Instances with Magical Mountains of The World


WUDANG, China —  Having seen “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” three times before I arrived on the misty slopes of Wudang Mountain, I had high expectations. Yet on my last day here, as I watched the evening sun gild the snowy roof tiles of the ancient Purple Cloud Temple, I could not help but feel that my expectations had been surpassed.

Before I arrived, during my winter break from studying Chinese language and history at Beijing University, my imagination had swelled with images of cloud-wrapped temples, isolated crags and hidden valleys, Taoist priests clad in traditional robes, and scores of martial arts students practicing their kicks and jabs.

To my surprise, I discovered that my imagination was no match for reality.

I encountered these wonders in versions more impressive than any my mind could conjure–all except the martial arts, which I missed simply because of poor timing. Because I visited Wudang Mountain less than two weeks after Chinese New Year in February, nearly all the martial arts students and masters were still home for the holidays, leaving nothing but clusters of empty academy courtyards crowded around the mountain’s base. Just as well, I said with a sigh. What could possibly live up to the high-flying action of “Crouching Tiger”?

Wudang Mountain (Wudangshan in Chinese) plays a central role in director Ang Lee’s wildly popular movie, which won four Academy Awards, including best foreign picture. But I knew that the film’s Wudang scenes were actually shot at tourist-thronged Huangshan–a mountain in Anhui province best known for its otherworldly vistas and centuries of lore. I assumed that Wudang was a fictional part of the film’s story. When I discovered that the real Wudang exists in the rugged northwest of Hubei province, not far from where I intended to disembark from the popular cruise down the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges, I leaped like a flying kung fu master at the opportunity to see this ancient center of Taoism and martial arts.

Long before Lee’s film propelled Wudang into the consciousness of American audiences, the mountain held a revered place in Chinese Taoist legend and history. Taoism emerged as a philosophy in China more than 2,000 years ago, but by the time the first Taoist temples appeared on Wudang’s slopes during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), it had evolved into a religion centered on the pursuit of longevity, replete with a colorful pantheon of deities and immortals. The mountain remained a sacred Taoist site for several hundred years before the Ming Dynasty’s Emperor Yongle (who reigned from 1403 to 1424) sent thousands of soldiers and conscripted laborers to transform it into the largest Taoist complex in the world, a title it retains to this day.

Around the same time, Wudang Mountain emerged as one of the predominant centers of martial arts in China. Legend holds that semi-mythical Taoist master Zhang Sanfeng observed a fight between a snake and a magpie while meditating in a Wudang grove. Their movements allowed him to understand the “opposing forces in nature,” and from this he derived taijiquan (tai chi chuan), the basis of the “Internal School” of Chinese martial arts. Whatever its origins, Wudang Mountain remains a major martial arts center in China–except around Chinese New Year, apparently.

Even the mountain’s reincarnation in the People’s Republic as the Wudang Mountain Scenic Area cannot detract from its mystique. The 20-square-mile park consists of 72 rugged peaks that conceal some of China’s most impressive temples and inspiring vistas. Snowy and misty in winter, clear and red-tinged in autumn, and cool and flower-drenched in spring and summer, Wudang possesses natural beauty and historic temples that earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1994. Despite its proximity to the Three Gorges, the mountain hosts far more Chinese pilgrims than it does foreign tourists.

I arrived on Wudang’s craggy slopes in early February. Having bargained down the price of one of the minibuses that cluster near the park entrance for the 16-mile drive to the accommodations on the mountain, I watched through foggy windows as we sped down misty valleys, over half-frozen rivers, past the red rubble of roadside shrines and up toward the cloud-shrouded mountain heights. As snow began to appear on the boughs of the dense forest trees beside the road, the minibus seemed to be driving into a traditional Chinese landscape painting.

The smooth road came to an abrupt end at a cluster of snowy hotels. Searching for a place to stay, I strolled through the nameless town, which brimmed with stands selling swords, jade amulets, classic Taoist books–the paraphernalia of a would-be martial arts master.

Wudang’s lodgings were fashioned from the Chinese hotel cookie cutter. I stayed in the representative Jingui Hotel. Typical rooms were basic but comfortable, with beds, a couple of chairs, a thermos of hot water for tea and a TV. Extra money could buy a private bath or heat in the wintertime. The hotels had restaurants that served standard Chinese fare such as kung pao chicken and home-style tofu for about $2 to $5.

After settling in, I asked the hotel owner what I should see. He explained that the three can’t-miss sights of Wudang are Purple Cloud Temple, Nanyan Temple and the temples on Tianzhu Peak. Purple Cloud Temple was about a 20-minute walk downhill, Tianzhu a two-to three-hour walk uphill; Nanyan Temple lay almost at the hotel’s doorstep. I decided to see Nanyan that afternoon.

