Mount Cangyanshan-Surprises at every turn

Temples cling precariously to sheer rock faces in Mount Cangyanshan, Hebei province.

Remember the climactic scene in Ang Lee’s film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wohu, Canglong) when Zhang Ziyi takes her leap of faith and throws herself from the craggy heights into a never-ending ravine, till she is sucked into a misty haze?

Lee swapped Wudan Mountains, where the story is set, for Mount Cangyanshan, in Jingxing, Hebei province, to shoot the scene. It’s not difficult to imagine why when the narrow road winding around Cangyanshan suddenly opens up a new vista, revealing the twin cliffs, rising steadily upwards, almost perpendicular to the ground. A stone arch bridge and a temple are balanced precariously over the narrow abyss, like a pendant hung on a thin string. Cangyanshan is an astounding combination of spectacular natural sculpting and jaw-dropping architectural achievement.

If you are visiting Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei, and have begun to wonder if the city has much else to offer besides the usual catalogue of skyscrapers, shopping malls and KTV bars, take heart. The city itself may not have that many tourist attractions besides the expansive Martyrs’ Memorial Park and the colossal Hebei Museum, but if you are willing to step out of it, there’s plenty to see and do within a 50 km radius.

Mount Cangyanshan, for instance, is about two-and-a-half hours’ drive southwest from Shijiazhuang. Once you reach the site, you could either start the journey from the foothills and walk up the 1,000-odd m, or take a cab ride to the tip of the hill – to the Buddhist monastery where the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) princess Nan Yang, the daughter of Emperor Yang, would meditate about 1,400 years ago. The soft-spoken and scholarly princess must have found the tranquil atmosphere conducive to her thoughts.

At Cangyanshan, every turn yields a surprise, such as the Fortune Celebration Temple, a tablets house, the halls dedicated to the heavenly kings, the Giant Buddha, a Buddhist canon depository and the temple of the Goddess of Mercy, the female incarnation of the Buddha. The green and yellow porcelain tiles on the red wooden, sometimes two-tiered, pagodas seem to reflect the sunlight back toward the source. A rather crude and garishly-dressed clay sculpture of the princess riding a tiger appears along the way. But the most overwhelming sight is a flight of stairs – all 356 of them – rising between what looks like an absurdly narrow space between two rock faces and passing beneath the arched bridge. Wherever you are in that scene, it will make you look utterly small.

If you drew a straight line towards the northeast from Cangyanshan you would probably hit Zhaozhou Bridge – the world’s oldest stone-arched deck over a river – only there isn’t such a road connecting the two spots. Built between 605 and 616 AD, this 50-m-long link, rising in a gentle arch over the Xiaohe River, is located 40 km southeast of Shijiazhuang. Huge stone slabs fortified by iron were used to build this eye-catching piece of architecture designed by Li Chun, whose bronze sculpture stands in the park.

Rows of weeping willows growing on either side of the river gently brush against the shoulders of passing visitors, who can take a spin on the paddle-boats. But the top draw in this sprawling park, dotted with sculptures, museums and peddlers, is the bridge itself.

Four smaller arches were built into the body of the bridge – meant to let floodwater pass through when the river swelled. The world’s oldest open-spandrel bridge, Zhaozhou is a rare combination of class and functionality. Dragon heads carved on the walls of the bridge, spreading out in elaborate curlicues, have added to its quiet dignity.

In downtown Zhaozhou, an Indian-style monument, complete with lotus petals and earthen lamps carved on every tier, stands, incongruously, not far away from the vendors, chopping and weighing big chunks of meat. Donkey meat is a Zhaozhou delicacy.

Less than 15 km north of Shijiazhuang, in Zhengding county, is Longxing Temple, best known for the mammoth sculpture of the thousand-armed Buddha. The statue is so high that one can only see it in parts. A frontal view of the head can only be seen after one has climbed three floors. Built at the turn of the 6th century AD, it is one of the earliest Buddhist temples in China.

On either side of the two imperial stele pavilions, which Qing (1644-1911) emperors Kangxi and Qianlong helped rebuild (the temple was originally built by Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty in 586 AD), are tiles with people’s names painted on them in red. These are dedicated to the dead in the family, wishing them a restful afterlife.

While almost each of the halls in the complex has a sculpture of the Buddha, in one of his avatars, the most beautiful of these is that of the Avalokiteswara Buddha. It seems to spring out of the wall, along with the five-color backdrop of clouds, rocks and fountains against which it appears. The figure, with its smooth, elongated limbs, is almost ladylike.

An octagonal revolving archive, with an elaborately decorated red and gold roof, used to be a library for storing the Buddhist sutras. The ingenious contraption would have the texts laid out in two concentric circles, revolving both ways like a carousel. But there are no books in it now.

What intrigued me the most was an army of headless Buddha statues, carved in white stone and assembled on a patch beside the rock garden at the back. The gardener said these were vandalized during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) – a compelling reminder of a winter of discontent in the temple of peace and prosperity.