China 2019: Summiting Emei

It was a slow morning, to say the least. I spent last night slamming whiskey with some Thai guys at Mojar after playing a few rounds of pool with a flamboyant Uzbek friend I met there last week. Life is good in Chengdu, and the nights know no limits. I'm happy to have met so many new friends here already. This city is one to remember...

A view over Jin River from Anshun Bridge in Chengdu.
A view over Jin River from Anshun Bridge in Chengdu.

In terms of my photography, it feels like I'm firing on all cylinders. Last weekend was a high-octane adventure to the misty summit of Mt. Huajian and this weekend I plan to summit Mt. Emei, the highest of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China.

Signing off from a crowded train to work on Line 1,

Thursday, 22/08/19.

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Tonight we played cards in a cobblestone courtyard lit by both red paper lanterns and neon stage lights from inside the open-air hotel bar. As it got later in the night, the six of us walked outside the stone gate and grabbed delicious street food barbecued with Sichuan spices and sauces. After we sat back down at the table, we spent the rest of the night listening to the surprisingly rhythmic sounds of drunken karaoke singers, an electric guitar, and bongo drums. A baby cat that looked like a snow leopard stalked us for most of the night as gambling men yelled in the background...

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It was a humid night with a rare breeze, a little hotter than Chengdu but still cool enough. Emei is a relaxed city with a jovial vibe where you can enjoy the excitement of a new place away from the traffic of congested cities or tourist traps. Additionally, the small city is only a two-hour train ride from East Chengdu station and sits next to a mountain of immense beauty religious significance. I cannot wait to stand atop it by the end of tomorrow. 

Signing off from Emei,

Friday, 23/08/19

The first hour was near-unbearable. The lack of a filling breakfast and a good nights sleep, intense humid heat, heavy bag with two large waters, steepness of the climb, and the sight of a man lying broken-legged and bloody-faced in the first thirty minutes was enough to make me regret choosing to partake on this adventure...

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As the day drug on, though, breezy weather, good conversation, and the ever-nearing end in sight made the trip enjoyable. Our final destination for the day was a red dot on a map labeled Xixiangchi, a Buddhist temple in the mountains. Before we could reach it, however, a number of obstacles stood before us...

The main concern ahead was an hour-long stretch of trail referred to as the "death climb." As our stone trail snaked through the mountainous landscape, we came to a halt by a pop-up shop on a forested ridge. From this shop forward, it looked like the steps spiraled endlessly into the sky above. We knew this was it. I bought a Snickers bar and started to climb...

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As we ascended the cliffside, my legs began to burn as they had done at the start. I took a quick break and was passed by a hiker with a large bamboo stick. I assumed it was a walking stick. It wasn't. During the climb, I started noticing signs on the trail warning hikers of onslaughts from militant monkey gangs...

The first attack came during the "death climb." Our group had become fragmented, but I was able to join up with two other interns, Ferdi and Denys. As we ascended further into the clouds, a massive Tibetan macaque jumped onto the trailside fence. When we approached, it leaped towards us and jolted at Ferdi. It proceeded to jump on his back as we ran. It ended up only stealing a bottle, but because we had our wallets, visas, and passports on us, which we needed for the train from Chengdu to Emei, the situation became a bit more serious...

Shadows followed us as we moved through the mist until we came across an old wooden structure. At long last, we had reached the steps of Xixiangchi. We were the first to arrive at the temple, which looked abandoned. There were no signs of life besides the silhouettes that lurked in the distance...

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Visibility was low, so the oxblood temple complex became a maze of empty alleyways, incense-filled prayer rooms, and marble courtyards. It was difficult to discern what was a statue and what was a macaque. After exploring the temple, we sat on the steps by the entrance and awaited the others...

Once we regrouped with the others, we raced into our shared room to avoid the oncoming macaques. Dozens of them crept outside our windows trying to find a way in. Thankfully, they never did and we were able to safely enjoy our dinner. The sunset that night was incredible. The other guests staying at the temple wandered out from their rooms and admired it together in front of the complex's entrance. It was a moment of serenity and bliss, a stark contrast to the adrenaline-racing afternoon. Seeing the stars rise over the mountains and the mist creep up from the valleys below was a moment I won't forget.

Signing off from a temple in the clouds,

Saturday, 24/08/19

Eating breakfast under watchful eyes
Eating breakfast under watchful eyes

We awoke to the sound of screams as the monkeys evidently took another sacrifice just outside our door. We could hear their footsteps on the metal roof above us like rain in a thunderstorm. In the early morning, we bought bamboo sticks for fending off the monkeys that surely awaited us on our trek to the summit. Although some monkeys immediately recoil at the sight of a raised stick, some are indifferent. Those are the ones that terrify us...

We made our way higher into the mountains, further into enemy territory, pushing our bodies to the limit, sweating waterfalls, and chatting away. There came a point, however, that we reached the bus stop and, soon after, the entrance to the summit's cable car. The trail became swamped with tourists gorging themselves with food, taking photographs of fat monkeys they had just fed, and throwing used tissues over the guardrail and into the forest. As Ferdi and I struggled up the steep steps, the final push of our day-and-a-half-long journey, we received stares, gawks, and laughs from most of the Chinese tourists that passed us. They had taken the cable car up and then walked down the mountain. As sweaty Western tourists who had hiked for over twelve hours with little food and even less sleep, we became a sort laughing stock for several groups we passed. It was one of the rudest displays of humanity I had ever seen. I was disgusted by the complete and utter lack of respect shown for other people and the surrounding natural landscape. The fat spoiled tourists, some of which were being literally carried up the mountain by local elderly men, had no idea what we had been through, seen, or felt. How a cold a world was this, one that had no understanding, only comfortable ignorance. I could only imagine how the local men and women who had to carry slabs of concrete and a sack full of sand up the mountain to the construction sites that cater to this massive wave of tourists brought to the mountain by the cable car. 

There was a man we saw before we reached our accommodation last night who stopped every three steps and knelt to the ground, touching it with his forehead and rotating his hands before rising again. He walked the entire mountain this way, with little to no belongings on him. I wonder how he felt, seeing all this. There were, of course, some nice people who passed by and smiled, said hello, asked how tired we were, or stopped us for a photo. I'm not sure if the latter group only did this to show off meeting foreigners to their friends, as was common in other parts of China during my visits, or for other reasons. On the whole, however, the tourist trap was indeed what its name suggests: a trap. It's a disgusting cesspool of human indifference. Upon reaching the summit, I collapsed by a stone wall in front of Mt. Emei's giant golden spire. The sun began to shine through the clouds and the monument gleamed in the afternoon light. I exhaled and smiled, reflecting on how far I had come and what I had experienced since beginning my climb of Emei. 

The summit of Mt. Emei
The summit of Mt. Emei

The temple grounds were overrun with tourists, as expected, and portrait photographers screamed through loudspeakers into the crowd. The place felt like a Buddhist Disneyland, but I was at ease. It had been a long day and I was happy to close my eyes and breathe in the humid, cool mountain air. What an amazing world we live in. I walked around the summit and enjoyed the pleasant view and weather. Afterward, we descended the mountain by bus and grabbed a quick dinner as a dark yellow haze set in on the horizon. What a day it has been. 

Signing off from the evening train from Emeishan to Chengdu,

Sunday, 25/08/19

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