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Monkeys, Clouds, and Buddhism: A Journey Up Mount Emei
by Mitch Blatt - Mar 12, 2015
Emei Shan is the tallest of China’s Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains. There are more than two dozen temples on the mountain. (Wikipedia)
When I got off the bus in Emei City, a tout started shouting at me, trying to get me to go with him to his hostel in his car. Even after I walked by him, he followed me and tried to grab my luggage.
He was only the first of many mammals who would try to part me with my money or belongings: The others were Tibetan macaque monkeys. Mount Emei (Éméi Shān; 峨眉山), is a lush, cultural and biodiversity-rich holy mountain in Sichuan Province in southwest China. Towering with multiple peaks shrouded in clouds, like a depiction in a Chinese painting, Emei Shan is the tallest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China. It is covered with about 30 temples, 3,200 plant species, and 2,300 animal species, including one of China’s largest populations of Tibetan macaques.
Tibetan macaque monkeys run across the trail and the railings as you climb. (Wikipedia)
The Tibetan macaque is one of the largest species of monkeys in Asia. It is listed as a Near Threatened species, and it is present across much of Southern China, especially at Mount Emei in Sichuan and Yellow Mountain in Anhui. (Wikipedia)
Beware, for while those macaques can appear adorable to photographers, they are also feisty, and they will steal your camera, food, or even your wallet if you aren’t careful. But first you have to get past the human primates in the bus station. Even when I got out into the parking lot, a man out there told me there was no bus from the station to the mountain. When I asked the driver of bus #1 parked by the street, he said his bus would take me there, provided I transfer to bus #5, headed for Baogou Temple Village (Bàoguó Sì; 报国寺), at a roundabout with a golden statue.
Buses from Chengdu head to Emei City (¥42) all day from 7:20 am to 7:20 pm at Chengdu’s Xinnanmen Bus Station, a 2 hour trip. There is also a railway station with trains coming from Chengdu, Kunming, Urumqi South (K1502/K1503), and Beijing West (K118). Emei Shan is 30 km (18 mi) west of Le Shan (乐山), where the world’s largest Buddha is carved into the mountain.
After leaving my luggage at a guesthouse at the base of Emei Shan, I started hiking one evening in July at 6 pm. (The sun sets there at around 8 pm in the summer.) You don’t need to bring much with you. The mountain has paved stairways lined with lodging, food, and refreshment vendors. The only thing you really need to buy at the bottom is a bamboo stick to fend off monkeys.
From Baoguo Temple, follow a road up the trailhead, near Fuhu Temple (Fúhǔ Sì; 伏虎寺), where you will have to pay the entrance fee of ¥185. There are three main trailheads. Besides Baoguo Temple, you can also get started at the Wuxian-gang parking lot or the Wannian Cable Car Station. There are even buses that will drive you almost all the way up. But the Baoguo Temple trail, located on the west, is the longest, 58 km (36 mi) from bottom to top, and most scenic for hiking. The two day hike takes you through at least four climactic zones, from subtropical to cool temperate.
Located in the forest at the base of the mountain, Fuhu Temple is well-preserved and quiet. Entrance is about ¥6. Inside, it has 500 statues of figures in one room.
Built at the main base village during the Ming Dynasty, Baoguo Temple is the largest temple in the vicinity of Emei Shan. Inside it has a large statue of Buddha and a 25-ton copper bell. (Wikipedia)
I stopped at a guesthouse (¥80) after two hours androse early the next day and arrive at the Qingyin Pavilion (Qīngyīn Gé;清音阁). There the trail splits off between the east route towards the Wannian Temple and the longer west route towards the Heilongjiang Plank Way (Hēilóngjiāng Zhàndào; 黑龙江栈道). I joined up with some college students who were traveling during their senior year. Heilongjiang Plank Way is built into the sides of cliffs, above a river. Monkeys come running down the railings. I held my stick behind my back menacingly. The monkeys won’t threaten you when they see it. My friends don’t have sticks. A monkey pounced on one of them, unzipped his backpack, and pulled out some money before running away. I can only imagine what a monkey would do with it, but they are conditioned to steal just about anything.
Qingyin Pavilion is where the trail splits off, separating the longer west route and the shorter east route. Go east, and you will end up at the Wangnian Temple, or turn west to walk over Heilongjiang Plank Way.
One of the most exciting parts of the climb is Heilongjiang Plank Way, for its rustic stairways over steep terrain. This is also one of the sections with the most monkeys.
Up we went, across bridges over deep drops, stopping shortly at temples. At the Jiuling Hillock (Jiǔlǐng Gǎng; 九岭岗), the east and west trails meet up. From there it is just over 15 km (10 mi) to the summit, straight up over the ridge.
