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(2016 - Winter/Spring Issue)


“Spectacular,” reads the Chinese calligraphy.

I raise my eyes from the two red symbols carved into the huge boulder by a Tang Dynasty poet. Suspended 75 metres above me is a temple. It looks like it has been glued to the sheer face of the cliff. Spectacular indeed.

I’m not sure which is more unbelievable: that this temple would be built in the first place, that it still exists a millennium and a half later, or that tourists are allowed onto the rickety-looking structure at all, let alone so many at once.

The temple is in Shanxi, a small province by Chinese standards with a population about the same size as Canada’s. Shanxi may be small, but it holds many marvels that are difficult to believe.

The modern capital, Taiyuan, boasts trees more than 1,000 years old. China’s best-preserved ancient city Pingyao looks much as it did when it was founded in the 14th century. Thousands of intricately carved Buddhas rest in caves. Shanxi is the home of one of China’s four holiest mountains, one that the Dalai Lama hopes to visit before he dies. And Shanxi has this amazing temple suspended from a cliff.

The Suspended Temple

Also called the Hanging or Xuan Kong Temple, this monastery was built high on the cliff to withstand floods from the nearby gorge and to ensure monks could meditate in complete silence, with not so much as a barking dog to disturb them. There are easier ways to achieve this, but I’m glad monk Liao Ran made the effort back in the year 491.

Peering over the railing of the narrow ramp that connects two of the pagodas, I experience a little vertigo. I’m reassured the spindly wooden poles that appear to prop up two-thirds of the temple are only supplementary and the real support structure is hidden inside the cliff.

Within the temple’s 40 narrow halls and tiny rooms are Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist sculptures, the only temple in China to combine elements of all three religions. The structure is made almost entirely of wood. Despite its flimsy appearance, the biggest risk to the monastery is fire. Fire extinguishers—and the more picturesque bags of sand—are placed throughout the building to prevent an errant ember from engulfing the entire temple.

Yungang Grottoes

Religion also sparks the creation of beautiful things, often on an unbelievable scale. Thirty years earlier and more than 100 kilometres away, another monk, Tanyao, carved caves in the sandstone at the foot of Wuzhou Mountain. Over the next 65 years, 252 caves and grottoes were cut into a one-kilometre-long area outside the city of Datong. Today, 51,000 statues from the fifth and sixth centuries still remain. The Yungang Grottoes are so stunning and significant that UNESCO bestowed them with World Heritage status in 2001.

I enter Cave No. 5. I imagine what used to decorate the impressive high walls. As I round a bend to the exit, I can’t believe my eyes. An immense Buddha, as tall as a five-storey building, is spotlit by the sunlight filtering through the rough-hewn window. Stunning as they are, I barely notice its two intricately carved companions, merely half its height.

There’s another five-storey Buddha outdoors and, on a different scale, the Ten Thousand Buddha Cave, which houses tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his disciples. I’m moved by devout Buddhists lighting joss sticks in front of the main statue so the smoke can convey their prayers to heaven. The little boy I photograph trying to fold himself into a Buddha pose for his parents’ camera is just as heartwarming.

Mount Wutai

At another Shanxi UNESCO site—Mount Wutai—I am forced to suspend my disbelief again.

First, because of the sheer number of monasteries clustered here. Temples have been built on this five-plateau mountain for two millennia, providing a catalogue of Buddhist architecture. About 50 remain. I hope it isn’t my disbelief that brings the thunderstorm of biblical proportions, which causes the crowd to cower under Longquan Temple’s brightly painted eaves as we try to escape the deluge.

The mountainous scenery here is gorgeous. Mystical five-coloured clouds, representing bodhisattva—a state of enlightenment—are said to sometimes appear. Not today. The dark skies hide the beautiful views, and I just pray I’m not hit by lightning or deafened from the cracks of thunder.

Among the holiest mountains in China, Mount Wutai marks the end of the pilgrimage route, which begins at Yungang Grottoes more than 1,200 kilometres away. Since the seventh century devout Buddhists from all over Asia have walked between the two sites. Last year, the Dalai Lama himself spoke of his deep desire to make the pilgrimage to Mount Wutai.

Shanxi provides rare opportunities to see many spectacular sites, beautiful both aesthetically and religiously. All must be seen to be believed.

Travel Planner

For more information, visit the Toronto-based China National Tourist Office at tourismchina-ca.com or call 1-866-599-6636.

Don’t confuse Shanxi with its westerly neighbour Shaanxi, the province with the famous Terracotta Army.

You can take a bus from Beijing to see Shanxi’s sites or fly into Datong and out of Taiyuan. Hiring a car with an English-speaking driver and/or guide gives you maximum flexibility to see the province.

The ancient walled city of Pingyao is a charming place to stay for a couple of days, with plenty of English services. Enjoy the best fried chicken you’ll ever taste near the upper west gate, where three spicy drumsticks can be purchased for 10 yuan (CDN$2).

While a 72-hour visa-free visit is possible for 15 Chinese cities, the privilege is not yet extended to Shanxi province. Canadians should apply for a Chinese visa in person in Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver or through a travel agent.

CDN$10 buys about 48 yuan. ATMs in bigger cities accept Canadian cards, but machines in smaller towns only work for Chinese cards. Most hotels will exchange U.S. dollars for yuan.

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