For some reason Mount Wudang (武當山), a couple of hundred kilometers northwest of Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province, doesn’t make it into the list of five sacred Daoist mountains, and yet it’s sometimes regarded as the most important Daoist Mountain in the kingdom. Figure that one out.
Mt Wudang owes its historic significance to the fact that it was here that Taiqiquan was ‘invented’ around a thousand years ago: the familiar story – a monk being inspired by a battle between a bird and a snake – happened right here, in this deliriously lovely spot that now attracts fit hikers and lazy tourists alike with its winning combination of ancient and very atmospheric temple architecture and magnificent natural beauty.
By comparison with most of China’s great historic/scenic mountains, Mt Wudang is a slightly inconvenient place to reach. There’s no airport conveniently nearby, there are only a couple of trains a day, and it’s a five-hour bus journey from Wuhan. It’s probably gonna be a two-day trip from almost anywhere you reach it, but that’s fine as (in common with almost all China’s famous mountains) it’s well worth ignoring the tempting cable car and tackling the long walk to the top which, as always, is one of the highlights of a visit.
First however, you need to get from Mt Wudang town to the trailhead. The Lonely Planet guide, in a rare moment of forgetfulness, somehow neglects to mention that it’s more than 20 kilometers from the Mt Wudang entrance gate to the trailhead! Hence the outrageous entry fee, which at RMB250 or so (including the long shuttle bus ride into the scenic area) is the highest on any Chinese mountain I can remember paying. And to think the original plan (based on the idea we’d formed from reading the good book) was to walk from the bus stop to our accommodation on the mountain!
For walkers there’s a choice of trails to the top of the mountain, one from the terminus of each of the two shuttle bus routes that climb its foothills. One follows the cable car route from Zhongguan to the summit, but for hikers it’s probably more scenic (with a lot more temples en route) to follow the trail that starts in the hotel-cluster called South Cliff (南岩) at the end of the other shuttle bus route. South Cliff is the best place to spend the night on the mountain (although there are really basic dorms in the temple area just below the summit – not sure if these are only for pilgrims though). There are plenty of places along the road through the settlement; we chose the first tout (a middle-aged woman) that latched onto us and were guided to her establishment – perfectly good twins for about RMB150 a night – a bargain!
As we got off the bus way back in Mount Wudang town it started raining for the first (and only) time during our three weeks in China, and we thought that (five mountains into the trip) our luck had finally run out. Amazingly, once up at South Cliff, the rain had already stopped, and we had dry – and cool! – weather for the 2-3 hour climb to the top. It sounds a pretty easy-going climb on paper, only as usual it’s a good bit steeper and gruelling than reading about it sounds!
Before starting the climb, a short detour leads to the very fine Nanyan Temple (南岩宮). It’s a bit disconcerting to go there before starting the long climb to the summit, as the stone path descends quite a bit to reach the grand main hall of the temple, but it’s well worth doing at some time during a stay at South Cliff. Walk into the main hall of the temple, walk round to the left and out the back door, and you’ll reach Mt Wudang’s famous Hanging Monastery, built into a rocky crag with a big vertical drop below. Its setting is nowhere near as spectacular as the more famous Hanging Monastery near Datong in Shanxi Province (there’s a photo of that amazing place on an earlier blog entry, the third photo down from the top, here), but it’s still impressive. A path along the cliffs continues to descend, passes another much smaller building (now just a shell) precariously perched on a much higher cliff, and eventually joins the path to the summit of Mt Wudang at Langmei Temple, although starting the climb this way entails a lot of descent before finally starting the big climb!
Retracing steps, we took the main summit path, an attractive walk through thick woodland with good views of the Hanging Monastery on the cliff opposite. After passing the Langmei Temple (榔梅祠) the path starts climbing to pretty Qaotian Temple (朝天宮) where the trail divides into two routes, both climbing to the summit from different sides. We chose the route via the three Gates to Heaven (天門). This trail is a far, far, far cry from the magnificently wide ceremonial steps to the summit of wonderful Mount Tai (泰山), the far-famed Daoist mountain in China’s eastern Shandong Province. Instead the steps here are narrow and quite humble, and the three gates are quite small and attractive but hardly impressive. There is one similarity with Mt Tai though: the climb is uncompromisingly steep in places!
After the Third Gate to Heaven, the thick woodland that’s accompanied the entire climb so far is finally left behind and there would have been a view if we weren’t enveloped in low cloud. A bit further up the magnificent collection of ancient temples, living quarters, monasteries and whatnot just below the summit of Mt Wudang looms out of the damp fog. It’s a stunning place, where Daoist monks sporting long, picturesquely wispy beards and robes of royal blue glide around the complex of beautiful, red-brick buildings and up flights of stairs. The place looks for all the world like an exotic film set.
To make the final, steep but thrilling climb to the uppermost peak of craggy Mt Wudang, there’s (gasp!) another admission charge…. It’s only a few RMB however, and it would be a big mistake to miss the highest and finest bit of the whole mountain. The gate closes around 5 pm, so don’t be too late coming up here, or you’ll miss the biggest highlight of the mountain – the summit!
Immediately after handing the bills over to the blue-robed custodian, the route passes through a gate into the Forbidden City (紫金城), which occupies the craggy highest peak of the mountain, surrounded by a magnificent, curved stone wall several feet think, which in places seems to grow right out of the cliffs.
The path zigzags steeply, giving airy views through the slowly dispersing cloud over the huge expanse of the surrounding landscape. At the top is the surprisingly small Golden Hall, which would be a little disappointing were it not for the fact that it’s made entirely of bronze and is 600 years old. I guess the Red Guards were either too unfit to puff up here, or the thing was too tough and heavy to destroy. In any case, Mt Wudang seems to have survived the Cultural Revolution better than many places, as there’s little obvious evidence of restoration work here or elsewhere in the mountain’s many wonderful old structures.
As we hung around, the clouds blew away and a magnificent panorama finally lay revealed before and below us in all its magnificence. In the past Mt Wudang had been low on my list of ‘to do’ Chinese mountains, because it didn’t seem to be as superbly scenic as some Chinese sacred mountains such as Mt Jiuhua (Anhui Province) or the incomparable, incomparable Mt Hua near Xian (a report on that coming up next on my blog!). Neither did it seem to be as culturally magnificent as Mount Emei (Sichuan) or Mt Tai.
I was soooo wrong! Mt Wudang manages to combine extraordinary beauty (at least once you reach the summit – the way up is nice rather than spectacular) with some of the finest, most evocative old religious architecture I’ve seen anywhere in China, and while it’ll never be as popular as crowd pleasers like Huangshan and Mt Hua, it’s a special place, and well, well worth making the steep, monotonous climb to witness first-hand.
Only a couple of daily trains stop at Mount Wudang station; we arrived from the Zhangjiajie area (in Hunan Province) by taking an overnight train to the city of Xianyang (襄阳; the latest Lonely Planet doesn’t say anything about it, but marks it on the map as Xiangfan – this name was exchanged for the present one at the end of 2010). This is a good jumping-off point for Mt Wudang, with excellent and very cheap accommodation, since it’s not on the tourist circuit.
From here regular buses run to Mt Wudang in less than two hours. From the tiny bus station in Mt Wudang town (just a dirt parking lot at the moment) it’s a five-minute walk to the grand entrance to Mt Wudang Scenic Area and the big ticket hall, where you cough up a small fortune to enter the mountain and take one of the regular shuttle buses way up the mountain to the trailhead. You’ll need to change halfway up to take a second minibus to South Cliff, the best base for climbing to the summit, or the lower station of the cable car, further west.