I had never heard of the Wudang Mountains before coming to China, and thanks to the fact that Google maps is banned out here, I’m still not entirely sure where we are on the map, although I know we’re in the centre of the country! After today though I think I may try and come back one day.
On Sunday we arrived at Xiangyang and immediately realised we were in a very different place than Beijing. In fact, we’d already noticed that from the plane, flying over wide rivers and fields with a couple of huge motorways ploughed across them, but virtually no traffic. And I mean literally one or two cars and lorries that I spotted during the whole 10 minute approach to the airport (although you do have to bear in mind that it was the weekend I suppose). These roads seem to have been built with plans ahead for huge urban areas, and we did see a couple of blocks of very tall and thin residential skyscrapers springing up out of nowhere. If I came back in 5 or 10 years it’s possible I’d barely recognise the place. The airport had the quaint (if an airport can be quaint) feel of some of the smaller ones in India, and once we hit the motorway I was amazed to see people out sweeping the road with brooms to get rid of the dirt and dust. In fact there’s so little traffic it was closed in the opposite direction and farmers were laying out their corn to dry.
We arrived in the town of Wudang Chan a couple of hours later at our hotel, which at first glance looked quite impressive. But it gradually dawned on us that the place was only half built. Construction seems to have ground to a halt 10 or 15 years ago and an awful lot of facilities are “closed for maintenance”. The same goes for what was supposed to be a boardwalk of shops and bars on the lake opposite, only one of which has ever actually been occupied. It seems that someone over estimated the appeal of the Wudang Mountains as a tourist attraction, but I can see why they did – they are amazing.
I chose to spend my day off mooching around the eerie corridors of our hotel, but some of our team headed out to the next day’s filming location to do a scout and came back full of wonder about what they’d just seen (oh, it was also my birthday, but I think I’ve reached the age where that’s no longer much of a big deal! At least, that’s what I was telling myself). When we set off this morning I was excited about what lay in store and, after interviewing some contributors at a 600 year old stone Taoist archway, our bus took us up a winding path into the mountains and to a complex of beautiful Taoist temples.
I’ve read a couple of books about Taoism and with my very meagre knowledge of the religion I consider it a prime one I’d plum for if I had to pick one to live the rest of my life by. The laid back approach of the place instantly appealed to me. As soon as we scaled the steps of our first temple, there was a monk sitting on a pink plastic chair scrolling through his iPhone. People seemed perfectly happy to let us get up to whatever we fancied, in the way the relaxed Taoists of my imagination would do.
Once we boarded the almost vertical cable car to the summit of the mountain things got really interesting. We emerged on a peak higher than Ben Nevis with centuries old stone steps, twisting and winding up the rocks, with little plateaus home to temples, dormitories for monks… and food and drink stands. How on earth any of the materials to construct this stuff were lugged all the way up the mountain hundreds of years ago is beyond me, let alone how anyone survived up here, especially in the bitterly cold winters.
Time was of the essence, as we’d been thrown a curve ball the day before and been told that the terms of our permit meant we had to fit more filming into the day than we thought, so we raced around grabbing what we needed, scoffed a delicious fried egg pancake each and then went back down the cable car to the bus to make our way to a tea plantation.
You can’t make a programme about Asia and not mention tea and China is, of course, the home of it. We’d had a song written all about the topic, and while the crew headed down the steeped sided valley to pick up shots of the poor old tea pickers toiling in the 37 degree heat, Naomi and I got changed into suitable attire and joined them. We spent the next couple of hours bopping around with the tea pickers, picking leaves with them and singing away while they basically looked on bemused and occasionally smiled at us. The rows of green tea bushes hugging the hillside looked so vibrant in the setting sun, I think we’ve captured some really beautiful shots, and we’ve still got the rest of the song to shoot tomorrow in an AIR CONDITIONED tea room! Mmmmmm….