Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
36Trip End Feb 03, 2008
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I feel half old lady, half invincible mountain woman, as I wield it.
We bought the sticks for the monkeys, you see.
But they turned out to be indispensable.
Joanna and I, on a girls-only quick trip to Sichuan province on our week off for the May Day holiday, are climbing Mt. Emei (pron. "uh-may"), a 10,000-foot-high Buddhist holy spot. And, holy cow, is it hard!
Thousands of people visit Emei each year: monks going to one of the practicing monasteries perched on the mountain's verdant cliffs; pilgrims climbing in supplication to the Buddha Puxian, the elephant-riding guardian of Emei; and tourists primed to watch the most ordinary natural phenomena of all: Sunrise and sunset.
Joanna and I are firmly in the third category, but on our first day climbing the mountain the sun is stubbornly shrouding himself in rain clouds. So, we cheat a bit.
We took a bus from the village at the foot of the mountain to the middle entrance, which in turn connects a parking lot to a temple with a cable car. This shaves the first 1,000 meters off of our total 3,000 meters to climb.
Then, we start, in the rain. The path is not a mountain track, but a well-paved set of stairs, uneven cut stone in some places, and beautiful molded concrete in others. The path leads up, through dripping pines, then, distressingly, back down into a little valley. Then, up again to some steeper steps. We see a wincing man in a yellow see-through plastic rain coat being carried downhill in a litter on the shoulders of two sturdy men.
Hmm, maybe this is tougher than we thought, even with the cheating, we think.
"Hao zi?" Joanna asks of every traveler we meet the first hour. She's asking about the monkeys.
Emei is famous for its wild Tibetan macaque monkeys that haunt the paths waiting for travelers to come by and feed them. I guess the monks and workers on the mountain also feed them, but they've come to expect the travelers to be generous as well. We don't have any food, so some hikers on their way down from the summit tell us we should buy some sticks to frighten the monkeys away.
This turns out to be a real good idea. After awhile the rain turns to drizzle, the drizzle turns to mist and then the monkeys emerge from their hiding spots. At just the point when the first monkey appeared and made Joanna shriek, we were hiking alongside a group of about seven men.
We all stopped and took some pictures of the monkeys, which were blocking the path in front of us. Joanna was joking with the men in Chinese and said something like, "good, now we have some bodyguards." Two seconds after she made this comment and they agreed, a monkey got around behind us.
Our supposed bodyguards, to a man, squeaked and fled up the path. I bounced my new stick on the step behind me, and walked backwards as the monkey bared its teeth at Joanna and I, then retreated back to the foliage to look for food in some discarded fast food wrappers.
I'm our bodyguard after that, using my stick to tap a boundary when the monkeys get too close (they don't really need to bother us, there are thousands of easier targets, including two men who are walking downhill and swear the monkeys stole all their money), leaning on the stick when I want to have a breathing break, and on steep parts of the path beating a rhythm as we steadily ascend the thousands of steps.
We see a wide variety of climbers as we leave the weak-kneed behind and go closer to the sun, which is starting to peek through. Some people we run into a few times at breathing stops are carting a four-year-old girl. She climbs for a couple of hours, but when we last see her, at about 7 p.m., she's comatose on her grandmother's shoulder, hoisted there by a sling.
Other people obviously brought improper footwear and have bought woven sandals to make the climb, carrying their high heels or pointed toes in plastic garbage bags strung on their own walking sticks.
After a lot of climbing, we make it to that night's destination, Xi Xiang Chi, a monastery named after a pool where the Buddha Puxian bathed his flying elephant on his way to the top of the mountain. You can sleep in the monastery, in a dorm-like hall, but Joanna negotiates a cheap price for a double bed in a partitioned attic above a restaurant just uphill, so we stay there for the night, exhausted by our climb and looking forward to the next leg in the morning.
We take off soon after sunrise, which we missed because we didn't expect it, and realize it's going to be a sunny day. We stop for some noodles for breakfast at a way station and apply sunscreen. With the clouds gone, we can see the true height of the foothills we've already ascended. Mountain azaleas start to make their appearance in the second hour of our climb, and other high-altitude plants that remind me of Alaska and Oregon, rather than the lush jungly vegetation of the beginning of our hike.
By eleven, we've made it to our next cop-out, the cable car up to the Golden Summit, or Jin Ding. I consider walking it, because I'm not too tired, but I think it would be nice to get to the top while the sun is at its zenith and take photos, so after Joanna rents a coat for the expected chilly weather at the top we both pony up the 40 RMB cable car ride and rise out of the famous "sea of clouds" that surrounds the peak on sunny days.
Jin Ding has three temple buildings, two painted gold, and one painted silver, and a giant golden statue of Puxian, a many-faced representation of Buddha riding an elephant. To the south-west of Buddha a half mile or so is the true summit of Emei, called Wan Fo, or Ten Thousand Buddhas.
I take a million pictures of the gold and silver temple structures, we check into the overpriced JinDing Hotel (400 RMB for a double room without a bathroom but a view of the Buddha. Extortion, but what could we do? Later, we heard there was a cheaper option near there, but we couldn't find it.), and then we took a monorail out to Wan Fo, to wait for the sun to set.
