Join the faithful on a hike to a sacred peak and add karmic overtones to cosmic views
By: Steve White
The silence of the trail is one of hiking’s attractions.
It helps us reconnect with nature, or enjoy time with family and close friends undistracted by our devices. It’s meaningful, even soulful time.
But there are hikes where a path choked with people only adds to the occasion; climbs to sacred peaks that draw the faithful. Hiking with non-hikers is usually a frustrating plod at someone else’s pace, but on these elevated summits, every shared step in the company of the committed can be uplifting.
Many countries in Asia are home to diverse populations of multiple faiths, and there are numerous sacred mountains that have become targets of their devotion. You don’t have to share their belief to enjoy the hiking and doing it in their company makes it as much a cultural experience as a physical one. Here are just a few examples to get you started on your pilgrimage.
Where: East Java, Indonesia
Why: Animist/Hindu site sat in a stupendous volcanic setting
How long: From a half-day up
When Java’s former highest peak burst apart in cataclysmic fashion, something like 250,000 years ago, it left an imposing caldera that is today East Java’s most important tourist sight.
Its official name – Tengger – is also that of the Hindu people who call it home. To most people the caldera is much better known as Bromo, though that is properly the name only of a small emergent crater at the caldera’s heart. The level of activity of this misshapen mound of ash and debris over a period of centuries has made it the focus of Tenggerese devotion.
If you are without your own vehicle, the village of Cemoro Lawang is the best choice as a base for your explorations, being perched right on the caldera rim. From there, organising a jeep, horse or tour guide is as simple as walking into the street outside your hotel and looking puzzled for a moment or two.
The prices here are, by Indonesian standards, as rarefied as the air, including the recently hiked admission fee that sees foreigners pay many times the local rate. But the spectacle that awaits is worth any price.
Ideally you should start before sunrise, making your way on foot or by jeep to the viewpoint on Mt Penanjakan where hundreds gather each day, flashes firing and selfie sticks in hand. While very touristy, this is an undoubtedly stunning view, showcasing most of the entire caldera extending to the gigantic form of Semeru, Java’s tallest volcano, in the background. One tip: stop short of the absolute summit and you’ll get a little more tranquility in which to properly absorb the astonishing sight.
With sunrise done, many head next for Bromo itself, in the centre of the vista. While not as eye-catching as the fluted form of Batok, the mountain next door, the pull of this spiritual hub is undeniable, not least for the coil of steam commonly rising from it.
At its foot is a hint as to the peaks’ significance: a Hindu temple built of black blocks of volcanic stone. Here you can switch modes of transport if you wish, trading your jeep or ojek for a horse led by a local Tenggerese for the dusty climb to the foot of a staircase. This ladder of stone is the usual way up the final stretch to the crater’s rim, though you’ll see that quite a few opt for a faster, funner descent on the ash slope .
At the very edge of the vent, depending on the volcano’s mood, you may see only a fairly dull, grey hole, several hundreds of metres deep. Other times, you can hear it boiling off its coil of steam before you see it. Either way, you are atop an active volcano and the views are sublime, especially in the fast-changing conditions of the hour or two after sunrise.
Indeed this is an alternative to the classic viewpoint sunrise: climbing Bromo first to watch the dawn’s light creep across the caldera floor towards you, often pulling a shroud of cloud over the caldera rim after it.
Most visitors are here only for the half-day it takes to do the standard ‘tour’ but that changes in late July or early August each year when the festival of Yadnya Kasada comes round.
Then a scrum of locals and tourists gather on Bromo to watch sacrificial offerings of animals and produce being thrown into the crater. Somewhat strangely, there is also a crowd of villagers inside the crater trying to catch these offerings in tarpaulins they stake out ahead of time. Intercepting these offerings is said to confer good luck, though you have to wonder if that doesn’t undermine the original intent of the sacrifice to the spirits of the mountain. Maybe Bromo itself will let us know how it feels about this at some point . . .
When to go
The high season is the northern hemisphere summer when clear conditions are most likely, though with the caldera at over 2,000 metres, conditions can change fast and rain is a possibility year-round. Yadnya Kasada usually falls in late July or August.
How to get there
Surabaya’s Juanda is the closest international airport from where it typically a four-hour drive to the rim-top settlement of Cemoro Lawang. It is a simple matter to arrange transport, with numerous taxi companies right outside departures – they are highly likely to find you before you find them. You can also approach from Malang, where there is a small domestic airport.
