Xiantong Temple, built during the Han Dynasty, is one of Mount Wutai’s most venerated sights. // © 2014 Shutterstock
Tucked away in northeastern China and far from the country’s urban cacophony stands Mount Wutai, a sacred set of peaks in a rugged mountain chain renowned for its stunning vistas. Considered a holy hub of Chinese Buddhism, Mount Wutai was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, and it is one of the reasons travelers make the journey to Shanxi province.
In this picture-perfect alpine region, ancient temples hug the mountain slopes, many of them standing since the first century. At Mount Wutai’s heart rests the small mountain village of Taihuai. With its collection of souvenir shops, vegetarian restaurants and lodging options, Taihuai is a good jumping-off point for those looking to explore the area’s attractions.
Hillsides here were once dotted by hundreds of temples, but now only 47 remain, and few are open to the public. A relatively easy walk reveals the liveliness and spirit of three ancient temples: Pusading, Xiantong and Tayuan. Admission to the temple area in the low season (November through March) is approximately $30 and includes general admission and transportation.
Without leaving the village, visitors can see Xiantong Temple, the oldest of its kind in the region and conveniently situated in the town center. With prayer beads in hand, monks mill around the temple’s entrance — the enormous red gate is often left ajar — and stream through the complex in silence. It is a brilliant place in which to observe the faithful, smell rich incense and roam ancient halls, where cultural relics, statues and intricate wood carvings are among the offerings. Highlights include the oldest bronze bell on the mountain and hundreds of life-sized figures of seated monks in the East Hall.
Pusading Temple rewards diligent hikers with views of Yedou Feng peak, one of Mount Wutai’s five mountains. The temple is accessible via a climbing trail that begins near the city center and takes guests up to the top of Vulture Peak, which is revered as the highest point in the village.
Translated as “Buddha’s hat,” Pusading stands out with its yellow-tiled roof and storied history. The location was once a monk dormitory known for making porridge. A massive bronze cauldron in the yard is believed to have fed 10,000 people in its time. A mixture of architectural styles, from Tibetan to the Ming and Qing dynasties, is represented here as well. By the souvenir stands, colorful prayer flags flap in the wind, reminiscent of Tibetan customs, alongside laughing Buddhas and delightful handmade crafts.
At the base of Vulture Peak lies the region’s skyscraper, a giant white stupa at the great Tayuan Temple that stands out at more than 160 feet tall. The tower was built during the Ming Dynasty as a monument to the great Manjusri, and it is known as the place to see a replica of the sage Sakyamuni’s footprint (the original is in India) and a collection of spinning prayer wheels.