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China IX – Shanxi/Wutaishan travelogue

Travelling at speed anywhere is never the best way of exploring a country, and that is doubly true of China, were most cities are both bleak and basically rather alike; where travel arrangements can be a little unpredicatable; and where watching day-to-day life slip by is in any case one of the chief pleasures.

But needs must, and this is a travelogue (with an architectural bias) of a three-day expedition from Beijing to Wutaishan in Shanxi province, of which two days were spent travelling and just one was spent actually exploring the chosen location. That a round trip to a (…relatively…) remote area is possible at all to such a timetable is a testimony to how fast China is changing; as anywhere, one also has on occasion to pay a little more for gauranteed speed. Nevertheless, the packed 14-hour day myself and my niece spent in Wutaishan proved as rewarding a slice of ‘potted China’ as one can imagine having anywhere.

We took the new express train from Beijing, following the same line that now reaches as far as Lhasa. A second-class soft seat was 157 kuai; the train had empty seats on the way out and a few people had to stand on the way back. There are of course slower trains, some much slower, including the cheapest-per-mile way of reaching our final destination, the sleeper from Beijing that stops at Wutaixian, the county town one hour from Wutaishan, in the wee small hours of the morning. The journey took a very pleasant 3-4 hours, during which young fu yuan constantly came up and down the train selling food (a decent microwaved chicken lunch cost about 20 kuai), washing the floor, or (for the spruce girls with air-hostess uniforms), making announcements, checking tickets and ensuring vacated seats were kept clean and tidy. We are never left uninformed about the internal and external temperature; a lady with a cut-glass English accent told us to ‘get up get off quickly’, but to also leave carefully, whenever the train departed a station.

Outside the window, a landscape rushed past that could form a kind of ‘standard measure’ for modern China: predominantly rural (but broken by cities which seem to be in the middle of a great rebuilding of greater or lesser ambition from place to place), occasional dead remains of state-planned industries, and power stations. But mostly, flat fields in which the villages are tight gatherings of houses, usually on a stretched grid, interspersed by birch trees. A part from a few starling and magpies, there are few birds; peasants work the field, sometimes with a tractor to hand; occasional clusters of tombs, especially where a faint rise in the dusty brown earth affords some kind of opportunity for improved feng shui. Some colloassal liquidisation of assets or increase in wealth took place in the later 1980s or 1990s and the village were universally rebuilt, resulting in a house-type that can be found throughouty the country. A high wall with an emphatic (and usually closed) gate encloses a courtyard with the main house against a back wall. The house is of concretre, sometimes relieved in white tile, with steel window frames. The flat roof reaches out emphatically, especially at the front; big sloping corbels support it at each corner. The architecture thus includes all the core features of the traditional vernacular dwelling – emphatic eaves and joinings of eaves to walls, courtyards, clear orientation of openings and ‘statement’ main doorway. But unlike the countless local vernaculars, this one varies barely at all wherever peasants have had the means to rebuild at all and any kind of aspiration to modersnise as they do so. The only things in this landscape that count as monuments or foci are also new: the enormous steel pyramid that marks a petrol station, new high-speed rail lines, motorways and occasionally schools, hospitals or industrial centres, sometimes still under construction. The villages in particular lack the central focus common to rural settlements anywhere else on the Eurasian landmass: no central temple or place of worship or monument. They are tight gathering of closely interpdenent families; in many cases one or two of these invidiuals have done particularly well or have some status to proclaim and have built two-storey villa-like houses which stick up above the others.

About a third of the way west, the landscape turns from green to brown; there are even occasional brief stretches of apparent desert, perhaps a kilometre or two wide. Two thirds of the way west, and the brown begins to rise or be carved out by dry waterways; were are approaching the loess, the Yellow Earth, which for many Chinese is the heartland of traditional (if poverty sticken), rural China. There are even occasional rocky hills and other buildings: a few churches, a couple of them striking if sparesley detailed compositions that somehow meld the unbuilt gothic fantasies of Schinkel’s C19 German Romanticism, a vague rehash of Fench early gothic c 1200, and the utilitarian brick shed. There are temples, too, more rarely, but also something of an exception to the rule of our ‘gold standard’ Chinese landscape. The few mountains seem to be being demolished with the same unerring efficiency with which their interiors are being transformed into vertiginous city tower blocks: ‘perhaps they were just too old’ says my niece.

