Mount Wutai: A China Pilgrimage Trail
WORDS BY SUSANNE SHUAI
IT WAS FORMED OVER THE CENTURIES BY TENS OF THOUSANDS OF BUDDHIST TREKKERS MAKING PILGRIMAGES DAY AND NIGHT.
A Very Unique Setting
ount Wutai (五台山) literally translates to “Five Plateau Mountain”. Also known as Wutai Mountain or Qingliang Shan, it is Buddhist sacred site. Mount Wutai is located at the headwaters of the Qingshui River in the northeastern province of Shanxi. If you stand at the foot of Mount Wutai you will be surrounded by a spectacular panorama of flat-topped peaks. The northerly most peaks is called Beitai Ding or Yedou Feng. Topping out at 3,058 m it is indeed the highest point in northern China.
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This spectacular area is home to many of China’s most important monasteries and temples with Mount Wutai host to over 53 sacred monasteries. These were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. Mount Wǔtái is one of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism. Each of these mountains is viewed as a bodhimaṇḍa (道場)—place of enlightenment and awakening—of one of the four great bodhisattvas (spiritual guides). Wǔtái is the home of Mañjuśrī (文殊), the Bodhisattva of wisdom; Mañjuśrī, who has been associated with Mount Wutai since ancient times.
Mount Wutai on Donghuang Wall Painting
About The trail
The Wutai Pilgrimage Trail dates back to 600 A.D., It was formed over the centuries by tens of thousands of Buddhist trekkers making pilgrimages day and night. The trail is approximately 90 km in length following high valleys and ridges. The trail there includes five plateaus (or “tai” in Chinese) and each “tai” has a temple that enshrines the Bodhisattva Manjushri. Each of the five temples has a style of it’s own, as do other features on the trail along with varied perspectives of the amazing the natural scenery. On the north, Bei Tai/Yedou Peak, marks the highest elevation at 3058m. The lowest point is Nan Tai/ Jinxiu Peak at 2485m on the south. Other key waypoints include: on the east, Dong Tai/Wanghai Peak at 2795m; in the middle, Zhong Tai/Cuiyan Peak at 2894m and on the west, Xi Tai/Guayue Peak at 2773m.
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Many scenic spots—including wild landscapes, mountaintops and cultural icons—reward those who make the trek. The temples offer the primarily accommodation sites. They also provide vegetarian food during hiking times. (Note that pilgrims only take vegetarian meals, to show the respect to the Buddha.)
Most of the tourists visiting the Wutai are pilgrims heading to the temples. For the outdoor-lover making a visit, typically, a 3-day hiking trip along the route is chosen. These hikers are attracted by both culture and nature and they are richly rewarded for their efforts!
The Most Popular Hiking Trail
The following route (about 60km) is the most frequented. It runs as follows: Hongmen Yan→ Dong Tai→ Hongmen Yan→ Bei Tai→Zaoyu Chi → Zhong Tai→ Xi Tai→ Jixiang Si→ Shizi Wo→ Jinge Si（you could stay overnight by a farm house）→ Shan’men→ Qixiang Zhan（weather station）→ Nan Tai→ Fomu Dong→ Parking Area.
Mount Wutai has similar latitude to Beijing but with the high altitude there are large temperature swings between day and night. Temperatures as low as –30 degrees C are not unheard of in the winter. Typically, the best season for hiking is June and (through?) September. Regardless of any season attention to proper preparation and provisions is essential to safely keep warm. Also, be prepared for low clouds, humidity, frequent rain, and very changeable weather. Of course sun protection, including sunscreen, is alway necessary.
A ticket valid for 3 days is 168RMB (with students half-price). You will also be required — whether you intend to use the buses or not — to buy a bus pass for 50RMB (the ‘green coach’ fare for travel within the park—sorry no discounts).
Lodging is concentrated in Táihuái Village in the center of the Mount Wutai area. Hotels are very affordable (less than 150RMB/night, bargained down from the rack rate of 338RMB). There is 24hr hot water but no soap or towels. The beds are hard. The temples offer guestrooms at 50 Yuan per person and upwards including a simple dinner and breakfast. Note however that the temples in the central area may refuse lodgings to foreigners.
By Bus—There is a bus from Taiyuan to Táihuái Village in the center of Wǔtái Shān costing around 70RMB. Buses depart from Taiyuan from the Taiyuan East Bus station and the trip takes about five hours. From Dàtóng, there are 2 buses per day in summer that leave at 8:30am and 2:10pm respectively from the Dàtóng South Bus Station (新南站 Xīnnánzhàn) for Táihuái in the center of Wǔtái Shān. The fare is 75RMB and it takes about 4 hours. There is also at least one bus leaving from the main bus station at 7:30am.
By Plane—Taiyuan is the nearest airport, with flights to and from Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai.
By Train—There is a train station, called “Wǔtái Shān”, that is not in Wǔtái Shān but located, about 50 km (an hour) away from Wǔtái Shān itself. The train stations that service this route are small and obtaining tickets may be difficult. Major train stations in the vicinity of Wǔtái Shān are Taiyuan(N202) and Datong. Buses and taxis run from either city. Access to Wǔtái Shān is easiest from Xinzhou, the closest city of intermediate size.
For more information and to book an organized group tour, you can contact the author at: