Loud screams echoed through the woods as we climbed higher. Slowing our ascent, we stopped to catch our breath, and debated whether to continue. Out of curiosity, or perhaps goodwill, we ventured upwards. How could someone even scream this loud, we wondered. At the top of the steps was an open pagoda, where we paused and watched as a sweaty male, clad only in shorts, moved from one corner of the temple to another, raised his arms, shook his fists, and hollered into the air.
Spotting our appearance, he abruptly stopped, smiled, and waved us onto the pagoda. Relieved not to be witnesses to a felony, we nodded and guardedly walked towards him. The view was spectacular, as I watched his movements from the corner of my eye. Continuing down the steps on the other side, we waved goodbye, and hurried our descent. Soon his anguished screams rang anew from atop the hill.
Was this a religious initiation? Why so much anger? Who was it directed towards – the gods or just the tourists, who flock to this island for inspiration and transformation.
Putuoshan is a fabled Buddhist temple island that lies in the China Sea southeast of Shanghai. Mt. Putuo, its highest point, is one of four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism, and is dedicated to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Our guidebook described the island as a ‘not to be missed’ attraction. Besides, living in the San Francisco Bay area does not present many opportunities to visit authentic Buddhist temples.
That’s what brought us to Ningbo, the closet stepping off point to the island (a two-hour bus/ferry ride to the east). How could we pass up such a praiseworthy destination?
Ningbo is a pleasant city of two million people, notable for textile factories scattered around the perimeter of the town. In these suburban mills, workers live in dormitories and are paid less than a buck an hour. Attracted by big city jobs, they leave their farms in the interior, and work long hours making clothes for export.
Westerners are here for business, since there are few tourist attractions. Indeed, Ningbo is scarcely mentioned in any guidebook. When we inquired about local attractions, the lady at the front desk sent us to the mall down the block – four floors crammed full of every designer name imaginable. Beside ourselves, the only life in the place was the overstaffed and under-utilized workers.
We stopped at the Ningbo tourist information center to make arrangements to go to Putuoshan. “Why do you want to go there?’, asked the lady behind the counter. Misunderstanding her question, and thinking that she really meant to say, “when do you want to go there?”, we told her tomorrow and pulled out our money.
After a thoughtful pause, she interjected that we would not appreciate the island – that she didn’t think we would like it. Still, our guidebook highly recommended it, and, since we are here, need to decide ourselves. So she sold us tickets, and we planned on leaving early the next day.
We arrived on the island after a bumpy hour-long ferry ride, paid our admission of twenty-three bucks each, and were given a pile of literature. As we waited for a minibus to take us into the center of town, a long line of chain-smoking Chinese male tourists took turns snapping pictures of each other standing in front of a painted rock.
Hopping on the bus, we passed freshly built hotels that lined the road, ready for a new wave of tourists to arrive. Stepping off the bus, we felt oddly out of place, the only Westerners in a Buddhist enclave. Our first priority was finding a place to spend the night. Sensing our confusion, two gals, on their way to work, led us to a decent guesthouse for the night (at a value price of fifty bucks).
Settled in, we sorted through the handouts and found a map – Chinese only, no English. Fortunately, the sights are concentrated within thirty minutes of each other. We started at the 100-step beach ($2 access fee), a historic religious site complete with dune buggies, wave runner rentals, a trapeze, and loud music blasting over the crash of the chocolate surf. Then on to the recently built Nanhai Guanyin statue that overlooked the sea (that will be another $2 please), bypassing rocks with significant Chinese characters carved in them (along with a line of tourists waiting to have their picture taken). For another fee, optional sacred caves could be explored.
We soldiered on to the recently planted Bamboo Forest, past fake speaker rocks echoing Buddhist chants, through a maze of look-alike chintzy souvenir stands pushing incense sticks, to still more modern temples that all managed to charge two dollars each. Huge tour groups crowded the immaculately constructed pathways, with guides blasting commentary over cheap megaphones.
Puji temple, fronted by a reflective pool, seemed to be the only historical and worthwhile attraction on the island. Surprisingly, it was free of charge. Began in 916 AD, it has been destroyed, rebuilt, and expanded through successive dynasties and government directives. Containing some two hundred structures, the Hall of Yuantong houses a twenty-four foot tall bronze statue of Guanyin, the ‘Goddess of Mercy’, flanked by thirty-two statues of her reincarnated offspring. Lesser Buddha’s grace the other interiors halls.
At least Puji temple had the redeeming quality of being a thousand years old. Regrettably, outside the complex, the modern-day ticky-tacky vendor shops have taken up residence, rendering any archival sense of history moot.
Putuoshan is a curious destination with a bewildering array of competing attractions. In attempting to meld everything together, the end result is akin to plopping Disneyland next to the Vatican.
Still, Putuoshan entices the faithful who come seeking spiritual enlightenment. As the Muslims complete the Hajj to Mecca, and the Catholics pay homage to St. Peters in Rome, so too, Buddhists travel on their own pilgrimage to Putuoshan.
However, despite glowing recommendations, we were disappointed. Too much hype and commercialization to compensate for the historical treasures remaining on the island. It was just too difficult to grasp the religious significance while ensnared in the cobwebs of a tourist trap.
After one night, we eagerly took the first ferry back to Ningbo. Imagine that, we actually looked forward to returning to Ningbo.
The tour lady was right, why did we want to go there?
If they had just left the island as it might have been a hundred years ago, instead of bundling it into some kind of fantasy land, it would have made for a better experience. Wonderful old Putuoshan, what is to become of you?
It made me want to climb to the highest hill and scream.
That is when I finally understood the agitated man in the pagoda.