to the valley floor, then back up the mountain through a shaded forest trail marked by Buddhist prayer flags. By the time I reached the South Terrace, I was feeling the strain of five peaks over two days and the half-delirious euphoria of a journey completed.
I had been informed by our hotel owners that I could probably catch a van back down to Taihuai from the South Terrace, or alternately negotiate with a vendor for a black taxi. Well, the van drivers said they were all booked up, and the guy selling roasted sweet potatoes began his taxi negotiation at 500rmb, so off I went on foot down the mountain.
By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs descending from Fo Mu Dong (Buddha's Mother Cave), I was finally back in the land of reasonably priced taxis, and paid someone 50 rmb to take me back to the hotel.
Sleeping on the mountain
Going in, the biggest worry was that the temples would not accommodate foreigners overnight. This seemed to not be a problem. A monk at the West Terrace, where I slept, did momentarily look at my passport with a cocked head, but dutifully recorded my name in the guest book. The setting was magical, a deep red barn perched aside a mountain top, but that night was one of the worst nights of sleep I have ever had.
Around 30 men were housed in a dormitory bulging with body heat and stinking of sweat, with an overhead light that was never turned off. I slept on the upper level of a dozen welded together bunk beds that shook whenever anyone moved (the group of Gansu monks bedded next to me had no qualms about getting up in the middle of the night) and come the 5am sunrise, the dormitory erupted in morning routine.
Meals at the temples, however, were a mystical experience. The resident monks lined up on single file benches on one side of the hall, and travelers on the other. You are told where to sit when you enter, and silence is required during meal times.
The meal begins with a prayer, followed by monks walking around and serving noodles and soups and mantou into each person's bowl. The 6am breakfast followed the same routine, complete with an ambrosial honey cake. Seconds were not served. No money was ever asked for, either for the bed or meal, but a donation box sits in the middle of the dining hall, and you should pay up, lest you risk the wrath of Buddha.
By local accounts, any type of guest is welcome to stay for up to seven nights at the Central Terrace, West Terrace, East Terrace, or Lion's Lair Temple. While the other temples did have signs for guest halls, these are reserved for monks. If you are planning to eat dinner at the temples, make sure you arrive before 6pm.
What to Bring
The weather on Wutaishan is cooler than average. In June, shorts and a t-shirt were okay for most of the hiking, but pants and a long sleeve shirt were necessary when the wind picked up and in the early morning hours. The weather atop the mountain can be unpredictable, so rain gear is also a good idea.
Despite the seemingly SPF 100-level quality of the Shanxi air, sunblock is necessary. The mountain road gets dusty when vans drive by, so a mask or bandana to cover your face is advisable. Every temple I passed had free hot water available to hikers, so bring water bottles. There are also people selling basic snacks and drinks outside the five terraces, but these are many hours apart, so bring your own supply as well.
How to Get There
Wutaishan is best reached by bus from Taiyuan's Dong Ke Zhan station (3 hours, 80 rmb; 太原东客站). This is different from Taiyuan Keyun Dong Zhan (太原汽车客运东站). While there is a train station under the name of Wutaishan, this is located in the town of Shahe, over an hour away. Flights to Taiyuan on various platforms are about 1,600-1,800rmb round trip including taxes and fees. From the airport to Dong Ke Zhan, a taxi is about 30 minutes. Airport bus number 4 also connects the two.
Buses from Taiyuan will drop you off at Taihuai directly, and the frequent return buses can be boarded here as well. You may want to book your return ticket in advance; my preferred morning bus was sold out when I arrived at the station.
The scenic area requires a ticket to enter, which costs 168rmb during peak season (April-October). This ticket is good for three days of re-entry. Some of the hiking routes near the South Terrace actually take you out of the ticketed area, and you pass a check point on the road back in, so hold on to your ticket and make sure you complete this portion of the hiking within these three days. There were no ticket checks upon leaving, so you can stay in Taihuai or on the mountain well past the three days.
Hotels in Taihuai started at 100rmb for single rooms. Restaurant prices in Taihuai are perhaps a bit inflated, but not nearly to the level of other tourist areas in China, and prices in the grocery store seemed to be standard. The lunch buffet at Puhua temple was an excellent deal at 38rmb.