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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: August 26, 2013 NO. 35 AUGUST 29, 2013
A Calming Influence
By Francisco Little

The scene of the Qingcheng Mountain (CFP)

A shimmering movement rustles millions of leaves and the trees seem to have taken on a life of their own. There was no wind blowing, which could only mean one thing. Birds—lots of them. The thousands of egrets that infest the dense forest at the entrance to the mystical Qingcheng Mountain are more than just wildlife. They have become a tourist attraction in their own right, and if they seem to be guarding an ancient heritage—they are.

Situated close to the city of Dujiangyan in southwest China's Sichuan Province, the sacred mountain is regarded as the cradle of Taoism, China's only homegrown religion. Taoism is seen as a life wisdom acquired by simply observing the flow of natural events or being in harmony with dao (the way).

After inhaling the perpetual pollution of China's big cities, Qingcheng's clean atmosphere is quite literally a breath of fresh air. The mountain covers an area of over 120 square km, with a year-round evergreen mass of cypress, gingko and plum trees, bamboo forests, caves and peaks of varying height. From optional vantage points the peaks rise and fall, giving the impression of an urban metropolis. It is from this that Qingcheng, meaning "green city," got its name.

A UN World Heritage listing, Qingcheng consists of two sections, a seemingly endless scenic spot and an area prosperous in culture and history.

Depending on how energetic you are you can either climb up the mountain (1,500 meters) or take a cable car. The view from the small flimsy-looking two-seater cable cars is stunning, and slowly enough, it enables a lingering view of the impressive murals carved into the mountainside depicting Taoist and Buddhist deities. With Qingcheng being honored as a "Fascinating Place for Immortals," sitting high over dense foliage is a great way to contemplate your own mortality and drop any mental baggage that's tying you down. It's a very long way down and not recommended for those with vertigo.

Getting to the cable station requires being ferried across the ethereal Yuecheng Lake or Moon City Lake. Visually, the image of deep green water seemingly held in an embrace by foliage so dense it appears impenetrable, is guaranteed to de-stress any city-weary visitor. Even the children on the ferry stop their hyperactivity to just feel and look. It's the quiet moments like this that allow a glimpse into the true natural beauty of a country caught in a vortex of development.

All monasteries along the route serve vegetarian meals that somehow seems in keeping with the gentle surroundings, and there are dozens of the inevitable snack vendor stands dotted along each and every path. The exercise and crisp air do tend to accelerate the need to eat.

Taoism is in evidence everywhere on the mountain. Temples and historical sights are prolific, beginning from the restored Jianfu Temple at the mountain's foot, which dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), to the Shangqing Temple on its lofty location at the summit.

But for me, the most fascinating of the temples was Tianshi Cave, or Celestial Master Cave, regarded as the grandest temple of them all. Situated halfway up the mountain, it is a marvel of architecture and color, with its present structure built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Tianshi is a repository for many important wooden and stone tablets from the Tang Dynasty, including the imperial decree of the time. Zhang Daoling, the simple man who arrived at Qingcheng to develop Taoism preached there in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). Zhang went on to become one of the religion's most recognized masters, after Lao Zi (around 571-471 B.C.), and helped spread Taoism across China. The area is filled with legends about Zhang, the trees he planted, the wisdom he imparted and the harmony he nurtured between man and nature. Nearby is equally fascinating Chaoyang Cave or Facing the Dawn Cave, blending rock and temple effortlessly.

The fact that there are 36 peaks, 72 caves and 108 scenic spots on Qingcheng conjures up mysteries of another kind, proving a delight to numerologists no doubt.

Along the mountain path, well-camouflaged resting pavilions are located at regular intervals, a place to catch your breath from the strain of the climb (up and down) or just from the beauty of the surroundings. Vendors selling cucumbers materialize out of nowhere—eating cucumbers really does help cool down the body. One annoying aspect is the local litter carriers who rush past, bouncing on muscular calves, with their grinning passengers pushing and jostling climbers out of the way with little disregard for safety on the narrow, steep stone path.

The fragrant smell of incense from many temples lingers in the clean air and blends with the forests, lake and slow-moving, expressionless Taoist monks. Tranquil, refreshing and not too crowded. Just what a day away from the city should be.

The author is a South African who once worked in Beijing

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