Where myths and tourists mingle

A sacred retreat of the Taoists for 1,700 years, Huashan boasts as many myths as the thousands of steps carved into the rocks leading to its picturesque peaks. One of the monks' favorite stories is about the god of rivers, Ju Ling, who was asked by the Emperor of Heaven to push the mountains apart to relieve the flooding which afflicted farmers in the Shaanxi plain. One jutting rock below the South Peak (elevation 7,500) even appears to carry giant footprints from Ju Ling's feet.

Among the sheer cliffs and rocky outcroppings along the 12-mile trail to the top, there are dozens of caves where Taoist recluses once meditated.

``In my time many people lived in caves because it was free,'' says Yang Faying, the oldest monk now living on Huashan who received his initiation in 1912. In his late 90s, Master Yang says monks are now forbidden to inhabit caves, and he lives in the Nineth Heaven Palace temple halfway up the mountain.

Opened to foreign visitors in 1987, Huashan once boasted more than 100 temples scattered along its ridges and rocky promontories. Most were built in the Northern Sung (960-1126) and Ming dynasties (1368-1644), though the oldest building at the Jade Spring Temple dates from the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220).

Many of Huashan's temples were abandoned after 1949 when the Communist Party discouraged Taoism, and the numbers of monks diminished. The population of monks declined from several hundred in the 1930s to less than 50 before the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

In the summer of 1966, Red Guards forced the monks off the mountain to work in the countryside, destroying most of the temples.

The government has rebuilt almost two dozen of the shrines, now run as tourist attractions although the local Taoists protest that the temples belong to them. About 40 monks live on the mountain, most at the peaceful Jade Spring Temple. The community is not as prosperous at the Taoist monastic complex at Qingcheng, in Sichuan Province, but thousands of visitors climb the mountain every day in summer to watch the sunrise from its legendary peaks. The tourist trade has almost overwhelmed the Huashan Taoists.

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