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Part Four: Fred loses it, and four seasons in one day

By the time we had finished our four-hour journey to the base of Emeishan, it was almost midnight. It was tough to tell, but it appeared that we were in an area that was surrounded by beautiful pine trees and dotted with the occasional lake, something that I was not accustomed to seeing in China. It reminded me more of some of the areas I had seen in the pacific northwest of the US, or some areas of Upstate New York. It certainly was beautiful, and, it certainly was dark. Much too dark to go out and enjoy it. Besides, I had to get up early the next morning. My travel agent told me that I should start early and climb Emeishan from the bottom to derive the full effect of the place. I told Fred to make sure the hotel awoke me at an early hour so that I could get a good start. He was quite puzzled as to why I had wanted to get up earlier than the rest of the crew.

“Well, I want to walk to the top.”

“You’re nuts.”

And with that, he turned and went to his room.

But I could tell that the comment really disturbed him. He had stopped sipping at that dreadful tea. I drifted off to sleep that night, well aware of the fact that I had accomplished a great feat. Fred had finally lost it.

The next morning was a beautiful one, with crisp clear air that one tends not to find near any of the larger cities of China. We piled into the minivan and started our ascent of Emeishan. It was during the almost hour and a half drive up the mountain that I started to realize why I wasn’t walking up from the bottom. Emeishan was essentially, huge. If you consider Emeishan to be a thumb, geologically speaking of course, millennia ago, that, before it’s creation was just lying flat on a table, so to speak, and then, as it was being created, the thumb angles up off the table but still remains attached to the hand at the joint; that, would be a decent, non-geological description of the mountain. And we were starting at the joint. The trails start at the joint. One would have to start walking from the base of this joint, up this incredibly long slope, to get to the fingernail, at which point, one would reach cliffs. Essentially, we were driving to the bottom of the cliffs. Had I walked, it probably would have taken me about three days, at a good stride. From the bottom of the cliffs a cable car takes you to the top, at which point, a short climb and a walk will place you on the top. To about 3075 meters altitude.

But it would have been an interesting walk, all fifty or so kilometers of it, as there are many, many temples along these few trails that traverse up this very long slope. But three days is three days, and I certainly didn’t have the time this trip. The goal was to get to the top.

Emeishan is considered to be one of China’s holy mountains. At one time, there were more than seventy temples that dotted the trails on the way to the top, some of them were Taoist temples, the majority were Buddhist. They have been dated back to the Eastern Han Dynasty. At this time, I am told that there only remain about ten or twenty temples on the slope of Emeishan that are still functioning. It is possible to obtain food and rest at these temples, from the monks that inhabit them, for those who desire to do the climb from the bottom. And apparently, there are quite a few people that do that climb, pilgrims in fact, who visit Emeishan for purely religious reasons. As for foreign tourists, they are pretty rare in this part of the world.

We drove to Jie Yin Dian, which, at around 2600 meters, was going to be the last stop for our minivan. It was also my first taste of the first season change that I was going to experience. Fred hadn’t said much all morning, but he did say one thing of significance, and that was, “On Emeishan, every day has four seasons”. I hadn’t the slightest idea as to what he was talking about. I did when we got to Jie Yin Dian. We were enveloped in clouds, and frost, and terrible cold. The Chinese that were selling their wares there, mostly medicinal stuff that I couldn’t recognize, were all wearing these very heavy green military winter coats. Some of these coats were available for rent. As we had left the large majority of my luggage in the hotel where I had stayed the night before, I just started layering my high tech fancy clothing, threw my backpack on my back, which contained my laptop, and a few other necessities for the night, and started hiking with Fred, up this narrow trail through the mist and the cold fog.

It was on this trail that I first encountered three things that I had never encountered before. First, the famous Emeishan monkeys. Terribly cute little things they are, and lots of them. But Fred warned me of their thieving habits. Apparently, it is not uncommon for them to “attack” people and take their belongings out of their purses or what not. I looked at these fairly large monkeys, as I was getting closer and closer to them, in order to compose just the right picture, when Fred said “Don’t get too close, they’ll take your camera”. I told Fred not to get his panties all twisted up into knots, as I knew gong fu, and that I could defend myself, even though this primate, probably knew gong fu also, and could most definitely kick my ass in an embarrassing sort of way. I had read that Shaolin gong fu had reached even this remote part of China at some time in the past, and that some of the temples on the slopes of Emeishan had at one time or another, fallen under the control and aegis of the Henan Shaolin temple. Also, I had heard that the Shaolin martial arts were still practiced to some degree at some of these temples. The monkey and I eyed each other suspiciously. We both decided to back off at the same time.

