Stairway to Heaven in Emeishan (by Carmen)
We were peregrinos once again. But this time it was a little different. For one, we were in China on the holy mountain of Emeishan. Second, we were only going to hike 50km not 800km. Instead of churches, we would encounter temples. Instead of a bottle of wine with our patatas bravas we would eat a simple bowl of vegetarian noodles and drink tea. Instead of the end of summer we were hiking at the end of winter. All in all, we were ready for these changes and excited to see a more spiritual side of China.
Emeishan is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China and has been a site of ancient pilgrimages for centuries. A series of temples have been established along the trail to house and feed people walking to the top. A carved Buddha welcomed us at the trailhead and we began to ascend the steps built into the forest. We struggled a bit to find the correct trail since the best map we had was a schematic one from the hostel. But after some asking around and pointing we made our way to the temples.
One of the first temples we encountered was the Shenshui Pavillion. It was covered in a riot of bright colors, similar to the Tibetans ones we had seen in Zhongdian. We took a bit of a break, then pushed on. Shortly afterwards we saw this awesome purple cabbage plant; nature’s own version of colorful decorating.
Up and up we went. The stairs through the forest at times seemed never ending. But we kept looking out for the next landmark or temple. In a few hours we were able to reach the famous Wannian Temple
Wannian Temple is the oldest on the mountain and is dedicated to Bodhisattva Puxian. He liked riding a white elephant and this has become a symbol of the mountain. A giant bronze elephant with six tusks was constructed 1,100 years ago(!) to honor him and bring luck and long life to the people.
And then there were more stairs. We had started the day at 500m (1,650 ft) and our ultimate goal, the Golden Summit, was 3,077m (10,100ft). But it wasn’t one straight up shot. There were foothills to traverse and winding paths that followed the natural contours of the mountains. So we definitely felt like we had climbed all 3000m, if not more! When we couldn’t take the steps anymore, we would take a break. There were plenty of cafes and tea houses along the way vying for our business. We eventually stopped for lunch in a café that seemed to be full of local construction workers. Gong bao pork and stir fried greens is an excellent way to fill up for a hike.
Our final destination for the night clocked in at 2000m. The White Elephant Bathing Temple is so named for the time Puxian flew his elephant to a pool at this site in order to bathe it. By the time we made it to the top of the infinitely long staircase, we were exhausted and so happy to the bright red walls of the temple. After checking in for the night, we went directly to the dining hall for a hot bowl of noodles. The cook got a big kick out of the fact that we wanted it lao ji (spicy) – many people can never believe that a lao wei could like spicy. But we piled it on and were very happy and comforted. We then took our large water thermos to our room to drink tea and warm up with our electric blankets.
The next morning we were on a mission. We stopped briefly at the temples along the way, soaking in each one’s individual flavor. Some, such as Taizi Ping, were very rustic affairs in comparison to the more elaborate Wannian or even Shenshui. Hidden from the path Nathan spotted enormous curtains of prayer flags that weaved through the forest.
As we neared the top, the trees became less dense and we could see the dramatic gorges and cliffs of the mountain. And that’s where we encountered the monkeys. Monkeys are a common theme in many Chinese parks and people love to feed them. It’s odd, though, that they are then terrified of them when they get close. I do not quite understand the Chinese relationship to wildlife – it’s like a mix of entertainment and distrust.
Finally, after two days, 50km and 3000m, we were on the final steps of Emeishan. White elephants greeted us as we made our way to the top.
And then we were at the golden stupa. It was installed about 6 years ago so it does not have much historical significance. But I think it adds a lot to the atmosphere and is beautifully crafted.
We were lucky to have such a sunny day as the mists of Emeishan are legendary. And so are the crowds. I haven’t mentioned that 99% of the thousands of visitors that day had not taken a step on the path we took. Sadly, Emeishan has been overrun by the cable car. Many people were there just to take their million photos, including with us, and then they head to the gift shop. I understand that not everyone can hike the way Nathan and I did but it does cheapen the experience when those that can don’t try at all. Is it really a pilgrimage anymore when you haven’t even had time to ponder your journey, to the top and in life?
The one good thing about this easy access to the top is the easy access down. Nathan and I hike an hour down to the bus station and caught a minibus for the 1.5 hour drive back to town. I was mulling over my thoughts and getting over the shock of being in such a tranquil environment during most of the hike and then being jolted by so many people at the top.
That’s when something strange happened. As the driver took a bathroom break at one of the cable car depots, he opened the back door for anyone who wanted to get out. At that point, a lady threw her walking stick out the door. A very old woman then felt around the ground for it and I realized that she was blind. The woman on the bus had given her the stick so that she could resell it later but didn’t even have the decency to hand it to her. Fortunately, the old woman had a companion, another woman of the same age, who helped her find the stick. Together they lifted up empty plastic bags apparently asking for something. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion as I was trying to figure it out. The companion pulled out a plastic bottle and it finally dawned on me – they simply wanted plastic bottles. It was at that moment that the driver, who had returned, shut the door and left them in a cloud of dust. Something about these two women pulled strongly at my heart. Simply based on history, these women must have experienced a lot of hardship in life. They should be honored, but instead were treated with disdain. They were extremely humble to all these people on board who had just paid 150RMB ($25USD) to go into a spiritual, sacred site. I can only imagine what $25 would have meant to them. I thought about these women a lot since I’ve seen them. I had plastic bottles I could have given them but due to confusion and language barriers, I pulled them out too late. I hope they are ok. I wish there was more I could do. And I wish there was more focus on helping these hard working yet destitute elderly woman than building more malls for the nouveau riche… And there is my tale of temples, burning thighs and heart ache on Emeishan.