Hiking up the Holy Mountain of Mount Jizu in Yunnan, China

Monks holding their prayer in the temple (©Coen Wubbels)

It’s 2am and we’re up and about to climb a 3248-meter-high mountain: the Chicken Foot Mountain, which is the translation of Jizu Shan. By leaving at this time we will be ahead of the crowd of visitors that will start climbing in an hour or so, and we’ll have the peace and quiet of a silent night.

Offering in the temple (©Coen Wubbels)

Silent it is; a deep, dark silence that encompasses us. Although the sky is clear and we have zillions of stars, there is a new moon and in order to find our way on the uneven trail through dense pine forest we need our head-lamps. Steadily we climb hundreds of stairs. The high temperatures of the afternoon have given way to a cold night and we have to keep moving to stay warm. We take short breaks for a sip of water or a piece of dried mango.

A few visitors have left even earlier than we; we notice them when arriving at the thirteen-story Jinding Temple on the top of the mountain. They have already lit large incense sticks in a tray, which in the darkness of the night looks majestic, especially because the glow is accompanied by the chant of a monk that reaches us through the open doors of the temple.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It sounds intriguing to have climbed the Chicken Foot Mountain, which happens to be one of Chinese Buddhism’s five sacred mountains (the others being E’mei, Wutai, Jiuhua and Putuo).
  • It is a beautiful hike to combine with sightseeing.
  • Good for lovers of hiking in reasonable shape, admirers of Buddhist temples and devotees of sunrise rituals.

History and the Name in a Nutshell

Zusheng temple (©Coen Wubbels)

I haven’t verified the explanation, but I am told Chicken Foot Mountain was given its name because from one particular point (the northeast side of Erhai Lake), the range looks like a chicken foot with three hills on one side and a single hill at the back.

The first temple was built during the Tang Dynasty (around AD 800) and is related to a legend about a monk called Jiaye who brought Buddhism from India to southern China and who fought with the evil Jizu king. Throughout the subsequent dynasties of the Song, Yan, Ming and Qing, temples were added. With some 300 temples, pagodas and monasteries, Jizu Shan was a sacred place for Buddhists for many centuries.

Fortunately not all traditions have been lost (©Coen Wubbels)

Unfortunately, most of it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. As we stroll the grounds, visit temples and see the remains of what once were sacred places, it is impossible to imagine the power of a leader (or of the mass following him) capable of destroying so much beauty and centuries-old culture. Fortunately, religion has been returning to people’s lives in communist China and construction and renovation are going on seemingly everywhere.

Sunrise Ritual

13 story Jinding Temple (©Coen Wubbels)

We are way too early for the sunrise and keep on walking around to stay warm. More visitors arrive and together with a number of monks, they hold a prayer session in the newly restored temple where they make offerings to three enormous Buddha statues. One monk  accompanies their chants by beating the rhythm on a large drum. This serene moment in the silent night with burning incense sticks and a chanting monk compensates for all the hardship of climbing I don’t know how many steps.

At six thirty the sun appears on the horizon, its beams quickly warming our chilled bodies. The Jinding Temple complex glows beautifully in the soft tinges. By now a large crowd has gathered and we join them on the east side of the complex. We also join them in the sense of awe when watching night turning into day and the rising of that red balloon announcing a new day.

Why does a daily phenomenon like a sunrise move us as it does? No matter how often you’ve seen them, sunrises, especially in the mountains, remain majestic and I can see how these ritual gatherings contribute to a feeling of spirituality or religion.

I feel connected, but to what or whom? Mother Nature, my creator, my higher self? Maybe it’s not about knowing, but just about feeling. As I watch yet another sunrise, I feel peaceful inside and connected to my source. I am lost in the beauty of it all until my cold feet bring me back to reality: I need coffee.

Practical Information

  • Jizu Mountain lies in Yunnan, in southeast China. Dali and Bingchuan (approx 30 kms) are both good gateways to the mountain (take a bus or taxi).
  • I recommend spending at least one night here because there are a various other temples worth a visit, like the Zhunsheng Temple, Huideng Temple and Jiuling Temple.
  • Near the mountain most accommodation is simple; for more comfort check out a hotel in Binguang.
  • For non-hikers, there is a cable car going up Jizu Shan as well.
  • For the hike-fanatics there’s the option of a 2-day return hike from Dali, a beautifully restored town that’s worth a visit.

Photos by: Coen Wubbels

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