Taiyuan presents itself (on a two-hour acquaintance) as major Chinese city of middling prosperity: half-finished exotically-named luxury developments strut among slums barely capable of standing up and moribund soviet-style blocks. Downtown a few shiny skyscrapers are the most striking new addition; we spot a branch of Spar and, in a backstreet, an entire shop devoted to Arsenal merchandise.

The station’s architecture and much of its atmosphere are reminiscent of the 1970s, in spite of the automatic ticket machines and big digital display boards. The are two ticket halls, each containing queues at least an hour long; but the lady at the window for changing ticketsd sells us one for our return leg to Beijing. No one seems to know how to get to Wutaishan (or rather they gesture offhandedly and vaguely away from the station, even when addressed in Chinese), though there are plenty of people trying t oget us to board minibusses for Pingyao; perhaps in high season WTS is treated similiarly. However the staff in a narby hotel tell us how to find what we are after, the Western Bus Station, a solid 30 minute walk away: turn right out of the station, take the next left and climb the hill for 2-3 km until the bus station reers up (new and shiny with a clock tower) on the left. Some confusion arises with a taxi driver who says its impossible to drive there and quicker to walk, then having made a call says he can get us there in 20 minutes, and then tries to point out that the bus is poor, dirty, slow and full of peasants (not realising that for us this is a recommendation) and that he will take us there in more suitable fashion for 800 kuai. We depart having been charged a princely 36 kuai for this advice, and walk happily on our return leg.

The bus station is quiet and efficient: having arrived in the city around half past midday, we have in our hands a a ticket for a 74-kuai public bus that departs at 2.10 and a bagful of dried hawthorn, prune, banana and grape as well as some refreshing leng cha.

Numerous people both here and in WTS tell us the journey takes three hours, but in both directions it’s four; there are of course tour bus options that will be much quicker (and more expensive) given that, as we discover, there is no a motorway sweeping within an hour of our destination. And also much slower private minibusses that will stop anywhere they can find a passenger.

But our route takes the old road on a comfortable bus that stops at most of the towns , as well as for a loo break halfway. The road starts out in attractive low loess country, with crags of dirty brown crumbling into ravine-like valleys and low terraced hills. After half an hour or so there are no more churches, but throughout the rate of temples increases steadily until after 90 minutes or so we are in a more thickly templed landscape than I have ever seen in China (which is not saying much compared to the number of churches one encounters in Europe). The buildings change, too: though much-rebuilt, many houses boast traditional curved-eave roofs, here a local variant in which the main rear-courtyard building sweeps up in a concave curve but is supported at the rear by a high vertical wall, the effect being that of a roof cut in half. Every town, however, has an entirely rebuilt high street, a long strip of white tile and shoprfonts two storeys high, with a vaguely wild west feel to it. People laze outside shops and restaurants, move slowly about their business in the dusty heat. It is hard to believe that many of these places will have a history extending into the distant past.

There are other recent interventions, too. One wonders what has caused every village , no matter how small or decrepit, to face the road with a brand new, elaborate and richly coloured Chinese pulao gate: some directive from local government, aiming to give these places some kind of a fillip? A compact between the planners and the pulao-manufactorers in which hard cash changed hands after a season of elaborate, baiju-fuelled banquets? More intriguingly, as we start to climb and the temple-rate increases, so does something I’ve not seen before: a big Communist-era (that’s the best stylistic term to use, oddly commonsensical in spite of the fact that we are still supposed to be in the Communiust era) theatre in front of a village square, sometimes with a temple or former temple on the other side. Is this some local attempt to supplant an unusually deeply rooted religious tradition with something more palatable and modern? Such structures are as worthy of a study and record and (on occasion) even preservation as the older ones that are only a little less neglected.

