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Around The Mountains

One of the delights of Taihuai Village is the variety of people it attracts. Nuns, monks, and lamas from different orders and from all over China, Japan, Nepal, and Thailand come to Wutai Shan in the summer -- some to climb the five terraces, others to simply take part in the many temple activities. The mountain also has a special religious significance for Tibetan Buddhists and so attracts Tibetan monks, nuns, and laypeople from all over China. Ask around and you will usually learn of some mass gathering in one or another of the temples. Alms meals (dazhai) for the nuns and monks (paid for by wealthy patrons to amass good karma) take place frequently all summer. Observers are welcome as long as you're quiet and very discreet with cameras.

Temples in Taihuai

There are close to a dozen temples in the small town of Taihuai Zhen. West of town, next to the bell tower, Xiantong Si is the largest and one of the oldest of the temples at Wutai Shan. It was first built in A.D. 68; the surviving halls date from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Climb the belfry for a commanding view of the town and mountains. Also be sure to visit the Tong Dian (Bronze Hall), lined with thousands of miniature statues said to symbolize the myriad bodhisattvas to whom Manjusri read the Buddhist scriptures while he lived on Wutai Shan. The bronze roof and outside structures are remarkable for their flawless imitation of timber construction and wood design.

A 5-minute walk south of Xiantong Si is Tayuan Si, easily recognized by its tall white pagoda which dominates Taihuai's skyline and has become the symbol of Wutai Shan. A smaller pagoda is said to contain strands of Manjusri's hair. Equally famed is the two-story Sutra Library in Tayuan Si. At its center is a revolving wooden bookcase that dates from the Ming dynasty. Now empty and unable to turn, it once held more than 20,000 volumes of Buddhist scriptures, written in Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan. Admission to temples is generally ¥3 to ¥6; open 7am to 6pm or later.

Mountain Temples

The temples on the mountains are generally of less note than those in town, but two of the most famous are Nan Shan Si and Longquan Si. The former is 2km (1 1/4 miles) south of Taihuai Zhen. Longquan Temple is another 2km (1 1/4 miles) in the same direction, so they are easily visited together and, within a few hours, can be done on foot. Like several of Wutai's temples, they claim 108 stairs leading to the entrance gate. Though none of them seem to have exactly that number, the point is that the steps represent the 108 worries (or delusions) of mankind. With each step a worry is cast off, so that by the time visitors reach the gate, you are cleansed with sweat and worry-free. A variation on the theme equates the silent and earnest counting of each stone stair with the meditative chanting of the Buddhist rosary (of 108 beads). With every step, the pilgrim has a chance to reach a pure land, free of temptations and defilements.

Founded in the Later Liang dynasty (907-23) and rebuilt in 1937 on seven terraced levels, Nan Shan Si is one of Wutai Shan's largest temples. Visitors come to see its 18 superb clay arhats (enlightened disciples) in the Hall of the Great Buddha (Dafo Dian) -- the sleeping arhat is considered the best for its lifelike posture and craftsmanship. In the same hall, to the right of the large gilded Sakyamuni, look for the white marble statue of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) holding a plump baby boy on her knee. Worshippers bring offerings to her in hopes of male offspring.

Located at the foot of Wutai Shan's central peak, Longquan Si or Dragon Spring Temple has three courtyards connected to one another by moon-shaped gates. The main halls can be found in the east courtyard. At the front, the Hall of Celestial Kings (Tian Wang Dian) houses, among others, the Buddha with a Cloth Sack (Budai Fo). This rotund Buddha with an exposed potbelly was a Tang dynasty monk who -- with his walking stick and sack of worldly belongings -- roamed from place to place carefree and begging. He had in his favor the gift of predicting the future and forecasting the weather, and was believed to be an incarnation of Maitreya, the Future Buddha. A purely Chinese creation, he only appears in temples built after the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The stupa in the central courtyard contains the remains of Puji, the abbot of Nan Shan Temple who died in 1917 believing he, too, was an incarnation of Maitreya. The four images on the sides of the stupa are of Puji/Maitreya at different ages.

Temples Below

Two of only three Tang dynasty (618-907) wooden buildings still standing in China -- Nanchan Si and Foguang Si -- are located between Wutai Shan and Taiyuan. With 120km (75 miles) separating them, visiting both in 1 day is best done en route from one town to the other rather than as a day trip from either point. A taxi between Taiyuan and Taihuai Village that includes stops at both temples costs ¥600 to ¥800. A day trip from Taihuai Village to both temples and back costs ¥400. Allow 6 to 7 hours for the round-trip. Buses to Taiyuan pass the turnoffs to these temples, and those with light luggage can hop off and negotiate with waiting taxis for each side trip.

Nanchan Si (Temple of Southern Meditation) -- About 177km (110 miles) south of Wutai Shan, turning west off the main road to Taiyuan, a dusty loess road leads to this tranquil ancient temple. It's said that this temple escaped the great Tang persecution of Buddhism in 845 because it was so far from the assemblage of temples on Wutai Shan. Today, its small, perfectly proportioned main hall, Dafo Dian (Hall of the Great Buddha), is reason enough to make the trip. Built in 782, the wooden-frame building has been much restored, but -- unlike the other halls in this complex, which are distinctly of Ming and Qing design -- it has retained its original proportions and graceful Tang design. Features to notice are its gently sloping roof, markedly different from the steep gabled roofs of the previous Northern Wei and Sui dynasties. Along the main roof ridge, the pre-Ming ornaments that curl toward each other are called chiwei, meaning "owl tails." The word refers to a mythical sea monster -- one of the sons of the dragon -- believed to protect against fire. Inside the hall are 17 Tang dynasty painted clay statues stationed around the large figure of Sakyamuni. The large statue in the far left corner is Manjusri riding a lion.

Foguang Si (Temple of Buddha's Light) -- The temple is 35km (22 miles) south of Taihuai Village. First built during the Northern Wei dynasty when Buddhism was the official religion, it had greatly expanded by the time it fell victim to the Tang anti-Buddhist campaign of 845. After its total destruction, it was rebuilt 12 years later with the help of a female benefactor named Ning Gongyu. The one hall associated with her, Dong Dadian (Eastern Great Hall), survives today. Like the Nanchan's Hall of the Great Buddha, it is the only Tang-style building amid a cluster of mostly Ming and Qing dynasty halls.

To get to the Eastern Great Hall, follow the cobblestone path through the first courtyard. This leads through a deep archway similar to a city-wall gate, followed by a steep stone staircase. The statues, calligraphy, and wall paintings within are from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, while the 296 arhats (enlightened disciples) on either side -- remainder of the original 500 -- date to the Ming. Note the more elaborate bracketing, double roofs, and ridge ornaments of this hall compared with the simple elegance of Nanchan Si.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.