The road led up a small rise away from the parking area under the shade of tall trees. There were groups of people heading both out and back and still others riding the small blue shuttles swooshing their way to the far corners of the park. Apparently there is something sinister about peace and quiet because although the seasonal hum of cicadas was loud many of these people felt the need to break the natural silence by playing Chinese pop music loudly from their cell phones. Others were not so threatened and walked along in silence or conversation. It was not as hot as it had been in the previous week and was just barely on the edge of uncomfortable due to the humidity. As the road climbed I began to suspect that we’d be hot by the time we attained the upper reaches of the park. Birds whose sounds I did not recognize chattered in the upper reaches of the trees.
Qianshan has been a religious site for Buddhists and Taoists for more than 1000 years, starting in the Tang Dynasty and today there are many temples in the park but few genuinely ancient remnants. A significant amount of building occurred during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 to 1911) but the turmoil of the 20th resulted in the area being largely abandoned. In the 1990’s a restoration effort began and today the temples are in wonderful condition.
In Chinese a Buddhist temple is known as a miào and the equivalent for the Taoist is known as a guàn. The monks are known a héshang and dàoshi respectively. Here they regularly exist side by side with monks of both ilk welcoming visitors. In terms of their philosophies they share many similarities, particularly the drive for a simple, studious life and a strong respect for the natural world and living things in particular. From the outside their temples are very similar but the similarity ends at the doorway. Buddhist miào always contain a representation of Buddha and often many other saints. Taoist guàn have representations of one or more of their “Immortals” in addition to lesser figures. The appearance of the monks is also quite different with Buddhist héshang having shaved heads and typically garbed in saffron, gray or white. Dàoshi often have long hair tied up in a topknot and wear black pants and either black or white jackets with an elaborate set of buttons. I gathered all this in conversation with Jiang, and it cleared up a question I had about a monk I had seen on a bike ride a couple of weekends ago. I was riding out in the middle of nowhere countryside and I passed a holy man walking along the road dressed in a way unfamiliar to me; I now know him to be a Dàoshi. Complementing the various temples were small tombs or mù set back off the road amidst the trees, marking the final resting place of a revered monk or abbot.
I didn’t have an actual plan for what I wanted to see, rather I figured we would simply wander around for a few hours and take in what might be close to the main road. Judging from the map many of the sites involved climbing up roads from the bottom of the valley and while I was up for that kind of activity, I am not sure that Jiang was of the same mind. While he is a wiry little fellow he is like just about every other Chinese guy, a chain smoker. I stopped here and there to take pictures of the ornate gates that span the temple roads. Their decoration was very similar to the temples I visited last year in Kyoto with intricate designs painted on every surface and carvings of animals and dragons. Very different than the architecture I am used to around Shanghai. One featured white elephants on the upper levels and golden dragons wrapped around bright red pillars. Hanzi characters painted in gold announced the name of the temple that lay up the road.
We passed by a retail stop and the minute the sellers identified me as a westerner, they began yelling their prices to get me to come over to shop. Jiang had warned me in the car to stay away as their goods were overpriced and fake; something that tourist traps the world over share in common. Here they were selling bracelets and pendants celebrating Buddha and for some reason, tiny wooden crossbows.
At the midpoint of the hill a stream had been dammed to create a lake that teemed with big bright orange and black koi. Visitors were feeding them and a pack of geese that was horning in on the action. At the head of the lake the stream entered over a series of small rapids where people were alternately cooling off their feet and filling their water bottles. We walked on along the shady road taking in the sights and beginning to feel the effects of the heat. Jiang asked if we could sit down for a few minutes, I figured he was tired but it turned out to be time for a cigarette.
Three-fourths of the way up a crossroads offered us the opportunity to continue climbing to a golden pagoda I’d seen from the bottom or up a set of stairs to where a cable car system was purported to be. We chose the stairs and at the top wandered through Bird Singing World, a bird aviary. Cages full of finches, parakeets and tiny parrots lined the walk in, the last full of Japanese Waxwings panting in the heat. We passed on the giant net covered enclosure and instead went looking for the cable car which we found at the top of a set of stone stairs, hidden behind the aviary.
