Too Long had we been mollycoddled by the fuzzy, felt-tipped scribble of Chinese megacities.
We were planning a three month trip around China. As part of the preparations, Eden and I purchased an enormous fold-out map of the vast country and laid it out on the wooden floor of our Auckland bungalow. We had no idea of our plans other than an arrival date, and a three month visitors visa obtained through a complicated series of decorated lies and nightmare excursions to the Green Lane Visa Office. So as to bring order to the chaos, we began to annotate the map with areas and attractions we planned on visiting, using the web as an indispensable resource. As a mathematician calculates the correlation on a scattergraph, we plotted our route through the unknown landscape of the Middle Kingdom.
During this research process I became aware of the sacred mountains. The sacred mountains of China are a strong part of the national identity, and often lure the Chinese to journey there in pilgrimage. The concept is familiar to cultures worldwide, but we associate modern mountain pilgrimage with Eastern societies such as Korea, India and Japan. The most famous mountains often become such a potent symbol of the nation that they are featured on banknotes, and are hung on the walls of family houses like a portrait of a despotic leader. In China, the sacred mountains are usually grouped within The Five Great Mountains, The Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism or The Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism. There is a lot of crossover with the religious associations of these mountains, especially with the first group. Usually, this first group of mountains is seen as mostly significant from a historical perspective, featuring heavily in legends dating back to the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). The others attract more religious pilgrims, and tourists keen to explore their spirituality.
By the time we were in China, there was so much excitement and (comparative) convenience within the cities, that we found our time rushing away, surrounded only by concrete. Our excursions into unpopulated areas (by Chinese standards) had been met with extreme failure, a strong sense of hopelessness, and a quick train ride in the direction of the nearest city. However, by the time we reached Chengdu, I was beginning to crave the challenge that the Chinese 'countryside' offers. Too long had we been mollycoddled by the fuzzy, felt-tipped scribble of Chinese megacities. Moreover, I wanted to explore one of these sacred mountains, and spend the day alone, with it. Peacefully reaching a peak.
In Sichuan province, just South of Chengdu, lies the town of Emeishan. It is named after one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, by which it is situated. The town, although harboring a population of around 400,000 people, carries a slower rural personality, with tradesmen working on the street, primitive modes of transport riding side by side with dusty, mudcaked cars, and vendors selling locally grown, dusty, mudcaked vegetables. The mountain was visible from our hostel at the northern end of Baoguo, and immediately we rejoiced at the fresh oxygen and quiet streets surrounding our lodgings. I took it easy that evening, in preparation for a long hike the following day. At this point, I had spent about six weeks in China, but I was still unsure what to expect from the mountain. To be honest, I was foolish at the time to assume it would be a peaceful, meditative experience, filled with sages wielding long, heavy beards and gnarly poles. I like to think my imagination extends beyond stereotypes, but in this instance, it was grounded in old folk stories.
I was offered my own walking pole by the hostel staff. It was made of hollowing bamboo, which made a pleasant 'pop' with every supportive tap against the ground. I left the hostel and walked down the peaceful lane, and round the corner to the bus terminal, where to my surprise, at 8am, there were hundreds of people, happily chattering and popping their identitical bamboo sticks fiercely, apparently bracing themselves to assault this holy mountain. We were loaded into the bus and driven 30 minutes to the Wannian bus terminal, around 1000m above sea level. I was relieved of 185 Yuan ($30) at the gate to the mountain here, something you must get used to if you want to visit any of China's natural beauty. But soon I had begun my day long hike under the canopy of trees sheltering me from a rising sun.
In order to generate as much revenue as possible, the larger temples on the mountain charge an additional fee to enter. Instead I rose slowly to the summit, step by step, accompanied only by the hollow tap of my walking stick. I tried to avoid the groups of Chinese tourists by scaling the stairs quickly past them, as they would usually get me to pose awkwardly, bemusedly for a photo with their children to compliment their album of exciting, exotic scenery. One of the groups would see me again and again, becoming progressively less photogenic with the heat and physical exertion, yet would still insist on another photo, as if I were sharing my journey with them. Stubborn in my solitude I tried to retreat up the mountain, resting where I could until I heard their yelling and singing coming round the corner again in pursuit. Chinese tourists get some serious dirt, and it's when you're made to feel like one of the native species of monkey on the mountain that you can understand why. One child pulling the hairs on my arm while his mother feeds me different Chinese snacks to see my reaction is a good illustration of the conditions I experienced traveling around China. Being alone on the middle of the mountain, I felt I had very little room to hide.
Stair by stair, my body dripping stolen water, and stopping more and more frequently. My bamboo cane simulated a sloppy rhythm, discussed my ebbing fitness with its brothers undivided. For lunch I had bamboo shoots fried and thrown in a noodle soup, child swiping at me as if to break the mirage. Ascend, ascend, felt like it wouldn't end, my feet grew less responsive to encouragement.
But, continuing through everything I made it to the summit. The peak, representative as it is of the heavens and our own mortal attempts to breach them. I was encouraged to stay the night on a mountaintop monastery and awake for sunrise in order to witness the famed 'Buddha's halo', where the sun rises above the cloud level, spreading gold around the summit and casting your shadow on the rainbowed clouds. Many monks have thrown themselves into this light, later found cast against the rocks thousands of feet below. I was shown kindness by a group of students who took pity on my pennilessness, and lent me some Yuan to spend the night in the monastery. That was my Buddha's halo, for without it I'd have been shivering at the peak there, becoming a little too familiar with heaven. As for the real thing, just shadows and light, a dimmer switch slowly turned. A cloudy morning to hide God.
Calling a mountain 'sacred' may resonate with the history of that landmark, and be alluded to in the further cultivation of the site. But, as with many Chinese landmarks, it is clear to see that where the dominant aim could be preservation or worship, it is actually profit. I don't deny that the mountain can be a holy experience, but the experience has clearly been artificially constructed since the 70s (to some extent) to offer people an excuse to come and spend their income on a mountain that promises some sort of spiritual awakening. And that is the extent of my cynicism. The personal challenge that is begged of the visitor, what's more on a site that has been holy for thousands of years, definitely leads the conscious visitor to understand in part the devotion of monks who would offer years and years of their lives to a mountain. Furthermore, a site like Emei offers a far more authentic exploration into the Chinese identity than sites like The Great Wall or the Giant Buddha of Leshan, as the size and difficulty reduce the density of tourists considerably. The duality of appreciated and exploited historical significance appears here as much as it does in other Chinese sites, but here, in the long, cool and winding steps of ascent, the significance of reaching a gorgeous, typically Chinese peak, outshines all else.