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Hunyuan, The Hanging Temple, The Water Goddess Temple and paper cutting

By Ted Mason | | Updated: 2016-11-08 15:10

It seems to be common practice for Asian people to sleep on buses, only waking up at destinations. Travelling south out of Datong towards Hunyuan, these people miss seeing the pointed mountains – they're bare, but dark and green. Many show signs of ancient terraced farming. They have been cut and shaped layer against layer like jagged, worn teeth. They rise majestically from the flat fields of maize that lie at their feet. Each field is separated from the road and mountain by planted young trees. Valleys and gullies have been etched into the cliffs. A sweet smell of sage is in the clear air. Added to this magnificent and unusual landscape are trees… millions of them! Shanxi is a tree farm. They are planted together in huge fields or in any available space; pine, poplar and silver birch. Wire fences are covered with red-leaved creepers, all these forming wind-breaks and a stability of roots.

A tunnel several kilometres long bores its way under the mountains and exits to further huge areas of tree planting. Colourful plants stabilize the cliffs. Small and old, low lying villages dot the landscape, almost hiding in the middle of golden fields. These dwellings are a symbol of an old China that is quickly disappearing in the drive to modernise and urbanise.

As we reach the site of the Hanging Temple in Hunyuan, Mount Heng rises up on each side of the road, so tall that it dwarfs the temple clinging to its sides. Seventy five metres up from the base of the mountain, the three sections of the temple seem supported on thin sticks! I was debating about whether it is safe when a guide explained that the "sticks" were only put there to reassure tourists! The temple actually rests on very thick pine beams set into the mountain. It must surely be one site in the world not to miss in a person's lifetime. Almost one and a half million people visit this site each year, mostly Chinese. Yet it has not been spoiled by commercialisation. Only one small unobtrusive shop dares to offer a traveller souvenirs. As there are no restrictions to the numbers of people coming here, I can only imagine the crowds during National holidays!

In contrast to natural or ancient sites, the town of Hunyuan struggles to develop and modernise. With pride, a traveller will be shown the new colonial style streets of shops and restaurants. New apartments are low-rise to replicate the old dwellings. I can imagine people sitting here or walking around the shops and parks as they do in the colonial area of Guang Zhou, yet it will be a pity if the essentially Chinese atmosphere created by the old buildings of the area is destroyed.

There are so many historic and religious sites in Shanxi that a tourist may be tempted to yawn at yet another one. However, they are all different and interesting in their own right, and a person can feel relief by enjoying the colours of the flowers planted in contrast to sandstone cliffs or carved statues. One temple in particular is striking for tourists with its natural beauty and serenity; the Water Goddess Temple at Guangling. A combination of trees, flowering plants and water stimulate interest even before you arrive at the actual island temple. Willows bend in prayer over the spring water. Red cocks-comb flowers adorn the steps leading into the temple.

It is common for sites like this to have stories. In Shanxi the folk-tales are endless. The story of this goddess is intriguing. A young widow is hated by her mother-in-law. She is made to collect water each day from far away. She kindly gives water to an old man's horse and he gives her a magic fly whisk that makes water in any pot. Her mother-in-law finds it one day and throws it into the pot, thereby it overflows causing huge floods! The girl rushes home and tries to sit on the pot to stop the water. All stops except for four uncovered places which become the springs supplying this lake with fresh water. This is an unusually happy story. So many stories in China end in death… even "romantic" ones.

Shanxi is proud to have a great number of such historic and cultural sites and important Buddhist sites and temples. A thoughtful restoration process is underway. Its reputation as a dirty province of coalmines and factories is taking a long time to change, attributed in no small part to the bad (and now incorrect) publicity it received years ago. Skies are blue, flowers bloom and the trees are young and green. Fences are red with creepers. Mountains are spectacular and unusual, sprouting dainty wind generators on their peaks and ridges. Perhaps it is time to restore and protect the thousands of pieces of artwork fading under the eaves of buildings, and time now to think about how to keep the rural villages alive, and saved as examples of an almost lost rural people's China.


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