I’m wrapping up a trip to Sichuan Province, where I got a chance to spend some time in Chengdu and Emeishan. Chengdu is particularly famous for its pandas, and Emeishan (while less well-known) is a site of special Buddhist significance. Like the other mountains I’ve visited in the past year, Emeishan is sacred in Chinese Buddhist tradition and is also a recognized national park & UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was my first time traveling to Sichuan, though I hope it won’t be my last! I found this trip to be incredibly lovely, and I’d look forward to coming back and seeing other parts of the province.
I did my best imitation of a panda during my time in Chengdu – lazing around most of the time, and breaking up the day by eating meals and desserts. My diet here has, thankfully, been more varied than the panda’s standard bamboo fare. I’ve gotten to eat some delicious food and drinks at a number of restaurants and teahouses, which have included mouth numbing spicy hot-pot, mind-blowingly good dan dan noodles, the mild flavors of Tibetan yak-milk tea, and the sticky sweetness of a enormous bowls of bing fen dessert.
Though Sichuan food back in the States often gets simplified to hot & numbing spice of Sichuan pepper, there’s a lot of diversity I’ve been able to see in the past week that I hadn’t known about before. I did still really enjoy going to a local spice market, where I got to see spices being measured and sold in massive quantities. (p.s. James, look out for a package of peppercorn coming your way!)
I was really excited to get the chance to see pandas on this trip. The soft and cuddly power of panda diplomacy has definitely proven itself effective in my case. I loved watching the pandas at the Washington Zoo grow up, and recently came across a funny article that talked about the process of moving American born pandas back to China. Two panda cubs that were raised in the U.S. were repatriated to China in 2016, and experienced culture shock when coming to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, as they had to adjust to Chinese language and Chinese panda food. I empathize with these pandas in more ways than I can count.
Seeing the pandas was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. Back at home, the panda enclosures at the zoo are quite large and you never really get a chance to see them up close and personal. The Chengdu Panda Base is home to a number of cubs and fully-grown pandas that you can gawk at. It was, in a word, panda-monium. I have to thank my Aunt Joy for helping make this visit happen! I was almost discouraged from going when I learned you could no longer hold pandas for photos (I know, I know, I’m a complete tourist!) but I’m so glad that I went! Unfortunately, I don’t have too many pictures of myself with the pandas themselves, but here’s a photo with a blurry bamboo-eating blob in the background to prove that I went. 🙂
The second part of my trip revolved around going to Emeishan (峨眉山). I’ve spoken in other posts about my experiences of going to Wutaishan and Putuoshan. There are four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, and each mountain has a connection to a specific bodhisattva that holds significance in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Emeishan is another of these sacred mountains, and is worshipped as the bodhimanda (place of enlightenment) of Samantabhadra bodhisattva. The last of these mountains, Jiuhuashan, is on my list of places I have to visit before I leave China!
I took the gaotie (high speed rail) to go from Chengdu to Emeishan. The trip is about 150 km, and took a little more than an hour. I spent one night in a cozy hotel before I departed for the mountain the following morning – I brought a small bag with me, which included my basic essentials (passport, wallet, camera, change of clothes) and left the rest of the bag with the hotel to retrieve when I came back.
And then I walked.
For reference’s sake, I’m including a photo of one of the maps to the park. You can zoom in to read it more carefully & follow the route I took along the trail if you’d like. If it helps you navigate/get a sense of place: I began in Emeishan City, and entered the park at the place on the far-left of the picture marked 天下名山. From there, I went along the route to the left, and then walked up the mountain.
If I follow the measurements laid out on the trail markers, I walked about 20 kilometers within the park on the first day. I saw Baoguo Temple, Fuhu Temple, Leiyin Temple, Chunyang Hall, Shenshui Tower, Zhongfeng Temple, and Guangfu Temple. There were, at times, flat roads for car traffic that connected the scattered villages that surrounded some of these temples, and I saw a few motorcycles pass carrying people that had grown tired of walking. For the most part though, I wandered around on meandering footpaths with countless stone stairs, and I didn’t encounter all too many people.
