Sometimes, life as a Beijinger can get pretty stressful. When city life starts to take its toll, take a culture-infused break at Wutai Shan (also known as Mount Wutai). Located in northeastern Shanxi Province, Wutai Shan is the oldest of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism and is also home to Wenshu (文殊), the bodhisattva of wisdom.
Day One: Wandering Wutai
When you first arrive at Wutai Shan, you will find yourself in Taihuai
(台怀), a bustling town located in the valley below the mountain’s five peaks. Here, you can find numerous hotels and restaurants. Yizhan Mingdeng (一盏明灯) features a wide array of vegetarian dishes that emulate the taste and texture of meat. Since Wutai Shan is a Buddhist site, meat dishes can be difficult to find. If you absolutely cannot survive the weekend without meat, don’t despair; many of the area’s back streets feature restaurants that cater to more carnivorous appetites.
After eating your fill, visit some of the temples located around the base of the mountain. While many of the temples are free, some have an admission fee of around RMB 10. Prominent temples include Luohou Si (罗喉寺), a temple with a marked Tibetan Buddhist influence, Tayuan Si (塔院寺), which features numerous Buddhist artifacts, and Xiantong Si (显通寺).
After exploring the base of the mountain, it’s time for something more exhilarating. If you like a challenge, why not climb the 1,080 steps from Dailuoding to Wenshu Temple? In the past, pilgrims that were unable to visit all of Wutai Shan’s five peaks sometimes chose to journey up this enormous flight of steps instead. Now, you’re just as likely to see tourists as pilgrims climbing the steps. The faithful prostrate themselves on the ground as tourists snap pictures of them and shopkeepers hawk their wares on the sides.
Commercialization is not a huge problem at Wutai Shan, but don’t be surprised to see the occasional begging monk, dancing monkey, or caged fluffy animal. Although some of these monks may be genuine, the majority are imposters. As for the caged animals, that’s a bit more complicated; in Buddhist culture, there is an emphasis on freeing animals from confinement due to the belief in reincarnation. As a result, enterprising people catch animals and charge visitors to free them.
Once you get to Wenshu Temple, you will smell the sweet scent of incense and find yourself surrounded by monks clad in robes of crimson, gold, and grey. There is also a bathroom here, just in case your 1,080-step journey has left you feeling uncomfortable. Take time to admire the scenery, then return to the base of the mountain and grab some dinner in Taihuai.
Day Two: Hiking Trails (and Tales)
On your second day in Wutai Shan, eschew the more touristy sites in favor of hiking one or more of the five mountain peaks. Inexperienced hikers should hire a guide. The most difficult is the North Peak (北台), followed by the East (东台) and West Peaks (西台), Middle Peak (中台), and South Peak (南台). For families with younger kids, cable cars carry visitors to each of the peaks from the foot of Dailuo Peak in the center of Taihuai.
Although the East Peak is not the most difficult of the five peaks to climb, it is by no means an easy stroll. There is no real path to speak of; with the exception of livestock and the occasional shepherd, it’s just you and the mountain. Ultimately, hiking up the peak is a rewarding experience and enables you to avoid the tourists milling about Wenshu Temple and the base of the mountain.
Alternatively, the South Peak features a well-marked trail and is suitable for ages 10 and up. There is also the option of walking the nearby road to the top of the peak; no hiking is required, but this path takes a good deal longer. Bathrooms at the peaks are few and far between, so you’ll have to hold it until the next temple if you’re averse to squatting behind a tree. When toilets are available, they’re smelly and of the squat variety.
Before heading home, visit the market stalls around Shuxiang Si (殊像寺) to buy some souvenirs. You’ll find an assortment of Buddhist paraphernalia, from prayer beads to Buddha statues. Dried fruit is also available, but be sure to ask the shop owner if you can sample some first; some stalls simply have fresher products than others.
All in all, Wutai Shan is an amazing place. It comes as no surprise that pilgrims have come here for hundreds of years to meditate on the meaning of life. Hopefully, when your family’s stay at Wenshu’s place of power is over, you too will come away with something that wasn’t there before.
RMB 140 (Nov 1-Mar 31), RMB 168 (Apr 1-Oct 31), half price for
students with ID. All visitors must also pay a compulsory RMB 50 “green coach” fee. Daily 6.30am-8pm. Wutai County, Xinzhou, Shanxi Province 山西省忻州市五台县
The easiest way to get to Wutai Shan is from the city of Taiyuan. Buses (RMB 44-51) take four hours and leave from the east bus station from 8am to 1.30pm or the train station at around 9.30am. Currently, one overnight train goes from Beijing to the town of Shahe (located 50km away from Wutai Shan, but arrives in the wee hours of the morning. Note that the stop is misleadingly called “Wutai Shan,” not Shahe. From there, take a minibus (RMB 20) or a taxi (RMB 70) to the mountain.