We start to climb, a series of steps in which near-flat loess alternates with mountainous hills, a sequence of flat-and-farmed and steep-and-wild that characterises many of the faces of the Chinese landscape. Each passage of hills leads out onto a higher plain; each time the mountains are higher and last longer, the plain poorer and briefer. There are fewer and fewer new-flattopped houses; in many villages walls appear to have been  rebuilt or reclad in concrete and steel windows fitted and shiny brown-tile entrances installed while leaving the traditional tiled roof (and presumably the underlying wall structure) intact. Finally a little after Wutaixian we leave the flatlands behind altogether; mountains at first are interspersed b y dramatic, hilly, loess and then, in the final 40 minutes or so, by proper highland: massive cliffs of twisted limestone through which we wind towards the great opening-out that is our goal.

Here now the villages are virtually all entirely unrebuilt; indeed few boast even satellite dishes, necessary for television reception in such regions. The villages of traditional grey-bircked houses with decorative upturned eaves and windows of patterned wood frames are unbelievably beguiling, almost ridicullusly ‘how China is meant to look’, but clearly their survival is a result of this now being an area of exceptional poverty. But this alone cannot account for the number of monuments filling the landscape: gated villages, in which the gates are intact and stuffed with images of gods; village temples old and new; temples on hilltops or by significant rocks; decaying stupas, paliou, steles, pagodas. Just enough to make one feel, so rare in China, that one is genuinely in an old place. Perhaps one day areas like this, in which most of the young will have already departed for the cities, will become a new Dourdougne for the Chinese middle classes.

Our destination is thus a shock. Huge boards announce the border of a ‘World Heritage site and geopark’, marked by an enormous barrier, a ticket office, turnstiles, roadblocks, making it quite impossible to proceed without everyone buying an 168 kuai (!) ticket (30 yuan cheaper before April 1).  After 30-45 minutes or so we reach the town within the great steep bowl of the five-tai mountain, a place now built entirely on tourism and pilgrimage.

There is a lower town with most of the restautants and tour agencies and hotels, some pretty swish, and an upper town, nearer the main temples, dominated by shops. Apart from convenience stores in the lower town, every single one of the shops sell pilgrim tat; prayer beads, incense, candles, gods. There is nothing for the cultural, non-religious or foreign tourist: clearly, the industry here comes with a heavy religious edge.

It’s nearly 7pm. We ignore a few friendly touts and head for the Tayuan temple, which of a host of buildings in the area seems to have the biggest concentration of old structures and fittings. It is closed for the night, but the young policeman at the gate lets us in when we say we are looking for accommodation. There then follows a long sequence of followings-of-monks: across courtyards, through arches, down corridors, round corners. Its unclear what is going on, or at some points even if  the person we are following has remembered the reason for our presence , but the atmosphere is electrifying: silence into which is deeply set the tinkling of tiny bells from eaves and the waterfall rush of a cold wind through steep hills set thick with birch trees. Eventually we are politely told that it’s off season and nothing is available yet, but it was worth it for the atmosphere, and the scattering of monks and pilgrims quietly ambulating the stupa and turning prayer wheels before bed.

Instead we chose a binguan, the Yuen Shan, run by a friendly, straightforward lady from Wutaixian: half-a-dozen rooms and a restaurant overlooking the high street, the nearest such place to the gate of the temple. The room lacks a lock or running water, and the walls look as if someone has gone around both bedroom and bathroom bashing them indusdstrously with a hammer, but there is kai shui and piles of duvets and brightly coloured rugs and – the temperature is plummeting rapidly – electric underbed heating. More to the point, the room is furnished with a battered eccentric charm which more than compensates for its lack of facilities. We like it. 100 kuai the night, non-negotiable.

The restaurant looks onto the high street. It has a simple English menu featuring delicious Shanxi home cooking, with most dishes about 30 yuan: thick chewy noodles topped with wild mushrooms; a noodle stew with fried tofu and pieces of pork; something delicious done with lamb.

