Published: February 14th 2007August 25th 2005
, nine brilliant mountains, is one of China's great Buddhist peaks, and was founded in the XII century when a Korean monk believed to be the reincarnation of somebody holy and revered met his end. After a five hour coach trip from Nanjing, up along the bank of the wide Yangzi, passengers disembarked to pay the steep park entry before boarding the complimentary mini bus lift to the village of Jiuhuashan. Shrouded in mist, the village is encircled by a road connecting the temples and guesthouses, small hotels and eateries and countless shops selling overpriced wood sculptures, dried foods, teas, umbrellas, music, instruments, pendants, everything but postcards. In the late afternoon I settle into the pension, accept a cup of hot oolong tea and shower before strolling to nearby Dabei Lou
where monks young and old but few between sit on cushions hunched over sutras chanting before a four headed golden Buddha. I close my eyes and let the voices and drumming drown out the comings and goings. For a few minutes, eyelids closed, I can forget the dumbfounded Chinese who stare at the waiguoren.
The next morning I wake early inspired to explore more of the mountain's esoteric artistry. I
practice my tai-chi in the woods behind the pension where two identical women stand before two identical wash basins wringing out laundry. Blue patches of sky float above the treetops. Umbrella in hand, I set out, stopping short at a noodle stall where I take a seat next to a large table of shaven pate monks dressed in grey and faded yellow robes slurping noodles and dipping fried pastry in their soup engaged in animated conversation with young men in beige officer uniforms. I catch a bus headed to tiantin[i/], the upper ledge. Most of the passengers head to the rope-way. I take a side trail to Phoenix Pine, an age old tree, standing amid a narrow valley of farm houses and several ochre coloured temples with ornate urns smoking incense in the courtyards. Climbing higher, passing temples, praying in the dark halls, still higher, shop after shop selling beer, instant noodles, apples, pears, cucumbers, luck charms. Devout pilgrims with more time than money, lug sacks of rocks tied to either end of a pole and balanced across their shoulders. Clouds play along the slopes. A series of buildings offer refreshment for the weary. A series of urns is attended to by monks and old women lighting prayer sheets. And still higher, past tables of tourist nicknacks displayed precariously at a bend in the path. Reached after ascending a final precarious grand staircase, at the mountain's peak, a temple, yellow-gold, appears out of the mist, crawling with pilgrims and priests, lighting candles or burning prayer papers or fake money for the underworld or tall sticks of incense in the great brass urns, praying for the safe passage of lost loved ones. And eyes fall on the waiguoren, and he wanders on and on.
Buses connect directly between Jiuhuashan and Huangshan - well almost, this is China, after all. In Tangkou, I found my way to the market for some fresh food and then to the YH where I found a staff member who gave me a lift to their sister YH several kilometres up the mountain in the hotsprings neighbourhood. The vast resort-like fortress was empty as was the pool in the spacious walled courtyard. After being shown to my room in a far wing of the hostel, I wandered around the building searching for the staff, hoping I could ask for some lunch. En-route to the kitchen, I discovered a large monkey climbing along the roof eaves, and jumping into the tree and letting fly a few loose tiles that shattered in the stairway I'd just come from. A staff member came running and pulled me inside. I was unaware how dangerous these animals can be. In the afternoon bottle of beer in hand, I lounged by the 'pool'. I took a walk to the hotspring and opted for a splash in the olympic size pool. Again I had the place all to myself, playing with the plastic toys in a derelict warehouse-like aquatic facility spawn from a businessman's pipe dream and left to wither and mold.
The next morning under an overcast sky, I ascended the eastern steps, along with hundreds of other tourists - strikingly different from my hike up Jiuhuashan. Three hour later I found the side trail to Shixin Peak where I managed a sketch amid the jostling flow of tour groups. Trail after trail circled the summits and led me in the late afternoon, to the western valley where in the late afternoon, the clouds began to break, unveiling a famous scroll-like scene of spectacular cliffsides sprouting bonsai-like trees. Although I could have made the 10 km circuit route in one day, I'd made reservations at Beihai Binguan so I could witness the next morning's sunrise. I woke early, or rather I didn't sleep all night in a dorm room of snores. I was the first to reach a viewpoint jutting above the pines where I stood in silence enraptured by the genesis of a new day, watching each minute transform the colour of the sky and the forest and the mountain ranges.
The YH in Tunxi, just around the corner from the bus station and equidistant to the train station, has very clean and modern facilities. I took an early morning stroll into town, found a park over run with tai chi adherents and the Song dynasty Old street where shop owners were just beginning the day. A few shops sold dumplings and piping hot bowls of noodles. Several stores sold beautifully carved (ink stands)?, some of them priceless. I spent the afternoon in Shexian, where a neighbourhood of large Qing dynasty homes still stands. There was a sudden downpour while touring the old streets with an impromptu translator, a girlfriend the guide had reached on her cell phone. The streets quickly became rivers. We took refuge in an old home where I watched a wood carver at work on a small bust. Other homes displayed yet more stone ink wells, and behind half closed doors old folk whiled away the hours playing mah-jong. The next day I travelled west to the Qing dynasty villages of Hongcun and Xidi, both worth the pricey taxi ride back to Tunxi after missing the last bus.
There are more photos below