Trail of the Unexpected: Sacred China

'Illuminated by torches of fire, a hundred monks chanted ancient prayers to the sound of a drum'

WINTER IS the only time to visit the sacred sites in China if you prefer silence and solitude to sharing your pilgrimage with chattering tour groups following little yellow flags. My goal was Emeishan, a sacred Buddhist mountain in Sichuan Province. In summer it is a magnet for tourists, but in winter the mountain regains some of its ancient dignity.

Winter is the only time to visit the sacred sites in China if you prefer silence and solitude to sharing your pilgrimage with chattering tour groups following little yellow flags. My goal was Emeishan, a sacred Buddhist mountain in Sichuan Province. In summer it is a magnet for tourists, but in winter the mountain regains some of its ancient dignity.

The perfect place to stay is Baoguo Monastery, at the foot of Mount Emei. Rising at five, I was hypnotised by the Buddhist ceremony taking place. Illuminated by torches of fire, a hundred monks chanted ancient prayers to the booming of a slow and solemn drum. Clouds of incense billowed from huge bronze urns, and the golden Buddhas glowed in the light of the flames.

Setting off at dawn, I had the whole mountain to myself. There were no souvenir-sellers, no hawkers, no have-your-photo-taken-in-Chinese-costume stalls. A thick mist shrouded the mountainside, pierced by the occasional tantalising glimpse of rock pinnacles high above as the wind blew. This heightened the atmosphere: journeying upwards in the silence and whiteness, everything dropped away apart from the sense of being alone on a mountain, in pursuit of something invisible.

Towards twilight I found a simple refuge, monastically spartan but offering delicious cabbage soup as only the Chinese can make. In the morning the mist was still swirling thickly, and the freezing night had left a thin coating of ice on every step. Around coffee-time, a lone porter appeared from nowhere and shared his flask of green tea with me.

Wild monkeys live on the mountainside, and around lunchtime several large males blocked the path ahead of me, demanding a toll of food. The signs warning "Monkeys About – Stay Calm, Be Careful" did nothing to reassure me. The forest floor was strewn with old rucksacks, and, alarmingly, an anorak sleeve. I changed my route, discretion being the better part of valour. Although the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple on the Golden Summit sounded tempting, so too did Qingyin, the "Pavilion of Pure Sound'', lower down.

On my way there I encountered four affluent Chinese being carried up in wicker chairs. I was clearly a source of amusement to them: I must be too poor to afford a chair, forced to walk and carry my own rucksack.

As I approached Qingyin at twilight, ethereal singing and the clash of cymbals floated out on the evening air. The temple stood dramatically on a rocky outcrop over a tumbling river, its burgundy doors glittering with gold calligraphy.

I woke the next day while it was still dark, and followed a path lit by flares to the stream. From a dragon-carved pavilion straddling the water, I watched the sun rise up from behind the mountain. The mist evaporated and I could trace the steep side of Emeishan up to where it disappeared into a cloud at the summit. Silhouetted against the sun was the black outline of a mountain pine, completing a perfect Chinese drawing.

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