“You see Fred, I would have kicked its ass”.

“You nuts. Want some tea?”

It was a hell of a walk, especially when you consider the altitude, the trail, and the cold. That’s when I saw the second of the three things I hadn’t really seen before. They call it a huagan.

It’s made out of bamboo, and you sit in it. And then, two scrawny little guys pick it up at either end, and carry you either up or down the trail. Very comfortable looking device. The huagan carriers sit by the side of the trail and hawk their services to the pilgrims and other tourists who come to Emeishan. They didn’t bother hawking anything to me. No matter, I wasn’t going to be seen dead sitting in one of those things.

But there was one thing that I hadn’t experienced before, that was really beyond words. And that was the environment. Fog, mist, ever changing, ever flowing, with craggy cliffs and beautiful pine trees, it was truly the land of the gods. I could understand why so many people over the centuries had attributed so much religious significance to this place.

And oh, it was winter. It was damn cold. Not a hint of sunlight. Eventually, we made it up to the cable car station, and took this archaic tram up the side of a cliff, through the impervious clouds, to the brightly sun lit top of Emeishan. It was bright. It was warm. It was absolutely gorgeous. And it was summer.

How does one explain the view from the top of Emeishan? Well, understand that when you get off of the cable car, you’re not really at the very top. You’re at the, well, kind of top. The Chinese call it the Jind Ding, or the Golden Summit. At this point on Emeishan, the mountain is no longer a huge slope; now, at the top, it is a craggy cliff, all the way around. A precipitous drop awaits you if you venture too close to the not so secure fencing. Below you, as you look down, you see nothing but clouds, what the Chinese call the Sea of Clouds. In the distance, off to the southwest, you can see the start of the Himalayas rising majestically out of this Sea of Clouds. And further up, to the east, lies the very top, the summit of Emeishan, on which there is one last temple, its various roofs shining in the terribly bright and warm sun. I was overwhelmed with it all. Truly, I felt, there must be a god.

Fred broke the whole mystique of it all. “Let’s go. We check in.”

It wasn’t much of a walk, but when you’re at 3075 meters altitude, any walk becomes a bit of a walk. The hotel in which we were to spend the night was not exactly the Holiday Inn of Chengdu, but at least, there was a bed. And, a little heat. No matter, I had no desire to spend any time indoors anyway. I dumped my stuff, grabbed my laptop and camera, and headed for the summit. Funny, I noticed, it was starting to get a bit chilly….


Emeishan, epilogue

Part Five: A spy comes in from out in the cold

The temple of Jind Ding is just like most of the other temples one sees around China, with one exception: location, location, location. This one is spectacular. The temple itself is multi-level; the uppermost part resides on the tip of a precipice that faces away from the Himalayas, the rest of the temple cascades down a short portion of the mountainside towards the Himalayas. It’s all built quite nicely into its surroundings. A quick tour of the temple, and I eventually found myself outside again. The highest point of Emeishan, at 3099 meters, is not accessible to the public, and seems to be inhabited by some sort of government radio station. I tried to make my picture taking of the facility not too noticeable by the occasional government guard that came my way.

It really doesn’t take all that long to tour the temple and the surrounding grounds once you’re on top of Emeishan; actually, one could do it all in about two or three hours. So, with summer fading into fall, I decided to sit on one of the steps in an out of the way place, and go through some email on my laptop. It was a big mistake. Bad enough I was American, in an area in which foreigners were very uncommon. I had advertised technology.

Within a matter of less than, oh, a half hour, I found myself surrounded by young Chinese people, apparently students, all staring at me. No one had said a word. Just stares. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, so I just smiled, and continued on with my work. That’s when one of them made a move.

“You James Bond?”

It was a girl, an average looking girl, in her early twenties, who spoke, from what I could tell, little English, and, who spoke the only English in the group. Where she had come up with that comment was beyond me. It was then that I started thinking about the Buffet Queen of Chengdu, and I started to get suspicious. Terribly suspicious. Stuck on a mountaintop. For the night. And it was getting cold. I started to look around me, to look around and under and in-between the masses of legs that surrounded me. I just knew that there had to be a fat chick out there somewhere. I wasn’t going to be caught like that again.

