A Religious Experience

Trip Start Sep 30, 2005
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Trip End Jun 04, 2006


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Sunday, April 16, 2006

PutuoShan is ranked as one of the four most important holy mountains in China. There are a lot of holy mountains in China, so this is quite an important place on that count. It is also a very beautiful island to which I'd like to return. However, if I did come back:
1. I wouldn't arrive during the World Buddhist Forum when the place is teeming with VIP's.
2. I'd come just to wander around and explore the island on foot at leisure.
3. I'd arrive and stay midweek rather than at the weekend when the massed Shanghainese trippers are visiting.
4. I wouldn't particularly worry about visiting the sites and temples because the scenery can be enjoyed without following the tourist trail
5. I'd either sleep on the beaches or pre-book accommodation before I arrived, because once you get here you're a hostage to whatever prices people want to charge.
6. I'd come back very soon before the organised tourist industry wrecks the natural beauty with their new development plans.

Puyi Shi was packed when I arrived and parts of it were blocked off by security staff whilst scores of police swept past like so many black beetles protecting the VIP's in their midst. I'd arrived in the midst of the First World Buddhist Forum being held on the island and the gold, red and yellow decorations hanging everywhere were a stunning sight. Any notion I might have had that being in a major Buddhist holy site during a holy convention might give me some additional insight on the religion and its role in the culture were dispelled very rapidly by the government bus convoy that swept past me as I'd stepped off the boat. I put aside all thoughts of finding accommodation on the island there and then and headed straight for the ticket office to book a berth on that night's ferry to Shanghai.

A day of exploring in the sunshine began knowing that my boat sailed at 4.45 that afternoon. Looking at a map of the island, it seemed a lot to try to visit in less than a day. I needn't have worried. PutuoShan is smaller than you think, and unless you want to visit every temple on the island, you're not going to struggle to see the sights and pay your entry fees in more than a few hours. Having "done" a couple of temples and wandered down to the spectacular golden monument to Guanyin, I was more than happy to do my own thing. The night before the conference had obviously put on a show and there were all manner of decorations and special effects machines being removed from where they had been hidden on the upper parts of the temple. I also reflected that this religious island was a big industry. The boats to and from, the RMB120 entry fee all visitors must pay to set foot on the island, the tickets to enter the temples or to ride cable cars, the fairly expensive accommodation, the expensive food shipped from the mainland.... Somebody visiting for 24 hours would easily spend RMB600 per head which is serious money in China.

I ambled along enjoying the pristine sand of the almost empty 100-step and 1000-step beaches (all I can say is that whoever measured the number of steps must have had huge legs!). The beaches are empty because if you follow the signs for tourists there is a ticket booth charging you to get onto them. Funnily enough, there is more than one way to get onto a beach when you're exploring an island at leisure and not following the signs, and it was great to feel the warmth of the sun and see breeze after the damp days in Fujian.

The further you go from the southern tip of the island, the more desolate and beautiful it becomes and the steeper the hills become. It reminded me a little of Mediterranean islands where you go around a corner and feel like you're alone on the mountain or in the cove. The people renting bicycles to tourists have a perverse sense of humour given the terrain, and the numbers of people pushing bikes around were legion. Walking as I was, I was happy enough just to explore the things that the thousands of tourists I'd left behind me will never see. Some of the scenery was beautiful, some of it was shocking. It's easy to see why PutuoShan is an attraction for visitors, both because of it's stunning scenery and religious significance. However, on the relatively empty Western side of the island, it appears the tourist industry have been given permission to destroy a couple of tree-covered hills and to build a new temple complex, a new pagoda and just around the corner from these a new hotel resort. Is the Buddhist religion, one big tourist industry? I don't know, but I'd be interested to see whether monks will live in this new temple complex for tourists. This isn't any kind of renovation project, this is another garish theme park.

I felt slightly sick at the apparently crass of the exploitative planning and what to me seemed the sheer stupidity of the blind consumption of the visitors who'd come to this resort. All this made me wonder if I wasn't being a bit glib and condescending, and maybe I don't have the right to be so judgmental if this is what the local consumer wants in their country. I got another perspective later that day when I hitched a lift back to the ferry terminal with a passing car of monks visiting the conference. They were from Taiwan and very much consider Taiwan to be the cradle of authentic Chinese culture. They openly discussed what they saw as the poverty of culture in mainland and emphasised their beliefs that their religion should focus on unselfishness. It had obviously be a theme of the conference. They weren't amused at what I suppose they saw as a sort of desecration of the holy island.

From a selfish perspective I was mighty glad they'd come past when they did. I'd found myself wandering down a road between two big hills, and unable to see the sea. I'd asked one local farm worker which way was the quickest way to the ferry terminal (except that I couldn't remember how to say ferry terminal in Chinese). He pointed me on my way, and I'd checked with a passing lorry driver who'd told me to go in the opposite direction. I had an hour to play with, I was hot and tired, glad at least to have my compass with me, and then the monks came past in their air conditioned car and offered me a ride. I thought it apt that I'd been saved on a Buddhist mountain by some passing monks. It's not a life defining moment or anything like that, but it's something I'll always remember, and even more importantly it's one of those lovely experiences that would never have happened if I hadn't headed off and chosen to do things my own way.
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