The ticket sign did not bode well – 30 Yuan for a 1-way ticket and 1 Yuan for “insurance.” I paid for us and we climbed up to the boarding platform. Our short wait ended when three tiny silver cars rumbled into the station. The downward bound riders jumped out quickly and we climbed in as the cars continued their way around the giant cable return wheel. Jiang and I jumped in and helped a young couple join us. The doors automatically closed as we cleared the station and when they did, the heat inside our capsule rose like a rocket. In a manner of moment it was like riding in an oven. We began our ascent and started to sweat.
Jiang and the couple were conversing in Chinese and I was struggling to join in as best I could. After a few minutes of chit chat the young woman turned to me and asked me in perfect English how long I had been in China. I laughed and told her my story, commenting on the quality of her speech. She told me that she was in China on holiday and that she presently lives in Dublin where she works part time in a friend’s laundry. The irony of moving from China to one of the world’s most expensive places to work part time in a low paying job was staggering to me but it made perfect sense to her.
Our car was gently swaying in the breeze and occasionally making a nervous-making halt whenever we crossed the pulleys on the support pylons. I pretty much hate cable car rides and this one barely qualified as something that might be found outside an amusement park. By now it was so hot that I was pretty much drenched. Jiang ran a finger along my forearm, amazed that a person could be so wet outside of a pool. The young woman told him westerners sweat that way.
Despite the gnawing fear the view was spectacular – pointy peaks spread out across the horizon. On the opposite side of the valley I could see the spire of the golden pagoda that I’d spotted from below. The trees here changed from leafy to pine and a pair of Jackdaws rode the thermals along the ridge top croaking away. The general landscape looked very similar to our Southwest – pines, junipers and exposed orangey rocks. The ride took perhaps 15 minutes and we did the same scramble to get out of the car that we’d done to get in; it was nice to be out of the heat. A short walk through the woods and we found ourselves at 5 Buddha Peak.
There were two temples here, one Taoist and one Buddhist. Several dàoshi were selling soft drinks and incense. On a rock shelf off to one side, 5 golden Buddha sat protected by immaculately clear Plexiglas boxes silently staring out across the valley. A cable was attached to the rock wall behind them and was covered with faded red ribbons and hundreds of bronze padlocks – prayers offered by pilgrims to the peak. We stood around for a few minutes before deciding to continue on up to the actual summit of the mountain.
I have done so many perilous climbs in China that it’s a wonder I’ve not broken something. This one continued up from the temples via foot holds carved in the face of the granite but they’d graciously provided a set of green handrails lest one lose their balance. It’s always something to stand at the bottom of one of these pitches and imagine what it would be like to fall backwards. Jiang told me to be careful every five minutes as we climbed. We had to step aside on what little path there was to allow people to come down past us, including one ancient man who was making the climb with his cane in hand. As we climbed the stairs slowly degraded into foot sized holes in the rock.
We climbed quite a ways before leveling off at the top of the mountain. The view to the west was of Anshan and what appeared to be a giant strip mine. The rest of the panorama was of the park and temples could be seen peeking out of the forest on ridges high above the valley. The wind was howling and the temperature was thankfully much lower. Three stone saints stood facing east, cloaked in bright yellow capes. Jiang lit an incense stick and prayed. I wandered around in what little flat space there was, taking photographs and enjoying the sights. After a bit we headed back.
The climb down was no less scary than that coming up. We ended up in the cable car again with the same couple who had declined the opportunity to climb to the top, the young gal’s high-heeled shoes being inappropriate for that task. The sun had disappeared behind some high clouds and so the return ride was not quite so hot. We jumped out at the bottom and started the long walk back to the car, taking the time to discuss the finer points of Buddhism, Taoism and their associated symbolism and beliefs.
We made it back to the car and started on our way to the next destination, The Jade Buddha Temple.