Emei Shan, China to the Laotian Border

September 16-29, 2009

Painting of Emei Shan (photographed at the Emei train station).


An overnight train from Xi'an takes us another 975 kms southwest to Emei, near the town of Bàogaó at the foot of Emei Shan (Mt. Emei). This holiday resort village is a hangout for Chinese tourists and our base for day-hiking in the misty cloud forests on the famed mountain.

The 8,400' climb to the 10,164' peak of Emei Shan (one of four holy Buddhist mountains in China) was historically a Buddhist pilgrimage, with temples, restful pavilions, and monasteries along the way. Today however, these temples are crowded with Chinese tour groups and the climb is generally undertaken using a combination of buses and modern cable cars, although we did spot a few Tibetan pilgrims (and European travelers) climbing the mountain on foot and staying at the monasteries en route.

The modern transport options and a maze of old stone footpaths (and many, many steps) allow us to visit temples and mountaintop by day, while sleeping in Bàogaó at night.


For a few Yuan, porters will carry you up!


The Qingyin "Pure Sound" Pavilion at the junction of two rushing streams.

A quiet day at the 9th century Wannian Temple (not!)

After much huffing and puffing, climbing up what seem to be 40 million slightly-too-narrow-for-my-big-feet stone steps, we struggle up the final stairs to the summit, emerge from the misty forest and ... the sun is shining! A towering multi-headed Buddha statue and the glittering Golden Temple shine in the bright, pure sunlight, and only an occasional wisp swirls up from a white cloud sea several thousand feet below.

We unlace our shoes and cool our tired, aching feet in the shade of the temple, munching on moon cakes and peanuts, taking a needed respite from the unrelenting sun and tourist mobs. Suddenly, a very excited monk skips over to us, pointing down the trail, begging us to join him. We have no idea what is happening (how unusual!) but quickly gather up our stuff and run barefoot down the trail, following as he points to the fog then draws a circle in his hand, all the while jabbering excitedly in Chinese. And there it is: Buddha's Aureole, a magical rainbow encircling our shadows in the fog below us. Ecstatic Buddhists, thinking this was a call from god, used to jump off from the spot where we are standing -- the Cliff of Self-Sacrifice -- which is now posted every few feet with signs warning: No striding over!

Buddha's Aureole.




On the morning of our departure from Emei Shan, I decide to check out the nearby Crouching Tiger Monastery, a short walk from our hostel. Mark opts to forgo the hike, not willing to board the overnight train drenched in sweat. I walk in a pine forest alongside a clear rushing stream, crossing it several times, once over an arched stone bridge, then two ancient looking wood covered bridges, and finally hopping from one foot-worn worn boulder to another. The trail is steamy and I am completely soaked in sweat, jealous of Mark's decision. Finally, I see the first of three temples, each higher than the other, rising up a steep, heavily forested slope. Oddly, there are no tourists in sight; it's just me and a few nuns with shaved heads, wearing pale yellow robes, thick white stockings, gray slippers -- they look like ghosts wandering through this magical place.

I climb one set of steep stone stairs and then another, emerging from the forest in front of a large temple filled with a gleaming gold Buddha, lanterns emit a soothing orange light. I see another temple still higher on the mountain, up yet another steep hill -- I am crazy to be wandering out here, the train leaves in just a couple of hours! But I've come this far and can't turn back. I pass through the doorway and enter the most amazing temple I have ever seen. Light pours through open wood latticework, illuminating hundreds of sculpted arhats (life size noble ones) lining a maze of corridors leading out and around a central multi-headed Buddha figure, flanked by various deities. One is riding a large elephant and, most amazing of all, another is astride an elaborately painted peacock with a remarkable, ten-foot long tail. Why didn't I borrow Mark's wide angle lens? I snap a few photos, then race down the hillside arriving back in town just in time to splash some water on my face, change into dry clothes and hop on the night train, my mind filled with incredible images.





We luck out on our last overnight train journey in China, 970 kms from Emei south to Kunming -- we have the four-berth cabin entirely to ourselves! This mountainous section of track between the Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces took 20 years to build at the cost of many lives, and fully 40% of the way is either over a bridge or in a tunnel.

As the light dims into blue twilight, we rumble along in and out of tunnels. On the port side is a mighty river canyon (unidentifiable from our pathetic Lonely Planet map), and to starboard, a series of steep-walled drainages flash in and out of view as we pass from one tunnel to the next. As night falls, we see a series of dreary factory towns out the window -- smokestacks releasing ominous clouds and towering flames that illuminate dingy cement buildings.

In the morning light we roll along the Yunnan Plateau, passing terraced rice fields, rivers, and wet pavement from the drizzly rain, while feasting on a breakfast of nescafe and instant oatmeal! Soon we arrive in Kunming (pop. 1 million), the capitol of the Yunnan Provence.

