“Do you have any warmer clothes?”
Our driver looked us up and down in the rearview mirror, a small frown on his face, as we trundled up the side of a mountain. We were heading towards our destination: the peak of Mt. Emei, and the highest buddha in the world. We looked down at our raincoats and tennis shoes, then shrugged, thinking we’d be fine. We hopped out of the van, paid for our tickets and got on a bus heading higher up.
At 10,167 feet high, the peak of Mt. Emei rises above the clouds. It is one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, and is traditionally regarded as the place of enlightenment for the Bodhisattva Samatabhadra. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and is home to many temples and much buddhist architecture. Needless to say, it was at the top of the list for spring break destinations for my friends and me. In the preceding days we’d seen giant pandas and many other marvels, and as our travels in Chengdu were wrapping up, it was time to see yet another awe-inspiring destination.
When we stepped off the bus, we immediately wished we’d heeded our driver. The wind whipped down the mountain and sliced through our measly layers. We had done our research, and knew that there was a stark temperature difference between the foot of the mountain and the summit, but short of having down coats, nothing could have prevented the cold that sank into our bones. Two of our group rented coats. Myself and another were stubborn and decided to forge on without. We headed up the mountain, climbing fast to stay warm.
Properly climbing Mt. Emei takes two to three days and involves staying in the various temples located on the mountain. Time constraints forced us into taking transportation up to the top. The gondolas were also not working due to high winds, so we were le with a two hour climb straight up the mountain. Using stairs worn crooked from years of use, we climbed up into the clouds. About an hour in, the handrail was coated in a slick sheet of ice. At an hour and a half, our trek topped off into some buildings, and we looked around unsure of where to go next. Up this high, the walkways were coated in ice and clouds billowed in to fill any empty space. The ever present wind nipped at any exposed skin as we ventured forward.
We knew we were on the right track when a gold and white elephant emerged out of the mist. It stood staunchly, both a guardian and beacon for as we turned the corner; the mountain opened up. A shallow flight of stairs led to a faint golden glow. We scrambled up the steps, watching the Samantabhadra statue appear with watery clarity. It lit the surrounding mist with a effervescent glow, the top still obscured by the clouds. As we snapped pictures, it began to snow. Fingers too cold to function, we ducked into the temple’s base for shelter. The buddha inside welcomed us with a so smile and a golden gleam. We walked the room, admiring the quiet beauty of the sanctuary, the details that permeated every inch of the chamber. We stood in hushed awe, admiring.
Even in the shelter of the Buddha’s gaze, the cold still found us. We peeked around the other temples a bit more, looked out over the railing into a curtain of fog, the scurried back down the mountain to warmer weather.
It was only at the end of the day, in the taxi back to the train station, that we saw a photo of where we had been standing. On a clear day, the view from Mt. Emei stretches out over a rolling green ocean of trees, the whole forest spread out below the overlook. Other days, a sea of clouds will billow in and sink into the valleys below. With the peak rising above the clouds, it would have been very much like standing on top of the world. We had stood at the railing for mere seconds, peering into fog thicker than a wall, before the cold chased us back down the mountain.
It was bittersweet, to see that picture and the wonderful view that we had missed. But by the time we settled back into our hostel and fell into our beds, the experiences of the day —dodging in and out of rain-slickered people, wandering around looking for the summit, the refuge of a warm restaurant—and the success of having completed the trip, were already being turned into memories. Despite the cold, the grueling hike and a summit shrouded in fog, I would do it again in an instant, because it was a remarkable experience nonetheless.