The Smart Way to Hike Emei Shan
Emei Shan, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, sits in western Sichuan at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. This soaring mountain was the location of the first Buddhist temple in the country. Today beautiful Emei Shan’s Jinding, the “Golden Summit,” features the gilded Huazang Temple, a prime destination for tourists, pilgrims, and hikers alike.
To Buddhists, the long, arduous climb up the steep slopes of Emei Shan is a testament to their devotion and spiritual fortitude. We took the bus.
It may seem like a cop-out, but it had a lot to do with a Canadian we met in our hotel at the base of the mountain.
“Did you enjoy your hike up the mountain?” I asked naively.
“It was my ultimate nightmare,” she answered, “nothing but stairs for two days straight. And I took the short path!”
She went on to explain that, unlike western-style trails, the pilgrim paths on Emei Shan go straight up the mountain; there is very little attempt to soften the impact of the ascent. To top it off (literally), you are greeted with busloads of tourists at the summit.
“I don’t know,” Tony thought out loud, “Taking the bus seems like cheating.”
I nipped that in the bud, “Tony, let’s just take the bus. She’s warned us!”
The Canadian girl suggested we take the bus to the top and make the beautiful hike down the back trail the focus of our trip. The back trail features fewer tourists, fewer hassles, and we would be taking the stairs straight down instead of straight up.
The Canadian girl’s advice was a major blessing. Maybe she was a bodhisattva disguised as a Canadian backpacker!
Thank you, bodhisattva-backpacker-Canadian girl, wherever you are.
The Smart Journey to the Summit
Having followed the Canadian girl’s advice to take the bus up Emei Shan, we arrived at a small drop-off point for the cable car, which carried visitors up the final stretch to the summit. The 3-minute ride to the Golden Summit temple complex was not only beautiful, but it also saved us two hours of walking uphill.
Once we stepped off the cable car, along with fifty Chinese tourists, it was a mere 15-minute walk uphill to the summit, which tops out at an altitude of 3077m (10150 feet). I was in awe when I saw the massive golden temple, enveloped in fog, its gilded stupa greeting visitors with impressively large elephant statues. Manic Chinese visitors seemed to be running in all directions with ritual candles in hand.
A quality experience at the summit is in the hands of the gods. Visitors come here hoping for views of the surrounding mountains and forests, but the steamy tropical mists of Sichuan can make that a bit challenging.
Beyond the views, Buddhist tourists come here to make offerings of incense and dark red candles at the Huazang Temple. It’s possible that most of those offerings are trying to urge the gods to clear the mist so the tourists will actually be able to see something.
During our five hours at the summit, the weather changed from simply overcast, to I-cannot-see-my-own-hand-foggy, to blindingly sunny, back to overcast, and eventually to rain. While it was raining, we hid inside the tall golden temple walking in the Buddhist tradition clockwise around an enormous Buddha statue.
I was close to the point of enlightenment when a monk inside started screaming at a bunch of Chinese tourists who were snapping pictures of the Buddha and talking on their cell phones while walking counterclockwise, all big Buddhist taboos.
As soon as the sun came out, we walked from viewpoint to viewpoint and even experienced the rare phenomenon called the Buddha’s Halo, where rainbow rings show up around a person’s shadow in the cloud sea below the summit. According to some guide books, devout Buddhists would sometimes jump off the cliffs upon seeing Buddha’s Halo thinking this was a call from beyond. Yeah, I’m not going to do that without a parachute.
Golden Summit is the end point for most modern pilgrims and tourists, but this was just the starting point for our two-day hike down the back trail descending to the base of the mountain.
Hiking Down, Down, Down Emei Shan
Emei Shan is hard to capture in photographs or video. Much of the path is shrouded in otherworldy mists, which float through and obscure the path and the views out over the dramatically plunging slopes.
It’s the movement of the mystical clouds, the chill of the cold, tropical mountain forests, and the epic sense of history that give the trek its appeal.
