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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Closer to the Gods at Emei Shan, China

It’s been over a year since I first set off for my seven-week Asia trip, but aside from the odd round up post here and there, I have barely written about the experience so far. How on earth did that happen?! I wish I could tell you it was because the experience was too sacred to be shared, too intimate to be written about, but the unglamorous truth is that I simply just haven't managed to get around to it yet.

But I’m determined to finally start filling you in on the summer of 2014 and maybe inspire you to head out for your own Asian adventure one day soon, but to be honest, I also just really want to relive this trip: This summer is setting out to be super busy, but unfortunately not with travel, but an important assignment for university and so I'm going to have to live vicariously through last year's adventures!

My Asia trip started in Sichuan Province in China to visit the Chinese side of my family. Sichuan is China's third largest province and famous around the world for being the home of the Panda and having one of the best (and spiciest!) Chinese cuisines. One thing it isn't quite as known for internationally, though, is its absolutely stunning mountainous landscape, which is a shame because it really is out of this world.

To this day, the natural place that has had the most profound effect on me wasn't a Norwegian fjord, Grand Canyon or the Canadian Rockies, but a national park in the far north of Sichuan called Jiuzhaigou. I was fifteen and absolutely blown away by the high mountains and colorful lakes that were so unlike anything I imagined China to be and while I am still itching to go back to this place, it was time to find some new pastures on this visit.

People often associate China with chaos, stress and large masses of people and while that is certainly true for many places, there are also spots where this couldn't be farther from the truth. Emei Shan - also known as Mount Emei in English - is one of the four sacred mountains in China and it is both a revered pilgrimage site and a popular tourist destination, though the latter seems to have won out today.

Its main attraction is the Golden Summit which houses a temple complex and a giant golden statue of Samantabhadra, the Buddha that is being worshipped on this mountain, and every day flocks of domestic tourists head up with a combination of bus and cable car in the hopes of catching the fabled, but often elusive view of the golden statue shining in sunlight.

Taking public transportation up the mountain is a good alternative for those that are short on time or not physically able to complete the strenuous pilgrimage path that was the only option to reach the summit back in the day, but if it's at all possible I absolutely recommend making the time for the trek. The Golden Summit is beautiful, but it's the surrounding landscape that is truly impressive and I honestly believe that hiking to the summit is the best way to get the most out of a visit to Emei Shan and to truly see and experience the amazing and peaceful countryside.

We were planning to hike to the summit over the course of two days and so took a bus from Chengdu to the touristy, but polished little town at the edge of the national park in the morning. The bus journey took around two and a half hours, but since the entrance to the park was still a few kilometers away, we had to take another bus there. We got off at the Wannian Busdepot, where we payed the entrance fee and then finally set off on the nearly 30 kilometers that stood between us and the summit.

After three kilometers we reached Wannian Monastery. This was by far the busiest leg of our  entire hike with a couple of different little settlements and plenty of other walkers, but once we left Wannian Monastery behind us, the crowds started to sparse out and eventually it seemed like nobody was left, but us.

Wannian Monastery is the oldest still existing temple on Emei Shan, but I'm sure its popularity with tourists can also be explained by the fact that it can be reached by cable car. We took a short break, but with plenty of ground left to cover, we chose to not take the time to explore and instead continued on on our path.

Note: If you ever travel to China, make sure to photograph every English sign you come across. I guarantee, you'll have a good laugh!

The path basically only consisted of stairs which was a blessing and a curse at the same time: The path was very well-maintained and it was basically impossible to get lost, but it also literally went straight up for 30 kilometers and coupled with the humidity of Central Sichuan, I soon found myself out of breath and wondering how on earth I was supposed to ever make it to the summit. If hiking in Norway had taught me one thing, though, it was that my body was able to do so much more than my mind was giving it credit for and so I kept on walking, safe in the knowledge that failure wasn't an option anyway.

I frequently took breaks to look out into the countryside and take pictures of the magical landscape that was unfolding in front of me and that looked so very unlike anything I had ever before seen in my life. The mountains in Sichuan are so very different from mountains in Europe and North America and for lack of a better description - and please forgive this terribly Eurocentric point of view - they just looked utterly otherworldly. I had to pinch myself to remember that I wasn't in a novel or a painting, but out in the real world that these mountains were as much part of as me and in that moment I was convinced that I had never experienced a place quite as fantastic before.

