Monday, September 30, 2013


Emei's Endless Stairs
Emei Shan is a formidable mountain - so formidable its peak isn't even visible from the bottom - wrought with lush, green trees and peaks that ascend past the clouds. Seemingly endless steep steps - some that are so long you can't even glimpse the end - carry you up this holy Buddhist mountain, leading us from temple to monastery. Amazingly, as we huff and puff our way up the stairways, we pass people carrying substantial, rickety packs on their backs, loaded with rice, vegetables, toilet paper, and other necessities for the still-inhabited monasteries. 

We began our climb at the foothills of Wannian Temple, and when we reached this place, packed with gawking Chinese tourists, we commented, "Wow, that took no time at all!" then looked at our map - "Andy's Map" - to our next destination. Andy's Map is first encouraging, then extremely discouraging before it gets encouraging again. The next stretch, which looks to be roughly the same distance from our beginning to Wannian, is two hours. Two hours of hiking up, up, up, stair after endless stair. The map estimates 5 hours to our night's destination, Elephant Bathing Pool, but it just took us two hours what looked like, judging from the first ascent, should have taken 40 minutes.

There are so many stairs! And just when you're thinking your legs will give out if you have to climb even one more monstrous flight: a small reprieve. Two to five stairs at a time, interspersed with flat landings requiring 3 or 4 joyous steps.

After Wannian Temple, we were essentially alone. The rogue, humble seller or an occasional traveller, but nothing like the normal droves if Chinese tourists, who walk in packs that cover the width of the stairway and push you out of their way because you dare to walk single file through their brigade. But for a while we had a clear path. Just us, trees, the sounds of nature, and the pounding of our hearts as we climbed the million stairs. 

When we finally reached Elephant Bathing Pool it felt as though we'd been walking all day, despite it
Elephant Bathing Pool
only haven taken 5 hours. 5 hours, 9.5 miles. Not bad for a day. So we paid for our rooms and a woman led us to a dark, cold dorm with five beds laid out haphazardly. Mercifully, electric heating pads. Unmercifully, damp beds, no heat, and cracks in the floor boards and holes in the wall. Jake wrapped a t-shirt in a plastic bag and jammed it into the most noticeable hole, but I was not dissuaded.

We moved outside to breathe in the scenery and be out of that dark, dank room, which reminded me of every book I've read based in or about the 18th century. Outside was beautiful. Here was this immense monastery, nestled over 2000 meters above sea level and from it, we could see another monastery in the peak of a slightly lower hill and the dense, rich mountains surrounding us. 

"We better see some monkeys tomorrow," Jake said. We had been warned about the myriad Tibetan Macaques who trail the forest in search of handouts. One girl at the hotel we were staying in in Emei Town had even shown us a bruise from where one had attacked her in pursuit of the orange in her pocket. "I'm bummed we didn't see any today."

"Do you think we can get our money back if we don't see any?" Half joke, half serious.

We explored the monastery for a while, peaking into different unoccupied rooms and braving the bathrooms; primitive to say the least. We ate expensive apples - they had cost us 18Y earlier up the mountain - near the small bathing pool after which the monastery was named and met its resident turtle, who I named Bob. Bob is exceedingly wary of people but highly entertaining. His comically large feet are magnified by the water and his shell looks to have a painting if a dragon in it. 

By then it was nearing 6:00 and our tummies were rumbling for something more substantial than the apples. We wandered into the dining room where a cook urged us to sir down then served us a fully vegetarian meal of green beans, some sort of sour root with chili peppers, squash, Bok Choy boiled in oil and water, and a communal cake pan of rice. 

Photogenic, Sociable Macaque
We were about half way through our dinner when the monks rang the dinner gong and some other visitors showed up. Confident and assured, in strolls a Macaque who, with virtually no hesitation, jumped up in the table holding the cake pan of communal rice. One of the cooks grabbed a broom and with what I can only describe as a battle cry of, "Aaaiiiiieeeeeeeee!!!" chased the monkey from the room. (Remember, they're all Buddhists, so they're potentially among the only people in China who aren't going to hurt the animals.) But the monkey didn't go very far. He found a spot in the courtyard and was joined by his monkey friend, who decided that the ancient fish declaration was a great place to sit. 