I called it a day when I reached Qingying Pavilion, as it was starting to rain and grow dark. I took a room at the monastery for the night. Technically, foreigners aren’t allowed to stay in monasteries overnight – and I have heard of people who were turned away from monasteries and needed to find alternative accommodations on the mountain! Thankfully, this wasn’t a problem for me and I was able to take a bed in a basic room for 40 RMB. There were 4 beds in the room, and if it had been peak tourism season/a Buddhist holiday, I would have likely shared with other women travelers. I think that I was the only female overnight guest (not including the laypeople who were accruing merit by living in the monastery longer-term and volunteering in the kitchens), so I got the room to myself for the night.
I woke up early to the sound of a morning gong, and left the monastery by 7:30 to start walking. Qingyin Pavilion is located at a fork in the path, and I took the leftmost route to walk towards the Natural Ecology Monkey Zone. Emeishan is known for the Tibetan macaques that live n the forests, which have gained a reputation for being “流氓” – or hooligans. These monkeys are incredibly clever, and have gradually lost fear of people… this means that you have to be wary when they approach if you’re carrying snacks in your hands or bag, as they might try to grab it from you!
I wasn’t carrying food with me, which might explain why I didn’t see any monkeys between Qingyin Pavilion and Hongchun Ping. (As far as critters go, I did see a toad that was bigger than my hand, and some really massive snails. I’ll spare you the slimy photos, but they made me laugh when I saw them.) Despite not seeing the monkeys, the walk was really beautiful and took me pretty far uphill where I could see the mountain fading into the clouds both above and below me.
I kept walking for a while after passing the temple, but decided that I’d return the way that I came instead of continuing onwards to Xianfeng Temple. On this stretch of the mountain, it seemed like the walking path was the only way to travel, and the sites were becoming more and more spread out with 10+ kilometers between them. Because I wanted to make it to the mountain’s peak and the temple at the Golden Summit, I retraced my steps back to monastery where I spent the previous night.
What I like about nature, and about Buddhism, is that it offers rare opportunities to be alone with your thoughts. Hiking through Emeishan was an extended period of walking meditation, which let me focus on thinking simply and breathing deeply. Over the past few days, I’ve been struck by this feeling of connectedness – an all-encompassing sort of compassion that extends beyond my body and into the world around me.
I know, I know. I sound pretty crunchy-granola right about now. But this has been the first time that I’ve been revisiting some Buddhist thought since my retreat this summer, and the time has allowed some of these ideas to precipitate into stronger sentiments than I originally felt when leaving the monastery. It doesn’t hurt that I was surrounded by all sides with the enormous quiet of the forests and mountains – a majestic kind of lush greenery I didn’t fully expect. I don’t think that I can easily put it into words – but I felt moments of real awe when I was walking around on that second morning. I want to say that it puts into perspective the bigness and smallness of the world – there was something equally exquisite about being dwarfed by the mountaintops dissolving into clouds, and admiring the veiny variegation on the petals of a flower left as an offering on the lap of a statue.
This kind of experience leaves me feeling a humbling gladness, and I am thankful to be alive.
Now, I know that most of my family & friends aren’t here to read me waxing poetic about my place in the universe, so I have to thank you for sticking with me. I’ll carry on with the rest of my Emeishan adventure, which (I hope) will hold your attention since it does pick up the pace quite a bit.
When I came back to Qingyin Pavilion, I walked towards Wuxiangang in hopes of catching a bus that could take me up the rest of the mountain. Though I enjoy walking, the Golden Summit stands at an impressive 3077 meters (which makes it the tallest of the Buddhist mountains in China!) and I didn’t have it in me to make it there alone. The path to Wuxiangang was fairly commercial – plenty of small stalls where one could buy souvenirs, tea or snacks, and locally harvested mushrooms.
An old man walking beside me asked me if I was “少数民族”, which is a way of describing ethnic minority groups in China. Sichuan is home to a number of ethnic minorities in addition to the Han majority, and over the past week many people have asked me which minority group I am part of. I told him that I’m “混血儿”, or mixed-race, which started up a conversation about what I was doing in China and what I thought about traveling around the country.