Wan Fo was my favorite part of the whole three-day trip. Joanna and I had a few hours there before the sun went down, so we walked around the small temple, looking at the surrounding mountains in the slowly fading light. As the sun got closer to hiding itself behind snowcapped Mt. Gang ga on the horizon, the shadows deepened in hue and the valleys between lesser mountains defined contours in the landscape I hadn't realized were there.
As I mentioned, because of its elevation and the misty forests at its base (and possibly, pollution) Mt. Emei seems to sit as an island in a sea of clouds. Sunrise enhanced this sea, but at sunset, the sea dropped down and we could see the floor of the land around us.
The sun set around 8 p.m., and, now freezing despite our coats, we took the monorail back to the hotel to watch Chinese variety shows and make good on the hot water showers in the shared bathroom at the hotel.
We woke up an hour before sunup the next morning, trying to beat the crowds on the way to the mountain's eastern face, but realized we had left it too late. There were already several thousand people who had made their way up the cable cars or from the hotels to watch the show. Joanna elbowed her way through till we found a staircase with fewer people on it and we perched ourselves on a rock to watch the sun come up.
I've seen lots of sunrises, but this one surprised me. Because of the elevation, when the sun passed the horizon it had to come up through the blanket of clouds massed below the mountain. Like a small orange fish swimming up through murky water, we could see the sun before it had actually come up. And, when the sun did break the cloud line, we got to watch the night's shadows fade away and the gold statues and buildings of Jin Ding glow until they outshone the full moon.
The night before, Joanna and I had decided we would try to walk all the way down, even though we had the option of taking a bus from the bottom of the cable car under Jin Ding. The trail we had come up on branched off and would take us, according to the cartoon map I bought, by some waterfalls, impressive monasteries and vistas, a monkey play area and down to a different, lower entrance than the one we had come in by.
We wasted no time and set off at a good pace. We descended much faster than we had come up, and were happily expecting to be at the lower entrance around five p.m.
Some of the first people we saw going down were construction workers, carrying the cement or stone steps on their backs supported by wicker or wooden frames tied on with hemp rope, stopping every 30 or so paces to rest because of the weight. By the time we descended much further in elevation, we would be as tired as these workers.
According to the Lonely Planet, which I had left with my other heavy things at the bus station at the bottom of the mountain, we had hiked 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) the first day, and about 5-6 km (3-4 miles) the second day.
But, the route we chose to go down would add up to about 30 km (18-19 miles!) by the time we were finished. We didn't know that, of course. I hadn't memorized the distances table before I left the book and the cartoon map I bought had the trail going off a cliff off the page and reappearing about an inch later, at the bottom.
But between the top of that cliff and the bottom, in real life, were 100 hair-pin turns of ultra-steep uneven steps. No exaggeration.
Before noon, we were pretty optimistic. I stopped often to take pictures of the mountains as we descended from one way station or monastery to the next.
When we branched on to the new path, we started to go into a valley with steep sides. We could see the red roof of the next monastery through the trees as we descended, and when we finally could hear the piped Buddhist chants through the trees it was so peaceful I didn't even mind the mosquitoes.
As the hours ticked off after noon though, we realized we were much much farther from our goal than we had figured, and we were tired.
Going downstairs takes different muscles than going upstairs. We'd already tired out our upstairs muscles with our smaller climbs the two days before. Now, our downstairs muscles started to scream.
We used the walking sticks like an extra limb, put it down on the next step, shift one leg to it, then the next. Very rarely could we go down one foot after the other, as the stairs weren't of even heights and sometimes they curved, so were of differing widths as well. Sometimes there was a railing to help us out, but often not.
Joanna's knees started to get tight. We did some stretching exercises, and sat down to rest a bit.
Her knees started to get really tight.
Finally, after the above-mentioned, not-on-the-map hairpin turns, Joanna had to pay some porters to carry her down the next section of steps in a litter because her knees were much too painful to keep walking. I could go faster, but my own knees were wobbly, so I didn't dare push myself too much in case I fell down.
The porters pushed her to pay them more to carry her to the gate, but Joanna was adamant she wanted to walk to the monkey play area, so we continued on, still going down hill but with shorter flights of stairs. The scenery was gorgeous, but we were getting too tired to appreciate it as much as we wanted to.
The hike should have been done in two more days, to give the area justice, but we had a tighter schedule than that, and needed to get to Leshan the next day if we wanted to see the pandas in Chengdu before we left back to Guangdong province.
Finally, just as it was getting dark, we reached the gate at Wuxianggang and took a minibus into town. We had been hiking for 11 hours, with only a few short breaks. I had filled my camera's memory card and used up both batteries, and we were exhausted and thrilled to be back in town.
We stayed at the famous, wonderful Teddy Bear hostel, splurged on beer and hamburgers, and slept for hours. When we woke up, we realized our walking sticks would still be useful ... our legs hurt so much after our 18 mile push that we had to use the sticks to hobble around for the next two days!
Climbing Emei was a challenge I'm glad that I undertook. I wish Dan could have climbed it with me, but he had to visit family in Australia during this vacation.
Of course, there's three other holy Buddhist mountains in China to climb...next time, maybe I should practice a little first. And get a better map. But I'll definitely bring my cane.
Where I stayed