Emei Shan

  • Clifftop pavilion, all rust in 1991 - © William Mackesy
  • Ancient stone path, autumnal forest - © William Mackesy
  • © William Mackesy
  • Little Empress - © William Mackesy
  • Sea of clouds - © William Mackesy
  • The summit area, in cloud, monkeys - © William Mackesy
  • Monastery in the mist - © William Mackesy
  • How it was in 1991: tin and peeling paint - © William Mackesy
  • Tea plantations on the lower slopes - © William Mackesy

Key information: Emei Shan

  • One of China's sacred mountains, and the first bastion of the mountainous Tibetan fringe. A magical, historic place of forests, cliffs and chasms dotted with temples, pagodas and other sites, where people have been walking and contemplating for more than a millennium.
  • Walk up ancient stone paths and steps, past temples and tea plantations, then through cloud and bamboo forest. Pass ancient buildings; stay in an ox-blood Buddhist monastery. Catch glimpses of mist-wreathed cliffs as you get higher.
  • At the Golden Summit, explore the temples, glimpse the vast abyss beneath the peak through swirling cloud - or occasionally get a magnificent view toward the mountains and over the hazy plain of Sichuan plain.
  • You gain altitude fast, climbing endless flights of hewn steps: pace yourself. Come prepared for unpredictable mountain weather.
  • Huge numbers come at high times: avoid these, or be prepared to walk on remoter paths if you want seclusion.

Walkopedia rating

  • Walkopedia rating87
  • Beauty31
  • Natural interest15
  • Human interest14
  • Charisma32
  • Negative points5
  • Total rating87
  • Note: A tough slog up endless steps; rapid altitude gain; crowds at the top

Vital Statistics

  • Length: 2-3 days
  • Maximum Altitude: 3,099m
  • Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
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Sea of clouds - © William Mackesy

WALK SUMMARY

The sacred mountain of Emei Shan towers above the vast, fertile plain of Sichuan province, the first bastion of the near-impenetrable mountains that separate western China from Tibet.  For approaching two thousand years, it has been holy to the Buddhist and Taoist religions; and a place of pilgrimage, poetry, contemplation - and walking - for more than a millennium.  The first Buddhist Temple in China was built on the mountain in the 1st Century AD.  Many of the mountain's 150 temples, monasteries and pavilions were wrecked during the war with Japan and the disastrous Cultural Revolution.  Many have been rebuilt, a number again populated by Buddhist monks.  The mountain once more draws vast numbers of visitors.

The scenery is astonishing, classic scroll painting material: sharp peaks and tremendous mist-wreathed cliffs tower above silent forests dotted with historic pavilions and monasteries. Emei means "eyebrows of beauty", as the poets likened the mountain's jagged grey cliffs to a moth's eyebrows. (What was their potion?)  The lower slopes are a maze of paths linking monasteries, pavilions and viewpoints, including the Crouching Tiger Monastery, Thundering Monastery, Fine Wine Mountain, A Strip of Heaven Cleavage (I never discovered what this was) and Elegant Sound Pavilion. It is, with justice, a World Heritage Site.

 Unlike the busily decorated and over-restored examples found elsewhere in China, most of Emei Shan's temples and monasteries were, when Walkopedia was there, cheap, hurried restorations of blood-red plywood and corrugated iron, frequently unkempt, crouching on the fine old dressed-stone platforms of their predecessors.  Once a deeply spiritual place, the top is now sadly crowded and tourist-tatty: the best walking is definitely below the cable car and roadhead at Jieyin Dian.  Apart from some tea plantations on the lower slopes, you will tramp through the beautiful deciduous forests (with strands of delicate bamboo) of this famously diverse region.  

The mountain is fabulous for people-watching - never have so many ill-prepared, unsuitably shod people, the urban Chinese on tour, crowded such demanding routes.

You can make day walks on Emei Shan, from the temples at its base or the roadhead half way up. Or, better, you can climb the mountain - or its lower half if time or your desire for struggle is lacking: with the peak at over 3,000m, this is a tough slog higher up.

 Walk up ancient stone paths and steps, past temples and tea plantations, then through cloud and bamboo forest. Pass ancient buildings; stay in an ox-blood Buddhist monastery. Catch glimpses of mist-wreathed cliffs as you get higher. At the Golden Summit, explore the temples, glimpse the vast abyss beneath the peak through swirling cloud - or occasionally get a magnificent view toward the mountains and over the hazy Sichuan lowlands.

There are two main pilgrimage routes. The most direct path follows a long steep ridge, and is constructed from beautifully dressed Ming Dynasty steps and paving for much of the way.  The longer, rougher, alternative, which is less frequented and is thought to be the better route, winds more slowly up through the foothills. The summit ridge looms above tremendous cracked grey limestone cliffs, which are often swathed in mist.  Few people climb the whole way to the summit in one day, spending a night on the mountain - preferably in one of the monasteries that sit strategically on the routes.  The back of the mountain is relatively gentle, which is no doubt why it is deemed unsuitable for pilgrims: a track now winds up it to a cable car station.

