After the frustration of day before, it was 7 40AM when we set off from Wuxiangang Parking lot. The students we met warn us that to climb the summit on foot is ‘dangerous.’ “It’s very cold up there,” they say. Take the bus, they urge. “Oh well, we are crazy, ” I laugh. Sigh. I still cannot believe we climbed all the way only to descend. But climb again we must. The man from who we bought RMB7 crampons from says that Wannian Si is around 2.5 hours. He was right. We make good time through some lush forest smelling of donkey poop. Nothing to spur you on more than such an aroma. As we reach the base of the monastery at around 9:20AM, Chinese tour groups have already begun arriving. Wannian Si is also the base for the cable car up to the summit. I sit at the benches near the monastery, take a few photos all the while on the look out for ….monkeys. The Tibetan macaques that roam the forests and wild of Emei Shan are reputed to be notorious and as Wikipedia warns are VERY AGGRESSIVE. Fellow blogger Vishy though was half in love with them and promised me that the monkeys will just eat out of my hand. Encouraged as I am by his love for them, I think to myself that to fraternize with my distant cousins is not on my agenda now. On the way to Wannian Si, we passed through Qingyin Pavilion, which was beautiful in a sober way that Wannian Si was not. A stream runs through it, and the sound of water, the ambiance of spirituality and the solitude of stillness made it my favorite place in all of Emei Shan.
We didn’t enter Wannian Si. We didn’t want to pay any more entrance fees. Surely, when you pay RMB80 for entrance fees to the mountain, the monasteries should come with it? Otherwise, make me pay more and include the monasteries once and for all than ask me to shell out more money on a supposedly spiritual journey. There are numerous shops that dot Emei Shan, selling noodles, bread, fried potato sticks, dofu, eggs, and a lot of meat dishes. But it’s pricey. As you climb higher, the prices increase. A bottle of water that costs around RMB1.5 to 2 in Chengdu becomes RMB5. Milk jumps from RMB3 to RMB 8 to RMB10.
Food though is not that expensive – as we trudge on from Wannian Si, we find a small shop that makes vegetable noodles with Bok choy for around RMB8. Not bad. Except that we were surrounded by mules or donkeys – I can never make out the difference! They are reconstructing some of the steps, and the animals carry much of the sand and cement to make them. Once more, donkey/mule poop and fragrant chillies. Life is fun. Before the pain begins. It is around 1PM, and we have no idea that the agony is just beginning.
Steps. Steps. Steps. I wanted to count them before we began. But I didn’t bother. I think there must be more than a million. How many steps do you need to cross 52km? I am sure some mathematician whiz will figure it out. I pore at the map. Turn it upside down. To the left. To the right. Any which way in the hope that the lines will magically erase. Never have distances appeared so much a mirage. That map I posted in the previous post is the image of deception. Lonely Planet says that it is around 15km from Wannian Si to the next place we are trying to reach – Elephant Bathing Pool. It seems small. And I stand humbled. It is not. On the way, we meet four more Chinese – and they became the next angels on this climb. Vikl, a student of English and Ren Tao, her boyfriend, an IT student. Mr Lin, a businessman in his 40s, and his wife – unbelievably attired in tights. Mr Lin is a superb athlete. In his track pants, he literally runs up the steps. “Nimen ta man!” he says. We are too slow. We nod. We have decided that instead of climbing up steps rapidly, and then resting for long periods, we will just gently place one foot on the step, pause a second, then the other, then repeat this process ad infinitum, ad nauseam. My mind keeps going back to the last such climb – without steps – in Indonesia, climbing Mount Semeru. That time too, it was exhausting, enervating and a test of your sanity. Remind me why I am doing this, I keep asking Birdy. Why couldn’t I just quit my job, sit at home for a while and read books? Why did I have to come here, to learn Chinese, to climb this mountain, to say hello to the Buddha, to torture myself? I haven’t found the answer. But I think there is none. You can’t ask for logic when you set out seeking madness. Our new Chinese friends rapidly leave us far behind while we slowly plod, much like the mules we passed on our way. As we ascend, Emei Shan’s green drapery changes dramatically.
Spots of white first appear. A mound of snow lies on the trail and we delightedly take photos next to it. And then slowly, the green makes way. White enters.
The air becomes heavier as do our steps. And the steps change character. They are now dangerous beasts ready to take your life. One false step on the slippery ice and snow that now coats these steps and you have a white fall into oblivion. Or well, to make it less dramatic, a twisted ankle. Or a sprained foot. I have long since taken custody of Birdy’s pink boots – they cramped her for room, and she quickly switches to my Woodlands hiking shoes – far more suited for these steps than the pink ones. But then, they are sturdy still these pink ones even though I wish I had had one less toe to make room for.
We catch up with Vickl and the rest every now and then. We resolve to stay together in a monastery near Leipingdong. In the now desolate and surreal landscape, they are lifesavers. There are no signs to mark your way. Just the steps. We have no idea how far this Leipingdong is. Or how long. I would rather not know, I think. Just one step. Somehow, I feel that I ought to learn from that. Too often in life, I think too much. Of the past, of the future, of the present, and even the inbetween the present and the future and the past. In short, I never stop thinking. But as my feet take the steps one by one, life becomes almost meditative. There is no sound except the crunch of boots on snow. You can barely see the other in front of you, swirling mists caressing you all the time. Only the snow drifts create their own sound in this stillness. It was one of those moments that Thoughts, a friend of mine, described so well on the trek to Semeru. I don’t remember the quote but the sentiment was just how you can be so alone with your self, there is no one around you, and you just find that there can be no better to be with than you…
Most Chinese believe that a pilgrimage to Emei Shan should have at least one of the four magical experiences – a sunrise, a famed Buddha’s halo that one can see at certain times on the summit, a sea of clouds, and the holy lamp. That’s at the summit. But as we turned the corner, amidst all the snow and the mist, suddenly there just darts in a glorious ray of sunshine, filtering in through the trees. It was 6PM, and no one expected it. It was beautifully magical, and as much a miracle as we all stood there taking photos, ooohing and aaahing. It was just the sun. Just the same rays you might see standing in front of your house on any other day. Why was it so different up there? Sometimes, moments are clouded by experience – a sun’s ray is just another ray on just another day, but when you slip, slide on ice and snow, and barely see 2 feet in front of you – then we lend so much of the moment to that experience.
More ice…I slip at a spot, and just slide down on the ice. Forget all this dratted walking says Birdy as she rolls down too. As dusk descends, we decide to stay in a hotel we find. The summit is supposedly close. Four of us share a room – unheated, but comes with an electric blanket. I soak my aching feet in a bucket – Vickl and Ren Tao laugh and talk for a while, and after dinner, I sink into the blankets, into the quilts, and try to just float away the pain my feet feels. But it was worth it. Every single moment of that white-rimmed golden-hued walk was a meditation worth it. Tomorrow the summit. But for now, just a step. Take it just a step. And sleep.