Just outside Kunming is Qióngzhú Si (the Bamboo Temple) rebuilt in the 19th century by master Sichuanese sculptor Li Guangxiu. The amazing feature here is the collection of 500 arhat sculptures. Li attempted to represent all of the the moods and faces of human existence in this astonishing collection of nearly-life-size figures, filling many rooms from floor to ceiling. Some are surrealistically exaggerated and others are startlingly lifelike. Unfortunately, we were not permitted to photograph the seventy surfing Buddhas, riding the waves on the backs of a variety of creatures including huge fish, giant crabs, and blue dogs!

An hour's bus ride from Kunming takes us to Xī Shān. This is another holy mountain with stone paths leading past numerous temples (some constructed in the 11th century) on the way to the Lingxu Pavilion near the summit (1889 meters).

We climb the steep steps up to the air-chair at Dragon Gate, with views out over Diān ChÍ Lake to Kunming in the distance. This cliff-hanging set of pathways and caves were hacked out of the rock between 1781 and 1795 by a zealous (crazed!)Taoist monk by the name of Wu Laiqing. The brightly painted figures inside the cave are carved out of the bedrock.



Touching stone at Dragon Gate for good luck!


Hotpot restaurant where we cook our own seafood stew over a burner installed in the middle of the table!











...also in Kunming we meet Mell, an inspiring 73-year-old Berkeley native who has traveled the globe for the last 22 years, spending a year in each country he visits while teaching English to support his wanderlust.

Mark looks a wee bit skeptical as Mell expounds on his theories on life, the universe, and the extraterrestrials.



China has been full of surprises and pre-conception-busters. We never expected the people to be so friendly and helpful, the countryside beautiful, the trains and buses clean and smooth. But here's the biggest surprise: There are parks everywhere and they are filled with people, morning to night, every night of the week! After spending my career struggling to finance and create "Parks for People," I arrive in China to find incredibly vibrant urban open spaces. Most major (and many minor) boulevards have linear tree-lined parks with trails and exercise equipment. In Kunming, by early afternoon tables have appeared for mahjong, card games and the ultra-sized checkers game (never figured that one out...) As night falls, an impromptu rollerblade course is set up for six-year-olds learning to skate.

Before we arrived in Jinghong, I imagined it would be a boring, dusty border town, with casinos and mobs of flag-toting-tour-groups. Nope, Jinghong is chock full of parks. We spent two evenings (Sunday and Monday) strolling around Peacock Lake, a manmade lake in the center of the city. At 9 pm on Monday night, fifty ballroom dancers are in one corner plaza, their boom box serenading at full volume. We press through the crowd and come upon a small group of Dai (the largest ethnic group in Xīshuāngbănnà, 1/3 of the population) holding hands and doing a slow circle dance as men and women take turns in a call and response song, accompanied by three string banjo-like instruments (Sanxian). In moments, an elegantly dressed tiny lady grasps my hand and pulls me into the circle, where I clumsily join the dance. After a couple of rounds and much laughter, I break away and we wander over to another corner where a large crowd has gathered, this time to hear a group of nine musicians playing some unusual string instruments. Young kids throw handfuls of fish food to a boiling mass of fish, couples stroll arm in arm past the green lit fountain, and across the street a mob of teenagers line up, clogging an already packed intersection while waiting for something to be auctioned off. This is China and the parks are alive!






We had seen a packed restaurant earlier in the day, while we ate lunch across the street at a Swiss-run cafe (coffee!) We created quite a stir as we wandered in for dinner later that evening. Soon there is a crowd of (non-English speaking) waitresses around us as we try to decipher the Chinese menu. Again, the phrase book comes to the rescue. Pointing to vegetarian, Liza is led over to the counter where various ingredients are on display (they love Liza here!) Soon we have a feast of spicy vegetarian food (plus chicken), tea, and a couple of tall Dali beers in front of us for another tasty meal. All for $10.

When we pay and prepare to leave the waitress comes over, and in sweet broken English, says "Welcome again, next time!"



International bus from Jinghong to Luang Namtha, Laos.



Last meal in China -- spicy street noodles!

The Chinese border in northern Laos.

We have now traveled overland (mostly by train) more than 3000 miles across China, from the Mongolian border at Erlian, southeast to Beijing, and then southwest to the Laotian border at Mĕnglá. It has been an amazing trip. Unexpectedly, the highlights turned out to be the overall travel experience -- seeing the slowly changing scenery out the window, watching the "little movies" unfold around us, interacting with the super-friendly and curious Chinese people, and daily enjoying the spicy cuisine -- rather than seeing the big sights on the tourist trail.

After these exploratory travels, we have our sights set for our next trip to China (Kashgar to Shanghai)...