On Sunday, March 23rd, I flew to Shuangliu Airport on the outskirts of Chengdu, China. Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan Province and is home to approximately 14 million people, the fourth largest city population in mainland China. From there, I took a small bus to the city of Leshan, quite large in its own right at 1.1 million people. It is located about 120 km southwest of Chengdu. Rebecca would be flying in a few days later, but until then I had some exploring to do.
The next day, I set out in the morning for the main purpose of my visit to Leshan, to see the Giant Buddha. It was carved into the riverside cliffs over the course of 90 years and was completed in the year 803 AD. The Giant Buddha lies at the meeting point of 3 rivers and it was thought that its existence would calm the turbulent waters in that area. It is the tallest stone Buddha in the world at 70 metres. I spent some time around the top then went down the staircase carved into the cliff until I reached his feet at the bottom. It is truly an impressive sight and quite an experience to stand in its presence.
From there I saw some of the other sites in the park, a traditional fishing village, Buddhist temples and a monastery. In the afternoon, I went into the Oriental Buddha Capital with its giant carvings, caves, and the world’s largest reclining Buddha. It was a full day of hiking through the area, but well worth the trip. I then took a half hour bus to Baoguo Village which lies at the foot of Mount Emei and got checked into my hotel. That night I was properly introduced to the incredible firepower that is Sichuan cuisine. Yes, they do use liberal amounts of chili peppers, but it’s the hua jiao (or Sichuan peppercorn) that really makes it unique. These peppers from the Prickly Ash tree are fragrant, pungent and slightly sweet in flavor and it numbs the tongue. I doubted the numbing effect before I tried them, but it’s true and it’s like no other spice I’ve ever tried.
After some strategizing and separating the non-essential gear from the rest I was ready for my adventure, a three day summit trek of the tallest of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains, Mount Emei. Mount Emei stands at 3099 meters (10,167 feet), and is associated with Puxian Bodhisattva (Samantabhadra) – a representation of ‘Great Practice’ and ‘Great Virtue’. Ever since Buddhism arrived in China, it has been an important center of refuge, and the mountain contains more than one hundred temples and monasteries.
On Tuesday morning around 8:30, I set out on my trek from the village at 550 metres above sea level. I walked up the road to Baoguo Temple and checked it out, but I was eager to get on the trail. The true trailhead is another half hour’s walk up the road in the direction of Fuhu Temple. I passed the park gate and paid my entrance fee. It was just beyond the gates that I took my first of many, many steps up the mountain. The trail system of Emeishan is incredible…it is an elaborate system of stone steps and pathway the entire way.
That morning I passed Leiyin Temple and Chunyan Palace before descending past Shensui Pavilion, Zhongfeng and Guangfu Temples. I arrived at Qingyin Pavilion at about 11:30 and it was busy with tourists as there is a touristic bus stop not too far below this point. I had to mentally prepare myself before entering the “Joking Monkey Zone”. I had to pass through this zone on my route to the top and I had read that these Tibetan Macaques can be quite aggressive when it comes to separating you from any food you might have. The monkeys have lost their fear of humans and they seem to associate the tourists with a free lunch. I made it through alive with only one monkey jumping on my back. Once I was past this area, the tourist numbers fell right off and again it was just me and the steps. It was here that the scenery really came alive; plank-way paths, steep cliffs, and stunning views of the valley below.
I made my way to Hongchun Ping at 1120 m arriving at 2:30 pm. I thought about pressing on to Xianfeng Temple but that would have been another 630 m of elevation gain, 15 km, and 3 hours away. I had already gained 570 m by walking 17 km over 6 hours that day and I figured that was far enough. Hongchun Ping is a Buddhist monastery and I spent the night there. It was pretty cool to stay in a working monastery…sparse and unheated room, very basic vegetarian meals, and the chanting of the monks during their worship.
With the batteries recharged, I set out the next morning at 7:30. I made it to Xianfeng Temple around 10:30 and there is an option to visit Jiulao Cave. I walked to the cave and found that the doors were open but the lighting system was not on. I donned my head torch and went in. There were steps and a handrail to guide me in. Just as I was thinking I had gone far enough and how I would get out of there if my torch failed, I saw a light. A few more steps and I had made it to the bottom. There, I found a Taoist shrine lit by one light. The cave continued deeper, but without stairs or handrails and that thought was enough to get me headed for the surface.