The path to the temple wound under rock overhangs filled with sacred images and the heady smell of incense, around faded prayer flags fluttering in the sharp wind, and past derelict shrines given a thorough beating by Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. To either side, enormous peaks opened up and valleys fell away, only to mask themselves again behind a veil of mists.

When the mists parted to reveal Nanyan Temple, I caught my breath. Beneath enormous Chinese characters for luck and longevity carved into the rocky cliff, a complex of wood buildings clung to the side of the mountain, held aloft as though by magic. Below them a sheer drop disappeared into a sea of roiling clouds.

Thrusting defiantly from the temple’s ancient buildings, the intricately carved stone head of a dragon appeared to hang precipitously in midair, nearly 10 feet tall and darkly silhouetted against the mist around it. I learned that it once was a popular activity for pilgrims to take the few dangerous steps out onto the head to place incense sticks into the burner perched there. The number of accidents and deaths long ago impelled the priests to erect a gate and railing that would allow only them to make the sacred walk, at least in the icy winter. I peered through the gate, and my eyes caught the outline of several footprints in the snow on the dragon’s head. At the far end the tips of three incense sticks glowed brightly in the swirling flurries. They were the only sign of human presence, though I could not help imagining that a flying Taoist immortal had placed them there when no one was looking.

After a delicious tofu dinner at my hotel, I spent the night under two thick comforters and hoped my muscles would relax enough for the hike the next day up to Tianzhu Peak. The tallest of the Wudang park’s 72 summits at 5,287 feet, Tianzhu’s name translates as “pillar to hold up heaven.”

I awoke early for the two-to three-hour hike. I expected a walk similar to the one the day before, a series of stone steps nearly devoid of people. Apparently on almost any other day my expectations would have proved true. This day, however, was the 15th of the first lunar month, one of the most important pilgrimage days at Wudang Mountain.

My first warning, borne on the crisp morning breeze, came from the high-pitched strains of a traditional Chinese-style trumpet. I walked over a small rise to the trail head, and before me surged a throng of pilgrims. Many of them were elderly, some played instruments, several held aloft bright red flags, and all were purchasing caoxie , or straw overshoes.

“When in Rome,” I told myself as I tied on a pair of these woven straw soles, which proved remarkably effective against the thin layer of ice on the steps.

Suitably shod, I charged up the stairs at top speed and soon found myself wondering whether this Taoist version of a StairMaster was intended to prolong life or shorten it. After a while, the trickle of melting snow, the overgrown cliffs and the cool, caressing mists lulled me into a leisurely stroll. Occasionally the distant wail of Taoist music floated through the clouds. With plenty of rest stops along the way, I found myself nearing the summit within two hours.

he primary challenge came from maneuvering my way around the pilgrim crowds, who occasionally veered off the main path to collect water from small mountain springs burbling up from cliffs and caves. One pilgrim encouraged me to try some of this “spirit water.” Not eager to sip anything that had been accumulating on a cave floor, I hesitated, which surprised him.

“You have to have some!” he said. “It will give you good health and make you strong. You won’t get sick, and you can live a very long time.” Swayed by this energetic advertisement for the Taoist path to longevity, I managed a meager sip and continued on, fortunately without ill effects.

The summit of Wudang Mountain seemed to have grown temples. Their red walls appeared to rise directly out of the mountain itself, perched just above the cloud line. I felt I had stumbled onto a mythical city of Taoist immortals suspended in the clouds.

Soon I was inching up a stone staircase along with hundreds of others waiting to reach the glittering Golden Hall. The impressive structure, built in 1416, is made entirely of gilded copper. On most days this graceful shrine is nearly deserted except for its priests, but I had time only to snap a quick picture before retreating to the less popular but equally attractive temples that dot the peak. After two hours in quieter courtyards admiring the vistas, I hiked back to town, ate a quick dinner of kung pao chicken and slept a deep, comforter-clad sleep.

The next day I strolled down the main road to Purple Cloud Temple. Dating to 1413, this outstanding example of Ming Dynasty temple architecture made for a peaceful afternoon of exploration, free from the pilgrim hordes. When evening arrived, golden mists enveloped the shrine as the simple beat of a wood clapper announced prayers. Two priestesses ushered me out, and the ancient doors closed with a boom, their two halves meeting to form an enormous yin-yang.

“Why don’t you take a look at the school right here?” he asked me. “There must be some students around. In fact, it’s the only genuine Taoist temple academy on the whole mountain.”

School? I looked up, and on a small hill before my eyes stood a building with a courtyard: a martial arts training academy right across from Purple Cloud Temple. I hastened up the steps. The teenagers ceased throwing false kicks at one another in the courtyard when I stepped in; their jaws dropped at the sight of an unexpected foreign visitor. There were only four or five of them, boys and girls. They greeted me giddily but politely, and I asked if they would show me a few moves. They consented.


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