We’re up at 6 the next morning, and follow our noses to what might just be the most full, rewarding, electriftying pre-breakfast three hours of my life. Outside Tayuan temple there is already activity: tour minibuses have joined the small (temple?) fleet of landcruisers parked outside for the night, and we discover the complex has a lower forecourt which is not only open –- it is outside the upper temple proper -– but positively buzzing. Groups are herded in and out, they fall on the shops and emerge with lotus flower candles and incense sticks of various sizes; some more ostentatious examples are so large they are almost impossible to hold. They move onto altars with similar industriousness, praying with the same noisy busineeslike enthusiasm as they might eat a banquet. Many of the groups are accompanied by leaders who not only tell them when to move on and when to leave, but who also direct those who are more uncertain in how to pray. One little chapel is full of monks chanting along to something like Chinese classical music: only groups seem to get in here, admitted in turn for a song, which in this case is presumably also a price.

One can identify various groups among these people. There is a tiny scattering of the urbane new middle classes, well-dressed with big cameras and little interest in religion; they have come in small groups, perhaps travelling independently. There is a much large group of bling-ers: gangs of often young men and women who turn up ostentatious and chavvish in their own cars and pray in the same way one might down a pint on Blackpoolprom. There are groups of women who seem particularly serious about their prayer, and go about with rather less noisy chatter and rather more obvious pieity. And there is the overwhelming majority, who look like the ‘middling sort’ people who have done well out of the last twenty years but not quite well enough to lack troubles. These are the people who pile in and are moved around praying as if its at once unfamiliar, incidental, and important. All in all, then,, more Wife of Bath than Margery Kempe, which is precisely what one might expect of Canterbury in 1300 and clearly what is in order here.

Even the activiities are similar: the ambulating, the directedness, the cross-my-palm-with-silver monks, the occasional beggar, the various-sized sweet-smelling things to burn. But this is serious business. Of my statistically useless sample of three, 100% of the visitors had come from Gaungdong; one even told me that WTS was now only four hours from Shenzen by train, a cheap ride, he said, at 600 kuai; someone else spins the same line about the motorway: Beijing is now four hours away. I don’t believe either timing, but the underlying message is clear. This is an important place, and its economic reach is now enormous and increasing all the time. Religion of any kind may be a minority activity inChina, but by any measure WTS’s sacred market reach is increasing vertiginously. Once beyond access for several months a year, the place apparently is now never closed. It’s off season, after all, even now: what must it be like in the Summer, let alone at a major religious festival?

Hell, there’s even a relic, but that’s in the stupa that dominates the old upper temple, which isn’t open yet. So we head into the hills, and towards the nearest nest of prayer flags.

They are everywhere. But firstly, to sketch out more of the physical environment. Tayuan temple is sit into the very crook of the palm around which rise the great tree-swathed walls that eventually, after many ridges back, resolve themselves into the famous five peaks, each more a low eminence on a distant terrace. Tayuan temple is positioned against the steep rise towards WTS’s northern peak, the highest at over 3,000 metres, overlooking the valley. But there is a another large temple set immediately above it on a craggy shelf, and several more smaller ones between the two. To one side a vertiginous stairwayt leads to yet another, this time set high up on a near-sheer hillside: by mid-morning this will be pretty busy too, the tour groups continuing their round, pursuing merit as if it wasd spiritual guanxi. To the south a single lone limestone crag is topped with a picturesque temple spoilt by a nest of telecoms masks. And in fact there are temples everywhere, most rebuilt, some entirely new, some still underway, and often displaying genuinely high standards of craftsmanship, if only directed at rather meriticious rows of stupas or other images, making them a kind of hybrid of sacred building and theme park.

And then there are the nests of prayer flags. The more one looks the more there are, like bright cobwebs under dew, as the rising sun picks out ever increasing amounts of hillside. To encounter such a Tibetan display some 1,000 miles from Tibet itself is quite something: it is explained not only by the ever-increasing accessibility of Chinese Buddhist sites in general to better-off Tibetans but in this case by a deep historic connection between WTS, seat of the Manjushri Boddhisattva, and the Yellow Hat sect. That is, almost all these temples are Lammaistic,and WTS is surely the most significant pilgrimage centre for Tibetan Buddhists outside their immediate geographic focus in the highlands of Sichuan,Yunnan, Qinghai andTibet.

