“I am here to save my husband,” the old woman said. Clouds blew through the doorway and eddied about her tiny bound feet.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Hell,” she said. “He is in hell.” She drew a photograph from her bag and tipped it into the light: a bony man in front of a village house.
“He ate meat,” she explained. “And he was unfilial.” The sound of gongs and chanting came in with the clouds. In the temples the monks were stirring.
The old woman had crossed half of China on her mission. Jiuhuashan, one of China’s four Buddhist holy mountains, is barnacled with temples dedicated to the Lord of the Underworld, Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, a surprisingly benign fellow. His hell was nasty enough but he was open to persuasion. It was a matter of knowing who to bribe. The temple abbots, who were on a first name basis with the Bodhisattva, were a good place to start.
I had come up from the Yangtze, crossing the river on a flatbed ferry and taking a road south through the province of Anhui past farmyards of geese and bicycles. The flooded rice paddies had made a mirror of the landscape. Across the glassy terraces ploughmen and their buffalo waded through their own reflections.
On the slopes of Jiahuashan the road climbed through ragged forests of pine and dog roses. Waterfalls, delicate as lace, threaded bodices of bamboo. Higher still the clouds came down to meet us, and in their white light we saw shaven-headed pilgrims climbing the stone stairways. Beyond the clouds we emerged into an outpost of heaven, where monks flitted between the golden-roofed temples.
Pilgrims have been coming to the temples of Jiuhuashan, the Nine Blossom Mountain, since the days when China was only an outlandish rumour in the streets of Rome. Holy men climbed the sacred stairways to gossip with departed souls. Emperors who rarely left the Forbidden City were carried aloft on sedan chairs through its pine trees like pale Buddhas. Poets made the mountain a metaphor for renewal, and ordinary folk flocked to it for salvation and to cut a deal on behalf of their dear departed, by paying the temples for special prayers.
At the temple opposite the guest house a crescendo of cymbals announced the prayers for the dead for which the old woman had paid. Beneath three gold Buddhas, each as tall as the Sphinx, sat a row of ecclesiastical dignitaries wearing pantomime crowns. Gongs sounded and the assembled monks laid their mugs of tea aside and began to mumble the sutras into an incense-laden twilight.
The old woman hovered on the threshold like an unexpected guest, kneeling and kow-towing during the rituals to the instructions of a young monk with the charm of a traffic cop. The walls had been adorned with the names of her husband’s ancestors. On a ledge a banquet had been laid out for these departed souls, come to testify for the deceased. Liberal supplies of drink had been laid on in the hope of making them friendly witnesses. Like many Buddhist rituals, it went on for a bit. Having an hour or so, I wished her good luck and returned to the guest house to sleep.
At breakfast the next morning I found my guide waiting. He was a round, shiny fellow, bubbling with enthusiasm and bad jokes. I couldn’t think who he reminded me of until he asked me if I had read Pickwick Papers.
He led the way up rising paths past terraces of tea, where nuns were harvesting an early crop. At the Roushen Temple Pickwick rubbed his hands and led me down a long stairway. This way to Hell, he called cheerily. We passed into a lower hall whose walls were crowded with painted scenes from the Underworld. The murals showed gleeful, green-faced devils boiling miscreants in oil, while others sawed them in half like demented magicians. Round a corner, demons were busy pulling out the tongues of the sinful with red-hot tongs.
Giggling like a cruel schoolboy, Pickwick waved me eagerly from one scene to another until the portrayal of Paradise brought him up short. It filled a wall, a carved fairyland stretching out of sight into the recesses of the ceiling. On hundreds of rocky promontories stood placid, contented souls. After the lively interest of Hell, Paradise seemed a dull place and we found ourselves drifting away, bored.
Back in the sunshine, we climbed a pilgrims’ stairway through slopes embroidered with vegetables. Above us we could see further temples set into the cliffs. The pilgrims plodded onwards and upwards, their steps lightened by the promise of salvation, while those lucky enough to afford sedan chairs shot past in the fast lane. Through the trees came the sound of firecrackers warning the Buddhas in the higher temples of the pilgrims’ approach.
Unfortunately Pickwick’s favourite restaurant stood on the path to enlightenment and we got no further than a good lunch. He commandeered a window seat and ordered a sizzling array of dishes. Beer arrived and a clear Chinese liquor that smelled like surgical spirits and had the kick of an aggrieved buffalo. Pickwick embarked upon a series of toasts, each ending with the same flourish: gan bei, bottoms up. It was like lunching with a Cossack.
In the evening, back at the old woman’s temple, the atmosphere had so lightened up that I suspected the monks of lunching in the same restaurant. Apparently the prayers had had the desired effect. With her husband’s soul now released from the Underworld, the monks were now embarked on the second chapter of the death mass: a celebratory send-off into Paradise, where Amitabha waited to welcome him. I found them dancing the hokey-cokey with the old woman through the temple halls, chanting like football fans, Ami-ta-bha, Ami-ta-bha. She waved gaily at me and spun away beneath the prayer flags with her clerical hoofers.
Later I climbed the road into darkness. The lighted monasteries were dotted about the slopes like fallen constellations. A crescent moon lay on its back, gliding down a milky sky towards the Yangtze. Dawn was still hours away, but already there rose from the hillsides the sound of gongs and sleepy chanting. The monks were putting in an early morning call to the Eternal. The task of saving souls from the rigours of Hell left little time for sleep.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.