As this was happening, I finally got to see the monkey I had been waiting for! A family of Tibetan macaques crossed our path and one caught a whiff of food being carried by a woman walking ahead of us. The monkey jumped in front of her and tried to grab onto the woman’s leg. She was (understandably) startled and dropped her bag, at which point the monkey grabbed a package of crackers off the ground and retreated to the fence, where it opened the plastic with ease and started snacking.
I was surprised to see this happening up close, and snapped the two pictures I’m sharing here. While this was happening, another monkey got the idea that I might be carrying something as well…
Friends know that I take a canvas tote bag almost everywhere I travel – it was a gift from my brother, and features a giant screen-printed soft pretzel on one side that absolutely screams “PHILLY!” On the other side, I’ve been building up a collection of sewn patches from the different countries I’ve visited. I didn’t have food in the bag, but maybe these monkeys are smart enough to know that soft pretzels are freaking delicious, and they came up to me and gave the bag a tug. The old man I was talking to had been paying closer attention than I had, and poked the monkey a few times with his walking stick to get it to move along. Had he not, chances are that I would have been left chasing this monkey across the mountain to steal back my things.
We had a good laugh at the situation together – even though our conversation had been progressing slowly because of my Mandarin level, I think that absurdity transcends language barriers pretty well and made for a nice moment to share. He told me how he was originally from Beijing, but since he retired he had been traveling often and taking cross-country road trips. By the time we reached the parking lot, he offered to bring me up the mountain so that we could continue our conversation a bit longer.
So, that’s the story of how I almost had my passport stolen by a monkey, and how I ended up hitchhiking with a Chinese retiree.
We drove together for a bit under an hour. We talked a bit about life and different travel experiences – and he may or may not have attempted to set me up with his 38-year-old son. (A classic move.) It was a fun experience to slowly make my way through the conversation, phrasing and rephrasing things in order to make myself understood.
We parted ways when we made it to the Zero Kilometer Parking area, as he had plans to stop for a meal and a rest. I thanked him and took down his phone number (when he returns to Beijing from his current road-trip, perhaps we’ll meet for a tea), and then bought a ticket for the bus to take me the rest of the way up Emeishan to Jeiyin Hall.
It became colder and damper as I got further up the mountain, and I was left thanking Buddha for UNIQLO’s ultra-light down jackets. I walked between Jieyin Hall and the Golden Summit, which felt more like swimming through 6 kilometers of thick mist since there was a light rain and it was high enough to be walking through a layer of clouds. At times, the trail ahead and behind seemed to disappear.
At the top of the mountain, there’s supposed to be a beautiful view of the clouds on clear days. It was not a clear day. What I saw was mostly grey, and even the statues closest to me had fuzzy outlines as if they were exchanging their borders with the atmosphere. At the scenic viewpoints along the mountaintop, you could look over the edge and see precisely nothing.
Maybe this would have been a letdown, but I think that there’s something funny and very Buddhist to the whole situation. Striving for something (whether that’s wanting material objects, or desiring the experience of beauty) is its own kind of intoxication, so it’s possibly for the best that I couldn’t see anything at all.
At least, that’s what I’m telling myself as consolation for walking all the way up without getting a picture to show for it. Estimating from the trail markers, I walked another 20-25 kilometers uphill on my second day, for a total of 40-something kilometers (nearly a marathon!) between the two days. Instead of a photo of the transcendent beauty of Buddhist enlightenment, here are two pictures from the peak that show a different kind of ~transcendent beauty~. 😉
Hehehe. Couldn’t have this ending on too serious of a note, could I? Anyway, I won’t drag this out longer – thanks for following along, and I’ll be looking forward to updating you on the next leg of my adventures. I decided to change my return flight to Beijing to give me a chance to see Chongqing for a couple of days. I don’t have many set plans while I’m there, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out as I go.
Be in touch soon.
Lots of love,