There are five Taoist holy mountains, one for each point of the compass and another at the centre. Most of them are not for the nervous pilgrim. In some places they are climbed by clinging to chains fixed in the rocks hundreds of years ago by monks who were no DIY experts; and the pressure of Chinese tourists could well send those prone to vertigo over the edge. It is sometimes recommended that certain sections be climbed at night when the sheer drops and jagged peaks below are not visible.
But there are also four Buddhist holy mountains. Categorised as the focal points for the religion in the eighth century, the Buddhists followed the same principle as the Taoist holy places, except that their geography was not accurate and no mountain was chosen to represent the centre. These can be - and are - tackled by crowds of tubby, middle-aged women pilgrims. Each mountain was sanctified by the appearance of a Bodhisattva, a being who had all the qualifications for nirvana (eternal rest) but who had chosen to lead men to salvation.
The mountains have been centres of pilgrimage ever since, and are dotted with temples of all sorts, from tiny halls inhabited by nuns to huge buildings financed by imperial and other donations in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pilgrims traditionally followed marked paths from temple to temple - lighting incense sticks and praying in each - until the summit was reached.
I started visiting the Buddhist holy mountains for a roundabout reason. While doing research on Chinese architecture more than a dozen years ago, I discovered that the two earliest timber buildings still standing in China were temple halls on the northern Buddhist mountain of Wutai. I would have gone to see them, but the area was occupied at that time by the Chinese military and its equipment for listening to the Soviet Union.
While waiting for Wutai shan to be opened up, I got into training by visiting the other three mountains - partly out of a professional interest in Buddhism, and partly because remote areas are often the nicest places to be in China.
The training wasn't necessary. The paths to the summits are mainly paved and stepped, although the steps can be rocky and are tiny and shallow, built for Chinese feet. You don't need to be very fit, and you certainly don't need climbing boots; you are bound to be humiliatingly overtaken by old women blessed with small feet, and probably by younger women wearing high heels and clutching jewelled handbags. If you wish to avoid having jelly-like thigh muscles after the climb, the only suitable training would be on an endless series of steps: somewhere like the Monument or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
My first holy mountain was Jiuhua shan, in Anhui province, about 250 miles up the Yangtse river from Shanghai. I went with two friends, then resident in Peking. One, a devotee of Reinhold Meissner, the South Tyrolean mountaineer, prepared an alarming amount of luggage, including a book on first-aid for mountaineers, which he carried up the gentle slopes through the tea bushes and rambling wild roses.
There is a sombre mood to the mountain, for it is dedicated to the cult of Ksitigarbha, a deity who presides over the underworld and can intercede on behalf of the dead to ensure a transition to the Buddhist western paradise. Many who visit Jiuhua shan come within the statutory 49 days after a bereavement to use the services of the main temple.
The mountain lies within a range that includes Huang shan, which is frequented by painters because of its jagged peaks, twisted lines and encircling clouds. A simple and rather exotic way to get there is on the Red Flag Line from Nanking, whose boats are small and old-fashioned. They offer small, two-berth cabins with antiquated fittings, and a dining-room containing nickel-plated cocktail shakers in the shape of penguins and glasses filled with elaborately folded napkins.
We disembarked at Wuhu, a small town famous for its decorative ironwork, where such old houses as survive are thatched and shaped like mushrooms. The bus journey to Jiuhua shan begins early in the morning and, with a lunchtime stop, takes almost all day. Unless you travel first class, you are advised to take a large enamel mug and a pair of chopsticks. The cold, black, greasy washing-up water of roadside cafes can put you off the utensils on offer. And being a foreigner can make it worse: our dishes were given an extra wipe with an astonishingly dirty cloth.
As we neared the mountain, its continuing religious significance became apparent. The restaurants offered vegetarian meals, a pleasant change from the lumps of pig fat on the usual menus.
The temples on Jiuhua shan were virtually all destroyed by the Taiping rebellion, which devastated the eastern Yangtse region in the mid-19th century. They were rebuilt about 100 years ago, and it is difficult to assess how much damage was caused during the Cultural Revolution. When I first visited the mountain, I was shown the most precious relic, the small mummified body of a Korean monk who died, at the age of 99, in the early eighth century. A monk told us, with some pride, that when they heard of the Cultural Revolution on their transistor radios, they buried the mummy and other treasures and retreated to a mountain-top temple where they sat out the troubles unmolested.
Enthused by my visit, I recommended the mountain to Colin Thubron, whose account (in the award-winning Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, Heinemann, 1987) includes stories of Red Guard atrocities, also told by the monks. That much survived is clear, for most of the temples have fine, large, blue-and-white incense burners on their altars, which date from the Republican era (1911-1949).
As visitors, we were housed in upstairs rooms behind the Temple of the Sandalwood Grove. According to the caption of a Twenties photograph, these were once 'second-class pilgrims' dormitories'; they are now home to some uninhibited rats, which rummaged through every paper bag in the room, despite our leaving the light on.
We ate communal vegetarian meals in the courtyard of the temple. In the evenings we could attend the impressive, interminable memorial services paid for by the bereaved. The abbot wore a red crown-like hat and mumbled the service, occasionally flicking drops of water ('the sweet dew of the merciful Guanyin') and grains of rice on the table in front of him, while his assistants drank great gulps of tea from insulated mugs. Next evening the soul of the deceased would be welcomed into paradise by Amitabha Buddha and all present would dance a conga around the courtyard.
On the easy climb up Jiuhua shan, small halls, occupied by elderly monks and nuns, stand beside the path, and cups of locally grown greenish tea can be had; unusually for China, the tea is sweetened, the amount of sugar increasing as you near the top.
