Emei Shan

Sichuan, China

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 almost no Mandarin, I was worried about being able to communicate; ever resourceful, I had concocted with my wonderful secretary a set of cards, ready to be brandished at times of distress, with requests in English on one side and a Chinese translation on the other, a mixture of crucial directions, places to sleep or eat and a forlorn last resort, “where am I?”, which was of course useless as I would never understand the reply.

The first part of my journey had got me safely to the main bus terminal, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, a dreary hall with rows of hatches surmounted by indecipherable barbed-wire script. My first card, “Bus to Emei Shan please”, had been produced with apparent success: I had found a hatch, a ticket and a bus.

I felt completely helpless. Even the vaguest sense of direction was impossible in the grimy outskirts of this vast city as, even though it was ostensibly a fine autumn day, the sun was obscured by the smog. I pictured myself as a landlocked Ancient Mariner, wandering alone in the crowds from unknown town to unforeseen destination.

Eventually we disembarked in a sprawling town on a large river. Brandishing a card, I asked for Emei Shan and was pushed by kindly hands onto another bus. This was one of the most decrepit forms of transport I have ever used: empty windows, glimpses of the road through floorboards which sported gobs of bright Sichuan phlegm, the space between the seats so small that it must have been designed for amputees. We started to wind uphill, and finally limped out into a sloping-streeted village so obviously geared to relieving tourists of their money that I knew I must be in the right place.

For approaching two thousand years Mount Emei has been holy to the Buddhist and Taoist religions. 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 burned or wrecked during the war with Japan and the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Relative religious tolerance had, when I was there, allowed some 20 to re-open, a number again populated by saffron-robed Buddhist monks. The mountain once more draws vast numbers of visitors.

Emei Shan is the first bastion of the impenetrable mountains that separate western China from Tibet. The scenery is magnificent, typical scroll painting material: sharp peaks and tremendous mist-wreathed cliffs tower above silent forests dotted with pavilions and monasteries. Emei means “eyebrows of beauty”, as the poets have likened the mountain's jagged grey cliffs a moth's eyebrows. Even if you allow for heightened sensibilities, this really is pushing it. 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. Unlike the busily decorated and over-restored examples found elsewhere in China, most of Emei Shan's temples and monasteries were of simple blood-red plywood and corrugated iron, frequently unkempt, crouching on the fine old dressed-stone platforms of their predecessors.

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 winds more slowly up through the foothills. The summit ridge looms above tremendous cracked cliffs, which are often swathed in mist. The back of the mountain is relatively gentle, which is no doubt why it is deemed unsuitable for pilgrims. A track now winds up the easier side to a cable car station.

As I was running late, I quickly paid my respects to the remains of the great gateway monastery, once magnificent but now a dreary collection of grey buildings. To make up time, I took a bus up the hill to the road-head below Wannian Si, Myriad Years Monastery, where I bought a long, pictogram-incised lacquered stick and, shouldering my pack, set off up the direct path into thick mist. Slippery paving meandered through tea plantations, easy walking at first but soon becoming long flights of steps, which I tackled with initial gusto after hours in cramped buses, although I was soon panting. With only three hours to sun-down and several thousand feet to my monastery-bed, a trip that normally takes up to five hours, I had to press ahead, so a second wind (and more) had to be found.

I walked on my own, for most of the time through gently dripping deciduous forest. Late October was a time of mist and mellow wilderness; the harsh continental winter was approaching and the pilgrim season was almost over. Down through the cloud and trees, I caught glimpses of thick forest and cliffs across the giddy gorges beside me.

My fellow climbers wore thin shirts and trousers with maybe a threadbare Mao jacket or a pullover, carrying a rustling plastic bag with unidentifiable, but very small, contents. Many were tackling the 10,000-foot mountain in peculiarly abrasive-looking plastic flip-flops, the wealthier were in collapsing trainers. People walk like this in winter, resulting in severe falls on icy paths. Even the Hong Kongers and other overseas Chinese were extraordinarily lightly clad; surprisingly, as Hong Kongers are avid equipmenteers and not famed for their hardiness. I would have expected new packs, thick coats and unsullied walking equipment. Here in China, though, simplicity (but not dowdiness - one girl was in court shoes) was in order, or perhaps ancestral hardiness re-emerged once they were back in the mother country. In contrast, I was thick jersey-clad, wearing stout walking boots and carrying a small pack, Hong Kong bought and which had, needless to say, virtually unravelled by the third day. I was once again an object of interest and amusement.

All ages and types were making the climb, from raisin-faced, tiny grandparents to tottering bambini; learned professors, frizzy-permed matriarchs and their heavily pregnant daughters, lanky spotty teenagers and young couples hand in hand, all were on the path. One young couple was already in difficulties, she hobbling on flip-flopped feet while he scowled and avoided her eye. The descents seemed worse; thousands of feet of steep, slippery steps in smooth shoes took an obvious toll. Most of the travellers I met winced as they walked.

