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Published: October 5th 2009
峨眉山，第二天 (EMei Mountain, day 2)
Woke up from a decent sleep just before 7, although I was woken up once during the night by some other guy in the room whose snotty snores kept all of us up more or less. I was the first up this day, and decided to wander the temple and grounds with my camera for a while.
The entire monastery was shrouded in fog. Pictures were inadequate, and what a Buddhist monastery shrouded in fog at dawn in China looks and feels like, I have to just preserve that memory.
I returned as the others awoke, and we just talked for a bit, mostly complaining about the snotty snoring guy, and then packed up and headed out into the misty daybreak shortly after 8, just in time to miss breakfast at the downstairs kitchen. So, out of necessity, we went to an adjacent restaurant that absolutely gouged us for plates of relatively crappy fried rice. An unsatisfying way to start the day, especially because we didn't order that much food to avoid the high prices. Nevertheless, we at least had some
thing in our stomachs, and were watched by an old, grey-haired, sage-like monkey as we ate.
We headed up the rest of the mountain, still needing to cover 17+km distance and 1400m altitude to reach the summit. The morning was brutal, an almost absurdly sidewinding ascent through mountainous topography at sometimes absurdly steep angles (think, 60 degrees). We were persistently hiking up through a thin mist, not quite fog, rain or cloud, just perceptible and wet. Finally, at noon, we made it to our first major checkpoint of the day--Elephant Bathing Pool.
This place also has an interesting history--I don't have time, space or resources to insert all these cultural/historical asides, but I encourage everyone to check them out on their own. So, yeah, Elephant Bathing Pool, 洗象池, I'll give y'all some time to look it up ... okay, now we're all on the same page. The grounds and pool itself were beautiful and photogenic, and we took about 15 min to just enjoy the sights and senses. I noted with surprise to the others that this temple also had accommodations, something neither Lonely Planet nor Nick's contact at the museum had informed us of. Hint--this detail becomes important later in our story.
So, sometime just before or after reaching Elephant Bathing Pool and enjoying the its temple, we stopped for lunch at a concession stand, and I will use that as a lame pretext for a side commentary on the concessionaires of EMei Mountain. About every 20 minutes while ascending, we passed a 小吃店, or snack shop, selling at least beverages and rain ponchos, and most often fruit, boiled corn cobs, crackers, cookies, etc. Many times, these places also had a kitchen in back and served cooked food, at varying levels of okay quality and too-expensive prices. We usually stopped just before or after these places to rest, actually, in order to blow through them, so as not to get hassled to buy something. If we did have to stop to eat or drink, we generally chose by the personality of the shopkeeps. Most were quite pushy and some even unpleasant, but a few were quite friendly and quirky. For example, the man we ate lunch from just before reaching Elephant Bathing Pool: He boomed a greeting to every passerby, whether going up or down, through a microphone headset worn at all times. I ordered 豆花, or tofu slabs perpetually simmered in water so as to maintain their shape, yet create a broth/soup that is flavored either sweet or spicy. I took a spicy-added bowl, and it was a good, easily-digested burst of protein. But anyway, yeah, we pretty much chose which "Snack Counters" to buy from by the owner's personality. From talking to a couple, we were able to gather that these shopkeeps live on the mountain, either at the base or in shacks deeper in the mountain, just off the trail, and hike to their shop every morning for work. They literally live on EMei Mountain. A truly incredible existence that at least some of us Americans were pondering the whole time up and down.
But yeah, back to the hike. After Elephant Bathing Pool, we went up several more km of snaking, aching stone stairs to the next temple, called JieYin Monastery. It had the most impressive incense display of any temple so far, and is also just 1 km past the public (tourist) parking lot and bus drop-off for those who want to see the summit without first hiking the mountain. For those extremely lazy individuals, usually a cable car runs from JieYin Hall to JinDing (literally translated as "Golden Summit"), meaning you only have to move yourself for 20 + minutes from the parking lot to the cable car to see the fruits of EMei Shan.
However, this day the weather was too foggy, and the cable car was not operating. This was a double-edged sword; on one hand, it was hilarious to see all these rich businessmen in suits and loafers and woman in designer jeans or skirts complaining as they hiked up 5.5 more km than they were expecting to. On the other hand, it probably doubled the staircase population the four of us had to contend with for this final stretch of the hike. These people were fully rested, and we were still blowing past them, sweaty and looking terrible but feeling an adrenaline boost from being so close. In particular, Vincent, who had been visibly struggling all day, suddenly took the lead with 20 min to the summit and ran ahead. Unfortunately, when the rest of us reached the scenic plateau just below the summit, we couldn't find him, because the foggy mist was all-encompassing. My 20-20 vision couldn't see anything further than twenty feet. Everywhere a faint gray-silver mist. Our sweaty hair formed beads of near-crystallized dew on every strand.
We knew Vince had probably just continued on to the Golden Summit when he realized he'd gotten himself separated, so the Nicks and I enjoyed the scenic plateau, its walkway decorated with gold-and-white-plated elephant statues, and the massive prayer candle stands in the middle of the causeway. I was feeling ceremonial (delirious?) after such an arduous path to arrival, and bought three incense sticks for us to light from these candles as a Buddhist prayer offering. Then we continued on to the Golden Summit.
