Once again, our streak of lucky weather continued, since we woke up to clear sunny skies, a good omen for being able to see some scenery at the top of Mt. Emei, our only destination for the day (photos). Mount Emei is one of the four holy mountains in Chinese Buddhism. The day began with a winding bus ride up the side of the mountain. Kevin had warned us that the roads were very narrow, but I don’t think they were any worse than, say, the Going to the Sun Road in Waterton/Glacier. We told Kevin of the old days of riding rickety shuttle buses up the one-way roads to Sunshine ski resort. When he asked if we didn’t have cable cars in Canada, we had to confess just how many years ago that had been.
It’s a roughly a two-hour bus ride, so halfway up the mountain the bus stopped at a small group of souvenir shops for a bathroom break. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs, and while doing so, what do I hear blasting from the loudspeakers? “Gangnam Style!” I turn to our guide, Kevin, and say, “Wow, you can’t even escape that up here!” He comes back with, “Have you seen the Mitt Romney version?” and proceeds to pull up “Romney Style” on his phone. I watch the entire thing. It’s hilarious. “Incongruous” doesn’t even begin to describe the situation.
While we were stopped, we also had the opportunity to watch a young couple bashing a badminton bird back and forth. She was wearing 4-inch stilettos. That may have topped the girls climbing The Great Wall. I’m not sure.
The mountains in China – at least those in Western China – have a different character than our younger Rockies, but they have a distinct charm nonetheless. They reminded us very much of traditional water-colour paintings of Chinese mountain scenes. Even at the peak of Mt. Emei, we didn’t get above treeline, but the vegetation did shift from the sub-tropical deciduous forest to more and more conifers, many of which were new to us.
After the bus ride, which tested my susceptibility to motion sickness. We boarded a cable car, which took us near the Golden Summit. I’ve probably already mentioned that China is not place to visit for people with decreased mobility, and this day certainly reinforced that point. In between the bus station and the cable cars and then again from the cable car to the Golden Summit we had a chance to climb many, many more stairs. No need for a Treadmaster on this trip. Fortunately, the climb was broken up by stops to take pictures of capuchin monkeys, which gathered along the trail, knowing that the Chinese tourists would feed them copiously.
When we arrived at the summit, the day was still clear with only a few high clouds to frame the scene of the Giant Buddha statue recently erected by the Chinese government. Certainly, there was a haze which obscured mountains in the distance, but one might easily encounter that in the mountains in North America as well. Kevin told us we were very lucky; that more often than not clouds obscure the mountain view.
And on our descent, we discovered just how lucky we were. By the time we made it down to the bus station for lunch, clouds had moved in, and the summit was socked in tight. Kevin had down-played the quality of food on the mountain, but we thought it was actually quite good. For the first time we encountered finely shredded potato as the main component in a stir fry (we had encountered lots of diced potato before). And, of course, each dish had its share of dried chilis and at least one had those very distinctive mouth-numbing peppercorns.
After lunch we took the bus part-way down the mountain and boarded another cable car which took us up to Wannian Monastery, the oldest of 30 current monasteries on the mountain. At its peak, Mr. Emei was home to 76 monasteries. By this time in our trip, monasteries were starting to blur into one another, so we began to look for the differences that might distinguish one from the other. We had already noted from Baoguo Monastery at the foot of the mountain that this area of China retained much more of the inconography of Indian Buddhism. Elephants, were for more prominant, for example, and the image of Buddha Śākyamuni (the name the Chinese tend to use for Gautama Buddha) were far more similar to Indian representations. This is largely due to the predominance of Puxian Buddhism (a student of Gautama Buddha) on the mountain. Approaching the monastery, of course, gave us yet another opportunity to hone our stair-climbing. This monastery was also distinct in that its main pavilion was constructed in “Indian Style.”
By the time we had descended to the bus station and taken the bus the remaining distance down what remained of the day was consumed by the drive back to Chengdu. We both agreed, though, the scenery had been worth it.
A short note, for those who might think of travelling to China. We never regretted making our arrangements through a tour company, nor did we ever regret taking a private tour. Many times when we saw tourists being herded along by a guide, we thought, “There, but for the Grace of God and a little forethought, we go.” And if one were to plan for such a trip without the help of a tour company, I’m not sure how you would ever navigate the labyrinth of fees and charges that are involved at the various sites. Almost never in China is there only one entry fee to a tourist site. At Mt. Emei, there were fees for park entry, for the bus ride, for the cable car up, then for the cable car down, then again for the monastery, and so on, and so on. Kevn asked us how much we thought the entire day on the Mountain cost. We had no idea, but the answer: 500 rmb each. That’s roughly $90 a piece for the day. And that doesn’t include the transportation to get to the bus station. Each of those fees requires that one knows what sort of ticket he/she is buying and then communicating that to a ticket agent who will doubtlessly speak no English. More than once on the trip we looked at one another and commented that we would have had no clue how to get out that pickle had we not had a tour guide.
When we got back to Chengdu we checked in again at our favourite hotel and then went out on the street to once again eat from the menu of the local vendors.