Heavenly Force

I don’t know about you, but if someone were to mention “Summit of a Holy Mountain” to me a few months ago, I would’ve pictured a barren mountain top with a grizzled hermit meditating right at the pinnacle. (Jo’s been playing this “Draw Something”  app for the past few weeks, so we’ve been getting quite a bit of practice at converting disassociated words into images)

We definitely did not expect full fledged monuments and elaborate temples at the top of the 3099m high Mt Emei (峨眉山). As far as we know, there are no discernible roads leading there (The cable cars we took stopped us 1.5 km from the summit and we had to hike the rest of the way up).

The Golden Palace and the (why not) Silver Temple at the Golden Summit (金顶).

With the massive statue of Samantabhadra (普賢菩薩), the patron Buddha of Mt Emei. No... Jo is not taller than me...

Jo, having some... ermm... fun with the elephants on Emei

Anyway, even without the temples and the Buddhist statues, it’s not hard to imagine why Mt Emei is regarded as one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China.

For one, there are a few natural phenomenon which are supposedly exceptionally spectacular at Mt Emei. On the Golden Summit (金顶) of Mt Emei, you’re supposed to be able to see one of the world’s most beautiful sunrise (日出) and sea of clouds (云海). There’s also the naturally occurring phenomenon of the Buddha’s Halo (佛光) aka Broken Spectre, where you’d be able to see a magnified shadow of yourself in the clouds surrounded by a golden halo. The last of the four “treasures of Emei” are the Buddha lights (佛灯), vigil fires that can be seen floating through the valleys of Mt Emei.

Out of all the above, we were only able to see one of them – the sea of clouds, but it was a sight that literally warmed our cockles (well, mine anyway). Part of the appeal of trekking up Emei is that it is almost perpetually foggy and cool. It creates a magical,enchanted atmosphere, but after a while, it can get kind of dreary. So, we were really happy the moment we broke through the fog and got the sunshine again. It was something else entirely, when we looked out and saw this below us…

The photo doesn't do the sight justice. I swear there was a collective "WOW..." ringing through the crowd that we went up the mountain with

We’re not suicidal in any sense of the word, but we were sorely tempted to leap into the clouds just because they look so soft.

Jo deciding that breaking out her pole moves at the side of a cliff was probably not one of the best ideas she'll ever have

We opted to take one of those "looking over the horizon" shots for her instead

Last, but certainly not least, we all know that Mt Emei is immensely sacred quite simply because they told us so.  No surface is safe from the gratuitous use of publicity material to spread this message.

I don't know about you, but there is something disconcerting about having Buddha staring at me as I pee


Kungfu Monkeys!

Nope, that’s not the new animated film from Dreamworks.

I’m referring to the (allegedly) famous Tibetan Macaques of Mt Emei.

Mt Emei is one of the few places where humans can come up close and personal with these little critters. On the snowy slopes of Mt Emei, you can observe the macaques engage in natural macaque activities such as eating cheetos from a bag and drinking bottled water. Behaviours they’ve grown into since every passing tourist is inadvertently lulled into feeding the macaques with whatever they have in their backpacks just because they “look so cute holding the plastic bottle between their little paws”.

Yes.. they are cute...

At this point in time, the macaques are probably more comfortable eating a pack of Pringles than they are plucking fruits from a tree. In fact they are so accustomed to eating human food that they will resort to any means necessary to get them.

On the “cute” end of this spectrum, they will sneak up a la Solid Snake and pickpocket anything you might have in your pocket. We’ve heard of a traveller who had to exchange her pack of potato chips for a camera that had been pilfered from her backpack.

On the darker side of things, the macaques have been known to show aggression,  forcibly “robbing” travellers of their plastic bags (apparently the macaques have learnt to associate plastic bags with food). They will claw away at said plastic bags with their shit/mud covered hands until they get the loot. Macaque-attack related injuries are so common here that you’d be able to find first aid stations scattered 100m apart near the macaque territories.

Now, every wuxia fan worth his salt will know that Emei is one of the legendary sects in the ancient pugilist world.

We were at Emei Shan... we couldn't resist.

and again. Wanna know why you couldn't see us clearly? We were moving too fast! Also, it was kinda dark for our exposure

According to legend, the first Emei fight style was derived from watching the movements of these macaques. Looking at the way they move, it’s not hard to see why.

These macaques are the stars of Emei and they know it! They walk around like they own the place. They take whatever they want to eat, shit wherever they like and at any point in time, look like they would whip out their… handphones to call their agents.

Like a boss...

And they do have agents.

Feisty, loud women armed with bamboo sticks and sling shots.

They alternate between feeding the macaques and hitting them when they get too close to  tourists. At the same time, they will claim every monkey that approaches the travellers is a “Monkey King” and the only way to prevent mortal injury from these fearsome monsters is to buy them a pack of special monkey feed priced at 5RMB. And hey, it just so happens that these women are carrying a few packs on them, which they could sell you at the risk of their own life and limbs. As a special incentive, they’ll even provide bamboo protection for you while you take photos of the cute little macaques as they throw their packs of monkey feed into the ravines.

