Wudang Taoist Mountain – Hubei, China

In the 2000 martial arts/fantasy epic “Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon” Jen is standing atop Wudang Mountain. She recalls the legend she heard in the desert from that “Anyone who dares to jump from the mountain, God will grant his wish. Long ago, a young man’s parents were ill, so he jumped. He didn’t die. He floated away, far away, never to return. He knew his wish had come true. If you believe, it will happen. The elders say, a faithful heart makes wishes come true.” So there I was, standing on top the mountain–but I didn’t jump. However, I could see why Jen thought she could fly for we were so high up…

I had just spent an intensive week undertaking supervision of our ‘Shiman’ expressway project. This is a highway in the NW of Hubei province, running from Shiyan city west towards the Shaanxi border, and from there Xi’an. You can see some photos of the construction and a descroption of the project here. When driving to Shiyan we had passed signs to Wudan Mountain but had never had time to visit. On our way back to Shiyan Friday I asked Mr. Zhou, my counterpart, what we could do to relax on Saturday. When he suggested a visit to Wudang Mountain (or Wudangshan in Chinese) I jumped at the opportunity to spend a day in nature–a treat here in China.

In 1994 Wudangshan was listed as a UNESCO ‘World Heritage’ site. Wudangshan’s 30 sq. km area consists of beautiful scenery of tranquil valleys, juxtaposed with precipitous peaks. It has a unique combination of interests with an ancient Taoist temple complex, Wudang kung fu, and for me the most important–spectacular natural scenery. Tianzhu (Column) Peak, the main peak, rises 1,612 m above sea level, like a column supporting the sky. Our goal was to climb to the top. Clustering around it are numerous other peaks as if “ten thousands peaks are paying their homage”. It is also still well-covered with vegetation and is famous in China for its rich resource of plants. In fact, when hiking up the mountain there were people selling different herbs/plants/fungii they had gathered.

We left the hotel at 08:00 and drove to Zhi city near Wudangshan where we changed into buses. To protect the environment the Chinese limit the number of vehicles onto the mountain. As we drove up the mountain we stopped at the Wudangshan Kung Fu school where an English speaking guide–Victor–boarded. He was a teacher and principal at the school and Mr. Zhou had arranged for him to accompany us. He brought along his assistant who didn’t speak very much English.

When we reached the parking lot at the base of the trail were were given yellow hats so that we could easily locate each other. I thought this was a gimmick but later when going up the mountain and we were spread apart it was good to see where the others were. There were 10 of us, from L-R in the photo below: An interpreter (sorry-I forgot his name!), Mr. Zhou, Anil Somani, Doug Brown, Athena (interpreter), myself, Fei Deng, Jean-Marie Braun, and Victor’s assistant. Victor was taking the photo.

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As we walked, Victor shared with me the story of Wudangshan. He told me that it

is renowned as Immortals’ Mountain of Taoism and the World for Swordsman. It is a famous Taoist center in China with a long history of Taoist practice and is very important to Taoist culture. As a Kung Fu teacher, he spoke of its deep-rooted tradition of wushu (martial arts). Shaolin wushu is quite famous–many of the movies you see have Shaolin monks–and Victor told me an old saying: “Shaolin wushu is the best in the north, while Wudang wushu is the best in the south.”

Victor told me that the movie ‘Crouching Tiger’ was very good for Wudang wushu. There has been a resurgence of interest and a number of foreigners were now coming to study. He had three at his school, spending their time learning Wudang wushu and mandarin Chinese. He was very proud that his most recent student had spent six months travelling over China searching for the right school with the appropraite ‘atmosphere’. After discovering Wudangshan he has arranged to stay for three years. I could see why; this was a magical place to live and the tranquility conducive to reflection and peace.

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The path was excellent and paved all the way to the top. Not surprising given that people had been visiting the mountain for many centuries. I saw four workman lugging a huge stone between four poles to replace part of the path. While that was bad, what was worse were the porters who carried people up the mountain! They had a chair with a canopy between two long poles. One porter at the front, one at the back, and up you went in relative comfort. Anil commented at how reprehensible it was to have to carry a human being like that, and I had to agree. But then if the other option is not to work and to go hungry is it so bad? Fei didn’t think so but that was because she thought it wasn’t so hard on them. At one point we stopped to let porters pass, and I told her to listen closely to their breathing and look at their faces. She then agreed that it was very hard on the poor fellows.

