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.





My Favorite Apps for Travel in China

The last time I went to China, five years before our recent trip, I left my phone in airplane mode for the entire two weeks. Back then, I didn’t have a data plan that worked outside of the United States. None of my grandparents had internet service in their homes. Even when we stayed with my aunt and uncle, who did have wifi, the connection was slow and unreliable. For one of those weeks, I was offline entirely. On the flip side, the Chinese internet was much less censored in 2012. When I was able to get online at all, I could access Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest without issue.

Over the course of those five years, the Chinese government erected the Great Firewall of China, and all of my grandparents got online. During this visit, when my 84-year-old grandfather gave us a tour of their new apartment, he made a point of showing us the wireless router. When I arrived in China last month, I was armed with an international data plan from T-Mobile (which, we were pleased to discover, bypassed the Great Firewall), a VPN service, and a folder of apps that I had downloaded onto my phone in advance to help us with communication, translation, and navigation.

Being able to access these tools and connect with our family and friends back home in real time made the experience of traveling halfway around the world immeasurably easier. They gave us a measure of independence and forestalled the feelings of isolation that had always wafted at the edges of my previous visits. I’m so grateful for technology, which has made the world smaller and the barriers between us easier to transcend. And I’m grateful for these apps, which made our days easier while we were traveling in China.


Before we left for China, I wanted to figure out which VPN service was currently the most reliable for use in China. In March 2017, ExpressVPN was the clear winner, highly recommended by almost every source I found. I paid $12.95 for a one-month subscription, which I could use on up to three devices. (If you’re interested, this referral link will give you 30 days free.) While we were in China, I did experience intermittent problems with ExpressVPN, which seemed largely location-based; it struggled in our AirBnB in Xi’an but worked beautifully in our hotel in Beijing. On the whole, though, it worked well enough for my needs, and the success rates improved substantially once I discovered the strategy of trying to connect to different locations. If load times were too slow when I connected to Los Angeles or New York, they often improved if I tried Taiwan or Japan. I would absolutely pay the $12.95 again for a month of being able to access Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google Maps, and the rest of the uncensored internet from China.


iOS | Android

Pleco was the best Chinese-English dictionary app I found, and it turned out that Lawrence’s Chinese teacher had also recommended it to him independently. We sprung for some of the advanced features, and if I were staying for longer in China, I would have happily paid for some of the more advanced dictionaries too. I found the optical character recognizer a bit disappointing, but the handwriting input let me translate words from signs or menus that I couldn’t read, say, or type. Many times, by using Pleco to help fill in the gaps in my limited Chinese vocabulary, I was able to string together a passable attempt at communicating.

Google Translate

iOS | Android

While I preferred Pleco as a dictionary and for English-to-Chinese translations, Google Translate was more useful in situations where I wanted to translate entire sentences rather than individual words from Chinese to English. Especially if someone had sent me a text message in Chinese, I appreciated being able to copy and paste the entire message and cobble together an approximate understanding of its meaning.


iOS | Android

WeChat is China’s most ubiquitous social network, and there’s no parallel in the U.S. for the way the Chinese have integrated it into their everyday lives. From my parents, I already knew about WeChat as a platform for sending text, image, and voice messages to individuals, groups, and networks, as well as for making phone calls, but I was astonished when I arrived in China and saw its use extend far beyond communication and into the way people navigated and conducted business on a daily basis. While we were in China, we witnessed people using WeChat to pay for the majority of their everyday financial transactions (from restaurants to grocery stores, the most popular way to pay seemed to be scanning a WeChat QR code), buy bus and train tickets, and send each other their locations on a map when trying to meet. I personally find the app’s interface clunky, but that’s hardly relevant: there is no alternative for the pervasive role WeChat plays in modern China. Even my grandparents, in their 80s, use it daily.

Metro China Subway

iOS | Android

As we hopped from place to place, it was handy to have subway maps for all of China’s major cities in a single, English-language app. Metro China Subway will even recommend routes between stations and display the fare for your trip (which, in Beijing, varies based on distance traveled).

