Shan. Â ”Mountain.” Â One of the easiest Chinese symbols to recognize, and a surprisingly ubiquitous character, even in non-mountainous regions.
You can learn a lot about the mindset of a people by understanding how their language works (and thus how their thought patterns are organized). Â Place the Chinese character for “cold” in front ofÂ å±±Â and you’ve got “iceberg.” Â Use “hot” instead to make “volcano.” Â Follow shan with the character for water (shui) and you’ve got the Chinese word for “landscape.” Â Don’t ask me why. Â It gets more complex, though: want to describe a vast crowd? Â Put the symbol for “person” on either side of “shan,” and then end it with the character for “sea.” Â The fun goes on and on…
Three to six hours north of Chongqing (depending on what collection of vans, trains, buses and rickshaws one takes) is the shan double hitter of Leshan and Emeishan. Â Having already covered “shan,” I’ll skip to the prefixes and simply explain that “Le” (pronounced “luh”) means “Happy” and “Emei” (UH-may) means, well, “towering eyebrow.” Â Both are major attractions in the Sichuan region for theirÂ millennia-old contributions to Chinese culture: Leshan hosts one of the largest stone Buddhas in the world and Emeishan (or “Mt. Emei”) is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, and a spiritual pilgrimage to multitudes of Asian Buddhists.
There are direct bus routes from Chongqing to both attractions, though they’re actually slower than taking a speed train north to Chengdu and then busing an hour or so southwestwards to Leshan. Â Buses from Leshan to Emeishan leave regularly (or you can be lazy and pay the equivalent of ten bucks for a taxi there). Â Since, like most foreigners I’ve spoken with, I prefer Chengdu to Chongqing, I figure a night of exploring the northern city’s flashy nightlife again would be a worthwhile usage of my time.
The decision pays off. Â While staying at the Mix Hostel again, I run into an assortment of travelers with a shared interest in Leshan’s famous Buddha. Â Two Chongqing expat girls are also making Chengdu their temporary home for the weekend, and even though they won’t be coming to Leshan, they’re fine company for the evening. Â As an added perk, they’ve both promised to take me around their home cities when I venture out west, and as those cities are Moscow and Riga (in Latvia), they’re good people to know!
Chengdu nightlife is a marked improvement from that of Chongqing. Â For one, my temporary home city lacks a cohesive center, with hilly urban sprawl expanding out in every direction around the meeting of two particularly winding rivers (the Yangtze and the Yellow). Â The layout, therefore is a slave to its surroundings, as roads, buildings parks and every other urban attraction is crammed in as the available land allows. Â Not so, Chengdu. Â Much like Xi’an, there’s a well-defined (over a thousand years) heart of town, with roads darting out from it in Â all the cardinal directions.
Combined with being a far more foreigner-friendly town, it’s a helluva lot easier finding a good time at night in Chengdu. Â Our makeshift group hits up a few clubs, though we unanimously decide to retire early given the morning’s 9 AM departure to Leshan.
The van ride back and forth from Chengdu is just over ten US dollars, though it doesn’t include the price of the park’s entrance (an additional ten). Â The ride itself is about two hours long and gets us to Leshan just before noon. Â For an additional fee, travelers can opt to take a quick boat ride that culminates in a few upwards at the giant buddha from the river that runs right by its feet. Â It’s supposedly an incredible vantage point, allowing guests to first experience the Buddha ominously jutting out from the lush greenery that surrounds it, as those that re-discovered it a century or so back might’ve seen it. Â But we’re all feeling particularly cheap, and gracefully opt out of the experience.
Leshan’s Giant Buddha Park is fairly expansive and lists a good 10-20 additional attractions on all of its signage, even if the massive Buddha is the primary reason for everyone’s attendance. Â The long walk upwards (a foreshadowing of my upcoming hike at Mt. Emei) passes by and through multiple pagodas, fountains, Â tea rooms and other assorted Chinese artifacts before reaching the massive line down to the Buddha. Â The various features are all serenely beautiful and idyllic, but the top attraction here after the Buddha is clearly the English in the men’s rest room at the entrance of the park.
Unfortunately, Leshan is a popular Chinese attraction, which means that on a weekend, the flag-waving tour groups are out in Full Effect. Â Please see this article, if you haven’t already. Â These groups are everywhere in Asia, and as more and more Chinese become prosperous, they’ll be coming soon to a town near you. Â Remember how annoying those photo-snapping Japanese were in the 80′s when they first got the tourist bug? Â Multiply that by the population of China and start getting ready for it.
The line twists and turns at the top of the mountain, before shrinking into a narrow staircase that goes down the mountain to the foot of the Buddha. Â This narrow path, barely wide enough for a single person, causes a line that should’ve taken less than thirty minutes to last well over two hours. Â Why? Â Because the Chinese. Â Cannot. Â Stop. Â Taking. Â Pictures.
Trapped on the staircase, one’s initial awe and wonder quickly turns to boredom and listlessness before outright annoyance, as the people holding the line up take picture after picture. Â Don’t get me wrong — the view’s fairly lovely. Â It’s just that the view doesn’t change much from one step to the next. Â But these people stop on EVERY STEP. Â And they take MANY MANY pictures. Â And then they turn around and take pictures of me, in all myÂ Caucasian (and now disgruntled) Â glory. Â It’s a good time.
