Just an hour’s flight from Shanghai, Putuo Shan is worlds away from the bustling Chinese metropolis. This tiny, 12-sq.-km (4 2 ⁄ 3 -sq.-mile) island, 32km (20 miles) off the China coast in the East China Sea, is an oasis of calm, with little vehicular traffic, no chain stores, and no flashing billboards. It is filled with temples and green gardens and ringed by scenic beaches with soft, smooth sand. Most important, it is a holy place for Buddhists from all over the world, who make pilgrimages to the peak in the center of the island known as Mount Putuo, one of the four most sacred mountains in Buddhism. A trip to this “garden in the ocean” is a serene, rejuvenating escape from urban China.
The ancients called this small island the “Number One Buddhist Paradise in China.” An imperial order in the 13th century decreed Putuo Shan and its temples sacred to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, a goddess of mercy and compassion (known in its female form as Guanyin). Much of the island was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1949, but with the atheist Chinese government apparently opening its arms to Buddhism lately, Mount Putuo and its remaining monasteries and temples have undergone a renaissance: The island now has some 33 temples, and of the 3,000 permanent residents, 1,000 are monks.
Climbing Mount Putuo is not for the faint-hearted; although it rises only 300m (984 ft.), it has more than a thousand steps to ascend. You can take a cable car instead up the mountain. The island’s main temple is also its largest, Fuji, which traces its origins back a thousand years; its golden glazed roofs signify that it was designated a royal temple, with its buildings tucked into 1.6 hectares (4 acres) of manicured gardens. The most prestigious, however, is the royal temple Fayu, originally built in the 16th century and surrounded by ancient trees; inside the temple is a 1,000-year-old gingko—the leaves still turn a golden yellow in the autumn. The Fayu temple is known for its fantastic dragon ornamentation and sculpted stone slates, as well as a pure gold statue of Guanyin that survived the Cultural Revolution purge. The third major temple on Putuo Shan is Huiji, known as the “garden temple,” which lies pillowed in trees and the creases of Fodsing Shan (“Folding Mountain”).
Tourism is booming on this and the other islands in the Zhoushan (or Zhejiang) province; a million people visit Mount Putuo annually, many taking the ferry across the small inlet from nearby Zhoushan Island. Many come to Putuo Shan simply to enjoy its lovely beaches, including the Hundred Step Beach and the Thousand Step Beach, where sun-bathing, sand sculpting, and “sandbathing” are the main activities—although you’ll see some people in the water, reports are that the fetid East China Sea may not be fit for swimming. Be sure to ask around before you take the plunge.