Leshan/Emeishan, Sichuan Province, 21-22 October
From metropolitan Chengdu our travels lead us to the more rural south. Though still passing the occasional urban settlement on the way down, slowly the scenery changes to a greener setting. We’re staying at the foot of Mount Emei, in a little town called Baoguo next to the bigger town of Emeishan. Mount Emei is the biggest of China’s Holy Buddhist Mountains.
The town of Baoguo is a pretty pleasant sight. It has a river that runs through it and lots of greenery, even better, there’s not a skyscraper in sight! As is usually the case with popular religious destinations however, the main road of the town is covered with trinket stalls and crawling with touts. The holier the place it seems, the more aggressive are its shopkeepers, a problem of all the ages, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned during our time in India it’s how to ignore touts.
As Baoguo town has only a handful of side streets we easily find our hotel, drop of our bags and immediately catch a local bus to the nearby city of Leshan, to see a giant Buddha statue.
The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 71-metre tall, 8th century stone statue depicting Matreiya. Matreiya is supposed to be a future Buddha, who will bring back the teachings of Buddhism at a time when it’s forgotten. Carved out of a red sandstone cliff near the city of Leshan, Matreiya sits at the confluence of two rivers flowing beneath its feet and faces the holy Mount Emei. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and the tallest pre-modern statue worldwide.
China’s rapid economic development means a large middle class has formed and its domestic tourism is at an all time high. Happening at pretty much every tourist stop, being caught up in masses of middle-aged farmers-turned-tourist coupled with an entire younger generation with single child complex and a lust for sightseeing is enough at times to make you want to rip your hair out and start flailing your arms around like a lunatic, but in the end it’s best to go with the flow and try and keep calm while not letting anyone walk over you. China is not the place for politeness, and no-one expects you to either.
At the Leshan Giant Buddha keeping your sanity includes making the decision not to attempt to take the plank steps down to the foot of the statue, as every Chinese tourist on the steps with a good view of the Buddha simply refuses to move on, even though it means blocking the entire path. The park’s management has resigned to its inability to police here. Instead there’s a sign to warn you it can take two hours to get to the bottom, fair enough.
Thankfully the scenic area is very big and after a while all the noise dies down and we find ourselves entirely alone in peaceful surroundings, this is great!
In the distance we can hear chanting and decide to follow the sound, which leads us to a small temple at the top of steep steps. Inside we find monks sat at a table inside a beautifully adorned main hall practicing their hymns. They’re happy for us to have a quiet walk about and even take a few pictures.
The scenic area up on the cliffs that overlook the rivers around Leshan make for a pleasant afternoon stroll and we enjoy exploring the various caves, tombs and temple buildings scattered all around.
Before the exit we pass through what is called a ‘traditional’ fishing village, looking an awful lot like a street full of restaurants. The fresh-looking daily catch is displayed out on the street though, and it’s quite the selection: cat fish, eels and water snakes, turtles (sadly), and even a huge salamander (might actually be critically endangered), all caught locally and freshly prepared while you wait. Seeing the murky, grey river behind the restaurants does not exactly entice me to try what’s on offer, but it’s pretty sweet seeing the fishermen out on the water.
Dinner in Baoguo consists of dumplings in broth with dipping sauces, spicy Sichuan pork with bell pepper and a big plate of french fries, don’t judge me alright?
The next morning we wake up early to visit Mount Emei, which actually consists of four different mountains, and has its highest peak at 3,099 metres above sea level. Stone steps just five minutes away from our hotel starting at the Baoguo Temple lead past Qingyin Pavilion and the Wannian Temple all the way up to a plateau at the top of the mountain, the Golden Summit, high above the clouds.
The uninterrupted path leads through dense forests inhabited by monkeys (as well as red pandas we’re told) and is littered with waterfalls. A poet from the Qing Dynasty summed up the landscape of Mount Emei into ten scenic views, now known as the ten old views of Mount Emei, with names such as the Smoke Cloud in the Thunder Cave, the Moonlit Night in Elephant Pool and the Lucky Light at the Golden Summit. Since then, ten new views have been added, each given their own equally appealing name.
Now the best way for a true pilgrim to visit Mt Emei (and quite possibly avoid having to fork out on the expensive ticket) would be to start hiking up from Baoguo Temple when it opens at 7AM and reach Wannian Temple at the end of the day at 1,020 meters high. Then stay the night at one of the many monasteries that offer beds, hike up to near the Golden Summit on day two and go up the next day to witness the Lucky Light at the Golden Summit, an incredible sunrise over the plateau. We’re clearly not that devoted so settle for a much easier though be it slightly less rewarding route.
In the early morning the two of us and a sleepy looking monk take the tourist bus through dramatic scenery up to Wannian parking lot. The monk quickly heads off to the cable car, but we start our ascend on the stone path leading up to Wannian Temple.
The 3km long climb takes us through a sleepy little village with a tea shop, a group of old men playing a game of Mahjong and stalls selling plastic crap and bamboo sticks for fighting off cheeky macaques to use further up the mountain. It’s peaceful and serene here in the early morning and a welcome change from visiting China’s mega cities.
In total there are more than 30 Buddhist temples on the mountain. On the way up we stop off at one of these to nose around, use the toilet (another word for a hole in the ground) and play with the tiny resident kitten. A short while later we reach our first viewpoint.
On the final climb up to Wannian Temple we see a guy use a slingshot to shoot squirrels from a tree. On the opposite side of the path his wife is selling mystery meat shishkebabs from a stall, although.. not a mystery anymore..
Tour guides describe Mount Emei as a place to be one with nature and find spirituality and peace in its mystical, rugged beauty. Most Chinese tourists on the other hand use it as a place to pose for group pictures with subjects ranging from sign posts to every individual object found inside and outside the temples. Once a series of pictures has been completed, the picture taker will then swap position with another group member for the whole thing to repeat itself. Now you can offer to take the picture for them so everyone’s in it at the same time, but this will just slow things down. Now you have to be in the picture too, and before you know it you’re part of their whole switching routine. Finally once everyone has had a turn you get about a second to take a picture of the temple before the next group arrives, so here I have it for you, Wannian Temple!
So long as you don’t get annoyed with shops, crowds and noise, climbing Mt Emei makes for a pretty rewarding day however. Both the scenery and the long walk up are guaranteed to take your breath away!
And in case your legs cramp up from all the walking, there are always some alternatives on offer to cheat your way to the top instead. Presenting the Sedan Chair, the lazy man’s vehicle of choice:
When we reach Qingjin Pavilion in the afternoon the sign reads it’s another 50km to the Golden Summit. We’re almost starting to consider the Sedan, but then meet the real heroes of the mountain. Ever wonder how a temple gets built at 3,000 km above sea level? This would be step one..
Obviously we’re not going to see the Golden Summit, but finish our day looking for the macaques instead. Everywhere one the mountain there’s warnings signs telling you to be careful around the monkeys, but we feel like we’ve been lied to, there’s not a monkey in sight! They could be anywhere on this mountain, having loads of fun attacking tourists, which is kind of a comforting thought I guess. The monkey area is not to blame though, plenty of things to climb here.
We may not have reached the top, but have had a pretty great day on the mountain either way. With tired legs we drag back to the hotel and complete our adventure in Emeishan with a beer and a Sichuan feast of chilli beef and tofu stew, garlic mushrooms, different greens we’ve never seen before and rice, shared with a guy we met earlier today at the bus stop.
Join us next time when you will see us follow the Yangtze River east!