Snow, monkeys and broken ribs on China’s tallest sacred mountain
China’s Tallest Buddhist Mountain
With a height of 3099m, Emei Shan in Sichuan Province, Western China, is comfortably the tallest of China’s Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism and is traditionally seen as the place of enlightenment of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra to whom many of the mountain’s temples and monuments are dedicated.
I took the bus from Chengdu and arrived in the town of Baoguo at the foot of the mountain the night before my climb, staying in one of the recommended hostels there. The following morning, after a breakfast that straddled the border between a hearty attempt at sustenance and sheer, ill-conceived gluttony, I set off.
My intention was to reach Golden Summit within the day by walking the shortest of the two routes up, staying on the summit overnight, and making my way down the longer route the next day in order to make it back before dark. In order to do this, rather than starting my Emei Shan hike in Baoguo, I took a bus to the Wannian bus station and began my hike from there. Nine hours later, I was at the summit.
The most miserable night I’ve ever spent anywhere
The height of Mount Emei makes it tall enough to be subject to a subarctic climate near the summit, with an average daily temperature in December of -6°C. It felt every one of those -6°C by the time I reached the top in the almost-dark, needing swiftly to find a place to stay for the night. But upon checking how much money I had left and finding not much more than Y120, I was left shuffling along in the now pitch black, using my fading mobile phone light to guide me to hotel after hotel, each of which had rooms no less than Y380 on offer.
It was on the way back from another of these no-room-at-the-inn enquiries, that despite support from the stick I’d been using to keep the monkeys at bay during my climb, I slipped on the ice whilst trying to negotiate the steps down to the main path. I managed to keep hold of the rail as I fell, but only ended up swinging round, bouncing off said rail, down the remaining five steps and into a wheezing pile of pain in the snow at the bottom, now with a nicely cracked left rib.
I eventually found a small place a little way down from Golden Summit, back along the way I’d previously come, where, mercifully, I was able to get a room for Y100. The place wasn’t exactly five star, but all I really wanted at that point was a place not to freeze to death where I could quietly cry myself to sleep. The water in the toilet was frozen. The taps were frozen. The water in the buckets that were there to use instead of the frozen taps was frozen. I was pretty sure I was the only guest. It felt like I was in The Shining. But alas, fully clothed in hat, scarf, gloves, coat, and three layers beneath that, together with two duvets and an extra blanket on top, I managed to sleep intermittently – wincing in pain every time I moved from my freshly-broken rib – until just before dawn through the most miserable night I’ve ever spent anywhere.
How to get to Emei Shan
Mount Emei is located 150km south of Chengdu close to Leshan City in Sichuan Province. Emeishan city, 7km from the mountain itself, is the main access point for the hike. You will need to travel from Emeishan city by bus or by car to the town of Baoguo at the foot of the mountain after you arrive.
You can get to Emeishan from Chengdu by bus or by train. Trains running between Chengdu and Kunming make stops at Emeishan throughout the day. The journey takes between two and three hours and you can then take a minibus or car to Baoguo.
Update: The new Chengdu-Emeishan high speed rail opened in 2015 cutting the journey time from Chengdu to 1h 6min. The new station is about 30 min walk from the park entrance. There is also a bus from the station to the Baoguo Temple.
The journey from Chengdu to Emeishan by bus should also take about two hours. Buses run from Xinnanmen bus station to Emeishan every twenty minutes or so from before 7am. From Emeishan bus station it is then necessary to get another local bus or a taxi for the 20 minute ride to Baoguo. There were cars waiting when I jumped off the bus from Chengdu, and with a bit of bartering, I got a ride to the hostel in Baoguo for Y30.
Buses also regularly make the 28 km trip from Baoguo to Leshan bus station. The Leshan Giant Buddah on the way to or from Mount Emei is an ideal way to break up the journey. The Giant Buddah site can be seen in a few hours and it is possible to carry on to Emei Shan or back to Chengdu on the same day.
How to tackle Emei Shan
Update: There’s more info on Emei Shan tactics in the comments below.
As you can see from my Emei Shan map, there are two routes up and down the mountain. The usual way is to take the path via Wannian Temple on the way up and the path via Magic Peak Monastery and the monkey zone on the way down. The first route is the shorter and less steep of the two, so unless you want to kill yourself before you reach the summit, this is the sensible option.
I came down the long way, and even with a 10am start and some pretty rapid walking (I was almost jogging towards the end in order to catch the last bus back from Wuxiangang to Baoguo), it took until 6pm to make it. The longer route can get very steep in places and sometimes seems never ending. I passed some people going in the opposite direction on my way down, and, to put it lightly, they didn’t look happy with their decision.
If you do choose to take the short route up, it is easily possible to go up and down the mountain in two days, but you will need an early start each day to give yourself time for a not-too-suicidal pace to ensure you make it before dark. I saved myself a few hours by taking the Baoguo to Wannian Temple bus and continuing my hike from there.
Emei Shan Accommodation
If you decide to start your Emei Shan hike from Baoguo, you will more than likely need three days to reach Golden Summit and get back down again. I had initially planned to get to Baoguo early enough to begin hiking the same day and stay on the mountain overnight. However, conditions on the roads meant I arrived much later than anticipated.
If you do end up needing to find yourself accommodation in Baoguo before heading up the mountain early the next morning, I recommend staying at the Teddy Bear hostel. The hostel was great – backpacker friendly, a free map and plenty of advice on hiking Emei Shan from Andy, the owner. You can also get a good breakfast inside you before you start your climb and can leave your rucksack there until you return.
There are also places to stay when you are on the mountain. Some of the accommodation at the summit can be expensive, especially in peak season, though sleeping in one of the monasteries is your best bet for a cheaper and more authentic Emei Shan experience.
Emei Shan Practicalities
It is not unusual to experience a temperature difference of up to 15°C between Golden Summit and the foot of the mountain. Mount Emei is also notorious for its wet and often annoyingly foggy weather. Rainfall or snow is pretty likely whenever you travel so come prepared. I went in December and quickly shed most of the five layers that I was wearing as the sun and my exertions made the whole thing rather pleasantly warm. But after I hit the snow about half way up and continued to climb, they gradually went back on one by one, and by the time I reached the summit in the dark, it was certainly a good few degrees below zero.
Paths can get slippery so good footwear is essential. Going down is especially treacherous in the snow as some steps become little more than miniature ski slopes. After Leidongping bus station where the lazy-arse tour groups pile out for their daring assualt on the summit, the snow gets compacted into ice under foot and I witnessed some quite staggering wipeouts up there. It is possible to buy crampons along the way, but I just about managed to cope with plenty of firm gripping of the hand rails.
Other advice would be to take a torch just in case, and find or buy yourself a bamboo pole on your way up. I encountered my first monkeys around Elephant Bathing Pool Monastery, though my bamboo pole was more useful as a walking stick than a weapon. As always, if you don’t bother the monkeys, they likely won’t be too much interested in you.