I had a nice lunch of fried eggs, tomato, and rice near the Temple. There are many places to stop for water or food along the way. People have built small homes along the path from which they serve the pilgrims as they pass. I set out again at 11:30 and passed Yuxjan Temple and Jiuling Hillock. The fog was very thick and visibility was only a few feet. From there, the stairs got pretty steep and I slowly made my way to Xixiangchi at 2070 m. Legend has it that the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Puxian) once washed his white elephant in a hexagonal pool here before heading up to the temple at the peak of the mountain. Hence, Xixiangchi is also known as the Elephant Bathing Pool.
I continued on and by this point I was starting to tire. The winter’s snow pack was still present up here and covered the steps in some places. That afternoon, I got above the cloud line and enjoyed a sunny finish to my day. By about 4:30, I reached the tourist village of Leidongping at 2430 m and got my first glimpse of the summit. Leidongping is the end of the line for buses that run up the paved road from Baoguo Village so there were plenty of tourists about. My plan was to stay in Jieyin Hall Monastery at 2540 m that night but, unfortunately, I was told that it was full. I found a small hotel room that was built into the same building as the cable car. I was exhausted after gaining 1420 m of elevation, walking 36.5 km over 10 hours. At dinner, I met 3 Chinese girls currently studying English so they were able to help me with the menu. It turned out that they too were planning to rise early and make the summit in time for the sunrise.
On Thursday morning, I woke at 5:00 and got ready to go. I met the girls at 5:30 and we set out for the summit. I would never have found my way without my trusty head torch as the sky was still black. The girls went a little faster than my “pole-pole” pace, but I kept up. We reached the Golden Summit at 6:45 and were met by the huge, multi-face statue of Samantabhadra. We made our way to the east side to catch the sun rising over the sea of clouds. I had finally made the summit at 3,077 m. I should point out that the true summit is Wanfu Peak at 3,099 m, but is not currently accessible to tourists. The views were amazing and the monuments were very beautiful. After spending some time at the top I said goodbye to my Chinese friends and started down the mountain.
I wasn’t sure how far I’d get but knew I’d better get going. I chose to ride the cable car down to Jieyin Hall to avoid the snowy stairs and get a jumpstart on the descent. I soon found myself back in the clouds surrounded by mist and thick fog. As I descended from Jieyin to Leidongping, the tourist buses from Baoguo had obviously started to arrive and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists heading for the cable car to take them to the top. I am glad I got to see the summit in relative quiet without the tourist masses. Once past Leidongping, it was just me and the steps again. I caught up to a group of people who said they were planning to make it all the way back to Baoguo Village (I did not think it was possible, but now I had a goal in mind).
I continued my way down the mountain, step by step. At Jiuling Hillock, I was able to take a different path than the one from which I had ascended. I passed through the temples at Huayan Peak, Chudian Palace, and Zhanglao Ping on my way to Wannian Temple. This temple is a popular spot on the mountain as there is a cable car that shuttles people up from below. As it was already 2:30pm and I had been hiking all day, the sensible thing to do would have been to catch the cable car down and take a bus to Baoguo Village. But where’s the challenge in that?
I made my way to Qingyin Temple and met up with the old path I had started out on. From there it was another 3 hours to Baoguo Temple and I arrived at 6:30pm. I had ascended 537 m to the summit, then descended 1990 m, and walked more than 40 km over the course of 13 hours. By the time I reached the hotel, I wasn’t moving very fast, every muscle ached, and I was pretty sure there were a few blisters waiting to be discovered. A hot shower, a cold beer, and some spicy Sichuan food was all I needed before crawling into bed. After a deep sleep, I caught the bus to Chengdu to meet up with Rebecca. I would have a lot to tell her.
I think my presence surprised some of the Chinese tourists on the mountain, they were curious in a kind way, some even asking to have their photo taken with me. The friendly people, marauding monkeys, plentiful birdlife, gorgeous mountain views, delicious food, spooky fog, energizing tea, never-ending stairs, misty waterfalls, lush forest, ancient temples, humbling monasteries, Buddhist monks, and the overall spirituality of Emeishan made it a wonderful experience for me. It was unlike any other hike I’ve ever done and maybe a little “enlightening”. A great introduction to China.