Finding Nemo

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Emei Shan I: Above the Flood

The Endless Steps of Pain
I stared at the steps ahead of me.  They went up nearly 45 degrees, endlessly, until they vanished into a forest high above shrouded in mist and cloud.  I looked down.  The Steps of Pain receded down until they disappeared into the jungle.  I was drenched in sweat, legs heavy, lungs burning from the altitude.  I had just blasted the contents of my bowels off the edge of a cliff in what amounted to a Chinese Mountain Toilet, for the 2nd time in 30 minutes, and was worried I might have food poisoning.  My brain had began to slosh around in my skull.  And worst of all, with each step I noticed the fibers in my achilles tendon grate against the heel-bone where it attached.  It alternated between numbness, pins and needles, and sharp stabs of "what chew talkin bout willis?!".  There was no road, no donkeys, no help in sight.

What the f- was I doing???!!

I suppose after my failed attempt on Annapurna Base Camp, and how good my foot felt on the descent, I still had some Buyer's Remorse on turning back.  So when I looked at my Big Plan (basically a bunch of crumpled-up scribbled maps) and noticed Emei Shan, the holy mountain, I suppose I saw it as a chance to redeem myself.  This so-called "mountain" was only 3100m (10,300') tall!  I scoffed at its lowly altitude, after all, I had summitted Poon Hill recently which was the same height.  (I tried to forget that it was mostly on the back of a Nepalese donkey.)

Chinese waterpainting
Emei Shan sounded fantastic.  It is the very place that most Chinese mountain waterpaintings come from.  Drawings of it show fantastically steep cliffs rising dramatically above an endless "Sea of Clouds".  Beautiful monastaries have sprouted up along the paths, flocks of monks are supposedly encountered on the pilgramage to the top along with crazed thieving monkeys!  And coolest of all, the monastaries welcome travelers to spend the night and eat in their kitchens.

Now after my experience of Leshan, I was very nervous about what the trek would really be like.  But after talking to the travel agent at the hostel, it sounded great.  There happened to be a road that wound up the backside of the mountain, far from the trail, that ferried all the packaged Chinese tourists near the top.  And from there a cable car took the herds up the last bit.  Unbelievably, there was even a monorail on the top of this holy mountain that took tourists from one peak to another!  But I realized that the road and cable car was a huge blessing: it emptied the trail of Chinese.  The travel agent assured me, "No problem!  Chinese very lazy!  You have all trail only you."  Sweet.

I started at Wannian monastary, and my plan was to get near the top for a sunrise summit attempt.  I have begun to visualize the billion Chinese with their newly acquired spending cash as the Great Zhongguo Flood.  Any major tourist site that is on low ground (i.e. easily accessible by bus or cable car) is doomed to the rising Chinese waters.  They swarm around these sites, every hour of the day, seven days a week, snapping pictures, yelling on their phones, getting yelled at by their tour guides on their loudspeakers, and generally buzzing forth like a Biblical plague of locusts.  So when I saw the scene at Wannian, I wasn't too fazed.  I was ready this time.

1 Puxian, 6 tusks, 1000 buddhas, a gazillion tourists
Wannian houses the patron Buddhist of the mountain, a monk named Puxian who rode his 6-tusked elephant up to the bottom, saw the wonderful cliffs, and declared the place his new pad.  Sculptures of the 6-cylinder elephant are found all over the mountain.  At Wannian, a life-size plaster sculpture of Puxian on his giant lotus saddle atop his mutant white elephant is surrounded by 3000 little gold buddhas.  Offerings of what appear to be cans of Chinese cola are made and then the tourists walk around back and rub the elephant's butt for good luck.  I suppose I have traveled enough to not question such practices.

The moment I stepped off the main highway to the "walking path," I felt odd.  I was a few steps apart, but the parade of Chinese walking back and forth from bus to temple only gave me an occasional confused glance.  I was suddenly free.  I walked up the steps, and soon found myself in a beautiful pine forest.  The path was completely empty.  As I walked, slowly my ears adjusted from the din of loudspeakers just around the corner.  Then I noticed a different, much quieter noise.  Birds chirped above, cicadas buzzed and frogs croaked.  The treetops swished in the breeze.  There was no other noise.  A slight smell of pine wafted in the air, sunlight filtered through the green ceiling to the mossy carpet below.

I noticed I was smiling.

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