Being China, the nature was not completely untouched. There were spots where stalls had been set up selling food, trinkets, drinks etc. There were so many people on the mountain that they did a roaring trade. It was nice not to have to carry several litres of water and food with you up the mountain, as one tends to do in other countries where there is wilderness with few, if any, amenities. However, they were not so frequent as to detract from the beauty of the mountain.

At one point we came to a group of musicians who were playing traditional local music. Of course I didn’t recognize it or understand the words, in fact nobody understood except Victor since it was in a local dialect which was unintelligible to the other Chinese. While the written language is the same, there are seven principal language groups: Putonghua (Mandarin), Gan, Kejia (Hakka), Min, Wu, Xiang and Yue (Cantonese). Each language group contains a large number of dialects. Victor told me that it was good that most people didn’t understand the songs as the words were quite pornographic!

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Just past the bridge above, we stopped for a rest. Fei decided that she wanted to visit the ‘Yellow Dragon’ temple, as she had an affinity with that deity so her and I wandered over. Nestled on the side of the cliff in a small cave, there were two Taoist monks. Fei said a prayer while I admired the tranquility of the valley below us. When we returned to the rest area the others except Mr. Zhou had gone on so the three of us walked together.

We came to a fork in the road and we decided to go the short/hard route. It was hard but definitely no shorter–at least time wise–as the others were to get to the top before us. It was great walking through the forest with Fei and Mr. Zhou. They were good company. We climbed, climbed and then, for a change, climbed. You can see that it wasn’t that bad for Mr. Zhou and Fei … Fei was smiling in the photo below.

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I found it hard going though…

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There were many families climbing up with young children. They were going to get a blessing at the temple. I didn’t envy them since they often had to carry the children. And of course it was usually the women who did the carrying.

One challenging aspect of China is that while they put in stairs, they don’t design them in such a way as to make it particularly easy to use them. OK, I know I should give them a break as many were put in a few hundred years ago, but they were so high that often I would have preferred to go up a ramp. We came to the staircase below which was an example of this. It was designed as a parabola so you start off easy and then it arced to get very steep towards the end. At the top I told Fei that with that staircase alone we had done the equivalent of walking from the first basement of the World Bank building to the 9th floor where our office is–twice (I know because I walk the 168 steps from the second basement to my office every day–just as fast as taking the lift). She was not inspired by my statistical parallel.

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Factoid: If you  look at the vertical rails in the photo above, you will see that each rail has an unusual shape at the top–kind of like a chocolate “Hershey’s Kiss”. Victor told me that this is the same way the Taoist monks do their hair. They were on all the posts, up the entire mountain.

Up and up we went, eventually reaching the temple at the top. Or so I thought. No, this wasn’t the top, so we continued further and finally reached the top. Nope. This is where we pay to go to the top. Up and up further and finally we reach the top, as evidenced by the number of people crammed into a small area.

The Golden Hall, or Golden Crown, is situated on top of Tianzhu Peak and was built in 1416. The tiles, rafters, ridgepoles, beams and gates are bronze and it was built on a granite base; it weighs more than 80 tons–and all this was carried to the top of the mountain by human/animal power! Many people were crowded around the Golden Hall with incense saying prayers etc. And I have NEVER seen such large incese–they gave off veritable clouds. Others were tossting coins on the roof, I couldn’t quite work out why but perhaps it was just for the challenge: the roof was so curved none of the money stayed on top.

The view was spectacular with the mountains dropping off into the distance all around us. I do love the mountains…

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We descended to the next level down and, after an interminable wait, had lunch. From there it was down, down, down. Even though it was getting late in the day there was still a steady stream of people going up. I wouldn’t want to be caught descending after dark, but I’m sure that they will somehow make it down OK. I also saw four caucasians going up. Now that was a shock! Normally when I’m in outback China I only see Chinese.

The afternoon sun was streaming through the woods and it was good to be alive. Tomorrow I would be sore–I’m sure we all would be–but it was great to spend a day in beautiful nature with good company. Life is good.

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