Pairs of porters, carrying substantial old people in chairs slung between bamboo poles, shot up and down the mountain at humiliating speed, despite a distinctly malnourished look and bare feet. The one thing their burdens never looked, in this egalitarian People's Republic, was in anyway embarrassed or discomforted.

Wannian Si, first built in the 5th century and one of the oldest monasteries on the mountain, was set in a lovely garden with privet-bordered paths and roses, surrounded by haunted trees dissolving in the cloud. It is famous for its large 9th Century statue of the Bodhisattva Puxian, the protector of the mountain, who smiles down inscrutably if a bit complacently from a gilt lotus atop a huge white elephant, inside a surprisingly simple, square, white-painted building supporting a squat dome.

The temple was the last crowded place on my route. People milled around outside, buying sweets and having their photographs taken aboard a very cross-looking camel. Although this desert creature was surprising up here in the dripping forest, it lagged well behind, in the Incongruous Sights in China stakes, a white pony I saw near Kunming, further south towards the Burmese border, which had been daubed with thick zebra stripes of black paint which came together on its forehead into a distinctive CND sign. Very clever, subtle protest in a repressive nuclear country? I think not.

Beyond the blood red walls of the temple precinct, the longest section of my path wound away through the still forests that clothed the ridge. Distant voices and occasional birdsong broke the silence. The dripping cloud broke up into drifting shreds from which emerged the graceful silhouettes of trees and the pale grey cliffs of the far side of the valley. The famous Sichuan mountain biodiversity extends here; the mountain is home to over 3,200 types of plants, and the deciduous forest – interspersed with bamboo stands - is ravishing.

I stopped an hour later at a simple dark wooden monastery with a rusting corrugated iron roof, perched on the terrace of its evidently grander forebear. I sat on a wall and searched my pack for a Mars Bar. A curious crowd gathered, including a wizened old monk in a dirty robe and a “little empress”, the name given to China's many spoilt, overdressed children, products of the one-child policy. This girl was typical: several thick layers under a grubby-but-precious sky blue cardigan, outsize pink fluff-balls in her hair and shoes made from what looked like leather. Her grandfather sat nearby, worn Mao suit and plastic sandal clad, with the purest adoration in his eyes.

An exhausting haul took me over a heartbreaking false summit, and I was faced with an almost vertical climb up the “Sky Cleaving Slope” to what must be my destination, Xixiang Chi, the Elephant Bathing Pool Monastery, site of a pool used to wash the Bodhisattva's elephant when he first came to the mountain. A tiny collection of huts embedded in forested cliffs, it looked the most remote place conceivable. The climb up was miserable. Night was setting in, and I needed to press on. Even so, I was stopping every fifty steps to rest nearly seized legs. Eventually I reached my first manned refreshment stand in several hours, a good sign. This was a fine specimen, multi-hued sheets of ragged plastic complimenting perfectly the purity of the scenery around. The sight of a foreigner, a wallet with legs, produced a frenzy of activity and strange proffered foodstuffs, but to no avail.

At last, with a lightening heart, I dragged myself up some worn steps to the platform on which stood Xixiang Chi, faced in plain crimson-painted iron and wood on three sides around a massive, ancient cauldron filled with sand, in which stood the remains of hundreds of joss sticks. Inside were two courtyards, the outer containing a large travellers' refectory and dormitories of various sizes. Most of the creaking edifice was made of scuffed wood and appeared distantly related to an elderly cricket pavilion. A snotty, shaven-headed, grubby-robed, pendulous-lower-lipped novice monk stared at me with low curiosity. A gentle older monk with kind, amused eyes swept me in to the entrance. All of the monks seemed to conform to these templates. I never worked out how such unlikely raw material could metamorphose like this; such must be the ways of righteousness.

After performing an arcane signing-in ceremony, I returned to the outer terrace, and set on the balustrade, looking back on my day's journey. The ridge fell away below me: a thousand feet down, the silver roofs of another monastery glittered through the gloaming. To my right, through slender tree-trunks, across an awful chasm, another tiny collection of red and silver buildings nestled at the base of a cliff. Beneath it all, a thick blanket of cotton wool was punctured by lesser peaks which sank towards the invisible great plain of Sichuan. I was not alone in my wonder. I exchanged glances with a middle-aged man in a thick padded jacket. We nodded, smiled and turned back to the darkening mountain.

An old man was still in the kitchen when I arrived, and threw some nameless ingredients into a wok. I retreated to a table and waited. A late-arriving pair smiled politely and joined me. Unusually, one of them spoke some English. They were civil servants from mid-China, coming for a few days' respite on the hill. Their wives were in different parts of the country with their children, one each of course. We discussed the beauty of the mountain and our life stories contentedly over steaming soup, delicious fried vegetables and tea.

