“You are going to need one of these walking sticks to fight off the bad monkeys,” said the hotel manager when we told him our plans for the next day. Thoughts of the TV series Planet of the Apes came to mind. “No thanks,” I said, but he was pretty adamant so I grabbed the stick and paid the guy his 30 RMB.
We woke the next morning at 6am to start our hike up the Tibetan mountain called Emeishan. “Shan” means mountain, and I still can’t help but call it Mount Emei Shan. I know that’s grammatically incorrect, but I can’t help myself, so I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway. I hate rules.
I had decided to make the trek with three good Aussie friends I’d met just a few days before. We’d been drinking. Someone suggested the hike as one of the best in the area, and because hiking is like cocaine to me, I agreed. I did hate mornings at the time so I do recall grumbling my way to the trail head the next day when it was time to pack up our things and start the hike.
It was September, mornings in the south of China in the mountain areas are still quite cool and it was dark. But we had a long walk ahead of us, so a 6am start seemed the most logical if we wanted to make it to camp before the sun set. There’d be no places along the way to buy much in the way of provisions, so we brought most of our snacks and water with us. This was remote and rural China – not too many tourists would be in our path and locals don’t tend to take up hiking as a hobby. We were going to be pretty much alone, but the path was well marked.
I grabbed my walking stick, prepared to do battle with the legendary monkeys, and we started off for the day. The trail immediately headed upwards and it wasn’t long before we could hear the rustling behind the trees. At this stage though, the dirt path was quite wide. There was more than enough time to duck for cover should one of these mischievous primates appear. And they did. Macaques! Big, mean looking macaques, the denizens of Asia. Baby macaques are cute. You almost feel like taking one home as a pet, but momma and pappa macaques… a little less so. Even though we were the only travellers on the trail that day, it was clear many had come before us. The monkeys were used to getting their way with naive passers-by toting water bottles and other snacks. Easy prey had made these monkeys cocky and over-confident. I was happy to have the stick in hand but happier more to not have to use it. I had no exposed treats so I was allowed to pass unharmed. I did wave the stick around a wee bit to feel I got my full 30 RMB’s worth, in false bravado.
If you ever plan on doing this hike yourself, note that the monkeys only inhabit the lower section of the trail. Once the trail gets steeper and gains altitude, the monkeys disappear. There is a limit to how hard they are willing to work for their dinner and snacks it seems.
We continued on and as day broke, a cloudy mist remained in the air. The cool air was welcome though. It was a tough climb, one foot ahead of the other as we gained about 4000 metres in altitude in a relatively short time. All four of us were of similar fitness levels and no one wanting to stop unnecessarily for fear of not getting started again. It was a difficult climb through forested areas. Every now and again, the trees would part and we would catch a glimpse of the West Sichuan mountain ranges as they circled our climb.
We passed through five villages where roosters sounded the morning’s arrival. The smell of smoke from a kitchen hearth prepping breakfast offered a pleasing aroma.
I had to laugh as we trudged away with our fancy hiking boots and North Face gear. Little Tibetan monks clamoured by us clad in only bare feet and saffron-coloured robes, making the hike seem almost effortless. I’m competitive but it somehow felt wrong to be jealous of the monks. I let them pass as they made their pilgrimage towards the sacred peak.
Along the way, there were small temples erected for prayer. They were a place to catch our breath and refill our bottles with natural spring water. We swapped stories and laughed as we continued the hike to our destination for the night. Eight hours from when we started, we finally arrived. A working monastery less than three hours from the summit. We arrived just in time to watch the sun set over the surrounding mountains. I have to say, to this day, it was one of those memories that will never leave me. I still remember the smell of the incense. The rice and soup cooking on the fire pit. The coolness of the air – like a beautiful autumn evening where you don your favourite sweater and sit in front of the firepit. It felt mystical and spiritual.
The four of us had been strangers not one week before, and now, it was if we’d known each other a lifetime. Dex was a doctor from Brisbane. Ti Ti was a giant Norwegian who had followed a girl to Australia and never left, and Karen was a nurse from Darwin. I can’t imagine three other people I would have rather spent the day with. It was perfect. Funny how travel unites people from all different walks of life.
Sleeping in a working monastery may not have been the most comfortable experience. Well-worn, scratchy wool blankets that smelled of smoke kept us warm during the night. The bathroom was nothing more than a long trench with a stream of water left to carry away the debris. I wouldn’t exactly say I had the most comfortable of nights but the challenging walk of the day had tired me out. I was asleep in no time.
By 3am, we were up again to start our ascent to the top for sunrise. I’m a morning person these days but back then, I remember hating that the sun always came up so damn early. We said our goodbyes to our hosts and started our trek. Wearing head torches to light our way around boulders and tree stumps is never my favourite thing, but the allure of sunrise makes people do crazy things. I remember the final hour called for steep navigation, but the walk was so much shorter than the day before. It felt like we were at the top in no time.
The Golden Summit sits at the top of one of China’s four most sacred mountains. People come from all over to pray for good fortune or leave a locket symbolizing love. Most come by tour bus – few ever walk. By the time we reached the top, the feeling of intimacy between the four of us almost vanished immediately. Our little group was thrust into the noise of throngs of domestic tourists scrambling for position to take their sunrise photo. Parked side by side were the large motor coaches you see everywhere in China.
But we shared a secret – one that all those other people would never be privy to. They had not hiked the arduous mountain like we had. We felt like we had earned our right to be there.
So we took our photos, chuckled at all the anomalies that make travel in China so unique, and headed back down Mount Emei by bus. No monkeys to fend off this time.
To this day, that overnight hike and staying in an actual Tibetan monastery remains one of the most amazing evenings I’ve ever experienced. No room service, no plumbing… no problem.