Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Emeishan: Chinese Stairway to Heaven

After a few days in Chengdu, we decided we'd had enough of the pandas and smog and it was time for an adventure out of the city. We got on a short bus to Emei, the starting village to climb Emeishan (Mt. Emei). The mountain is 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) high (for those Bay Area dwellers, that's about 4 of Mt. Tamalpais, stacked one on top of the other). It can be climbed from village to summit, or you can take buses and cable cars a portion of the way (or all the way) to the top. We figured if we were going to bother, we might as well do the whole thing!

It is very hard to find practical information about climbing Emeishan, so we'll try and provide some here. We stayed at the Emei Hostel C (cheap room, biggest bed in the entire world, terrible travel info, and absolutely no english spoken), and got our travel information at the Teddy Bear Hostel in Emei. We elected to take the long way up the mountain and then take the cable car back down. We started at 9am from the Teddy Bear Hostel (stop and borrow one of their free walking sticks…you won't regret it!), and marched toward the foot of the mountain. We got quite lost trying to find the ticket office (it's up the first few sets of stairs), but once we got started, it was stairs for hours. 



One of the many sections of stairs we would climb
Climbing a mountain in China is very different than in the US. It is not an experience with nature so much as it is an experience with your fellow climbers. The path is paved the entire way, and groups of Chinese friends and families crowd onto the mountain. As we were often the only western hikers for hours, the locals treated us like celebrities, and it was so fun to hike with them, helping them to practice their English and learn about their lives. As another point of interest for us, a lot of these hikers aren't all decked out in fancy hiking gear. Mostly, they are in jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a plastic grocery bag with their snacks and maybe even carrying a purse. It's like they were driving by the mountain on the way to the mall and decided to go up at the last minute!
Cory hiking with the locals (in this photo they are discussing their favorite Quentin Tarrantino films); these nice guys bought us a snack after hiking together; this girl's shirt says "I'm not a governor, I just like hoes" (Cory and I are at an impasse on what exactly that means...give us your best guess in the comments!)
Cory at the rice bowl!
Around lunch, we arrived at the Xiu Ying Holiday Villa (by arrived, I mean we heard the sound of Chinese people chattering and thought, "lunch!"). We followed the path and it opened up to a large patio filled to the brim with Chinese families at lunch. After some time trying to figure out what we were supposed to do (but feeling quite welcome while we figured it out), we sat down. Cory joined the locals at the rice bowl and got us 5 empty plates. It turns out this was a buffet. Well, sort of. We had rice, tea and 5 empty plates, and the chefs came around with big bowls of food, which they ladled onto our plates. We feasted on the platters of vegetables, meat and rice, paid the exorbitant cost of 20 RMB ($3 US total) and kept going on our way.

After lunch, we arrived at the first section of monkeys. We had heard that the mountain had some very aggressive monkeys. We didn't find them aggressive as much as assertive…if you have something they want, and it's visible, they will take it. I thought my sport drink bottle would be safe in the pocket of my pack, but no sooner did I see my first monkey that he jumped onto the rail next to me and stole it. He had unscrewed the cap, drank the whole thing, and threw it away (what a little litter monkey!), before I even knew what had happened.

We stayed the first night at the Venerable Trees Terrace Monastery (one of the many choices on the mountain), a lovely enough monastery nestled into a plateau. There's no need (and no way) to make a reservation…just show up and get the dustiest room you can. The monastery accommodations are not run by the friendly, warm monks on the mountain, so learn to love the charm-free monastery staff…it's the best you're going to do. In contrast with the other friendly travelers you find on the mountain, the monastery staff act as though they are serving a punitive sentence on the mountain. The showers are shared, which is only awkward if you mind showering in an open stall with a room full of curious Chinese women watching you (yep, we all have the same parts!). Dinner is served at 6pm and as long as you make it on time, it's hot, tasty and cheap (and all vegetarian and beer free, as you are in a monastery). As long as you love cabbage, bitter melon and eggplant, or are willing to get your fill on the endless rice, you'll be fine!

For breakfast the next morning, we went down a few stairs to the Hard Wok Cafe and had noodles and pancakes…friendly service by a local couple, with a mid-breakfast neighborly visit by a monk and his dog. After a yummy breakfast, we started up the stairs (we got moving at 9am and reached our next hotel at 5:30pm).

The second day looked something like this: stairs, stairs stairs. Followed by some more stairs. With a few more stairs for good measure. Seriously. Imagine walking up stairs for 8 hours (and yes, this is still a recommendation that you should climb this mountain!).

Monkeys at Elephant Bathing Pool
We reached the Elephant Bathing Pool Monastery around 2 or 3 pm and it was really cool! It was peeking out of the mist, and was covered in…monkeys! 

Time to put your treats away again! We heard from friends that this was a good stop for the night, but we pushed on, wanting to be closer to the summit for sunrise. We made it to the area about 1.5 hours below the summit at 5:30 and after some major negotiations found ourselves a dusty attic room in Jing Yi Monastery (our window actually looked into the top of the sanctuary), a not so pleasant shower-less room for 150 RMB. There's nothing quite like giving yourself a cat bath while standing in a small bowl of boiling water in a dusty monastery attic, after an 8 hour hike straight up a mountain.

Our monastery attic room
We woke up at 4:00 the next morning to summit the mountain for sunrise. We hope that sounds super hardcore, because it is. Especially since there's a cable car that will get you to the summit in time for sunrise, having completed exactly none of the hike. As we trudged up the mountain in the freezing early morning air (we were wearing all of the layers we brought for the entire 8 month world trip, and I was still so cold!), we felt so self-congratulatory, in between bouts of wondering what on earth we were thinking, going for a stair climb at this hour.

As we neared the top, we found all the other hundreds of people who cheated their way to the top, and when we got there, I almost cried. I had never imagined I would climb a mountain from village to summit, on my own two feet. It was a sweet, if cold, victory.

Freezing while waiting for sunrise
The Summit at sunrise
The sun made it's appearance, and we cheated our way to the bottom via the cable car and bus, seeing as I could barely bend my knees enough to walk on flat ground. Overall, climbing Emeishan was a great way to experience a truly local, middle class Chinese holiday, while accomplishing a seemingly impossible feat. We highly recommend it!

More photos from our trip to Emeishan:

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