The mountain was dotted with different monasteries. Some were bigger and more famous than others, but they all had in common that they were perfect oases of peace and I really loved the prevalent sense of quiet and calm that we seemed to have found since starting our walk. Occasionally, we met other hikers, but they were few and far between and I was thrilled, but also surprised how a place that looked as paradisiac could be as secluded.

Many of the monasteries offer accommodation for hikers and when the sun started to dip below the horizon, we dove into the next one and easily found a room and some supper. The accomodation in the monasteries was nothing luxurious: There were no showers and no heating and since all resources either have to be transported from the valley by mule or be grown in the monastery itself, the food consisted of simple, but tasty meals of rice and vegetables.

And yet, I had never stayed in a more memorable place.

I was exhausted and tired, but the sense of physical accomplishment had also left me feeling exhilarated and when I stepped out into the monastery's courtyard, I couldn't believe my eyes: The view was worth a million dollars! Seeing the steep and picturesque mountain slopes was a view I would have expected in a luxury resort and not a simple 50-Yuan-a-night monastery, but this made the experience all the more amazing and I hoped that it would continue to stay this accessible.

We got up early the next morning and set out on the last leg of the path. Our guide book was promising that the hike was going to get easier and less steep and so my feet were feeling a little more optimistic than the day before. Within an hour or so we arrived at the Elephant Bathing Pool, one of the more significant temples on Emei Shan. According to legend, the Buddha Samantabhadra flew up Emei Shan on a three-headed elephant that had a bath on this spot, but except for one small elephant statue there wasn't much to remind you of this story.

Remember what I said about signs? ;)

The air got colder the higher up the mountain we went and wafts of mist started to make their way along the mountain slope. I was blown away by the natural beauty of the mountains and the mist only served to make the scenery more picturesque and I had to stop every few meters to admire the landscape. I found it hard to tear myself away from the mystical view, but the summit was calling and so I kept on dragging my feet over the seemingly never-ending stairs.

After a few hours we reached the final stop of the bus and the sense of solitude that we had found over the last day started to vanish. Any disappointment I might have felt on leaving the beautifully calm scenery behind was quickly stifled by another exciting sight: Monkeys! We had seen signs with warnings of the apes along the path, but while I had kept my eyes peeled for any hint of these animals, it wasn't until we were back in a large human settlement that they started to appear. And they were everywhere!

I have seen notoriously cheeky and bold monkeys all over Asia, but in retrospect it is easy to say that the monkeys on Emei Shan were the most brazen of them all: I saw bottles getting snatched, noticed other people being jumped on and watched humans and monkeys fight over the contents of a shopping bag. It was kind of insane, to be honest, but I found it more amusing than anything else and since the monkeys didn't seem to be interested in my family at all, it also didn't feel too threatening. But I did make sure to leave my cell phone safely stored in my securely closed bag!

We decided to forego hiking the last few kilometers up to the summit and took the cable car instead. The summit was engulfed in thick mist that it made it impossible to see further than thirty meters ahead and while this made for some very moody photographs, it also meant that I had no understanding whatsoever of the giant dimensions of the complex. The lack of visibility also made it hard to fully appreciate Emei Shan's most famous sight, what has to be the largest golden Buddha stat in the world, but it did bring back the feeling of seclusion since it was simply impossible to gauge how many other people there were.

We took some time to visit the modern temples on top of the summit, the cold air in stark contrast to the harsh humidity at the foot of the mountain, but just when we were getting ready to leave, the clouds decided to take pity on us and cleared up to finally offer us a view of the statue:

Which obviously meant that every one got their camera out:

But as soon as the mist had disappeared as soon it had encompassed the statue again.

The monkeys had disappeared on our way back to the bus station, but at least we finally found out why every single person on the mountain seemed to wear the same jacket. The ride down the mountain was a wild hour of getting thrown around in sharp hairpin bends, but I was so tired that I dozed off for a bit nonetheless. Hiking on Emei Shan had been exhausting, but also an experience to remember and as we were getting closer to the chaos of the city, I already started missing the calm of the mountains.

What is the greatest hike you have ever gone on?


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