The Golden Summit. Just look at the pictures, please. I'll say nothing more than that we hadn't stopped for anything (except literally as little rest as our bodies would allow) in a day to get here, and then just observed, appreciated and photographed for over two hours. Just please, look at the pictures.
From here, we'd planned to continue on for 3 km of straight walking (no major elevation change) to the "true" summit, the WanFo (万佛, or "Ten Thousand Buddha") Summit. However, we could not find a sign pointing the direction, so Nick asked a worker/guard nearby what was up. Turns out, Nick S.'s Lonely Planet guide is quite dated: The monorail to get to Ten Thousand Buddha Summit had been closed due to mechanical issues for almost two years, and there simply was no walkable trail to get there. We were already as high and as far as we could go. There were 10,000 Buddhas we wouldn't be able to say Hey to. But, this didn't dampen our moods--we'd gone as far as we could go in a faster time than we had even hoped for ourselves, and this had allowed us to spend as much time as we wanted on the Golden Summit. We weren't at the very highest (3099m) point of the mountain, but we were the highest (3077m) visitors could possibly go. We'd done it. And it was only 5 p.m. Time to get back down the mountain and find some place cheaper and more interesting to sleep than the swank, $$ Golden Summit Hotel nearby.
I had noticed on the way up that JieYin Monastery also had accommodations, and suggested we just stay there for the night, seeing that we had all day tomorrow to hike down the mountain, and we could easily make it to this nearest location before dark. Everyone eventually agreed, and we set off at a decent/excited clip (but not hurried) down the mountain.
I'll take this opportunity to remind everyone that we visited EMei Shan on the weekend of the 60th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China, arguably one of the biggest patriotic celebratory days in this current government's history. The mountain was packed with vacationers, especially in the tourist spots. Another reminder: JieYin Hall is just 1 km from that parking lot/bus drop-off area. See where this is going? No rooms. No extra beds. Nothing. It's 6:15 or 6:20 now. It'll be dark in less than an hour.
Remember the (only) other monastery I'd noticed had rooms? Elephant Bathing Pool, 9 km down the mountain. And we sure as hell weren't going to stay at no swank hotel. We made a necessarily split-second decision, and opted for the mindset, "monastery or bust." We still had two flashlights and, if not fully operational leg muscles, adrenaline. I began a blistering pace down the mountain and we were off, hoping to descend 500m before yet another (also fairly well-known) temple sold out of rooms for the night.
9km. The strangest part was having Chinese people still walking up the mountain past us, asking whether they were close to the next place or not. And we'd have to just tell them, not knowing whether they were looking for a room at (sold-out) JieYin or at one of the commercial motels near the parking lot. But also strange was hiking downhill at night. Not nearly as physically strenuous as the uphill night hike of the day before, but much more dangerous. But we, as carefully as possible, hauled ass. What worried us most was that we continued to pass people after dark, as we grew closer and closer to our destination ... at that point, you can't help but wonder, is Elephant Bathing Pool already full and turning people out? why else would these people be hiking up at this time?
But we just kept our pace and got to the Monastery in an astonishingly rapid time that we didn't check until later. Instead, we just booked it to the Accommodation Window and asked if they had any beds. Not rooms. We skipped right to beds. Nick's first question, in Chinese, was literally, "Do you have any beds we can sleep in tonight?" And my addition to this plea was, "Anything at all
We are four incredibly lucky human beings. They had just five beds left in the entire monastery. They were not even in a group hostel-style room, but out randomly in the third floor hallway. We did not care. We bought them for the night, threw our bags and ourselves on the damp matresses and almost collapsed from disbelief, relief, exhaustion and sheer giddiness. We quickly did some number-crunching of how far we'd just come--2500m up the mountain all on our own, then 15km of the 32km trail downhill, all in less than a day and a half. We chewed up that 9km descent to Elephant Bathing Pool, partly by flashlight, in 75 minutes. That's almost a run. And was just, just
fast enough. The people who arrived a few minutes after us, people we must have passed coming down, literally had to sleep on benches in the monastery's entryway. Wow. We just didn't quite know how we felt about that.
Also, our beds were directly level with the gaze of the monastery's 20-foot tall Buddha effigy, so our sleep was to be guarded by the blank, knowing stare of gold-plated, Enlightened Maitreya. Wow. So weird. So good.
Shortly after this time we realized how hungry we were, having hiked for 10/12 waking hours that day without a high-quality, solid meal. A couple of us still weren't actually feeling
hungry, but knew that was probably because our bodies had given up complaining, and that we should try to eat something hot and substantial anyway. It was 8 p.m., kind of late, but we checked out the on-site kitchen first, anyway, just in case. They were still open, and we ordered four delicious dishes and bowls of rice for everyone. All our appetites collectively and vengefully arouse, and we devoured everything on the table, including rice refills. I'm telling you, these monastery cooks know what the hell they're doing. Also, the woman whom we ordered from and paid (some sort of admin/boss I assume) was extremely friendly and complimented our Chinese because it was free of dialect--clean, standard Mandarin, a rare treat in dialect-plagued Sichuan. Also, she may have extended the kitchen hours just for us, because we were literally the last customers served that night. Seriously: Last beds, last meal of the night, how lucky are we?!
Satisfied, we returned to our beds, chatted carelessly for a while and massaged our abused legs. I, personally, also silently marveled at our good fortune/fortitude before reading myself to sleep with the nature poetry of William Carlos Williams under the calm gaze of Maitreya, the Future-Buddha.
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