Finding Nemo

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Emei Shan IV: The Golden Summit

John the spry Oxford student announced, "You guys really ought to go up there.  Its only a half hour, and its fantastic."  Just 30 minutes earlier, I had collapsed outright into a rotten bed in a raggedy "hotel" across from Unfriendly Monastery.  But its amazing what a hot bowl of noodles and a nap can do.  And the promises of "its fantastic" were poking my brain.  I realized that I had come all this way, and if I didn't see the sunset from the peak it could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience I would always regret.

Not a sight you see in LA
At around 6pm, 10 hours after starting my hike, we started up the final ascent.  The path was relatively gentle and then I realized something strange.  The sun was shining down through the forest.  We hadn't seen the sun since this morning, the afternoon clouds had made everything a gray color.  Now instead, the light splashed around the canopy from a low angle that made everything sparkle.  And then, around a bend, we got our first glimpse of the Golden Summit.  Above a green treeline against a clear blue sky rose an enormous golden multi-headed Buddha tower, glowing in the evening light.  I was shocked.  The guidebook had stated that the summit was a "bleak, windswept area overlooked by a TV antenna, a real disappointment."  But then again, with religion officially cool again many things were being rebuilt, things were changing fast.  We hurried up, making sure we didn't miss the sunset.  On the right, an amazing view of a the "Sea of Clouds" appeared.  Black lumps pierced the deck, looking like stumps in a bog, even though these stumps were really giant mountains.

Camila riding an elephant on Golden Summit
After a final turn, we stumbled upon the Golden Summit itself.  A long broad boulevard of white stone steps appeared.  On each side 6-tusked elephants guarded the path.  Halfway up a large black cauldron belched smoke from offerings.  And at the top, the enormous glowing Tower of Buddha lorded over the complex.  This guy would give Dafo a decent fight.

After a bunch of pictures, we clambered up onto the final promenade.  And there was another incredible surprise.  Beyond the huge golden Pauxian Tower adorned with the heads of his previous incarnations, was a beautiful golden pavilion also coated with fresh paint and glowing in the sunset.  I stared at the light bathing the two monuments, the promenade and stairs below, and off in the distance the sun setting over the black lumps in the Sea of Clouds.  But the fun hadn't even stopped there.

We walked to the far end, and just beyond a railing was a view that I will never forget.

Our perch, at around 3100 m, was above a sheer vertical cliff that plummeted down until it disappeared in the clouds below.  Sometimes at the top of a tall tower, there is a glass floor that makes you feel like you are in danger when you really aren't.  Standing at the edge of that monumental precipice, the same thrill came over me.  Before us was the true Sea of Clouds.  It was a white ocean.  The surface had features, ripples and waves frozen in place.  Below to the left, where we had climbed only an hour ago, a cloud rushed over the ridge like the fingers of a ghostly giant.  The fingers fell down the other side, yet somehow the clouds below moved up to meet it.  It was a circular dance of mist on a colossal scale.


Off in the distance stood an attached sheer peak called Wanfoding.  At its top, perched like a gnat, stood another golden temple.  In the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is a scene at the end where the young woman who becomes a sword master loses everything.  She climbs to the top of a sacred mountain, walks to the edge, and falls gracefully away.  She seems to float down, slowly, and then disappear into the clouds below.  In Chinese mystical thought there is a belief that jumping from the top of Emei Shan brings one ecstasy; nirvana.  I had to admit, from where I stood it looked like the clouds might indeed wrap around my body like a spiritual blanket and catch my fall.

I leaned over the railing and imagined what it would feel like to leap.


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