– or is it the Eyes that Look at Heaven?
Two tall peaks, each with a pool of water at the top, gave the ancients the inspiration for the name of this mountain range in Zhejiang Province near Hangzhou. Then the mystery thickens, because it is for us to find out their meaning – if heaven is looking at us, or are we looking at heaven, or is this the portal where we discover our oneness in everything?
A note on the road
The road up Tianmushan has more than 200 hairpin turns, all with mirrors installed at the bend, which is more like a tight u-turn that turns upwards than anything else. Be prepared to hang on to something as you whirl your way up. Once you are in the nature reserve, the path is also tricky. The stones are not flat, and the stairs are steep and long. Be prepared for a workout. If you do wear out, there are mountain walkers who carry bamboo chair frames, and will carry you out for a fee.
If you are deep in the mountains and there are many stairs to climb it might cost a lot, so it is better to ask about the various turns in the road. At one the people coming back up from the lower areas told us that it was very very steep and not worth going. Now – that is all in the eye of the beholder. Our group tramped through it all. On the way up from the steepest set of stairs I praised my bamboo walking stick on each step. You can buy a lovely bamboo walking stick for one rmb in the parking lot at the entrance area. I couldn’t be parted with it at the end of the day – it had become an old friend. It now sits in the dining room and I send it love and affection every time I walk by it. The red painted character on the rock is “chan” – the Chinese name for Zen (Buddhism), which originated in China.
Here we are with the King of Trees, the oldest tree in the park, now very elderly and barely alive, and my Bamboo Staff, bless its heart. The King of Trees is an ancient Cryptomeria whose bark has been removed by years of pilgrims who believe that it will cure leukemia.
Fog and Mist
A famous poet wrote “there is no way to know the mountain’s true face!” The mountains south of the Yangzi are often in the mist, floating in and out, clearing a little, then closing in. There is no way to know the true face of this mountain either, and I wondered if there would ever be a clear day when you could gaze into the eyes of heaven. This weekend we had thick mist and clouds so dense that we came out of our walk as if we had a shower in spite of the fact that it wasn’t raining. I want to see the eyes-of-heaven ponds, so I am going to have to go back. This trip was spent getting acquainted with the mountain face itself, but we must have been crawling on the chin, cheeks and nose! Next time I will climb up to see the mountain’s eyes in person.
Haven for endangered species
The Eyes of Heaven mountain range is a glorious mix of rare and unusual species all thriving together in one luxuriant span of mountainous verdant green. There are 39 “endangered and protected” animals in the range, 3 varieties of plants with the highest level of state protection, as well as 15 other varieties at the second level of protection.
For in the true nature of things,
if we rightly consider,
every green tree is far more glorious
than if it were made of gold and silver.
– Martin Luther
The most majestic of the trees are the cryptomarias that tower over the reserve’s pathways. If the mountains have eyes on top, then all along the paths they have heavenly fingers in the form of these cypresses (also called Japanese Cedars), which point so clearly to heaven. The closest thing we have to this in the US are the redwoods, which are older and bigger, and carry that same spiritual elegance as Tianmushan’s cypresses.
I was glad to see benches by many of the Japanese cedars, and a rest was really welcome inbetween those steep flights of stairs. It made me think of Thoreau, who said, “I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree,or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” He would have loved this ancient tree haven, and I bet he would have spent hours with some of the trees here.
I found an article on the web that described the glee and joy of some local forest specialists as they found two species of maple not too far from the Buddhist temple near the top of the mountain that had never been found anywhere else in the world. They had already taken leaves, classified and identified their DNA, so there is no fear of losing the lessons of these precious maple treasures. In the nature reserve section of the range the plants next to the trails are labeled with signs, so you can appreciate what is in front of you, although the two rare maples are not on the trail.
Local Food Specialties
“Cloud and Fog tea” is produced from wild tea trees growing on the slopes of the mountain, and there are many varieties of herbal plants. I am going to be honest about this tea – I wasn’t wild about it. If the flavor was of fog and mist, then perhaps it was accurate. I prefer something more fragrant and delicate, like Guanyin Wang, the Queen of Oolongs that comes from Fujian, or else I like a good stiff cup of Typhoo tea or Yorkshire Gold, enough to put hair on your chest.
Succulent bamboo shoots from the lush local groves of bamboo grow on the lower levels of the mountain, and the local farmers dry them and sell them as snacks. They drive their motorcycle trucks up to the farmer B&Bs during meals, so you can wander outside afterwards and buy some of their dried bamboo shoots, small local kiwis in season, or sweet Chinese hickory nuts, a relative of the pecan, which also grows in the area. Chinese hickory nuts are outrageous – small, but with a flavor somewhere inbetween the pecan and the walnut. Folks here like to add a very thin but crispy coating of brown sugar on the nuts, and it is so flavorful it is hard to imagine. They also stew and then dry the bamboo shoots with raw peanuts, and this is the local version of potato chips – albeit much healthier. If I could only attach a hickory nut or dried bamboo shoot for you via internet…
Because we went to Tianmushan as part of a company trip, we did not have to make any of the transport arrangements. It looks like you could get a bus from Hangzhou to Lin’an City (also written as Linan), and then take a taxi from there to the nature reserve area. Since we traveled on the GrapeCity bus, we went their directly from Shanghai. We stayed in a “nong jia le”, directly translated as “Farmer’s House Happy,” but perhaps a clearer translation would be Farmer’s Bed and Breakfast. There are many of them, and you can find them online. We stayed at: Jin Xiu Shan Zhuang B&B, run by the Huang family. The number is: 0571-6385 3081, and 137 5829 8017 and, if you can imagine this, they have a website: www.tmjxsz.com (Try to pronounce that one!) If you can read and write Chinese, there are lots of farmer’s bed and breakfasts on the web. This one was clean, had screens in the windows, was at the end of the road, so it was quiet except for the roosters in the morning, and had good food. You only have hot water briefly before dinner, so make sure you take your shower when the hot water is announced. The water is produced in solar heaters, so they make it available in the evening when it is at its hottest. If they kept it overnight, it would cool off.
You also may be able to find a tour that takes you to the mountain and then comes to pick you up Sunday afternoon. Some travel agents from the bigger cities nearby have tours like this.
There are plenty of busses on the mountain running almost constantly so there is no need for transport other than the busses and your own feet. Here’s the biggest bargain. You can stay for a month and they will take care of all your meals, provide you with a room, hot water once a day, and an internet line for 1,500 rmb, which is about 215 USD. Then with the mountain and all its trails, you would have the potential for a real mountain retreat.