Google Maps

iOS | Android

If you’re literate in Chinese, Baidu Maps comes highly recommended by my uncle, who used it for turn-by-turn GPS directions and traffic information to avoid areas of congestion every time he drove, as well as for walking and transit directions when we were without a car. However, when we were on our own, we were limited to English-language options, and Google Maps came through for us when we were in a pinch in Beijing. We had taken the subway to Tiananmen Square and, from there, entered the Forbidden City through its main gate, to the south. It was only hours later, as we tiredly followed the closing-time shuffle out the distant north gate, that we realized we were miles away from our earlier subway station and hadn’t thought to look up directions back to our hotel. Crowds swarmed around us, and lines of buses to destinations unknown boarded continuously and then took off. With only the roughest of directions from a single, undetailed map we found posted on a placard — and Google Maps, which finally loaded on our T-Mobile data plans after several excruciating minutes — we managed to walk to the nearest subway station, half an hour away, without having to backtrack a single step.


iOS | Android

Airpocalypse takes China’s notoriously poor air quality in stride by letting us know just how bad it was, on a scale of “no mask needed” to “only in China is this considered normal.” As a bonus, it gave us the weather forecast in Fahrenheit, saving us from having to make daily conversions from Celsius.

Bonus (For Chinese Speakers): Didi Chuxing


I’ve never taken an Uber or a Lyft, but we did use Didi, the most popular ride-sharing service in China (and, consequently, in the world), a number of times when we were with my uncle. He told us that he preferred Didi to hailing a taxi because the price is set in advance, the fares are cheaper, the drivers (knowing you’re about to rate them on a five-star scale) tend to be friendlier, and you can enter your destination into the app instead of having to verbally explain where you’re going. Using Didi, we got rides around Xi’an for the equivalent of $2-3 USD. In Beijing, we quickly found drivers who took us the hour and a half from our hotel to the Great Wall at Mutianyu and back again for under 200¥ each way. That’s about $30 USD to drive four people almost 50 miles away.

And that’s it!

On one of our first days in China, I realized that I had no idea how to say “app” in Chinese. It was a word that I had never before needed in my Chinese vocabulary. It turns out, most Chinese people call an app an APP, pronounced letter by letter. A-P-P.


A Day of Buddhas in Leshan

After a leisurely breakfast and some last-minute packing, we set off on our overnight trip to Leshan and Emeishan. It was the day after Qingming Jie (Tomb-Sweeping Day, a national holiday); most people were back at work, and the roads were uncrowded. It took us about two hours to drive from Chengdu to Leshan, including a fairly lengthy break at a rest stop decorated with large sculptures of teapots. We found a restaurant near the ticket booth for the Leshan Giant Buddha and sat down for lunch before entering the park. As a bonus, the restaurant waived our parking fee for the afternoon in exchange for our patronage.

After we ate, we bought our tickets, brushing off half a dozen tour guides eagerly hawking their services. We made our way into the park and up a shallow but steady set of steps. Along the path, we found diversions such as this statue of a tiger…

this emerging view of the confluence of the Minjiang and Dadu rivers and the town of Leshan…

and a number of sandstone buddhas, many of which had disintegrated into little more than bumps on the cliffside.

At the end of the climb, we stepped through a doorway into a courtyard, from which we could spot the top of the Giant Buddha’s head.

After clambering for the obligatory pictures, we proceeded down a series of steep steps that had been carved into the cliff beside the Buddha.

Alongside these stairs, the cliff was decorated with alcoves, some fenced off, containing more carved buddhas.

It was slow going, with quite a bit of crowding on the way down and bottlenecks as the path narrowed to single file and as visitors stopped for photos. (I, too, was guilty of holding up traffic here; the stairs down are the only vantage point for seeing and capturing the Giant Buddha from certain angles.) At the bottom, a small area by the Buddha’s feet provided more photo opportunities.

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Once we finished posing for photos with the Giant Buddha’s toes, the only way to go was up. We made our way through a small cave, emerging on the other side of the cliff (out of sight of the Buddha) to a series of stairs the same height again that took us back up to the Buddha’s head. We powered our way up these, only pausing once for photos; there were few spots to rest along the climb, and those we passed were so crowded with smokers that we would have caught only lungfuls of smoke rather than our breaths.