I emerged into the dark courtyard and fumbled towards the sound of a buzzing chant. Through an open doorway, the monastery's inhabitants sat round a room chapter-house style, weathered faces glowing and deeply shadowed in the rich candlelight, chanting an ageless mantra. I squatted by the entrance with a handful of other guests. The room was warm after the night chill, and I closed my eyes and let the steady noise abstract me. The prayers ended and I shuffled to my room. All the other visitors had been put together in snug inner-facing cabins. As the foreigner, I was on my own in icy grandeur in a windward dormitory for ten. I put on all my clothes and turned off my torch; it was eight o'clock. The wind rattled the panes and a rat scuffled enthusiastically in a corner.

Voices and the creaking of the whole building woke me some time long before daylight. So warm was I in my nest that I drowsed on and, confirming all propaganda about decadent westerners, finally dragged myself out at 8 o'clock, at least two hours after everyone else had left. I slunk guiltily away. A long flight of vertical steps disappeared into the woods way above me. After a few minutes, it was all too much. This was the highest I had ever walked; I didn't realise it at the time, but the altitude was combining malignantly with general unfitness. I had reached the foodstall of a smiling, active-shuffling methuselass of astonishing antiquity. We agreed by pointing that I wanted eggs, tomatoes and leafy tea. A superb omelette duly arrived, which I devoured in gentle sunshine. The cloud had risen, revealing a wonderful succession of blue ridges descending to the Sichuan plain, which spread hazily away.

Duly braced, I returned again to the treadmill. After an hour or so the ridge became gentler, the path winding gorgeously through golden autumn trees. I was alert here for the famous Emei monkeys, which roam the slopes like post-modern Robin Hoods. They beg for food, consider a brisk body search part of a morning's work, and sometimes make off with possessions. I tightened the straps of my pack and practised kung fu twirls with my stick. A primate encounter is an integral part of every pilgrim's journey and both feeding and baiting are common. As a result, they can easily turn nasty, and a steady approach is advised, accompanied by hands clapped and extended to demonstrate that they are empty. I did not have a problem with these marauding brigands but, as I came round a corner, I met a group of young walkers, led by a bumptious man in unreasonably smart clothes. As I approached, he clapped and extended supplicatory hands towards me. His friends chortled and I grinned sheepishly. Smart-arse. All Europeans are big-nosed barbarians, but the monkey metaphor is more universal than they knew. A few years later, I could have hit them with a carefully chosen Mandarin retort, but all I could do was slink onward, a foreigner put in his rightful place.

I was now on a main shoulder of the mountain. Grey cliffs lowered across a deep chasm, disappearing into thick cloud not far above me. Below them a monastery was swaddled among the trees, utterly cut off from the outside world. On a pinnacle near me sat a hexagonal pavilion, its two-tiered corrugated iron roof rusty and tattered.

Around a corner, I joined a long rutted village street lined by a grassy bank on one side and a row of shops on the other, some selling food but almost all hawking ankle-length quilted sleeping bags-with-arms, all an army surplus khaki colour, which travellers hired for the day for their journey to the top. No wonder my fellow walkers were so lightly-clad and insouciant. Some of the smartest mini-buses I had seen in China jostled in the mud like a colony of garish cockroaches.

I was now back with the tourist pack as I climbed a greasy path on the edge of the cliff and entered the drifting cloud which engulfed the summit. My way took me past the base of a cable car which disappeared into the mist. Ever greedy for danger and faced with a boring trudge through thick cloud, I joined the queue. A pointy-bearded peasant with two huge tubs of steaming rice yoked across his shoulders joined me in the car, which rumbled out into the whiteness. He spat meditatively on the floor, narrowly missing the tubs. A high proportion of the population has chronic hepatitis.

At the top, still in thick cloud, I finally met some of the famous monkeys, sitting grumpily on posts or hoardings, their legs chained, waiting to be photographed with grinning visitors. I started to look for people with pieces of their ears missing. Under a gateway and up a few more steps, and at last I reached the famous Golden Summit.

A temple on a large stone platform marks the peak; below and behind huddle monastery buildings, burned down in the Cultural Revolution and since substantially rebuilt. Somewhere nearby is a famously ill-positioned communications mast. I never saw it. The temple's ox-blood columns and yellow tiled roofs hovered mysteriously in the cloud, which swirled through the hall and mixed with the smoke of scores of joss sticks. An old quilt-wrapped monk dabbed ineffectually with a ragged broom at stubborn accretions of dirt. Inside, damp Buddhas stared patiently into infinity.

I clambered down onto a spur and contemplated an extraordinary view, which appeared through the clouds and then vanished again, of bottomless cliffs and the foothills marching away to the plain. On a good day, the pilgrim is rewarded with a view to end all views - literally, as a rainbow-like “Buddha-halo” can encircle pilgrims' shadows on the clouds below, and they used to leap ecstatically into the void to achieve an untimely nirvana (not recommended). A family joined me, smirking in the gusty wind on the very edge of the abyss while the father took happy holiday snaps.

I stirred myself reluctantly and, after a general sniffing of the air, started the walk back down. The monkeys chattered and rattled their chains as I passed. One made a perfunctory, idle grab for my camera, more out of boredom or ancestral memory than real malice. I scuttled onward into the mist.

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