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.

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Service Charge Accountant

    30,000 to 35,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: We are currently recruiting on...

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    Day In a Page

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?