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One of China's most ancient Buddhist sites, the Five Terrace Mountain (Wutai shan) is a quiet area that, despite recent tourist infiltration, still retains its Buddhist roots. With an almost alpine atmosphere of dense forests and often snow capped peaks, the mountain is a great place to have your introspective wanderings interuppted by some stunningly beautiful scenery. The area is also known for its purity, with clean air, that distinguishes it from the province's polluted cities of Datong and Taiyuan, clean streams, including the aptly named Clear Water River (Qingshui he), and a piety of Buddhist thought.

Wutaishan is one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains (Si da fojiao mingshan), along with E'meishan, Jiuhuashan and Putuoshan. It is located close to the northeastern border of Shanxi, not far from both Datong and even the Great Wall (about 150km). The mountain is so named for the five terraces that form a coarse circle around a hilly valley. The tallest of these peak terraces is the northern peak, that jutts to 3058 meters above sea level, making it the largest in the north of China. The valley that these five peaks surround is centered upon a small village, Taihuai, that itself holds around 15 to 20 temples, and that is the focal point for travellers to start their trecking in the area.

Recorded Buddhist history of the mountain goes back as far as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and it was around this time that a wandering Indian monk is said to have met the Manjusri Buddha (Wenchu Buddha in Chinese, Buddha of Wisdom) in a dream. This Buddha was also said to have stayed on the mountain, when he took bodily form, and legend has it that his hairs are still kept in a small pagoda in the Tayuan Temple. In such circumstances, the mountain was dedicated to Manjusri, and many statues on the mountain still depict this personage riding a lion with sword and sutra in hand (a fierce pro-intellectual).

The area has seen many productive peaks and destructive purges in its time, although both have historically been somewhat lessened by the remoteness of the mountains. The Tang (618-907 AD) and Ming (1368-164 AD) Dynasties saw probably the most prosperous periods for Wutaishan, and many of the temples in the area still have architecture from these periods. In the highs of the Tang, the area had a total of over 200 monasteries. Purges have also at various times and for various reasons passed through the mountain, although the purges of the late Tang and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) are probably the most famous. The Anti-Buddhist persection of the late Tang hit the area badly and many of the temples were either destroyed or allowed to deteriorate for almost 300 years. The more anti-intellectual basis (intellectuals were Mao's stinking ninth category), that was a cornerstone of the Cultural Revolutionary movement, fortunately did not turn the Red Guards sights towards wise Manjusri's mountain and most of the temples were left untouched. A lucky twist of fate.

Nowadays there are around 50 or so monasteries in this area, many of them dedicated to the worship of the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelukpa). The majority of these temples are to be found in little Taihuai, so that nowadays the village looks more like one huge temple, than a village.

Wutaishan Climate

With an exceptionally high altitude, Wutaishan, although lying at about the same latitude as Beijing, has climatic characteristics more like those of the Dongbei provinces (Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang). In summer this area is humid, made worse by frequent rainfall. Although rain gear is essential at this time, this still remains the best time to visit.

The mountain is more or less inaccessible between September and April, when roads near the mountains and the paths up are encrusted with snow and slippery ice.

Monthly average temperatures in Wutaishan (degrees C.)

Month Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Average Temperature -9.2 -7.0 -1.3 5.7 9 17.2 17.9 17.5 11.0 5.7 -1.7 -7.4