The Tibetan-style stupa of the Tayuan temple is the most substantive physical result of this; set against the bare slopes above the treeline the effect is positively Tibetan in itself. But in every other respect this is a Chinese landscape, and the prayer flags are even more compelling than usual in this context: they fill the landscape with an informal, small-scale, homespun network of sacred spaces, made all the more charged by the ethnic distinction between the makers of the grand temples and the makers of the wind-blown enclosures of bright stringed cotton. Yet there are so many of them, and so many extraordinary locations, in nests halfway up mountains, around cemeteries, below temples, that I find it hard to believe that all were put there by people who have had to travel for many days into unfamiliar territory to do so. Yet everyone I ask confirms this, their answers sometimes accompanied by the kind of unselfconsciously patronising laughter so taken for granted by most Han and so galling for those on the recieving end.

This particularly network is as compelling as any: strung across a steep loess valley – how did they do that? – then clinging thickly to the trees around a cemetery on a ledge above, perhaps one of monks, in which there is a single large stupa containing the image of a dead lamma. They make cats-cradles between some trees, then ignore others: I would love to watch the process of wrapping up the land and study the decision-making processes behind it. Even higher up, a lone structure on a knoll shines into the sun as the centre of a great spider-web of the things, clinging up and down the cliffs. I catch my niece looking out over it all, listening to the mingled shouts of pilgrists and the windblow chants of the monks, with tears brimming in her eyes.

After a clamber back down through stiff deep grasses we find the upper temple is open . It’s never as busy as the lower one, and those who come are more obviously serious about their religion. There are a great many monk-pilgrims here, some Tibetan; the latter are particularly friendly and interested in us: one wizened chap with enormous black earmuffs tries to get me to follow him in his circumnabulation, conversing as he does: where are you from? Are there Biuddhists there? Do you have any Sterling on you? Another shakes his head at me as if to say, he’s dodgy, don’t play along with it.

There’s another way in which tourism here is more medieval than modern: never in our several visits here do I see anyone who shows the faintest sign of being aware that this temple is important because its architecture, and even some of its fittings (though little if any of its statuary, as far as I can see) survived the Cultural Revoltion; some structures even go back to what for us is the late medieval era, ancient by Chinese standards, though probably patched and rebuilt constantly since. No one glances at the famous octagonal sutra library that rises out of the rear hall and through an opening to an upper floor that appears to be off limits; no one reads the many detailed boards providing information in Chinese and English. The purpose is prayer, not culture-vulching; the relative age of things is immaterial, what matters if to visit them all. Medieval pilgrims would have said the same thing.

We are famished from our pilgrim-immersion, steep mountain climb, and exploration of prayer flags and ancient halls, but on our way out we decide to see if things have changed at all in the lower court.

We’re not disappointed. Immediately on the right as one enters there is a large theatre of the kind one sometimes sees associated with Chinese temples, though much more prominent and deeply integrated with the parayer area  than I’ve seen before. It had looked unused: dusty stage, scattered battered fallen scenery. How wrong could I hasve been? An opera is in mid-performance, a slice of the real deal: a live folk art, performed as a shrilly thrilling added attraction in the crowded courtyard, to be talked or prayed over or attended to briefly, as one wishes. I’ve waited thirty years to see opera like this, part of rural culture rather than staged for an urban elite. The orchestra plays with unhidden boredom; the wind sweep the scenery across the stage; bit-part players emerge heavily made up from a side room; someone in authority emerges with the manual to the PA system, hopefully asking if I could translate it; and young men in magnificent pink gowns with richly stylised make-up sing the thrilling harsh riffs and fixed stylised impassioned gestures of much-loved Chinese arias over a milling, chatting, praying crowd.

So there we are: its back to the binguan for sugared Nescafe, deep fried you tiao and egg soup, having tasted Tibet, China, Medieval England, Buddhism, high art, folk art and mountainous landscape beauty in a single three-hour follow-your-nose of revelation and discovery.

