China · China travel · Travel

China’s holy island Putuoshan

During my stay in Zhoushan, I took a trip to the holy island of Putuoshan. As one of China’s four Buddhist holy mountains, Putuoshan is a well-known place for Chinese religious pilgrims and tourists. Of course, Putuoshan is an island and while it has hills, there are no mountains. Despite the geographical inaccuracy, Putuoshan is still a significant holy place with the whole island being dotted with temples and shrines. It’s the bodhimanda (place where a Buddha or deity became enlightened) of Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion, incidentally she is one of the few deities who some of my relatives worship. Many temples on the island are dedicated to Guanyin and there’s a huge 33m-tall statue of her near the shore on one part of the island. Hence you can say this is Guanyin’s island.

Getting to Putuoshan from Daishan was quite simple. I just had to take a ferry at 6 in the morning that would go directly to Putuoshan in just over an hour. Why so early? This ferry was the overnight ferry from Shanghai to Zhoushan (the one I didn’t want to take from Shanghai), and 5.30 am was the time when it stopped at Daishan. The ferry was large and could carry cars. The interior was reasonably clean and as it was so early, most of the passengers were asleep. During the journey, there were moments when the ship rocked slightly from the waves which were a little more turbulent than usual due to an incoming typhoon. As we got closer to Putuoshan, we could see the main island of Zhoushan and smaller islets, as well as the bridge that connected Zhoushan to Zhujiashan island (where Zhoushan’s airport was located).

As soon as we arrived on Putuoshan, we had to buy tickets, as the whole island is a national park, in the main arrival hall, which was quite fancy and looked like an airport terminal. Though Putuoshan is a tiny island (12.5 sq km), people generally ride minibuses to get to the various temples, which we did. There are three main temples- Huiji, Puji and Fayu. I had to return to Shanghai in the evening, meaning I had to return to Daishan first,  so these three were the only places I could visit. I missed out on seeing the giant Guan Yin statue. Huiji is situated near the summit of the island’s main hill, Fodingshan. We took a bus that drove on a road winding along the sea.  Being short on time, we took the cable car up to the temple, but we walked back down the hill along a pleasant stone path. The cable car ride didn’t take long because the hill is short, and you get a good view of the forest below, the sea in the distance, and a massive temple complex being built on another hill. Even here wasn’t free of construction.  Entering the temple also required paying an entry fee of 5 renminbi, which is nothing really. All 3 main temples had entry fees.


Going to visit a temple has become a travel cliche for visiting China. What makes these temples on Putuoshan stand out though is the sense of serenity and genuine reverence. Many visitors are here for religious reasons, less so for sightseeing. At all the temples I visited, camera-clicking tourists like me were in the minority while a lot of visitors prayed, prostrated, and burned incense. There were even pilgrims who were prostrating themselves onto the ground every set number of paces along a stone path. Basically, they’d walk say, 3 steps, then lower themselves onto the ground and bow their heads, then get up and walk another 3 paces and repeat the process, all the way until they reached the temple. I’d heard about this before, but it was interesting to see it in person.
After all, though Putuoshan is famous, the temples, though nice, are not too spectacular and wouldn’t entice many people to come all the way to this little island just to sightsee. Of course, there are sightseers and tour groups, but definitely when I was there, they didn’t outnumber the religious pilgrims. To me, this also showed that religion is practiced and respected by a lot of people in China, despite the government’s supposed disapproval, though I guess it would be less strict on more Asian and abstract religions like Buddhism and Taoism.

 

Coin tossing for good fortune, left, the way to Puji Temple, right.

At the foot of Fodingshan was Fayu Temple, and the last one was Puji Temple. Fayu Temple had a multi-layer bronze pagoda set atop a large vase (itself set atop a lage pedestal) which people tried to pitch coins up onto for good fortune, the higher the better. It looked simple but when I tried it, it was humiliatingly tough. After too many tries, I landed one in the 3rd pot which wasn’t high at all.
The way to Puji Temple included a large pond crossed by several arched bridges. There was an interesting story here, as the entrance to the temple was only permitted to be opened once every 7 years or so. This was due to an order by an emperor after he was refused entrance through the main gate when he visited. Even now, the tradition still continues though it is lifted for top Chinese leaders. However former Premier Li Peng was said to have to walk through the side gate when he visited many years ago.
I would have liked to be able to say this was a really pleasant and contemplative trip, something that was a really deep experience, but I can’t. I’m not Buddhist and the fact we rushed through the three main temples didn’t help me experience much serenity. I was just a tourist who didn’t bother to cup my hands and bow in respect at any of the shrines. I also missed out on seeing the giant 33m Guanyin statue that faces the sea. Still, I’m glad I visited a significant religious site in a small corner of China.
We left at noon on a small, swift and low-lying boat to the main island in Zhoushan and then took a taxi to another port to take the Daishan boat. Later that day, we left Daishan on board the fast ferry to Shanghai, taking the same journey we had made coming here, but in reverse- the boat ride first to the pier, then the bus ride back to Shanghai proper.

Worshipful visiting group with a Buddhist monk in the background, left. The Duobao stone pagoda, right, was built in 1333 during the Yuan Dynasty.

 

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