Bromo is an active volcano but not violently so in its recent history. Still it is worth watching for news on the peak ahead of a trip, and on neighbouring peaks such as Semeru and Raung that have in the past – even recently in Raung’s case – affected flights in and out.
Where: South central Sri Lanka
Why: Multi-faith melting pot of a mountain
How long: One day
Revered by no fewer than four faiths, this thumb of rock is imprinted with a ‘footprint’ at its summit. Christians and Muslims believe it to be that of Adam, Hindus say it is Shiva’s while Buddhists hold that it is Buddha’s. Whatever you believe, it is a wonderful place to be to watch the arrival of dawn over the hilly countryside, united with the faithful in appreciation of the daily miracle of sunrise.
In preparation, thousands snake slowly up the great staircased approaches every night, most using via the shortest but steepest route, close to Hatton. All ages take on the climb: from babes in arms to crook-backed great-grandparents. It means progress can be halting but it is also part of the charm. For these people, many of them extremely poor, this is a momentous day in their lives. Luckily, you get to share it with them, so seize the chance to chat and mingle.
There are shrines and cafes en route and then, at the top, a tangle of buildings surmounted by the temple shielding the ‘footprint’ itself. In truth this is likely to be a disappointment for any non-believer but no matter. The journey is the thing – your own climb alongside others and the journey of the golden orb that soon rises in the east.
At the first glow, the crowd’s babble, suppressed in the cold of the early hours, is reignited. There’s a palpable expectancy, a sense of sharing something much bigger than an occurrence we could witness every day of our lives. That’s half the point: we don’t do this sort of thing every day and certainly not in such a dramatic setting. Then it begins for real. Wrapped in blankets and the arms of loved ones, the throng turn their faces to receive their blessing.
When to go
December to May is the climbing season, with other months more prone to cloud. Start out late at night to reach the top for sunrise.
How to get there
The closest route up from Colombo is the most popular: from Dalhousie, near Hatton. Though the crowds can make things slow going, don’t simply treat this as a hike to be ticked off as fast as possible. Practice a little patience and use the time to take photos and talk to people. Then, for a stark contrast, descend using one of the other, near-empty routes.
Where: Outside Tokyo, Japan
Why: Iconic cone revered by locals
How long: One day
Instantly identifiable around the world, Fuji-san is an icon of Japan and of volcanoes. Millions scale its majestic form every year: visitors from all over the world as well as many more locals, for to the majority of Japanese that are regarded as followers of Shinto, it is a rite of passage. Public holidays are therefore best avoided but busy trails are an opportunity too. In this often standoffish culture, this can be a chance to get under the skin of the people.
There are several routes, with most people starting at the highest point reachable by public transport, usually the fifth station, an approximate mid-point on each summit trail. The majority zigzag up the Yoshida Trail, a mostly gently graded switchback designed to facilitate access for all. This route has by far the most mountain huts, where you can sleep if you want to climb the last sections for sunrise, or where for a fee you can take advantage of a few comforts on the way up.
The other routes are a quieter climb and steeper, being more direct. There are fewer amenities too. The contrast makes a traverse a good compromise, ascending on the Yoshida for the cultural connection it offers, then descending on a more tranquil trail. If you fancy making some noise of your own, there’s also the Subashiri where you can launch yourself in giants leaps headlong down an ashy descent.
Despite the mountain’s massive popularity, the official climbing season is short. If you want to avoid crowds at all costs, try climbing right before or after the season – September is a good choice.
In winter, snow and wind combine to make Fuji a far more difficult – even deadly – proposition, but it is still accessible to the well prepared and experienced. Bring crampons and plenty of warm gear. You will probably will have to start from the very bottom, meaning also that you will need to camp at least one night, but you should have the mountain almost to yourself. It is said that there are even routes that remain unclimbed at that time of year. AA
When to go
July to mid-September is the official season. During this period, weekends are very busy, with the peak coming during Obon week, in August when you may even have to queue in places. Outside of this time, transport is less frequent and the huts may be closed. Winter can be bone-chillingly cold and ascents at this time need careful preparation and experience in snowy conditions.
How to get there
Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is only a couple of hours away by bus and there are also a number of possible approaches by train and then bus. Select your preferred climbing route first, then plan backwards from there.