The process of moving along the mountain’s narrow stone paths allows you to piece together the soaring karst peaks, misty vistas and deep ravines. As you wind your way past gnarled trees and mossy caves beneath waterfalls and over stone bridges, the landscape slowly reveals itself.
Sharp-eyed hikers will easily spot butterflies and scores of gorgeous insects along the stone path. Ancient temples and monasteries blend into the phenomenal landscape. The hike down is literally like walking through the ultimate Chinese painting.
The palate of misty greys and deep green-black silhouetted trees layered onto nature’s canvas are awe inspiring. And at night, we fell asleep to the sound of monks chanting in the monastery where we overnighted. Simply amazing!
But our Canadian savior was absolutely right. The 40 kilometer (24 mile) hike was pretty much one giant staircase. One horrific section was a nearly vertical 6 kilometers (3.6 miles) straight down. Yikes!
Along the way, we met Western and Chinese hikers huffing and puffing their way up. Most of them looked absolutely miserable at best, and in a couple of situations, I was worried the person was going to drop over dead.
The vast majority of them seemed to be paying very little attention to the spectacular landscape, which is quite understandable. Instead, they stared at an endless series of stone steps. The bravest, and most defiant among them claimed that they were happy to be walking up because the walk down would have hurt their knees. Yeah, right! 😉
Spanking the Monkey – Literally!
One of the great joys of the remoter upper slopes of Emei Shan was the large number of Tibetan macaques we saw along the way. We watched them foraging for food and observed their natural behaviors. Mother macaques cuddled their babies as troops moved through the trees and across the paths.
But each time we approached a temple or monastery, the monkeys’ behavior changed. Years of being fed by hikers, pilgrims, and monks have made the animals at these locations more aggressive. Sometimes, large males – sizable animals – approached us baring their teeth, demanding food as a tribute to pass. Of course, we did not feed them.
But that didn’t stop macaques. Near one temple, a monkey ran up to me and pulled a bottle of Coke out of the side pocket of my backpack. (Ironically, it was Tony’s Coke and I was supposed to be guarding it while he photographed the monkeys. Oops!)
The monkey grabbed the Coke, climbed up into a tree, and used its foot to easily unscrew the bottle top. He greedily guzzled down the whole bottle in seconds staring down at us in glee. (Greedy little beast!) But that wasn’t the worst of the monkey behavior.
Towards the end of our spectacular hike down Emei Shan, we re-entered areas more easily accessible by bus. There, hiding among the crowds of Chinese tourists, was Emei Shan’s dark secret – the “Ecological Monkey Zone,” the most unbelievably stupid, ignorant testament to human idiocy that I have ever experienced.
Imagine hundreds and hundreds of tourists being actively encouraged to feed the monkeys. Now imagine, park employees being hired to physically beat the monkeys back with bamboo rods while the tourists egg them on with tasty treats. Imagine monkeys being hit in the face, the back, the legs – and being hit HARD! That’s Emei Shan’s “Ecological Monkey Zone” – otherwise known as the shame and disgrace of UNESCO.
Now imagine Tony going ape-shit all over the park employees in Chinese. (Our visit was in 2007. Let us know if the situation has improved since then.)
An Odd End to a Spectacular Hike
Yes, the decidedly un-environmental “Ecological Monkey Zone” left a really bad taste in our mouths and we do have to admit it did put a ding in our impression of Emei Shan. Having said that, the remoter stretches of the trail down the back side of Emei Shan were truly lovely aways from the crowds. We do have to acknowledge that walking straight down a mountain is not easy on the legs, but we did have hiking poles, which REALLY helped.
Back down the mountain, waiting for dinner in the guesthouse, an American girl asked us about the hike. Happy to pass on the advice we had received, we suggested she take the bus to the top and hike down the back route. As the waitress served our dinner, the American girl’s receptiveness seemed to completely reverse itself and she insisted she was going to hike up anyway.
Perplexed at her reversal, we suddenly noticed her and her boyfriend eyeing our hamburgers and french fries with a look of judgemental condemnation. What can I say – we wanted hamburgers after 10,000 steps!