About 150 km south of Chengdu stands one very foggy, holy Buddhist mountain known as Emei Shan or 峨嵋山. The 3099m high mountain is one of four holy Buddhist mountains in China (Putuoshan in Zhejiang province, Wutaishan in Shanxi and Jiuhuashan in Anhui – in case you didn’t notice “shan” is mountain in Chinese). Emei is also host to the first Buddhist temple in China, built on the mountain in 1 A.D. and marking the advent of Buddhism to the country. Emei, along with the Leshan big Buddha, was made an almighty UNESCO heritage site in 1996.
My very fit, very patient, friend Soleil and I trekked out to Emei city about a two hour drive from Chengdu (I like friends who have personal drivers – thanks to Soleil’s boyfriend for making it happen!). Our intention was to take on our own holy pilgrimage of fitness climbing up the mountain in one day and down in the other. Our friends called us crazy, my knees trembled in trepidation of the millions of stairs to come – but we were determined.
We arrived at Emei City outside of the mountain early Thursday morning and drove for half an hour into the city park. Starting at the scenic (and flat path-ed) Wainian temple, we bought our tickets (150 RMB + 5 RMB insurance), bid farewell to the driver and started our hike.
The weather was cooler than Chengdu and misty, in many parts of the trail visibility would change ever 15 minutes. We were on the trail by 9am and the shops and tour buses had not yet begun their day so it was a pretty peaceful start.
What’s important to remember about Emei Shan is that the hike is completely made up of stairs. If you have a passion for climbing stairs and have knees with cartilage of steel, this mountain is for you! If not, I highly recommend taking only a light pack, good shoes and some sort of walking stick to take pressure off very tired legs!
On the bottom of the mountain there are two possible trails to take, the longer, less traveled “back trail” that takes you past the “Immortal Peak Monastery” and the “front trail” that takes you by the “Long Life Monastery.” From research in various sites it seems most people take the front trail up and the back trail down. We took the front trail and in about 6 hours of hiking (with a lot of whining on my part) we made it to Jieyan Hall, about 200m from the peak of the mountain.
I consider my style of hiking on Emei Shan to be “pilgrim pace.” Many devout Buddhists climb the mountain prostrating at every step, staying at each monastery along the way. While I didn’t prostrate I had to take a lot of time to catch my breath and remind me legs who was boss. I quickly discovered that doing yoga every day did not equate to being fit enough to take on the mountain. You could also say I missed hiking with Phil who stops to take a picture every 15 minutes.
Highlights of the hike included absolutely scenic, peaceful and quiet moments surrounded by fog and trees. While you couldn’t see anything – ever – there was a bit of a novelty to being in China and not hearing a car horn honk.
There was one beautiful monastery in particular was Huayanding where we only stopped for a bathroom break but a beautiful grassy courtyard opened to a beautiful open view of, what I suspect would be, the landscape below. It was just fog when we were there, but it was the kind of place where with a good book and a yoga mat I could be a happy camper for a couple of days.
Also, not sure if this is a highlight but, hikers be forewarned, there are insanely aggressive wild monkeys on the mountain who have been spoiled by tourists who feed them and are pissed off at the mountain workers who hit them. The key to monkeys is bring a walking stick (I had Phil’s trekking poles, which we armed ourselves with each time monkeys came around, but bamboo poles are on sale at every kiosk) and hide your food. They go for the sweet stuff and can smell it from far away. As long as we had sticks in our hands and food out of sight we didn’t have a problem with the monkeys.
We stayed at the hotel in Jieyin connected to the cable car office there. While we were overcharged for beds and food, my very tired body thanked me for the electric blankets, private bathroom and hot water shower. There’s not a whole lot to do other than have a basic meal and get some sleep.
The next morning we awoke to zero visibility and were on the trail by 6:30. It took us about 2 hours to get to the “Golden Summit” at the top of the mountain. The fog was so thick you couldn’t even make out the huge temple that marked the end of our hike.
What the top of Emei Shan is supposed to look like
(image source here).
Our hike down was much more frustrating as the tour groups that slept at the hotel at the top of the mountain clogged the narrow pathways that led just about anywhere. The kiosks tout water, snacks, stuffed monkeys and holy mushrooms. There are buses to Jieyin and cable cars to the top so anyone who doesn’t walk can make it there pretty easily. The ride from the bottom of the mountain to the cable car station is 90 minutes, its a big mountain! We walked down about an hour from the top to the first bus station and decided to call it quits. My knees thanked me.
While possibly a holy experience of determination to get my body to climb 3000m, I think Emei is most memorable in the trails of the bottom 2/3 of the mountain. Wherever there is a bus station or a cable car all tranquility is lost but it can be quickly recovered by getting back on the trail away from the main road. I’m glad I did it, but if I did it again I would just do a circuit between the front and back trails and steer clear of the top.
For those without drivers :) buses leave regularly from Chengdu to Emei shan and is about a 2 hour drive to get to Emei Shan city. Many tie together a trip to the Dafo in Leshan along with a mountain trip.