Like a Boss indeed.

Also, I have to say “Kungfu Monkeys” would make an awesome tumblr name.

Mountaineering for Dummies

Ok… fine.. it’s closer to “mountain trekking”, but we’ve just conquered one of the sacred mountains of China: E-mei Mountain (峨眉山).

In fact, we conquered it twice over a space of two days.

It was not easy, mind you. We had to undertake a series of gruelling bus and cable car rides to complete most of this arduous feat.

To be honest, initially, we had every intention of climbing up the mountain on foot. We’ve heard reviews from other travelers that Emei is a relatively easy mountain to climb, and there are numerous monasteries for us to stay in while we are on the mountain. Sure, it’s a two day continuous uphill walk, but almost all of the paths were well paved, and the walkways are plastered with directional signages.

It would take a complete moron to get lost on Mt Emei.

Let’s just say WE didn’t want to take the chance…

Despite our best efforts and the numerous (rather expensive) cable cars/buses that we took, there were still rather long portions of the Emei Shan that we had to transit on foot.

The other travellers were right, though. Even for a sluggard like me, our daily hikes were not that difficult. The fog covered trails of Emei Shan creates a rather ethereal surrounding which makes for very pleasant walks.

Walks that takes us along twinkling streams in the forest

and past Chinese pavilions that would not have been out of place on a Kungfu movie set

Did I mention the fog? It gives the whole place a rather... magical feel

On top of all that, Emei Shan, being a sacred mountain, means that we were constantly surrounded by the holy sight of peddlers hawking their wares. They were selling anything from instant noodles to tea leaves to 1000 year old Ginseng to (if you choose to believe them) THE real Heavenly Sword (倚天剑). Nope, it is not a replica made of bamboo. It is the real thing, it’s just… well disguised, and because we are such good friends, they HAVE to let me know that the vendor next door is the one selling the fake Heavenly Swords.

My point is that trekking through Emei Shan strikes a fine balance (for us). There are parts of the mountain that are positively SWARMED with tourists, but we just need to wander off the trail for a little bit and we could have exclusive access to whole portions of nature. The roads were well paved, and it is kind of comforting (to me) to know that in the unlikely event that we should get lost on the trail, we just need to shout out, and a T shirt seller will likely come to our rescue.

So why did we not do Emei Shan the “right” way?

As they say… a picture speaks a thousand words…

Stairs... so, we meet again...

Oh yeah….

There were the monkeys and their handlers too…

Spot the Gorillas Monkeys in the Mist

But that’s a story for another day…

Your Buddha is a Wonderland

We’re going to Hell in a fast car and we know it.

In our defence, we don’t think it’s (totally) our fault. We blame Le Shan.

Apparently, the residents of Le Shan were correct. When it comes to Le Shan, it’s all about the Giant Buddha.

Some Background: The Le Shan Giant Buddha (乐山大佛) was carved into the western river cliff face of Lingyun Mountain (凌云山) overlooking the confluence of the Min River (岷江), Qingyi River (青衣江) and Dadu River (大渡河).

Cool tip: You can zoom into a rendered 3D model of the Leshan Giant Buddha from Google Map!

Construction of the Giant Buddha was started in 713 by a Chinese monk named Haitong (海通和尚). At that time, ships could not transit freely in the area because of the turbulent nature of the waters where the three rivers meet. The residents of Le Shan were also plagued by floods caused by the high influx of water during the wet seasons. For some reasons, Haitong believed that the waters could be calmed by the construction of the Buddha. In fact, he was supposedly so steadfast in his beliefs that he gouged his eyes out to show his piety and sincerity (?!?). I don’t want to speculate on whether it was intentional or not, but the construction of the Giant Buddha probably resulted in so much stone being removed from the cliff face and deposited into the river below that the waters did calm down.

From what we’ve read in the guide book, the main attraction of Le Shan was just that… a Giant Buddha.

What we did not anticipate was the effect the Giant Buddha had on its surrounding. It acts like a big Buddhist magnet. It induces Buddhist magnetism on the things around it. Buddha-inspired architectures pepper Le Shan, but it is exceptionally concentrated in the vicinity of the Giant Buddha. Granted, some of these buildings were pretty awesome, but a lot of them… not that much. As far as I know, it is the only place in the world with a (I shit you not) Buddha theme park.

At this point in the entry, I have to point out that in order to see the Giant Buddha, you HAVE to climb UP Lingyun mountain. It’s a a relatively long climb (for me), but you’d be forced to stop often because of the throngs of tourists in front of you.

Another point to note is the sides of the path leading up Lingyun Mountain is littered with statues of Gods and Deities.

