A Mountain of Stairs

Last month saw Joe and I make our first overnight trip out of Chengdu as we set off to tackle Mount Emei (峨眉 山)

Located 2 hours from Chengdu on the fancy new high-speed train, Mount Emei, as it’s name suggests, is a mountain which reaches the lofty height of 3,099m at its peak. It is one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1st Century AD the first Buddhist temple in China was built in the summit’s surroundings and the addition of many more temples since means the area is one of Buddhism’s holiest sites.

Unlike the many pilgrims who flock there, Joe and I were clearly not climbing the mountain for religious reasons and instead were satisfying our thirst for a bit of greenery and scenery as well as giving ourselves a bit of a physical challenge. And as it turned out it was a pretty big challenge!

Prior to setting off on our trip I had of course consulted my trusty Lonely Planet and conducted multiple Google searches to try and map out the best walking route up the mountain. As it turned out, no particularly accurate walking maps exist for Emei Shan so it was somewhat tricky to work out the best way to reach the top. Chatting with several friends who had done the climb already, we were largely advised that it was pretty tough with hours of concrete steps awaiting us should we choose to walk the whole way up and as such our best bet was to make the most of the frequent shuttle buses and get a leisurely lift to the highest drop off point on the mountain before climbing the final stretch on foot. And that was what our plan was…until we got cocky.

As someone who perpetually worries about not having enough time to do things I had booked Joe and I on one of the earliest trains out of Chengdu.   Following a 5.15am wake up, we arrived sleepy but excited in Emeishan Town at around 9am. On the journey there, realising we’d have the whole day ahead of us I began to scoff at the idea of getting a boring bus up the mountain and instead started to think that the Lonely Planet’s recommendation to walk from Wannian Temple, just one stop up on the bus, sounded like a great idea. The LP advised that from here it took around 6 hours to summit which I optimistically assumed would mean that we’d hit the top mid-afternoon. Turns out the Lonely Planet timings are based on superhuman speed. But ignorant to this fact, we set off enthusiastically from Wannian Temple, albeit slightly delayed after we were temporarily flummoxed by the bus system (two lovely Chinese teenagers came to our rescue and escorted us to the appropriate bus station).

Armed with a bamboo cane to ward off the infamous Tibetan macaques we’d been warned about we set off merrily. About 30 minutes in we both wondered a loud whether we’d bitten off more than we could chew as the gentle stepped incline turned into endless flights of steep concrete steps. I’m not sure what it is that the Chinese love so much about concrete steps but it turns out they are all the rage when it comes to mountain climbing here. The lovely dirt tracks of the Scottish Highlands would be shunned out here. Still, even though I can barely walk up the four flights of stairs to my flat without needing a break the absolutely beautiful scenery and general joy of being out of the city meant I was full of the joys of spring for the first few hours…and even the next couple of hours after that.

Our second error after assuming the day’s climb would be totally manageable was not to have picked up a map at the base. Whilst the maps were largely just pretty illustrations with no real scale or sense of distance, they did at least show roughly where the temples we were passing were in relation to everything else. As the day wore on it did start to get a little stressful not having any idea of where we were in relation to the top and if we were near-ish any transport points. Thankfully the beauty of well-constructed concrete paths meant there was no danger of accidentally misidentifying a trail and wandering off into the unknown forest so we knew we were at least going in the right direction. Turns out the other advantage of concrete paths is that hiking boots are purely optional should you wish to look more fashionable whilst walking up a ginormous hill. We passed several groups of Chinese women wearing loafers, sandals and even a lovely pair of wedge heels. Whilst I definitely quietly judged them for being needlessly silly as I stomped past in my sensible walking boots I have to take my hat off to them for not breaking an ankle and keeping up a remarkably good pace.

It was at about 4pm, almost 6 hours and 20km of steps in, that my enthusiasm died. With our treat of Oreos all eaten and in unbelievable need of a shower I started to hate the never-ending steps. Aware of just how much of an insufferable whiner I can be I did my best to internalise my sulking and Joe and I chivvied one another on with repetitive praise about the fact we hadn’t collapsed and/or had a stroke through exhaustion yet. I am seriously unfit so I do have to admit that I was a little proud I’d been able to keep going but I was fully willing to admit that I was not prepared to walk all the way to the top anymore – instead we were on the hunt for Leidongping, the drop off point we’d initially been advised to get the bus to and from where we would be able to catch a cable car up the last of the mountain. After countless corners were turned to reveal only more steps we eventually heard the electric hum of a cable car. I never thought I would be so delighted to see a carpark and hoardes of Chinese tourists.

We debated stopping at this point to spend the night in a hotel and then summit in the morning but guessing that we’d both have aching legs the next day we decided to get the last of the journey done and dusted and headed on up to the cable car station to reach the top. Unfortunately, the weather took a slight turn for the worse at the summit and we ascended into what was essentially a giant snow cloud with visibility of around 10m. If you Google Mount Emei, you are assailed with images of the famous ‘sea of clouds’ view, the peak being higher than any clouds which form a lovely white ocean below you. This wasn’t something we were treated to on the day, ideally you need to go up early morning to capture the best views, but I wasn’t too disappointed as the views the whole way up had been nothing short of amazing. And to top it off as we headed back down in the cable car, the clouds cleared slightly so we saw the summit emerging from wreaths of mist. Having seen my fair share of good views in the world, this one definitely nears the top of the list.

Despite being absolutely knackered, and trading our plan of staying in one of the mountain’s many monasteries for a slightly less authentic but oh so lovely youth hostel with actual hot showers at the bottom of the mountain, I had an absolutely amazing time. It’s definitely been one of the highlights of my time out here so far and we are already planning a return trip – although next time is definitely going to involve a more leisurely walk and a lot more visits to the neighbouring hot spring resort!

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