The bus dive-bombed in and out amongst the longest coal trucks I’d ever seen as we careened down into Shenmu. I clutched the seat in front of me a little harder and glanced at my fellow travellers (all local) then out at the blur of dusty grey and green; the extra one Yuan insurance now making perfect sense. My first visit to Shenmu, my first lone foray into the countryside around Yulin (Shaanxi Province), and I wasn’t quite sure I was going to survive it. But at least I was having a real adventure!
The sense of being in a Stars Wars fighter receded as we crossed a bridge into central Shenmu at a more sedate pace and met the morning traffic. The recently constructed tall high-rises surprised me, and my expectations fell.
I’d been told by my Chinese colleagues that Shenmu was much smaller and less impressive than Yulin by Western standards, and that the only attractions were the temples: ErlangShan and the Nine Dragons Temple. I’d grown up on Indy movies then graduated to Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels; to me, tramping around ancient sandstone temples sounded like a heavenly way to spend a spring day.
My friend, Jen, coached me in my pathetic attempts at Chinese until I could buy a fast ticket to Shenmu, which would get me to the city in a hour instead of three. She also taught me how to find a bus station on a Chinese map (it’s the symbol which looks like a Mercedes-Benz logo).
Bewildered by the bustle of the Shenmu Bus Station, I wandered one street down to the river-front walk, trying to take stock. I found a friendly face and asked, “ErlangShan, zainar?” just as Jen had instructed me.
The young woman looked surprised, but smiled and pointed behind me to the towering ridge across the river. I turned and realised my stupidity. All I had to do was look up.
ErlangShan is unmissable, sitting high above the valley in which Shenmu nestles. Uncertain on how to reach it, I did the foreigner thing and flagged a taxi which took me along a very scenic route through most of central Shenmu, then refused to cross the main bridge. I was strong, I could walk and he could get an easier fare, or so I thought the driver might have said.
I remained unimpressed by Shenmu until I’d paid my twenty Yuan entrance fee and stared up at the intimidating stone staircase to ErlangShan Temple, the top seeming to touch the clear blue sky. Maybe the gods lived there after all…
I imitated the Big Bad Wolf half-way up the stairs, then took a short break and surveyed the view.
Over the river, on a equally high ridge, rose the pagoda of the Nine Dragons Temple. Much further below than expected, the river flowed deep and true until the far-side of the ErlangShan bridge where it abruptly disappeared into a swamp – hardly a sight I’d expected in the Mu Desert on the edges of the Gobi Desert itself.
A little further on brought me to the first of the gods and immortals comfortable in their shrines with incense and served by the odd monk looking like a KungFu movie extra.
At the top of the ridge, I was greeted by a friendly breeze, a vast blue sky trailing wispy dragon-tailed clouds, and a few hawkers. A shake of my head with a, “Bu shi,” to the hawkers soon ensured I was left alone to take in the rest of the temple and explore the cobbled BaGua and other sights.
Erlangshan stretches across five adjoining ridges, connected by short causeways and the most stairs I’d ever seen in my life. After the climb up the entrance steps, the site was immensely daunting. I contemplated calling it a day but something beckoned; perhaps my sense of adventure, perhaps the gods themselves… Besides, ancient places like this always held magic of some kind, didn’t they? Just ask Indy.
It’s easy to lose track of time in ErlangShan on a warm spring day. I wandered into all the nooks and crannies I could find, surprising gods (and being surprised by gods) I couldn’t identify, and who may not have ever seen a South African face before. Like other temples I’d visited in Shaanxi, gods and immortals from different religions and traditions live in happy contentment side by side: Buddhist, Taoist, local…and the God of the Mountain – Erlan himself, friend to GuanYin and companion to The Monkey King, as I was later to discover.
Up stairs and down stairs, in and out of short damp tunnels and little ledges, I explored them all in growing delight and often glee. This was exactly what I’d been hoping to experience and I wasn’t even halfway through the temple complex!
An awkward worn step, through a stone trapdoor, around and up a ninety degree stone stairway, and there stood The Monkey King too; hiding away with a guard, looking like not many had bothered to find him. I hope Erlan has assigned him better quarters since.
On the next ridge, I met a monk. He had no English and I had little Chinese, still we communicated well enough. For a while I visited the fascinating shrine of the dragon goddess he served whom I’d first mistaken for GuanYin. He indicated she was further on, and gave me an amulet with a smile. Jen told me later the goddess was one of fortune. A similar amulet was bestowed on me at GuanYin’s shrine. Treasures had found me without my having to duck poisoned arrows.
I reached the final ridge with pride. I wasn’t as worn out as I’d believed I’d be. There wasn’t much to interest me at the final shrine. Instead, the view compensated.
Desert sand covered part of the stairs enhancing the feeling of desolation. Across from me, high on what must be an ancient dune, stood one of the many small towers I’d noticed. They reminded me of ZhenBai Tai in Yulin, a tower belonging to the Great Wall fortifications. Erdos, in Inner Mongolia, lay not an hour up in that same direction… The earthworks could only be one of a series of beacons warning of invaders from the North.
Once again I revelled in standing in a place steeped in ancient history. Had Genghis Khan and First Emperor Qin also stood here? Had they seen similar sights, minus the line of coal trucks and Western high-rises? Had merchants on their way to the Silk Road stopped here to earn the favour of the gods too? Not even Indy would know.
Tired, footsore and hungry, I elected to take the shortest route down what I think of as the back-route – a staircase on the far-side of the temple leading more or less straight down.
Walking across the river bridge, I kept glancing back at the imposing temple. The feeling of delight and wellness persisted. I knew I was going to visit again, and perhaps again. The gods had delivered more than I’d expected. And I couldn’t wait to see what Erlan and company would share with me next time.
ErlangShan Temple was one of the places to truly inspire me and feature in my stories. You might want to read my short story, The Bagua, or keep an eye out for my novel Situation No Win, in which ErlangShan Temple has great significance. Thanks for reading!