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A divine time on heavenly peak
By Wing Tan

THE path to the top of Tianyou Peak - which means traveling in heaven - on Wuyi Mountain has a total of 800 steps. I should know; I counted every one of the narrow slabs as I took the zigzagging path up the peak. And to make the ascent a little more challenging, early morning dew gave them a slippery sheen.

Don't stop. Do it in one stretch, my tour guide Liu told me.

Liu is a good guide. Most of the time, he spouted funny stories and historic anecdotes about the mountain to take my mind off the slog, but occasionally came up with some terse, light-hearted words of advice. "If you take a break half way, you probably won't make it to the end."

Wuyi Mountain boasts more than 500 historical inscriptions on its rock faces and a centuries-old tea garden hidden in its depths that once only made tea for emperors.

The range has been described as a piece of green jade inlaid in the northwest of Fujian Province.

The mountain is a masterpiece of nature, created through its forces over millions of years. A typical dan xia landform, it is characterized by steep red sandstone sides, deep, narrow valleys and almost vertical ridges. The geology has created numerous shallow and isolated caves of various sizes and shapes that captured the imagination of ancient Chinese.

But what makes Wuyi Mountain unique is its large number of rock inscriptions carved by a host of great ancient writers, calligraphers, painters and political leaders, who flocked to the mountain to meditate, attain enlightenment and communicate with the gods.

Tianyou Peak, the highest point of Wuyi Mountain, has become something of a must-do climb for tourists, rewarding them with a magnificent bird's-eye view of the area.

Though it's an energy-sapping journey to the top for me, it's also an inspiring and eye-opening one, because the road is studded with historic sites and cultural relics all the way. I was never bored.

We started at the foot of the mountain in early morning, the peak veiled in mist.

Among the early views is the remains of Wuyi Vihara, once the learning center of Zhu Xi, a Confucian scholar and the most influential rationalist Neo-Confucian in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Today only a dilapidated wall is left and it's hard to imagine Zhu giving lectures and promoting Confucian theories for more than 10 years in the once grand, imposing building that was a spiritual home to emperors and other important figures of the age.

History is like the ebb and flow of the tide. This was once at the center of a high civilization, but then the tides of time receded, leaving only ruins, like shells on a beach.

On I climbed. A few hundred meters from the Wuyi Vihara are caves of different sizes and shapes. At dawn and dusk in winter and spring, thin mists waft out of the caves, flowing gently between the rocks and ridges; gathering, scattering, then gathering again.

"We call it the Nest of Clouds," Liu said. Out of the mist, past a stone bridge spanning a meandering creek, we reached Shui Yue Pavilion - Water and Moon Pavilion.

It's said on a clear night, ancient scholars would hold banquets in the pavilion. They would eat, drink and admire the moons - yes moons; four actually.

"The one in the sky, the one reflected in the water, the one in the goblet of wine and ... Do you know where the last one is?" Liu asked me.

He paused for a second and smiled. "The one in the heart," he said. Ancient Chinese had a special attachment to a bright full moon, a symbol of purity, beauty and perfection.

Some modern counterparts, however, may lack this celestial appreciation.

"This kind of spiritual realm is hard to reach," Liu joked. "For me, I can only see the one in the sky. Huh."

Seen from the distance, the Cloud Nest shrouds a huge black rock, which looks like a crouching elephant. The rock is split in the middle, creating a gap big enough only for one ray of sunshine and one person.

In ancient times, the rock was a quiet and secluded place for Taoism masters to meditate and attain enlightenment. Then, in 1538, vice military minister Chen Sheng built more than 10 pavilions, kiosks and halls near the elephant rock.

Today they are all abandoned, with only inscriptions on the rocks to remind people of past glories.

To its left, a giant rock caught my eye. Its smooth surface is marked with long sunken hollows that look exactly like a handprint.

These were shaped by waterfalls eroding away the rock, but local legend goes that it is the handprint accidentally left by a god who stopped by and was enchanted by the beautiful scenery. He held on to the rock as he stopped for a closer view of Wuyi Mountain, leaving his handprint.

Continuing further to the south, we reached a stone gate, carved with the name "Liu Yun House." This is where scholar Dong Maoxun finished the "Wuyi Mountain Record" 200 years ago, which helps people have a detailed knowledge about this mountain.

We passed the Jixiong and Longjuan rocks, narrow and dangerous spots, to get to Xianfan Rock. Two large characters Xian (the Immortal) and Fan (the Mortal) inscribed on the rock told us that we were at the dividing line between the heaven and the human world. Crossing the line, we were entering the kingdom of gods.

The sun came out and it became warmer as the path grew narrower and steeper. I glanced up as the kiosk on top drew nearer. No one spoke as we focused on the path beneath our feet.

Some 400 years ago, great explorer and travel writer Xu Xiake, who traveled around China for 34 years and documented the country's geography, climbed the same path I took.

When he reached the top of Tianyou, he described it in his "Travel Diaries of Xu Xiake" as "the most breathtaking peak."

It was indeed. When we got to the summit, it was as if the world had suddenly opened up into brightness.

"It was all worth it," I said.

From my vantage point I looked down at the Jiuqu River, twisting, turning and traversing the mountainous area like an emerald green dragon snaking away into the distance, carrying an occasional bamboo raft.

Then I turned around to survey the scene around me. The peak was still blanketed in thick cloud, along with the nearby Dawang Peak and Sanjiao Peak. Looking at these majestic surroundings, you felt that you were indeed traveling in heaven.

If You Go

How to get there:

Take a direct flight from Shanghai to Wuyi Mountain Airport. You can take a taxi from the airport to Wuyi Mountain Park, which is about 15 kilometers away and takes 10 minutes. The taxi fare is about 20 yuan (US$3.2).

Where to stay:

Most of the hotels are located near Wuyi Mountain Park, about 8 kilometers from the mountain. Accommodation ranges from 200 yuan (US$32.02) to 600 yuan, which you can choose from three-star to luxury hotels.

Must try:

1. Enjoy a cup of Wuyi Yan (rock) tea, a famed beverage once only produced for emperors.

2. Buy wooden sculptures. Wuyi is known as a capital of wooden sculpture, and you can see lots of on a street full of handicraft shops just beside the hotels area.

3. See "Wuyi Impression" show. The one-hour show created by renowned director Zhang Yimou, presents the mountain's history based on a touching love story.

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