We hurried to finish our meal so we could gawk some more st the monkeys. Eventually the cooks chased them outside and we followed, and outside was a monkey paradise. At least two dozen monkeys, including several babies, were making themselves comfortable near the bathing pool and on the outside fixtures of the monastery.

Monkeys are absolutely incredible to watch because they're so innately human. With their long fingers, expressive eyes, and incessant itches to scratch, coupled with their playful, social nature, it's almost like you could jump right in and they wouldn't notice. 

We must have watched the monkeys for two hours, particularly one. He hopped up on the side of the building, perched precariously on a narrow piece of cement, and just stared with thoughtful eyes towards us.

"What are you doing, monkey?" Jake asked, then responded, "Oh, just thinking about life." I dubbed
Thinking About Life monkey
him Jerry, a.k.a. Thinking About Life monkey. There was also Tasting My Wiener monkey, who spent an uncomfortably long time alternating between playing with his junk and licking his fingers, Posing For Animal Crackers monkey, who, I swear, knew what a camera was and fully understood that he was the entertainment, and Hurt Leg monkey, who hobbled deftly on three legs, holding one back foot up like he'd sprained it. At first I felt bad, but the monkeys came back the next morning for breakfast and Hurt Leg monkey seemed to switch hurt feet. First it was the back left, then the front right, so I renamed him Asking For Sympathy monkey. 

After the monkey business, we had some tea and got ready to hunker down for the night. After squatting over a sliver of a hole in a room lined with them but with no stalls or doors and that smelled like a jar of putrified human waste, there was nothing to do but slowly lower myself into the damp bed and wait for the sunrise. I tried not to think about why the pillows, blankets, and mattresses were so very damp. I tried not to think about the number of unfavorable creatures that could crawl and slither through the cracks between the eroded floorboard and the walls. I tried not go think about the musty smell that permeated the room and my clothes. I tried to think about the heat rising up from the electric heating pad. I tried to think about how I was wise to leave the overhead light on, however annoying it may be, and how Jake was smart to pack the eye masks. But at 2:49 when I woke to go to the bathroom, holding my breath the whole time, all I could think of was three hours until sunrise.

A few monkeys arrived before the sunrise, and amazingly, Thinking About Life monkey returned to his same precarious perch and looked at us with the same thoughtful eyes as the sun rose behind him. 

The second day was supposed to be easier than the first, just six miles up and 2.5 miles down, but the ascent was, to put it mildly, endless. After reaching the first landmark, Leidongping Bus Station, where the droves of Chinese tourists returned, buying snacks and souvenirs for their short hike to the cable car station near Jieyin Hall, we felt encouraged. Apart from the plethora of Chinese tourists saying, "HellO?" and "Nice to meet you!", we also met many who encouraged us on. "Just one more hour if go fast," said one man who was descending. One more hour go fast my ass. More like two more hours go like a snail because the steps are almost fully vertical and very, very steep.

The Golden Summit
And then, mercifully through the mist shone a huge golden pagoda; Pu Xian riding his elephant, towering into the clouds, touching the heavens. Devout Buddhists slowly ascend the stairs to the Golden Summit, stopping every third or fourth one to kneel and pay reverence to their god. Those who have reached the top gold their hands in prayer and walk in deference clockwise on the red rug surrounding the periphery of the gargantuan pagoda. The air is a mix of mist and incense smoke, from the myriad offerings lit and burning for Buddha. Incense alters and at least 20 elephant statues guide the way to the monument, which once was so clear and now was covered in an ethereal mist.

Mt. Emei is a pilgrimage from some, being an historical mountain shrouded in Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. It was on this mountain that many of the religious martial arts, including Monkey Boxing, which imitates the actions of the macaques, such as, as one plaque explained, "drunken monkey pooping one arm." It was on this mountain that many of China's now-revered philosophers and religious thinkers, like Lao Zi, took refuge when their thoughts were not popular among the Chinese populous. It's easy to find the spirituality of this mountain, shrouded in mist and mystery. And I feel truly lucky to have seen it and experienced its grandeur. 

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