How To Survive The Climb Up China’s Highest Sacred Mountain

Standing at just over 10,167 feet, Mount Emei is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains in China and one of the most famous mountains in the Sichuan province. Its golden summit is one of the most significant Buddhist landmarks in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws thousands of tourists and pilgrims alike each year. It is also home to the Guangxiang Temple, regarded by some as the first Buddhist temple ever built in China, dating back to the 1st century CE.

1. Eat well, sleep well, and don't get drunk at the karaoke bar the night before...


At least that's what we should've done before our early-morning departure from the western-Chinese city of Emeishan. Instead my friends and I stumbled out of bed, heads pounding and stomachs churning, dreading the two-day journey that awaited us to the golden summit.

2. Take the first step, but not too fast.


The road to the summit is a long and arduous 37-mile trek along a network of cobblestone steps that snake through the jungle-clad mountainside, so make time for rest and recovery by stopping at one of Mt. Emei's ancient temples to sip plum juice and pay your respects to the mountain and its history.

3. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate.


Before we even began our climb, we were sweating buckets. The temperature was in the high 90s and the humidity was in the high 80s, and it was only seven in the morning. Scientists state that nearly 25% of heat-related illnesses result from dehydration rather than the heat itself, so it was important that we drink and drink and drink so that we wouldn't end up asleep on the side of the road... though we did anyway.

Budget traveler tip: buy water at the base of the mountain and carry it with you. It may be extra weight on your back, but it will keep you from over-spending on bottled water. The nearer the summit, the more expensive everything becomes.

4. Find yourself a bamboo stick.


Nearly four and a half hours into the ascent, my hiking partners and I began to notice that every local farmer, elderly shopkeeper, or mountaineering tourist we passed carried a bamboo stick. We thought they were used as makeshift walking sticks, until we discovered our new arch nemesis for the journey: the Tibetan Macaque.

These endemic primates are big, strong, fanged, and have an undying love for petty theft. As one roadside sign warned: "Carrying any plastic or paper bags can make you a target for the local monkey gangs. Please avoid doing that...As we are not allowed to arrest them according to Law on the Protection of Wildlife, we strongly recommend you take good care of your belongings."

5. Spend the night in the Elephant's Washing Pool.


No, not an actual washing pool filled with elephants, but a sprawling temple complex just five hours below the summit where monks pray and incense burns slowly beneath towering statues.

After a tiring day of nonstop hiking and macaque warfare, we had finally reached the steps of the temple Xixiangchi, meaning Elephant's Washing Pool, and watched the sun set above the misty valley. The temple was named after a legend that the renowned bodhisattva Samantabhadra once bathed his white elephant in the waters of its courtyard.

6. Never drop your guard.


We left Xixiangchi at daybreak with our stomachs full and bamboo sticks at the ready. At that point we had learned that the macaques attack when you least expect. Like guerrilla soldiers, they use the land to their advantage and attack from all angles, even dropping on us from the trees above our heads. So we kept our guard up as we marched on through the forest, the remainder of the ascent spent fending off macaques and taking in the stunning vistas that the mountain had to offer.

7. Don't look down.


There comes a time in the journey, though, that taking in the scenery becomes less than pleasant. There are sections of the hike that venture above staggering drops and along uneven, sometimes unstable, portions of cobblestone. One wrong step in your battle with the macaques could send you hurtling down the face of a seemingly-endless cliff and into the swirling sea of clouds below. So it's best to keep your eyes on the trail in front of you and march on with a clear mind.

8. And finally... breathe.

Image by Luke Netzley

Once the clouds finally part and you see the the sun shining on the golden summit before you, everything you have suffered on the climb, all the hardships and doubts slowly melt away. There are few feelings that come close to this, to the sensation of achievement. We had reached the summit of Emei, without the aid of bus or cable car, where we stood in the footsteps of countless generations past and knelt on the stones where Samantabhadra found enlightenment.

I closed my eyes and thought back to the times I nearly fainted from dehydrated exhaustion, the times I nearly lost my footing on the cobblestone steps, the times I fought off hordes of angry macaques, the times I felt like I had reached my limit and that the summit was too far from reach... and I couldn't help but smile.