On the way to the peak, you’ll hear the occasional tour guides bleating that many Chinese consider it bad karma to take photos of the likeness of Buddhas and deities. Some might even consider it a *gasp* sin! Almost without fail, the locals would show their unwavering support for the tour guide by asking him/her to stand aside so that they can have a better shot of the statue behind the tour guide.

We joined in.

You can’t blame them (ok… them AND us).

Some of the statues were really quite gorgeous.

Some of the sculptures were so intricate we just HAD to take photos of them as proof. Who would believe they'd carve the stones on a tiger? Geddit? Stone Tiger?

Believe me… this was one of the milder photos we took on our way to see the Buddha. Don’t judge us! We had a lot of free time waiting for our turn to go up the mountain!

And yes… I do see the irony that we are the least respectful in the one place that is supposed to inspire devout awe.

For the Chinese Grammar Nazis: Yes, there is a word that is written wrongly in the sign. Yes. It is intentional. No. I don't know why Jo was trying to strangle herself with her cardigan

The Four Heavenly Kings - No, not Andy, Jacky, Aaron and Leon

Jo's favourite - this painstakingly sculptured figure of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy

Eventually, we reached the peak of Lingyun Mountain, and there we have it…. another impossible queue to go down the cliff-side steps so that we can get a full length shot of the Giant Buddha.

The legendary Giant Buddha. See ant sized people beside the Buddha to get a sense of scale. See also the insane queue needed to get to the foot of the Buddha.

Most people would’ve been put off by the length of the queue,but not us. We are tourists!

George Romero would be proud...

The long trip down gave us ample opportunities to add to our list of blasphemous infractions... Jo FTW

The Court Mandated photo with the Giant Buddha. Jo was very impressed that Buddha has cuticles. To the people who do not know what a cuticle is (by "people", I mean "men"), it's girl talk for Booger

One of the cool trivias about the Le Shan Giant Buddha is that it sits at the heart of the “Naturally formed Giant Sleeping Buddha”. Apparently the shape of Lingyun Mountain and Wuyou Mountain (乌尤山) beside it resemble a reclined Buddha. This “Sleeping Buddha” is best viewed from the docks of Le Shan.

This is what we saw.

It is an unfortunate position to place a tower.

That’s ALL I am saying.

Yup… I don’t think we are getting off easy if Buddha is the one that comes to claim us in the afterlife…. or Chinese tourism board officials for that matter.

(Not so) Happy Mountain

For a place whose Chinese name literally translates to “Happiness Mountain”, Le Shan (乐山) sure has a bunch of moody residents.

Like all our (mis)adventures, our foray into Le Shan started well enough. Once we stepped off the train, we were approached by a really friendly motor rickshaw driver. The driver enthusiastically offered to bring us around the city and help us look for a place to stay for the night. He was enthusiastic to the point that we were sure he was receiving kickback from some of the hotels. However, since the places he recommended and the prices he quoted seemed reasonable enough, we decided to give him a chance.

The decision to go along with this particular driver was cemented when he (defying all known laws of physics about matter not being able to share the same area in a consistent space/time continuum) managed to squeeze our 2 humongous backpacks and barang barangs into the same motor rickshaw with us.

What we did not realize at that time was that this was the same principal he applies to other traffic on the road as well. By now, we were pretty much accustomed to the traffic conditions in most parts of China.

Bumper to (very literally) bumper traffic? Seen that.
Overtaking motorcycles carrying a family of six (and their pet chickens) by mere millimetres? Pphhhbbbbtttt….
Oncoming bus hurtling towards us at (conservatively estimating) the speed of light? Boring…

My point is, there seems to be only one traffic rule governing the whole of China: DO NOT YIELD TO ANYONE. And after two months in China, we actually became okay with that. Yet, our pansy Singaporean/Malaysian bladders very nearly emptied themselves every time Mr Rickshaw Driver Man turned around and asked us if we can believe the kind of idiots they allow onto the roads these days (all the time squeezing through the narrowest of crevices between cars whilst wildly gesturing at fellow road users).

Despite the threat of impending death, we managed to get a conversation going with Mr Rickshaw Driver Man. We spoke of the places we’d gone to and the attractions around Sichuan, but we would inevitably end most conversational threads with him saying, “I know you wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for the Big Buddha.”

Each time, we laughed it off and tried to be polite, mumbling something along the lines that we are sure there MUST be other things to do in Le Shan.

We didn’t think much about it then, but it was a theme that was going to repeat itself over the three days we spent in Le Shan. Seemingly friendly conversations with the locals of Le Shan would invariably end with them punctuating each sentence with “I know you wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for the Big Buddha”.

We were apologetic at first. We tried to reason with them that there must be other things to do in Le Shan. Then we felt guilty because there really was not much else in Le Shan beside the Big Buddha. After a few (thousand) of these conversations, we became downright irritated.

It’s the Kübler-Ross (non) model of coping with the lack of attractions in a scenic spot.

No wonder the residents of Le Shan are moody.