This is a tough, steep walk. You gain altitude fast, climbing endless flights of hewn steps: pace yourself. Your life will be vastly improved if you get reasonably fit beforehand (just climb a lot of stairs daily). 

Huge numbers come at high times and the top (and the popular routes) can get crowded in places. Avoid these, or be prepared to walk on remoter paths if you want seclusion. Come prepared for unpredictable mountain weather.


WILLIAM MACKESY'S ACCOUNT
of this walk

My climb up Emei Shan, the sacred mountain in western China, in the autumn of 1991, has influenced the course of my life. Much has changed since I was there, so do not treat this account as up-to-date.

I had been living in Hong Kong for 3 years by then, and had been to China's “easier” places, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guilin. This was my first expedition into the back woods. It was not all that long since China's opening up to the world after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and foreigners were still rare enough to be stared at even in the great cities. With.....

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Other accounts: share your experiences

Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

See also expedition planning, including our universal expedition checklist. Walkopedia encourages responsible travel.

Guidebooks/maps/background reading

Suggest books and maps

Guidebooks

Section in Southwest China – Lonely Planet: good information and basic map.

Section in Southwest China Off the Beaten Track by K. Mark Stevens and George E. Wehrfritz.  Nice hand-drawn map. (1988 – now out of date.)

Section in Sichuan – Mary Holdsworth for Odyssey Guides.  (1992 – also out of date, but good depth and quality of information.)

Section in China – Rough Guides.

Other books

Maps

The routes are fairly obvious, and the maps in the guidebooks will be sufficient for most purposes More detailed, but not specially reliable, maps can be bought in the area.

 

Stanfords: www.stanfords.co.uk.  An excellent (and user-friendly) online specialist source of worldwide maps (it is also good for guidebooks).

 

Best times to walk/weather

Best times to walk

Generally thought to be May, September and October. Winter is bitterly cold and icy on the trails. While summer on the mountain is much cooler than the plains of Sichuan, it is likely to be both misty and crowded in places (huge numbers at high times – avoid them or be prepared to take remoter paths).

Weather

You can have beautiful days and clear views, but come prepared for mist or cloud, unpredictable mountain weather and cold nights.  Bring good rainwear.

 

For detailed weather information, have a look at: www.worldweather.org or www.bbc.co.uk/weather/world/country-guides

 

Getting there/transport/permits/fees

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Most visitors come to Emei Shan from Chengdu, often via or followed by time at Leshan. Buses connect these places to Emei town (best avoided) and the village below Baoguo Si Temple.  Minibuses go from there to higher roadheads and the cablecar at Jieyin Dian.

 

Foreigners will need to pay an entrance fee.

Route(s)

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There are several potential starting points: Baoguo Si at the bottom, or roadheads below the higher Qingyin Ge and Wannian Si (1,020m): given the toughness of the climb, most people take the higher options.

 

See “Walk Summary” above for information on the two main routes.  The guidebooks have good information on the alternatives.  People often climb up one route and walk back on the other, although you can get up the final 500-odd metres by cablecar, and descend the whole way by minibus, if time is short or you are feeling soft.  It is likely to take ten hours from Wannian Si to Jinding Summit (some 7,000m), so most people stop overnight on the way up.

Possible problems, health, other warnings

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  • Altitude: Will affect everyone to a degree. Come prepared to cope.
  • Mountain weather: Rain, cold and wind are possible at any time of year, snow and ice in winter. Come prepared.
  • Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
  • Harmful or annoying animals, including the infamous bands of robber monkeys. Take all appropriate precautions.  If you meet monkeys, hold your hands out, with palms open (and, some say, clap), to demonstrate that you do not have any food.  They get teased by the locals, so can be unpleasant.  Preferable not to meet them alone.
  • This can be a remote area: help may be hard to get if things go wrong.
  • Health risks: This is a relatively undeveloped country, and you will not get prompt medical help of a standard available elsewhere if you become ill. Come prepared, including getting all appropriate inoculations/medications.

See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.

 

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.

 

Make sure you have appropriate insurance.

 

Guided or independent?

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Independent

Most people do this walk independently, but come fully prepared for a tough walk.

Guided/supported

Some people form or join organised/supported expeditions.  This is not necessary, but some will prefer to do it this way, and travelling here with a knowledgeable guide has real advantages.  Expedition organisers include:

Accommodation

Stay, if you can, in one of the monasteries on the mountain.  They are hugely atmospheric (if basic), but are cold at night, so come with warm clothing.  Arrive early for the best chance of a place.

 

The guidebooks describe a selection of possible accommodation on and around the mountain – plan with care, as availability, quality and attitudes change. 

 

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Other information and tips

Bring good rainwear and warm layers.  And a torch.  Be careful what you drink.  Bring along a stick.

 

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Useful websites and information

There are few websites with particularly good information. Try:

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Other things to do in the area

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Other walks

·        If time is short, there are good day walks around Baoguo Si.

·        Climb a cliff beside the giant Leshan Dafu Buddha

Other activities

 

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.

Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.

The summit area, in cloud, monkeys - © William Mackesy

OTHER ACCOUNTS
share your experiences

Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).

Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.

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Ancient stone path, autumnal forest - ©William Mackesy...
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