I slid my sunglasses up onto my forehead, and squinted at this new messenger, with cautious suspicion and restricted power. “Who sent you?”

“You are James Bond! You are American spy!”

And then she started yammering away to all the people in her group, who, all started yammering away at each other. And I started to wonder how I got involved in these little fiascoes with these people.

And that was when I noticed the cause for the whole interest thing. True, they probably had never seen an American before, at least, in person, and from what I’m told, in these remote places in China, when they do, they tend to think it’s some sort of American movie star. To them, who else but a movie star would bother coming all this way? But the real cause of their fascination really had nothing to do with me; it all had to do with this funny looking thing in my lap. This was October 1997, and they had never, ever seen a computer laptop before. Overwhelmed just didn’t describe it.

I stopped the whole group yammering bit, and, basically, to be blunt, just asked her who she was with, to which she answered by pointing to all the people that had surrounded me. And with that, I decided to start a conversation with her. They had not really met a foreigner before, as they were going to school in some part of western China, and were just visiting Emeishan for the day. I didn’t even bother trying to explain the concept of James Bond and spying to her, but I assured her that I had nothing to do with either. However, to keep the wow factor going, I did show them all Doom and Quake on my laptop, which just sent absolute shivers of joy up their collective spines.

That was when it started to snow. It was three o’clock, and time for winter.

Part Six: Buddha’s Rainbow and suicide

It didn’t last long, winter; it was a short one. Spring time came shortly thereafter, just in time to get a little more of the suns warm rays, and, more importantly, to get a glimpse of the phenomena that they call Buddha’s Rainbow.

The moisture in the air that surrounds the craggy cliffs of Emeishan reflects the suns rays occasionally, giving you a prism effect, much like the rainbow that one would see after a rainstorm. But the rainbow that one can see, and that I unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to completely witness, is called Buddha’s Areola. It is a circular rainbow, without beginning or end, and for that reason, believers who come here for pilgrimage, sometimes are driven to think that this as a sign of nirvana, from the Buddha. It has caused a few of them to leap for the rainbow, off of the precipice that the temple is built upon, and for that reason, the cliff is called Sheshan Yan, or the Cliff of Self Sacrifice. As the precipice is pretty steep, below you, as you look down, all one can really see is that very cushiony appearing sea of clouds. It all does give one quite the illusion. I have no idea how many people have taken a dive off of Emeishan, and considering the height involved, and the nature of the terrain below, I wonder if the authorities themselves even know.

Part Seven: Epilogue.

It was basically an uneventful night, as winter again descended upon us, towards five o’clock or so. Walking around outside in the dark, and the snow, was pointless, so we all went to sleep, in an effort to get up for the ritual sunrise. And what a sunrise it was. An absolutely magnificent phenomena, made even more so by the cheers of the fifty or so people who had made it a point to get up early, bundle up in their rented heavy green military winter jackets, and brave the bitter early morning darkness.

But it had all come to an end far too soon. We packed, and headed down for the tram that was going to take us down to the minivan for the three to four hour ride back to the airport, depending upon traffic. Fred really hadn’t said much on the way back, as he quietly sipped his two day old concoction of spit and tea.

“Want some?”

He was bound to get the better of me; I was convinced of that. But, I was just not going to let it happen. We got to the airport with literally hours to spare, actually, five, to be exact. There was no suggestion of having me waste time in downtown Chengdu at the Holiday Inn, or some other place like that. It was another day of waiting at the airport. Just another day. I made sure that I got Fred’s business card before I left, gave him a hearty goodbye, and watched him and the driver disappear into the busy traffic that headed off towards Chengdu.

I wrote two letters when I got back home in the US, and I addressed both of them to the Holiday Inn, in Chengdu China. One had a nice thank you note to the assistant manager, who had helped me in my hour of need. I made sure that I carbon copied that letter to the main office of the Holiday Inn corporate headquarters. The other letter went to the manager of the buffet at the Holiday Inn in Chengdu. It wasn’t addressed to the Buffet Queen per se, but the letter briefly described the event as it occurred, and it requested that all attempts possible be made to find my dear love, and get my message to her, in the hopes that she would eventually search me out.

In the letter I put Fred’s card.

I hope they enjoy swapping tea together.