~ Posted by Simon Willis, September 19th 2012
First came the vomiting, a chorus of embarrassed heaves the other side of the aisle. Then came the fighting. I was on a bus winding its way up to Wutai Shan, for Buddhists the most sacred place in China, home of Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. An argument broke out among a party of pilgrims, a few of them motion-sick. Some thought they'd been fleeced by the entrance fee of ¥218 (about £20); others suggested, not politely, that they get off the bus.
There is a lot of corn in Shanxi province, and a lot of coal, so our bus was accompanied on its five-hour trip from the provincial capital, Taiyuan, by a honking parade of heavily laden trucks, roughly following the route of the new highway that's being built. As we threaded our way past mines and fields, there was a line of concrete pylons, patiently waiting for the road surface to reach them.
Wutai Shan means Five Hill Mountain. The highest of these hills is about 3,000 metres, and at this time of year, after the crowds of summer and before the blizzards of winter, the trees are just beginning to turn. Every year up to 10m people make the journey to visit the complex of temples running along the valley floor and up into the five hills above. All those pilgrims need places to stay and restaurants to eat at; their buses and cars needs places to park. Pilgrimage, it seems, needn't exclude profit, and wherever tourists go, trinkets follow. It's a place where hawkers and hustlers jostle with lamas in their deep-red robes. In Shuxiang temple, which has the largest statue of Manjusri, a one-handed monk was circling, prostrating himself every three paces. Walking further up the valley, I met a lama who'd been a monk since he was nine—44 years in all—and had come here from Tibet.
I was looking for a sacred cave, and there were no signs, so I took a wrong turn and found instead a party of 15 or 20 construction workers knocking up a new hotel. On the way down from one of the peaks I had to cross a building site, the dirt marked by caterpillar tracks; and back in the valley, trying to find something to eat, I walked to the dull rhythm of men and women with plastic mallets tapping down new paving. The whole place echoed with the sound of stone breaking. Even in the most sacred parts of China, new buildings are going up, and old ones coming down: in 2009, when the mountain was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, there had been complaints from some of the people who lived here that their homes were being forcibly demolished. On Wutai Shan, the pilgrim finds holiness—with hammers.