Back at the top, we found several forks in the path, leading to the rest of the park. Although we consulted the posted signs, we followed these paths pretty haphazardly. It was more or less by chance, then, that we stumbled across a gated entryway, beside which was posted a sign with pictures of several other giant buddhas. At first, we thought that the sign was merely telling us about other giant buddhas around the world, but a woman nearby informed us that, no, all of these other giant buddhas were right here, in an adjacent but separate park called Oriental Buddha Capital. Admission was 80¥ per person, and she promised we wouldn’t be disappointed.

We exchanged glances, a bit befuddled. Three of the four of us had previously visited the Leshan Giant Buddha, but none of us had ever heard of Oriental Buddha Capital, even though it had supposedly been here during our previous visits. It hardly seemed possible that there could be several more giant buddhas so nearby without any of us ever having heard mention of them. Was it a scam? Was it worth checking out? Lawrence’s enthusiasm decided the matter, and we paid the entrance fee and entered.

Once inside, we made our way along a winding, hilly path and down many flights of stairs, which (I noted) we would inevitably need to climb back up later. Finally, after walking for 10 or 15 minutes, we spotted the mouth of a giant cave and made our way over to it. This was the view that greeted us when we stepped inside.

Known as the Pharmacist Buddha, it’s a bit shorter and much newer than the Giant Buddha. Yet, between the dramatic perspective of the cave, the echoing stillness of having this enormous chamber to ourselves, and the unexpected nature of the whole venture, its impact felt even more striking.

From behind the Pharmacist Buddha’s feet, we entered Ten Thousand Buddhas Cave, an astonishing and almost otherworldly experience. From one cavernous room to the next, the walls were covered with carvings and statues of buddhas, tiny, huge, and every size in between. I audibly gasped when I turned a corner and spotted this buddha at the bottom of a tunnel of stairs.

From there, there were more caves and more open spaces. The landscape was a lush, vivid green, decorated with buddhas of every variety.

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The largest of them, the Long Giant Lying Buddha, was 170m (558ft) long and slept across the span of a mountainside.

I felt as though we had been transported to a place outside of time, a panorama of mighty artifacts with hardly a soul around to witness them. Toward the end, when we came upon this intimidating-looking staircase, steadily ascending each step felt like a pilgrimage.

And the view from the top was pretty spectacular.

From Oriental Buddha Capital, we made our way back to the Leshan Giant Buddha, around its head and back down the stairs we’d climbed at the start of the day. We piled into the car and drove to Emeishan, where we had dinner and sorted out a hotel snafu and settled in for some well-earned rest. New adventures awaited us in the morning. But much later, when our trip was coming to a close, Lawrence would tell me that seeing the many buddhas of Leshan was his favorite experience in China. For me, it lingered as a reminder to approach even familiar places with fresh eyes. After all, it only takes one act of serendipity for an old haunt to open into a new world.


Gratitude, China Edition

We’re home! We got back late last night after about 25.5 hours of travel from door-to-door. It’s a 12-hour time zone change, and my body feels confused and disoriented. (What time is it? And also, what is time?) Nevertheless, I’m immensely grateful for having been able to take this trip, and I’m also so grateful to be back in my familiar, comfortable American life. I wasn’t able to keep up with this blog while I was away as much as I’d hoped (to say nothing of my poor, neglected travel journal), but I will share more about our travels in China soon. For now, though, it feels good to start with gratitude.

Things I’m grateful for from our three weeks in China:

  • the privilege of having the time, resources, and opportunity to travel internationally for three consecutive weeks
  • the technology of flight: it still astonishes me every time that I can sit in a metal capsule 40000 feet in the air, plunging through space at 600mph for more than 13 hours, and land safely on the other side of the world
  • the experience of having an extended family nearby, full of interconnections, rather than only my small, isolated nuclear family
  • the opportunity to introduce Lawrence to my extended family, including all four of my grandparents, and to important landmarks from my early childhood
  • being able to meet my cousin’s infant daughter, born while we were in China, before she was a week old
  • that the presents I had painstakingly selected for everyone were well-received
  • having a partner with me with whom I could share the experience of this trip
  • having enough language skills to manage basic communication and translation
  • people and translation apps to help with the rest
  • a body that held up through exhausting back-to-back-to-back-to-back days and managed to resist catching my mom’s cold despite extended close contact with her
  • my aunt and uncle being willing to host us for so long, and my uncle being willing to drive us all over Sichuan and accompany us to Xi’an and Beijing
  • discovering surprising new experiences even in places I’d previously visited
  • mountains
  • cable cars
  • pandas and the delightful, endearingly awkward way they wriggle around
  • an AirBnB only a few minutes’ walk away from Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, where we ate dinner every night
  • high speed trains
  • huge breakfast buffets even at mid-range chain hotels
  • cheap and yummy groceries near our hotel in Beijing
  • cheap Didi rides
  • an international data plan and a VPN that allowed us to bypass the Great Firewall of China
  • well-labeled, bilingual subway systems
  • liquid yogurt in pouches
  • three weeks of not having to cook for myself
  • the sense of being surrounded by history everywhere I go, thousands of years of heritage as the same spaces have been used and reused in so many ways by so many generations

