Spiritual Awakening

Remember Bhutan’s Tiger’s Nest Monastery? Yeah…that was a warm-up for what I accomplished over the past two days…

China has four Buddhist peaks dating back to the 7th Century, when Buddhism first arrived in this country. One of the more famous, Emei Shan (Mount Emei), is located a couple of hours south of Chengdu, so I knew I simply had to add it to my itinerary. A full mountain some 3,099 meters high (that’s 10,167 feet for you Imperial system folks) absolutely littered with a dozen or so Buddhist temples and monasteries…what’s not to like?

Well, considering that the base of the mountain is at a mere 550 meters, you’d have to work really hard to get all the way up to the summit in one day. It took me and this British fellow I met who hiked with me, about 1.5 days to go from the village to the summit (most folks take a bus at least partially, or even all the way up).

For practically the entire hike, there was nearly nobody around, leaving you with a wonderful sense of solitude, wandering through the woods as the mist slowly surrounds you. Those that did pass were almost entirely locals, as we did not encounter any other Westerners till we stopped for the night.

In fact that stop ended up being one of the highlights of the entire hike! While there are hotels here and there on the mountain, it is far cheaper (and in my opinion far nicer) to stay at the monasteries (in our case, the superb Venerable Trees Terrace). For a mere 30 RMB a piece (US$4.50), we got rather thin beds in a dorm just off the hall where the monks seemed to do all their rituals. It was completely quiet until 6:30am rolled around and the sounds of monks chanting and gonging away gently awoke nearly all of us. It was by far the best alarm clock I’ve ever heard!

Aside from the Chinese package tour groups which littered the summit (all having driven up there nonetheless), the other annoyance along the trail were the Tibetan macaques, which are fairly vicious for monkeys! You are advised to not carry anything loose (close your pockets, put your water in your bag, carry nothing) as these monkeys are quite adept at snatching anything away from tourists (one snagged onto my walking stick earlier today). And yes, these monkeys do bite people, as we learned from a guide who was showing off his scars!

It was a very long, very strenuous and very steep hike up the mountain. The trail, which is almost entirely stairs, snakes some 30km up and up. This is not a hike for the weak hearted. We started around 12:30pm yesterday and stopped around 4:30pm, while this morning we started at 6:45am (awfully refreshed too given our rather spiritual awakening) and hit the summit around 1:30pm, only stopping once for food.

But once we hit that summit I felt an enormous sense of pride. Here we were, surrounded by all these people who had “cheated” their way up by just taking the bus, but we had done it! We had hiked the entire way! Before us sat a gilded temple and a large statue of a Buddha surrounded by elephants (with 6 tusks, of course, just like the one that the Buddha’s mother dreamed about while she was pregnant with him) and shortly beyond that, a sheer drop-off that led to a sea of mist (lined with rather amusing signs that read, “Loving life, Don’t turn around the hand rail”).

Considering how hard we’d worked getting up the mountain (and how much our legs ached), we both opted to take the bus back down to the village at the base. Though the driver careened down the mountain, the journey still exceeded an hour, causing us to gaze in wonderment at just how far we had gone! And so, we left this UNESCO World Heritage Site behind us(the third of my trip after Luang Prabang and Wat Phu Champasak, if you’re keeping track!), having accomplished what seemed like the impossible.

Could this epic hike at all be compared to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan? Not even close…even the summit at Emei Shan cannot possibly compare to the monastery dramatically perched on a cliff. But am I glad I undertook this journey? In retrospect, sure, though as I was heading up I was wondering if I was insane to be doing it! Here in China they like things easy (hence, bus to the top), but I’m proud to have not taken the easy route. After all, it’s more about the journey than the place, right?

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