For a few magic minutes time stood still. A full moon illuminated the pond where a gaggle of Buddhist nuns were lighting candles and carefully balancing them upon enormous, floating lotus leaves. Overhanging red lanterns left their reflections suspended in the water. Occasionally, a well- fed golden carp broke the silky smooth surface and then, with a swish of its tail and a plop, disappeared into the murky depths again.
This is the China we imagine when we close our eyes. The China we see on ancient scroll paintings, the China that we hope to find, but so seldom do. Was I dreaming? Well, not exactly. This was Jiǔhuá Shān in late September 2001, serene and so peaceful after the mayhem of Huang Shān. We remained transfixed by the moment, for how long? I don’t know. And then, out of the night came the shrill sound of laughter, and in the distance the local guitar- playing and folk-singing busker started up again. The nuns slipped out of sight through the temple gate, a cloud crossed the moon and the light from the candles paled. In short, the spell broke and we found ourselves again in 21st Century China.
A bit of history: Jiǔhuá Shān is one of the four sacred mountains for Chinese Buddhists, together with Eméi Shān, Pǔtuó Shān and Wǔtái Shān. Set in a beautiful area of southern Anhui province, Jiǔhuá Shān offers the traveller some rare moments of rural bliss and the chance to witness the Chinese at their most spiritual, as well as the many Japanese and Korean pilgrims.
Especially the latter, as it was a Korean monk, Kim Kiao Kak, who made the mountain famous. Kim Kiao Kak travelled to Jiǔhuá Shān from the Silla Kingdom in the 8th Century and meditated for 75 years. He was then, posthumously declared to be the reincarnation of Dizang, the Bodhissatva of Hell (or Lord of the underworld, 大願地藏菩萨). This is why one of the main reasons pilgrims come to Jiǔhuá Shān is to pray for the safe passage of their recently departed loved ones to the Buddhist Heaven.
There are numerous temples in and around the main town. Some are ancient and atmospheric, with beautiful statues of Louhan or Arhats, (Buddhists who have attained Nirvana). Others are new, or in the process of being restored; a sure sign that Buddhism is flourishing again in modern China.
For part of the day the temples are a hive of activity: monks chant and circle the patios, worshippers bow reverently to the beat of a gong, pilgrims from all over burn incense and stuff their hard earned Yuan into the collection boxes; all under the gaze of the images of Dizang and other deities. But there are times when the hubbub dies down, the monks retire to their quarters, the pilgrims go for lunch, and the temples become all yours.
Zhīyuán and Huàchéng Sì are two of the main temples in town and well worth a visit, though there are many others you might like to explore.
The town (more of a large village) is spread out along Jiǔhuájiē, the main street. Apart from temples, there are numerous small restaurants, some shops and stalls selling religious paraphernalia and small, family- run hotels. Recently, I have heard that larger hotel constructions have gone up, to cater for a boom in tourism. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that the bucolic essence of the area won’t be compromised by their presence.
Climbing Jiǔhuá Shān
We spent several days just chilling out, popping into monasteries and soaking up the atmosphere. However, one hard day awaits all who visit Jiǔhuá Shān: the assault on the peaks that give the place its name, and the beautiful temples on the summit.
The hike begins as soon as you leave town. A 30-minute climb through thick bamboo forests takes you to a ridge, which affords great views of the peaks and the glinting gold of the temple roofs. Here, you can have a rest at the interesting Bǎisuì Gōng, or Palace of Longevity, which holds the embalmed remains of the monk Wu Xia.
From the ridge you drop into a valley, cross a river and then enter a jaw-droppingly picturesque village. The village, made up of ancient Chinese farm houses, has a real lost-world feel to it, though it also boasts a few decent restaurants that serve a fantastic cold beer.
From this point onwards, the climb to the summit is a hard slog. You pass several temples and nunneries on the way, where porters, if they are awake, will offer to carry you up on bamboo stretchers. Most were sleeping when we approached and never noticed our presence as we tip- toed past.
The summit allows you to take in the wonderful landscape and appreciate the stunning Tiāntái Sì temple with its 10,000 Buddha hall. However, for us the highlight of our visit was an encounter with a jovial young monk from Shenyang.
He latched on to us in what seemed to be an attempt to learn English in a day. He asked me a word in Chinese, I gave him the English equivalent, he then wrote the word down phonetically with Chinese characters. His pronunciation varied from the surprisingly good to the absolutely abominable. Given his jolly, sociable character, we were absolutely stunned when he told us that he had been living alone in a cave near the summit for the last 4 years! He followed a strictly vegetarian diet and seemed totally shocked when a young couple from Suzhou – tourists we had also bumped into by chance – tried to convince him of the delights of eating the innards and entrails of different animals in a variety of cooking styles.
The monk took us and the Suzhou couple on a tour of the summit area to see the various view points. Later he accompanied us down the mountain, pen and note book in hand. By the time we reached the bottom, our monk probably had half the English Oxford Dictionary phonetically written down in Chinese. As he scampered off, back up the mountain, we could still hear him reading out aloud, practising his vocabulary…
Coming and Going:
All transport to/from Jiǔhuá Shān is by bus. We arrived in Jiǔhuá Shān from Huáng Shān. It’s a lovely ride which should take 3 hours, though it took us longer due to a break- down. We left Jiǔhuá Shān again on a morning bus to Nanjing. The journey took more than six hours, because of massive road works, but should take no more than 3 to 3-and-a-half hours these days.
We got off the bus and were approached by a local family who ran a nice Chinese guest house. Unfortunately we don’t remember the name, but it was right next to the pond towards the end of the village. The rooms were light, airy, clean and cheap. There are many other similar guest houses in the village, as well as a wide range of hotels, from basic to expensive.
In 2001, the dining options in town were fairly limited. We found a great veggie dumpling place on the main street, and spent most of our evenings in a bar cum restaurant with a garden, which specialised in spicy river crabs and snails. It would have been heaven, but for the crap local singer who made the rounds of the tables. Though, it has to be said, by the end we had even taken a liking to him. The best food we had was in the village, halfway up to the summit of Jiǔhuá Shān.
A final request:
This article is based on our diary and recollections from a visit in 2001. If you have been to Jiǔhuá Shān recently and found it very different from how I have described it here, do leave a comment, please!