Things I’m grateful for about being back home:

  • clean drinking water straight from the faucet
  • cold drinking water that is actually cold rather than lukewarm
  • fresh, clean air to breathe
  • I can just hold my breath for a few seconds when walking past smokers on the streets without this strategy leading to asphyxiation
  • people actually refraining from smoking in places where smoking is not allowed
  • being able to read
  • being able to understand pretty much everything that’s being said to or around me
  • having the vocabulary to communicate my ideas
  • public restrooms that don’t involve squatting toilets
  • public restrooms that provide toilet paper
  • uncensored internet
  • fast internet
  • not having to aggressively push myself through crowds or to the fronts of lines
  • enough room on the subway that finding a seat feels normal rather than miraculous
  • the animals at petting zoos generally seem happy instead of sad
  • being able to talk about politics and social justice
  • not having to go through security every time I enter a subway station
  • not having to get a pat down every time I enter a train station
  • being able to breeze through customs with Global Entry and airport security with TSA Pre-Check
  • undeveloped land
  • my big, soft, comfortable bed
  • smoothies
  • bathtubs
  • easy access to cuisine from a wide range of cultures
  • being able to have introvert time again

A Day Hiking Mount Qingcheng

What a week it’s been!

We landed in Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport a week ago last night after a journey that took nearly 27 hours door-to-door, including about 20 hours of flying. We spent our first few days in China with my family, introducing Lawrence to all four of my grandparents, as well as all of my aunts and uncles, some cousins, and several more distant relatives. We also celebrated my maternal grandfather’s 80th birthday.

After that, we’ve spent the rest of the past week touring Sichuan, the province where I was born and where most of my family still lives. We started with two days in Dujiangyan and then went to Leshan/Emeishan for two days. Today, we’re back in Chengdu to see Sichuan’s famous pandas and prepare for the next part of our trip, which begins tomorrow. We’ll be flying to Xi’an first thing in the morning and spending a few days there before boarding a high speed train to Beijing, where we’ll spend several more days before flying back to Chengdu.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today, I want to launch this blog’s new “A Day” series, where I share in detail how I spent a single day (a possible day, if you will), by telling you about the first of those two days in Dujiangyan. We spent the day hiking Mount Qingcheng from base to summit.

Mount Qingcheng is one of the four sacred mountains of Taoism, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a place I wanted to take Lawrence because I had fond memories of it from my last visit, 14 years ago. There are two main paths up the mountain; since I had previously visited the back mountain (hou shan), this time we chose to visit the more popular front mountain (qian shan), which is sprinkled with Taoist temples.

The experience of hiking up a mountain in China is pretty different from what you might be used to in the U.S. For one thing, it’s stairs all the way up, at least on the more popular, developed mountains. China’s mountains, although they do offer scenery and nature, have generally seen millennia of development, and you will find uneven stone steps, elaborate temples, and vendors all along your path. For another, Chinese mountains can get very crowded, especially if, like we did, you go on a national holiday (in our case, Qingming Jie, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, the Chinese equivalent to Memorial Day).

I wanted to take you up Mount Qingcheng with us and show you firsthand what the experience was like, so I took over 50 video clips over the course of our day and put them together into my very first vlog. Since I’ve never edited video before and didn’t have very much time to learn, you get to witness all of the shakiness and heavy breathing of me recording footage while climbing an endless series of stairs. You don’t get to witness the steep, winding, crowded staircases toward the end of the hike, because I was too exhausted by then to focus on filming and my own balance at the same time.

Still, I hope you’ll come along with me and enjoy the stunning views from the top and the cable car ride down.