One of the most famous temple, Elephant Washing Pool (Xǐxiàng Chí; 洗象池), is just past Jiuling Hillock. There, it is said, Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Puxian, and 普贤in Chinese), who achieved enlightenment on the mountain, washed his elephant when he climbed it. It is a national monument of China and a provincial monument. The Jieyin Palace (Jiēyǐn Diàn; 接引殿) is about where the road of bus meets up with the trail. By then, it was getting towards late afternoon, and we began looking for a place to stay for the night. Some people stay at monasteries. There are even luxury hotels just below the summit, some with rooms for a few hundred yuan a night. But we find a cheap room for three just outside a monastery. We go across the street to the monastery for dinner where we eat a surprisingly tasty vegetarian meal.
Located 2,000 m above sea level, Elephant Washing Pool is one of the most famous sites on the mountain, known for the "Night Moon over the Elephant washing pond.”
Puxian, the patron of the Lotus Sūtra, was said to have climbed Emei Shan with his elephant. Elephant statues guide the way. (Wikipedia)
Talk to any Chinese person about Emei Shan, and they will mention the legendary sunrise and the Clouds Sea at the Golden Summit (Jīn Dǐng; 金顶). Waking up before sunrise, we joined a procession of early birds with flashlights. That’s something else that you might want to bring, although, there’s so many people in season you can even do without it.
The sunrise over the Cloud Sea is a spectacle every visitor to Emei Shan is recommended to see. (Wikipedia)
Taking in the sunrise from the opposite summits, the Golden Summit looks small, and the shorter mountains are islands in the sea. (Wikipedia)
Clouds wash in and out at the top. Rare is the moment when you have a completely clear view. (Wikipedia)
With the temple on top adorned in gold paint and a mural, it is no wonder where the name “Gold Summit” comes from. (Wikipedia)
The first thing you see when you make it to the top is the bright gold statue of the many-headed Puxian sitting on top of his elephants. The statue is a relatively new addition to the mountain, having been built since 2000. Many more elephant statues line the trail to the top.
The bodhisattva Puxian, or Samantabhadra, is said to have achieved enlightenment on Emei Shan, making it one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China. This huge state of Puxian at the Golden Summit was built recently. (Wikipedia)
The day I summited was misty. With clouds covering most of the sky below us, we could only catch glimpses of the sunrise. There are three peaks on top: Golden Peak, Qianfo Peak (千佛顶), and Wanfo Peak (万佛顶). The Golden Summit is 3,077 m (10,095 ft), and the Ten Thousand Buddha Summit is 3,099 m (10,167 ft). Looking down from the edge, you can see steep rock faces drop as far as the eye can see. It looks just like a Chinese “mountain-water” brush and ink painting where the mountains just go straight up. Sheshen Cliff (摄身崖) sits right under the main summit. The temple at the very top, Huazang Temple, was the first Buddhist temple in China, originally built in the 1st century CE.
The Ten Thousand Buddha summit is the second and tallest of the three summits, at 3,099 meters (10,167 feet). Here it is at night. (Wikipedia)
I go down the opposite way, ending up in the Wannian Cable Car Station Parking lot in the early afternoon. At the bottom, I discover there is much more to Emei Shan. A beautiful river runs through at the base. A botanical garden and a number of charming hotels line the road on the way to the parking lot. There isn’t just one reason, but many reasons Emei Shan is called, “The most beautiful mountain under heaven.” It would take more than two days to explore all the trails and all the temples. UNESCO inscribed it as a world heritage site in 1996. The only thing detracting from it in some people’s eyes are the huge crowds—over 300,000 people a year—and the cable cars.
What to bring: Bamboo stick, Flashlight. All else can be bought on the mountain.
How to get there: Bus from Chengdu’s Xinnanmen (西南门) Bus Station (2 Xinnan Road - 新南路2号; phone: 028 8543 3609), or train from Chengdu, Chengdu East, or other station
Entrance fee: ¥185
Time Needed: 1-2 days to hike, 3-5 hours if using buses and cable cars
Warnings: Be aware of monkeys. Don’t get too close. Keep your eyes on your food and belongings. Watch out for scams at bus station. Be prepared for heavy crowds.
Mitchell grew up in Cleveland, OH and graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. in journalism. He has written about music, sports, travel and culture. Since he began studying Chinese, he has become obsessed with Chinese culture and travel, and has visited over 13 provinces and plans to visit many more. In 2013, he moved to Dali, Yunnan, and launched the travel guide DestinationDali.com. When he's not writing, he enjoys singing karaoke, doing "ganbei's" with friends and strangers, attending punk concerts, and getting lost in the alleyways of ancient cities.