If you're going to spend some time in the West Hills, outside of Kunming, and you really want to take in some ancient culture, fabulous artwork and just a hint of honest-to-goodness divinity, this is the place to go.
The Huatingsi Monastery isn't the highest location in the West Hills, in fact, I believe that it's the lowest, but from the depths of the mud comes forth the lotus and if it is the beauty of Chinese Buddhism that attracts you, you've come to the right place at Huatingsi.
Apparently, it all began in the year 1063. King Arthur was arguing with his carpenters regarding the shape of his kitchen table, the abacus was still high technology, and Vikings were discovering that America had already been discovered by the Indians who looked a little Chinese...
In this year, a high ranking official from the nearby Dali kingdom was made the marquis with the power to rule over the Kunming area. He chose this location for his palace. In the year of 1320, a local Buddhist monk built a temple here and one thing led to another until the most recent of its incarnations, built in 1920 by another monk. So, there's some history here.
Here's a picture of the wrathful giant, General Heng. This guy's about 15 feet tall. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to these statues in the event of an earthquake. It wasn't the first time that I thought about earthquakes in China. Nothing appears to be tied down. Perhaps its just my California mentality coming out, but a three pointer would bring this city to its knees... Anyway, this is one of two wrathful giants who stand at the gate to the Hall of the Heavenly Kings.
Here's my Chinese teacher (the figure in black) about to bow and pray to the one whom I think is the Medicine Buddha, Buddha of the Eastern Glazed World. Don't ask me what a "glazed world" is.
In the foreground is a monk and another temple visitor. This is one of the few temples where there really are monks on the grounds. I paid special attention to their spirit just to get a sense of what they were all about. There were three that I found there, two young men and one elderly women. The two young men were amused by a Western woman's intense interest with them and their life. They view themselves as nothing special at all. Which, of course, is the Buddhist way. It wasn't an attitude that they put on, it was truly their spirit. The elderly female monk that I met there was all smiles, I wanted to sit and talk with her, but my party was leaving and there wasn't time.
The two lateral walls of this temple were filled with clay figurines that seemed to be alive in the dim shadows.
As our eyes got used to the dim light, colors began to appear out of the shadows, and details of the faces and groupings became more evident.
The richness and detail of each figurine made me wish that they hadn't made it against the rules to take pictures...
A sign outside the temple suggested that visitors "keep off the grass". The words that they chose in English were "Please respect trees and flowers." There's something very Buddhist in that.
There are also a couple of art stores on the grounds of this temple, and a few touristy shops run by local ethnic minorities. They call these stores "Ethnic Minority Stores" which I think is supposed to lend value to the uniqueness of the tacky touristy stuff you'll find inside.
The art shops are really pretty good, though a little more expensive than you'll find in town. On the other hand, you'll find a lot of original art, rather than the usual prints that you can find anywhere.
In one of the art stores we were treated well with respect and interest. In the other we couldn't help shake the feeling that we were being hustled.