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Pilgrimages: walking the stairway to heaven

Stuart Watkins looks at some of the world's most scenic pilgrim trails.

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Adam's Peak (above), a 2,243m conical mountain in Sri Lanka, is sacred to Buddhists and Hindus, as well as being an important site for Muslims and Christians, some of whom believe it was where Adam first set foot on earth after being banished from Eden, says James Henderson in the Financial Times's How to Spend It. An appropriately shaped rock formation is believed to be the footprint of Adam. The peak is also an important pilgrimage trail, especially for Buddhists who believe that that same footprint is the Buddha's.

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Henderson and his guides set off for the peak from their small hotel courtyard in Horana, a town just outside Colombo, taking their chances by bike in the chaotic traffic. The traffic soon lets up as the road passes by rice paddies and jungle before the hills begin. The same evening, after a long ride through a tropical deluge, Henderson makes it to the start of the Baba trail, which leads off into the jungle and up the remaining 2,000m to the peak.

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The route is paved with steps, and there are around 13,000 of them in the 9km walk to the summit. After a long climb through the night, lit by torches and fireflies, dodging leeches dropping from the trees, and with a wary eye open for snakes and elephants, Henderson makes it to the peak in the early hours of the morning.

Henderson pauses to take in the scene. There is no visible sunrise on misty mornings. Nor can he see inside the locked shrine. Adam's first holy footprint has not been seen for centuries, having been chiselled out and carried off even before the arrival of Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century explorer from Morocco. Pilgrimages are supposed to be a challenge, Henderson reflects, but Sri Lankans "certainly make it tough on themselves".

A trot to Santiago

The vast majority of pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago, the world's most famous pilgrim trail, but Samantha Weinberg and her party rode the route on "glossy Spanish horses", she writes in 1843 magazine. The camino starts in places all over Europe and converges on Santiago de Compostela, the burial place of the apostle, Santiago (St James).

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After the meditative calm of the route, clattering over the cobbles of Santiago de Compostela and crossing busy roads filled with people going about their business seems unreal. But peace again descends in the cathedral, with pilgrims swapping stories. In Flanders, Belgium, one prisoner each year is pardoned on the condition he walks to Santiago, carrying a heavy pack. Weinberg wonders if making the camino mandatory for all wouldn't be such a bad idea.

A pilgrimage for savers

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The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes in Japan are less well known than the Camino de Santiago, but that is beginning to change, says Peter Carty in the Guardian. Unesco has designated the area a world heritage site and it has been twinned with the Camino.

Adherents of Shinto and Buddhism have been following the trails in the southern part of Japan's Kii peninsula for more than a millennium, travelling to worship at shrines beside the natural wonders of the sacred Kii mountains, forests and waterfalls. Their modern-day followers have a variety of routes to choose from, ranging from demanding 80km treks suitable only for hikers with mountaineering experience down to modest walks broken up with bus rides between points on the trail network.

Travelling by boat through the Kumano-gawa river valley is another option. Admire the unusual rock formations on route to the Hayatama grand shrine, which has a banyan tree believed to be eight centuries old. Placing one of its leaves in your wallet is said to ensure you will never run short of money.

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