But there’s another reason we’ve come. Within two hours of here are the two oldest complete, intact wooden building in China, which must surely make them among trhe oldest in the world, rendered all the more extraordinary for having their statuary and much paintwork intact, and even more so because wood is the dominant material of Chinese architecture; there are older pagodas and tombs, but coming on the oldest wooden temple in China is like coming on the oldest stone church in Christendom.

Here we’ve had to chuck money around, talking a 6-hour drive down to 450 kuai. It was worth it, the driver is excellent, and the money enabled us to have had this time in WTS itself, too: perhaps even be back for something else before dark.

We leave along the only way out, a road that heads west and does a big curve round to meet the main road not far from Wutaixiang. The sequence of crag reverses itself, but this time we arre quickly in a deep and rewarding loess country, with terraced hills and deep gullies and slow, brown villages filled witrh slow, brown people.

The first of our temples, Foguang si, is loudly announced : signs telling us we are in the cultural zone, and then in the core zone: but in spite of that it is a silent structure set into a hillside overlooking a plain, a hamlet clustered around it, half-a-dozen full time staff with little to do. There are three other small groups there when we arrive, all of them just of two or three people who have come in their own cars: this is a place for the cognoscenti, the cultural tourist, off the mass-tour trail.

In any case, apart from a couple of tables and cushions at which those who wish to can leave an offering or render a prayer (our driver does both) this is a museum, and one that appears to be decently cared for. The experience of the temple interiors is marred by an enromus metal cage: low tech, but given their value and isolated location, a reasonable if low-budget solution. It would be nice to think of a big budget one. And, so rare in China this, everything looks conserved rather than restored: the structures maintained quietly and the forces that have kept them fresh since the mid ninth century: isolation, dryness, lack of heavy light – left to continue their good work.

There are three halls, two side ones, of which the left dates from 1137 – when the High Romanesque cathedrals of Europe are at their height – and further one set high and steep up steps, dating from 857 – just as, in Europe, architecture is guttering back to life for the first time in the post-Roman era, though if we had the wooden buildings of nineth century Europe they would be at least as impressive as this.

The lower hall has a wall lined with deliciously ancient wall paintings; more paintings, with incscriptions that date the building, are on some of the timbers of the upper one’s roofs. Both shadowy interiors are dominated by undated but presumed original (and certainly Tang) statue ensembles of superlative quality: glaze and clay on a timber fame, enormous supernatural beings rising with compassionate disdain, tiny donor figures like a quattrocento sacra conservazione on acid. And the duo gong are battered-delicious, their grain open to the vapour-free air, great hard virgous teeth predating the fuss of later bracket sets.

In its way, Nanchan si is even more impressive. Though far nearer the main road – one could walk here if one turned left off the road in Wutaixiang – the place is deserted, stuck on a corner of a large village that sits atop  a loess cliff. Our driver has to ask the way, for which the price from passing peasants is plainly a cigarette. The ancient retainers live on site and unlock the place: it is a perfect toy Chinese temple, with two side halls within an enclosure and one small but massively proportioned main one, almost uniquely predating the anti-Buddhist iconoclasms of the eighth century, built in 782, complete with another impressive set of statues. It is the silence, the completeness, the setting and the vigorous design that combine to make this place more memorable; though presumably in high season there are more visitors, the lack of any peasant-run places to eat or stay suggest that even today they can never be truly busy places. At both a colour guide in English and Chinese is pressed upon us, shorter and cheaper at Nanchan si, very good but very pricey (180 yuan) at Foguang. The commitment with which curators prevent photography is variable, though in any case it would be wrong to use flash in front of such precious, fragile objects.

Back on the way in, a snap decision and an extra payment and we decide to visit one of the peaks. A 40 minute detour down a very rough road, apparently traversed by minibusses in high season, reveals the southern Nantai peak, a low temple topping a moorland eminence, a scattering of chattering monks, and a view that takes in all the peaks and ridges of this mountain fastness penetrated by pilgrims. Prayer flags stream the ground and encase a steel frame solar panel. We have done top and bottom. A couple of Tibetan monks turn up in a battered taxi, but it seems the focus is for most people the temples below.

  1. April 24, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Wow… thanks.

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