China: Journey to the Mountain



Journey to the Mountain

#1 Gate to the clouds



It’s a great, heaving breath I take as I step out of a tiny Chinese bus at our first stop on our upwards journey of 3,099m:
the Gate to Mount Emei, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China.

It’s been a stomach-churning drive to this point, but the air is clear, crisp and fresh. It’s a rush of oxygen that comes as a huge relief, not only because of my all-too-familiar feeling of car-sickness, but after a month in China, I’m craving any kind of air that doesn’t feel like a dice with a slow, carbon-monoxide death.

With much reluctance, but greatly refreshed, that I step back on the bus to cross under the arch towards the Emei summit.

Our next stop is the Gondola at the base of the mountain, that departs from within a beautiful, deep-coloured wood building. Unfortunately, however, it’s under repair this time of year, and we’re herded towards the second back-up gondola leaves from behind this beautiful wooden building.

The aptly-named back-up gondola is a tiny, creaky plastic box – a relic from the 80s – which two foreigners can just about squeeze into. For the love of God, do not shake the box. We ascend through five minutes of cloud over tiny, paintbrush trees until we suddenly, with an artistic bust of sunshine, break the clouds…


#2 Golden Elephant Peak


The first section of the walk after the death-defying gondola ride takes us to base of Samantabhadra Statue Peak. It’s a stunning eruption that pierces into a swathe of blue sky – the likes of which I haven’t seen much of in China so far.

All along that steep incline towards the glimmering monument, people of all ages, and from all over the world climb the steps at times puffing almost shoulder to shoulder.

All different people, looking, in reverence and revery, and resting tired feet in the passing cloud.



Lack of Oxygen:
Peak of Emei Mountain, Chengdu, 3099m


At the summit of Emei Mountain is this moment of real breathlessness.

The second, and unfortunately not final, terrifying rickety bus across the side of Emei mountain, took us to a  – then unreassuringly under-renovation – cable car, which took full running-jump into the tiny carriage, and proceeded to leak and rock us over proper Chinese mountains and sheer cliffs as the peak began rising up out of an endless sea of clouds.

At the summit rises three monolithic structures, atop an avenue of white-and-gold elephant lined steps: a goliathan gold buddha-elephant-spike, a golden temple, and a silver nunnery. They’re floating in and out of passing clouds, and there are these sudden bursts of gold reflections when the clouds break and the sunlight strikes the shining metal.
The Golden Summit.

All along the upward climb people were silently praying, periodically stopping to force their foreheads to the solid concrete steps, and to put smoking incense sticks and fat red candles on racks – the wax dripping everywhere, big sooty orange flames. People  were dirty, an end of pilgrimage dirt that suited their tired, reverent faces. A brilliant dirt, next to the gleaming temples in the sun and clear, thin air.


We stayed for several hours, before beginning the quiet, slow decent to the base town.



Mount Emei:
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China
Pǔxián Púsà (普賢菩薩)
First Buddhist Temple in China
Earliest extant reference to the Shaolin Monastery



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