Not far from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon lies a green oasis:
Lantau Island, one of the largest islands in Hong Kong.
We saw it from afar the day we landed. Through a misted up window we made out a cable car system, connected to a station settled high up in the mountain, and loosing its way inside fog and lush greenness. A few days later, we set out to reach the Ngong Ping Plateau, a highland located on the western part of Lantau Island, which hosts Po Lin Monastery and Tian Tan Buddha.
Our friends recommended us to book the tickets for the cable car ride online. Once onsite, a huge queue of about 1000 people were waiting their turn to reach the tickets counter. With our pre-booked passes, we quickly made it to the gondola station, where we climbed into a crystal cabin. As its name implies, the bottom of the crystal cabin is made of reinforced glass. And when it lifted up, we felt like soaring through the sky.
Along with us boarded a group of hysterical Korean teenagers, who spent the 5,7km long ride screaming and taking selfies. We ourselves had entered in a kind of trance, fascinated by the turquoise sea below our feet, the water parade of boats, and the rising vegetation along the sharp slopes as we left the shore behind. We spotted a steep hiking trail way below our feet: a trekking path, which is certainly not for the faint-hearted. With the ambient humidity, one could tell that the steps were slippery, leading to peaks shrouded in mist.
At the horizon, a shadow came slowly into focus: the famous Tian Tan Buddha, a seated bronze statue commonly called “Big Buddha”. After a 25 minutes-long journey, we finally docked in Ngong Ping Village, where most tourists get trapped in dozens of shops selling overpriced handcrafted goods. We made our way through this tourist corridor, passing, to our great amusement, a giant popcorn box, a traditional Chinese red barrel-shaped drum (Tanggu), and a bodhi wishing shrine.
We could tell that we were entering a new zone, a spiritual area, as we were greeted by the statues of the “Twelve Divine Generals”, and several giant gateways, which led us to the Po Lin Monastery. Even before making out the yellow roof tiles, we could smell the familiar scent of sandalwood: a sweetish fragrance of flowers mixed with the burnt smell of the joss sticks. Soon we spotted two big bronze fuming censers located in front of the temple. This was the antechamber of a sacred area. From their impressive size and the hundreds of burning incenses they were holding, one could tell that the Po Lin Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist sanctums in Hong Kong.
In fact, the Po Lin Monastery – Po Lin meaning precious lotus – was once a humble stone house. Known as a “The Big Thatched Hut”, it was built in 1906 by three monks to worship Buddha. They chose the location for its seclusion and serenity amidst tranquil mountains, ideal for religious practice.
Since the 1960’s it has developed into a huge monastery complex, with three main houses of worship built in an axis, and flanked by several towers and halls in symmetrical arrangements. All the buildings are ornamented with large golden statues, elaborate friezes and columns, and lotus-shaped floor tiles. Bodhisattvas (Buddhist saints), believed to help mortals reach enlightenment, are depicted on each side of the first staircase. And here and there, we saw reversed swastikas, a sacred symbol in Buddhism dating back to the 2nd century BC. The latest addition to the complex is the massive Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas. In this room, the walls are completely covered with golden statuettes of Buddha.
As we left this majestic structure from the side, we passed by the monks’ dormitories and the dining hall, where worshippers can also have lunch like in many Buddhist temples throughout the world. On our way out, we spotted something we never thought we would see, unless in a fantasy movie: a row of hairy trees! No kidding, the trees seemed to be covered in grass, and looked like unshaved legs.
Facing the Po Lin Monastery, Tian Tan Buddha, a 34-meter high bronze statue built in 1993, sits on a gargantuan throne of lotus. Hiking up to the peak was a fun challenge. Many people stopped in their tracks, unsure whether to proceed. We smiled encouragingly at them. It is unbelievable how people are united and sympathetic on such occasions. Fathers lifting up their screeching kids, grannies hanging tight on their otherwise despised daughters-in-law, teenagers moping and panting. About 268 rough stone steps later, we gaped at the spectacular panoramic view of Lantau Island.
The vista was clearing up, as the wind chased away the last veils of mist. Inside Buddha’s throne, an exhibition about the history of the statue was on display. There we learnt that the statue was cast in more than 200 bronze pieces, each weighing several tons. A couple of American kids had sneaked away from their parents and set their heart on a local vendor. They asked the price of every single item the woman was selling. After the 15th answer, she became mute as a carp. Then the kids started asking other questions, such as “Is this made of jade?” while pointing at a plastic spoon, a porcelain plate, or an amber necklace. The woman was on the verge of a nervous breakdown when the kids’ mother finally showed up. They returned to her protective arms, good as gold.
Going down the steps was rather easy. And so we decided to wander to the Wisdom Path, where not many tourists venture out. We came across an abandoned warehouse made of concrete, where giant banyan roots had taken back what was rightfully theirs. It reminded us of the Angkor Wat ruins in Cambodia. Except that here we could still see some collapsed bed structures and torn old mattresses through a broken window. We lingered at the view of this hush wilderness, with a sudden awareness of how tiny and defenseless humans are against Mother Nature. We wondered what had happened here, what this building used to be, who used to live here, and where had they gone to?
Left with unanswered questions, we continued our way. The trail quickly dipped into the jungle, and thick bamboo stems were blocking a view further into the thicket. Along the way we spotted strange heaps of dung. They stemmed from a kind of cattle we do not know in Europe… A rustling in the bushes made us pause and listen. 5 meters further we saw stray cattle grazing. And there was a water buffalo deeper in the wood.
As we stumbled out of the jungle, we saw numerous wooden steles set on a peaceful hill facing Lantau Peak. We had arrived at the gate of the Wisdom Path. The site was so perfect and somehow divine, that we spoke in whispers, while staring at the 38 wooden steles engraved with Chinese characters. A group of three seniors arrived. They seemed fit, sharp and educated. Especially the woman, who was not at all in compliance with mainstream elderly women in China or Hong Kong. She seemed free, independent, and liberated. They were conversing about literature, but soon acknowledged our presence, and smiled at us. Later, they explained to us that the steles contained verses from the Heart Sutra, and that the sutras are arranged in a specific pattern (∞), representing infinity.
We sat down on a rock, musing about human transience, strangely soothed by the surrounding mountains, far away from the crowded streets of Hong Kong.