Outside the park the others board a bus back to Chengdu and I take my leave of them. Â There are buses to Mt. Emei, but a taxi offers to take me directly to my hostel there for only ten bucks and I capitulate due to exhaustion, hunger and the heat. Â An hour later, I’m dropped off at the Teddy Bear.
Thousands and Thousands and Â Thousands of Steps
The staccato tap of my bamboo walking stick on the cement steps leading to Emei’s peak clicks as rhythmically and reliably as a metronome by the morning of my second day up one of China’s most sacred mountains. Â My steady pace isn’t in any way a sign of confident mountaineering (if one can even call it that when the path is fully paved and manicured); it’s a sign of my exhaustion. Â My legs are cramping and the thinning air doesn’t work well at all with my less-than-healthy physique. Â No, if anything, my clockwork zombie-like stride is a function of my exhaustion, as I count off a precise hundred steps at a time now between each break. Â By now I’ve lost count of how many sets Â of steps I’ve counted my way through.
But that is how I know this fucking bastard of a mountain has at least twenty thousand steps.
Day one started off far less painfully. Â The Teddy Bear Hotel came recommended by the Mix Hostel in Chengdu, and their advice has always steered my right before. Â The woman at the front desk lacked any semblance of English speaking ability, but she was able to point me toward a wall full of information for hikers, and my Chinese was just good enough to negotiate for a room and some hot meals.
Emeishan’s path is comprised of a series of tall rounded hills, culminating in a monument-topped peak offering supposedly epic views of the surrounding countryside. Â ”Supposedly,” I say, because upon eventually reaching the top, coated in two days of sweat and grime, I’m greeted by clouds so dense that not only are the vistas completely blocked off to me, but the top of its famous statue — four white elephants supporting… something — is lost in the mist.
Here would be an excellent place to state that getting to a place is half the fun, and in my experience with this mountain this is entirely correct. Â But my guess is that the reaction of the millions of Chinese that make a pilgrimage to the top every year is completely different. Â I say this because few Chinese people seem to actually climb the mountain. Â Its base is of course clogged with an almost obscene amount of human traffic, and the top is similarly crowded. Â But thanks to a bus route that leads almost to the top and a cable car that finishes the job, few locals can actually be found on the trail.
No complaints here. Â I vehemently disagree with the prevailing attitude in Chinese tourism that “long lines mean an attraction is worth seeing.” Â As such, it was extremely liberating to pass the cable car waiting line and immediately see the densely crowded path dwindle down to little more than four or five others per hour. Â Even with public transportation doing most of the work for people, the few hundred steps required to get around prove too much for some locals, which leads to a strange rickshaw-like service where two green-vested Chinese men hoist a bamboo chair on their shoulders and cart people about for a small fee. Â It’d be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that these human taxis share the same path as everyone else and have no problem barreling over humble walkers — like myself — to reach their destination.
My bamboo walking stick is too nicely cut to have originally been for free, but that’s exactly what it is from my perspective, as I find the well cut rod leaning up against one of the many trash bins that have been placed upon the path. Â It’s thoughtful that they’ve been placed here, but fairly futile; despite the few hikers out on the mountain, there’s a surprising amount of food wrappers and water bottles casually tossed out onto the ground. Â The walking stick is a fine addition to the trip, though. Â My thigh muscles are just about shot as I come across the small monastery that will be my home for the evening.
Twenty of such monasteries and temples are spread throughout the mountain, and most of them have no problem hosting pilgrims like myself for the evening, for a fee of course. Â I’d originally planned to reaching a larger building labeled “Elephant Bathing Pool” on the map to stay there for the weekend, but as the air cools and the light begins to dim, it seems less likely I’ll reach my destination this evening. Â I try not to let on to this (or my intense exhaustion) as I haggle the price of a room down from a ridiculous 150 Yuan a night down to 80.
Dinner’s included in the deal, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find the room endowed with an electric blanket for warmth. Â I pass out almost immediately after dinner and sleep on straight until seven in the morning. Â The monks are nowhere to be seen, and I unlock the door on my own and continue upwards. Â Despite the lack of hikers, there are still plenty of small kitchens arranged throughout the mountain and I stop at one for a breakfast of cold, spicy noodles.
Up over 9000 feet, the landscape starts to change. Â Snow covers large patches on the ground (and trail) and deciduous trees give way to evergreens. Â It’s no doubt gorgeous, but the monotony of the steps begins to get to me. Â I’m almost excited when a feisty monkey attacks me at the sight of granola, simply because it breaks things up a little. Â Toward the top, there are suddenly thousands of people again, but the area at the top is large enough that it doesn’t feel cramped.
Sunrise at the Golden Summit is apparently not to be missed, but my pace doesn’t get me there until well after one in the afternoon. Â The cloud cover here would’ve made a view of the sun impossible anyway. Â On a good day, one can apparently see the “sea of clouds” below, but the sea levels have risen to the point where one can’t even see the entirety of the Buddha statue. Â At the statue, monks and pilgrims both circle around the monument, always in a clockwise direction. Â I grasp the gesture, even if not its significance, and make a quick circle around it myself before heading back down. Â By bus.