A Day Summiting Mount Emei

The morning after we saw the buddhas of Leshan, we checked out of our hotel after breakfast and drove the short distance to Mount Emei, one of the sacred mountains of Buddhism and home to some of the first Buddhist temples in China. I had been there once before, in 2003, as part of a tour group. My memories of that earlier visit are foggy (no pun or foreshadowing intended!), but I know that we stayed in the lower regions of the mountain. I remember hiking down stairs in the shade of a forest and pressing through crowds to pose with Mount Emei’s famous monkeys.

This time, I wanted to see the Golden Summit. With only one day to spare, we didn’t have time to hike up ourselves; the distance is upwards of 30 kilometers, and most visitors allocate at least two days for the climb. Still sore from hiking Mount Qingcheng three days prior and exhausted by long days of touristing since then, we decided to take the fastest and least-strenuous path to the peak of Mount Emei.

Even this was a multi-step journey, however. From the entrance near Baoguo Temple, we drove the narrow, twisty roads that wind up Mount Emei for about an hour, as far as we were allowed. Then we parked the car and squeezed onto a shuttle bus that took us up even narrower and tighter switchbacks for another hour. At some point, the rhythmic curves of the road lulled me to sleep. When I opened my eyes again, we were about to disembark at Leidongping, the highest point on Mount Emei accessible by bus.

We stepped off the bus into dense fog. The air was thin and wet; the landscape, painted with an impenetrable, otherworldly mist. Without being able to see more than a few steps in front of us, we hiked up a path of stairs for about a mile, to Jieyindian.

There, we crowded onto a tightly-packed cable car and clutched the handholds as it lifted us through the fog, past snowy hillsides, and above the cloud line. The dozens of passengers on board let out a collective gasp as we emerged, suddenly and startlingly, into the clear light of day.

Bright sun and cloudless blue skies greeted us as we stepped outside the cable car station. We were only a short walk from our destination now.

Soon, we were treated to this view of Mount Gongga. Gongga, also known as Minya Konka, has an elevation of 7556 meters (24790 feet) and is the tallest mountain in Sichuan, the 41st tallest mountain in the world, the easternmost 7000-meter peak in the world, and the third tallest mountain outside the Himalaya/Karakoram range.

We turned and, still adjusting to the elevation, slowly ascended a set of stairs lined by sculptures of elephants. At the top, this 48 meter (157 feet) tall statue of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, greeted us at the Golden Summit of Mount Emei.

Smaller stone elephants surrounded its base. I thought they were adorable and snapped this photo of Lawrence leading the elephant parade.

We spent a while wandering around the summit, marveling at the breathtaking views. At an elevation of 3099 meters (10167 feet), this was the highest place we visited in China. The mountainside plunged into an ocean of clouds and the fathomless depths beneath. Below us were patches of snow, fog as dense as curtains, monkeys eager for food, cable cars, stone steps, twisting mountain roads, shuttle buses and cars and hotels. Overhead, the sun shone fiercely enough to burn our skin.

Once we had enjoyed our fill, we retraced our path back down the mountain: walking back to the cable car; descending back down into the blinding fog, which felt twice as surreal in contrast. Hiking down the mile of stairs to the shuttle bus at Leidongping, we even glimpsed some monkeys, looking cinematic in the mist.

We made a wrong turn after climbing off the shuttle bus and back into my uncle’s car; instead of heading directly for the highway, we spent an hour or more following narrow, winding roads past rice paddies and ramshackle buildings, giving us this trip’s nearest glimpse of rural China. We shared the lane with children and cyclists and dogs, and though the air was humid enough to be wet, window after window held clothes hung out to dry. Soon, though, we left all of that behind, and a few hours later, we were back at my uncle’s home in Chengdu, where my aunt had dinner waiting for us on the table.