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China Travel Report

Every trip to China I try to make a pilgrimage to an ancient Buddhist monument or two to just keep a perspective; not only do I gain an added art-historical viewpoint but something about those giant Buddhist sculptures tend to keep my ego in check as well, at least temporarily. (That is why I have to go back regularly!)

My good friend Ms. Wenhua Liu thought an off the beaten track journey to Shanxi Province would be fun and of great interest to us both. She planned the itinerary and served as my interpreter. We traveled by plane to get there from Beijing and she had a car and driver meet us, we would be going overland the rest of the trip.

The relatively high altitude location borders Inner Mongolia on the north side of China. It is a region rich in history, with the area around present day Datong being the former capital of the Proto-Mongolian tribe called Touba who succeeded in establishing the Northern Wei Dynasty, and took Buddhism as their national religion.

The Yungang Grottos, a 252-cave temple complex created between 460-525 of our Present Era features more than 50,000 statues, including examples with strong Greco-Roman and Indian stylistic influences. Others are amongst the largest surviving figural art from the Ancient World. Standing before them can be humbling indeed…but the seriousness of that moment mitigated by the presence of a seller of frozen red bean ice cream bars with green tea glaze to help beat the heat! 

We also took in the Nine Dragon Tile “Screen,” built in 1771 under the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the largest and best preserved in China on the site of the ancient Huayan temple that dates back to the Liao Dynasty, 907-1125. This area of the north of China is famous for its wheat noodles, being far from the rice growing areas to the south. I took great delight in sampling along the way, just as they displayed a sense of wonder at seeing this tall white fellow using chopsticks and asking that the chili sauce be passed… 

Our next stop took us to the foot of Mt Hengshan, one of the five sacred mountains of Taoism. After rising for some time, there came into view a wonder of spiritual architecture known as the Hanging Temple. Set high on a cliff side, away from noise and floods, it was constructed during the Northern Wei Dynasty in 491 and is uniquely ecumenical; it features altars sacred to Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism with old images of Sakyamuni, Laotzu and Confucius all in one building complex. The structure is so narrow that all people must walk one way through the forty halls using stairs and bridges. Perhaps not the best choice for those with a fear of heights but well worth the hike for everyone else! 

From Mt Hengshan we had to double back to get to the Wuati Mountains, our primary goal. Along the way we encountered the nine hundred year old great “Sakyamuni” Pagoda of Ying County. The wooden octagonal structure rises 67 meters, five stories. The steps up are steep and narrow, enough to make a claustrophobe panic but what great patina on the wood polished by centuries of pilgrims trying to make it to the top. Once there one is rewarded with a view of great distance, with agriculture in one direction and a more contemporary socialist-modernist architecture on the other. The pagoda survived a seven-day earthquake in the Yuan Dynasty and is still with us…but will these other more recent buildings still be standing when history inevitably repeats itself? And how about the prospects for San Francisco after the next Big One? Again I found myself indulging in the Big Existential Questions that viewing landscapes and monuments in such an ancient land brings out! But on a more amusing level, I saw in the town what might be the future of car design, as seen in the image of the red vehicle included in the slide show. 

Following this pleasant respite to a very high point above some very flat ground, Wenhua and I headed off down the road to the Wutai Shan, one of the four sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism and the highest mountain in Northeast China. It is also the residence of the Bodhisattva Manjusri, the Incarnation of Wisdom, known in Chinese as Wenshu. He is known to live in “Clear Cold Mountain,” one of the titles of this peak. This is also home to most of the oldest surviving wooden structures in China, dating to the Tang Dynasty, 618-907; as such they compare with similar ancient wood temples in Japan that are better known in the West, like Horyuji, in the old capital of Nara. 

There are sacred temples, monasteries and gardens that were added by emperors who visited on pilgrimages during the later Sung, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Aside from the benefits of receiving spiritual merit, it is said that their patronage arose from their being so happy to get way from the heat and discomforts of the lowlands to this peaceful, cool location with its many beautiful vistas…Plus, the most valuable and rich tasting mushrooms in China come from here, fit for a king! 

The most important temples are Xian Tong, Ta Yuan, and Pu Sa Ding. Their gates open on a garden surrounding a monument or a monastery, each ranging from breathtaking to achingly beautiful. And I would say to myself, “What if I hadn’t pushed on to look just around that corner? And miss one of the most sensitive and “wise” gardens I have ever seen…?” We were indefatigable, fortified by local mushroom “wraps” that were the cheapest and best tasting food of the trip! I include some photos of the ladies offering us their taste treats! The pleasure of such out door dining was a little off set by the near by sellers of beautiful animal skins, of what endangered species I was afraid to ask.

Coming off the mountain on roller coaster roads we emerged on the high plains. There, after some searching, we found Foguang Temple almost to ourselves. The temples at Wutaishan are in a sense too famous, with many domestic visitors coming through, so it was a particularly great privilege to visit China’s third oldest wooden temple and have no one interrupt our reverie. The lay of the land and its relative isolation, the scale of the old wood buildings, and the beautiful frescos made this one of my favorite places on the journey. 

Next we came to Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi and deep in coal country. This historic area dates as far back as the Western Zhou Dynasty, 711 BPE, when the great Emperor created Jinci Temple and Park. What were imperial gardens include several Cyprus trees dating from the Sui Dynasty, being some 1500 years of age, amongst the oldest living trees in Asia. Surrounded by marvelous temples, a lake, and trees held up by supports, pleasant pathways pass some recent monumental heroic warrior figures from China's ancient past, thus showing giant sculpture never goes out of fashion in this part of the world! One could not help feeling that this natural setting was slice of heaven...but not far away, modern reality encroaches, the essence of which will be captured by the last photo of my series…It shows the consequences of China’s aggressive “development at all costs” model: modernization equates with hundreds of tall buildings under construction, and very yellow skies from industrial chimney smoke, taken on the fly from the car window!