At the summit, marked by piles of litter, nearby peaks loom through the clouds. On the first ridge, a tiny pavilion had been built around an enormous bell, and there a monk lived, surrounded by his few possessions: umbrella, wellington boots, alarm clock and bottles of soy sauce and vinegar. He came to the temple every morning, clutching a pilgrim's staff with a leaf-shaped bronze finial and a small basket to pick up his vegetarian provisions.
The monk rang the bell as he thought fit: to celebrate the fact that there were a few Buddhists in England; or to express his disapproval of the atheistic Communist state. He was interested in visitors and knew about England. 'Don't you have a Queen?' he asked, then said that she must be very old indeed, and we assumed he was thinking about Queen Victoria. This was not necessarily because he was out of touch (he could listen to the transistor radio, too) but because, for many Chinese, the past is close to the present: people will talk about the arrival of the Mongols (in 1368) as if it had been witnessed by their own grandfathers.
The eastern mountain, Putuo shan, on one of the scattering of small green islands that form the Zhoushan archipelago, is rarely visited by Westerners; but it is a favourite destination for Chinese tourists. The overnight boat from Shanghai sailed as the sun set behind the city's grand, Liverpool-like buildings. It was packed with tour groups, many equipped with distinctive caps, Japanese-style, so that their leader, armed with whistle, flag and megaphone, can could keep track of them. Among them were pilgrims, including the sick hoping for a miracle, and cheerful groups of women, like Chinese Wives of Bath, who would make sure that the nuns stamped their yellow pilgrim bags with the emblem of each temple visited.
Dedicated to the cult of the merciful Bodhisattva Guanyin, Putuo is covered with low, yellow-walled temples with dark sweeping roofs and tiny pavilions, perched on cliffs above the clear blue sea. The central building, the Temple of Universal Succour, which we reached from the jetty by a winding stone-stepped path, was badly damaged by the Red Guards, but it has been rebuilt in the traditional style around huge ancient conifers whose low sweeping branches echo the elegant line of the roofs.
Emei shan is the easiest of the mountains to get to: it has its own railway station on the line from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, to Kunming. Although it is beautiful in a damp and misty way, its very accessibility has made it hardly worth the trip. Quite soon after the Cultural Revolution, it was developed as a tourist centre. Now a common stop for Western package-tourists, it is crowded and exploited (chained monkeys are offered for photo-opportunities).
The northern mountain of Wutai shan, near the city of Taiyuan, about 250 miles south-west of Peking, was not opened up to Westerners until the mid-Eighties. Unlike the other mountains, which are single peaks, Wutai (meaning 'five platforms') is really a collection of peaks surrounding a basin dominated by a huge, white, stumpy Tibetan-style pagoda. It was a favoured place of pilgrimage for Mongolian Buddhists, and many of the temples have the immensely tall, undecorated pine poles in their forecourts that can be seen in Tibetan and Mongolian temples.
Where Putuo shan and Jiuhua shan are green and covered in trees and tea bushes, Wutai is bare, its strong, thick-walled northern buildings all the more prominent. The two earliest surviving timber-frame buildings in China - the original source of my interest in Buddhist mountains - lay outside the central basin. Neither was a disappointment.
The tiny hall of the Nanchan temple, dating from 762, is a building of considerable grace, its low roof decorated with simple incurling 'owl's-tail' finials; inside, the elegant stucco figures are also late eighth century, beautifully placed on a high brick
Not far beyond is the extraordinary main hall of the Foguang temple, built in 857. It is wide and low, with projecting eaves supported on complex cantilever brackets. It is fiercely protected by an outspoken monk with a withered arm, a reminder that even in Communist China, those who cannot work are dependent upon religious charity.
The Foguang temple was rediscovered in 1937 by Liang Sicheng, the Pennsylvania-trained architect who was a pioneer of architectural history in China (he found the date of the temple's construction inscribed on an interior beam). Liang's contributions to Chinese architecture were numerous, and numerical. Not only did he research the history of the Four Buddhist Mountains, he also designed the Ten Great Buildings, constructed in Peking in 1958.
After a marvellous afternoon spent in the two earliest halls, we found a place to stay in one of the courtyards of the Tayuan temple: a small, three-room wing in an otherwise empty courtyard where we could sit out on the steps and watch the red-legged choughs.
You meet some interesting people on the Buddhist mountains. I particularly remember the beautiful 19-year-old girl who, like me, was on a tour of all four. She had failed her university entrance exam by one mark; but instead of following either of the usual routes for a former Red Guard - getting a job or committing suicide - she had shaved her head, become a nun . . . and set off on a year-long pilgrimage to the four holy mountains.
Dr Frances Wood's is the author of 'The Blue Guide to China', A & C Black, pounds 16.99
Getting there: Direct flights to Peking from Copenhagen (SAS, three times a week) and Helsinki (Finnair, twice a week); connections to Heathrow (and, with SAS, to Manchester, Glasgow and Aberdeen). The best China travel specialist in Britain is Regent Holidays in Bristol (0272 211711) which can offer flights from pounds 550 return. Also by train on the Trans-Siberian railway; the Chinese train is preferable to the Russian, being better staffed and more direct (six days' journey instead of ten).
Formalities: A visa is required and is easily obtained at all major airports if you take a passport photo. (Price varies according to duration of stay.) No innoculations or vaccinations are required, but those against typhoid, cholera and polio (and malaria pills for the extreme south) are usually recommended. Medical insurance is essential.
Money: A non-convertible currency known as renminbi; the major unit is the yuan of which there are approximately 10 to the pounds . Foreign tourists are given Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) instead of currency. It is very unwise to buy renminbi on the black market because everybody will expect tourists to pay in FECs.
Further Information: China National Tourist Office, 4 Glentworth Street, London NW1 5PG.