Thursday, January 01, 2004

January 1 — I spent New Year’s Eve on the 10,055-foot summit of Emei Shan, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. I was certainly the only foreign guest in the monastery at the top of the mountain and I may have been the only guest period; the other people staying here appeared to be monks attached to the nearby temples. There had been some shouting and running through the halls early on the evening of the 31st, but by eight o’clock silent had descended. I dozed off at about ten o’clock but did re-awaken just before midnight to see in the New Year. The drafty, cavernous guest house was as quiet as Lygea’s tomb. Thus began the year 2004.

On December 27 I had taken the three hour bus ride from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, China, to the town of Emei Shan, about five miles from the base of the mountain. The moment I stepped off the bus I was accosted by a young woman representing the Teddy Bear Guest House. “Rooms cheap, no problem,” she kept repeating, as she maneuvered me to a van hovering nearby. Actually it was the same woman who had greeted me here the year before, when I had spent Christmas Eve on the summit of the mountain, but she doesn’t seem to remember me. On the way to the tourist center at the base of the mountain we pass under a large arch emblazoned with huge ideograms reading “The Most Famous Mountain Under Heaven.” Beside the arch is a big billboard helpfully providing a view of the mountain from here on a clear day. Unfortunately there are very few clear days in Sichuan Province in the wintertime. The year before I had spent five days on the mountain I had never once seen more than the twenty or thirty feet of trail in front of my feet. This is one reason why I have returned here again. At the moment I am still out of luck, however; visibility is now a few hundred feet at most.

At the base of the mountain is a long street with immaculately clean sidewalks lined with cheap hotels, restaurants, gift shops, and stores selling dozens of kinds of locally grown tea and even more kinds of medicinal plants picked on the mountain. In the woods behind the street loom more upscale establishments. Just off the main street is the brand new Teddy Bear Guest House. I remember now that this place was under construction when I was here last. The rooms are spacious and very clean, perhaps even antiseptically so ( a rug or two would help), with TV (which I don’t need) and very hot water, but as with almost all of the cheaper hotels in Sichuan no heating. The temperature is fifty degrees F. outside and about the same inside. A room for a night costs forty yuan ($4.81).

Right around the corner is the Teddy Bear Café, where I retire for an early lunch. This is a hangout for foreigners, especially backpacker types. I usually avoid such places, but the owner I know speaks English and I want to find out about conditions on the mountain. The walls here are covered with felt-tip pen written observations by previous visitors, most in English. A quick perusal reveals that not everyone is thrilled by Emei Shan. Biggest complaints are the costs of admittance to the mountain area itself and the separate fees to enter many of the temples, and the immense crowds the mountain draws, at least in the summertime. I had just read a article in a Chinese tourist magazine in which the author claims there were 10,000 people at the summit of the mountain on the summer day he visited there. This may be an exaggeration, but millions do visit each year. Sichuan is China’s most populous province, with over 200 million people, and tourists and pilgrims from all over China visit Emei Shan. The vast majority take the buses which ply the road up the back side of the mountain to within about 2000 feet of the summit, then take a cable car the rest of the way. I intend to take one of the hiking trails up the front of the mountain. Last year it had taken me two and a half days to reach the top and I plan on the same this year, hopefully arriving on the summit on early on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.

The first day, however (December 28), I spent visited the temples at the base of the mountain. About a half mile up the road from the Teddy Bear is the Baoguo Temple, the one place which almost every who comes to the mountain manages to visit. At an elevation of 1770 feet, the temple is surrounded even in late December with lush green, almost sub-tropical vegetation. Directly in front of it is a immaculately manicured garden covering several acres which hosts examples of some of the over 3200 species of plants found in the various climatic zones on the mountain. A sign warns that guns and slingshots are forbidden within the garden.

Emei Shan has been a sacred mountain for several millennia. It was home first to the shamans who practiced in ancient China and by the first centuries of the Christian era hosted temples dedicated to Daoism. Buddhist temples were introduced near the beginning of the fifth century ad, near the end of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 ad – 420 ad) and for centuries coexisted with Daoism. Baoguo was originally an Daoist temple located elsewhere on the mountain. It was relocated here at its present location in the 17th century and dedicated to Buddhism. Kangxi, the famous Qing Emperor, gave the temple its present name of Baoguo Si (Loyalty to the Country Monastery). It’s a Sunday, and hundreds of people are milling around outside, many of the men in suits and women in high heels, posing for photos and buying incense and candles to offer inside the temple.

One of the unusual feature of Baoguo are the door guardians. Most Buddhist temples, at least in China, Tibet, and Mongolia, have four guardians located in an entrance hallway. Associated with the four cardinal directions, they are intended to guard the temple from malevolent influences from any quarter. Here there are only two guardians and they are located in niches just outside the main gate instead of in the entrance way. They are not the traditional door guardians but instead represent ancient gods of the Shu kingdom, dating to about 400 bc. On the right (facing the main entrance) is the Earth god of the Shu Kingdom and on the left the Dragon god. As Martin Palmer points out in his Travels Through Sacred China, “Both are unique and distinctive to this area and represent the older local faith in service to the incomer faith of Buddhism, which on Emei Shan actually pushed off the earlier Daoist temples and monasteries as it took over.”

Like many larger Chinese monasteries Baoguo contains four temples arranged one behind the other up the side of a hill and separated by courtyards. The first temple is dedicated to the Mi Lo Fa, the so-called Happy Buddha. A distinctively Chinese form of Maitreya, the Future Buddha, he is the familiar huge-bellied, jolly old man whose statue can be found in almost any gift shop near a monastery. The second temple is, I believe, also dedicated to the Future Buddha, Maitreya, but in its conventional Buddha form, standing with one hand raised in a preaching gesture. The third temple from the front has an very unusual display of seven big Buddhas in a row, each over ten feet high without the pedestals; three of the past eon (Vipasyin, Sikhin, and Visabhu) and four of the present eon (Sakyamuni, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, and Kasyapa). Buddhas are much more commonly depicted in groups of threes (usually past, present, and future); the only other example of seven together like this is in the Fenguo Temple, in Liaoling Province. In the back of the Seven Buddhas Temple, and facing in the opposite direction, is larger than life-size statue of Kuan Yin, the female emanation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, shown here holding two of her regular props, a vase and a willow branch. Kuan Yin is one of my current fixations. I have brought a book of her prophecies to read while on the mountains and will have more to say about her in later entries.

The last and highest of the temples is the so-called Pu Xian Hall, dedicated to the bodhisattva Samantanbhadra (called in Chinese Pu Xian). According to legend, during the early years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 ad–220 ad) a man named Pu Gong was on Emei Shan gathering medicinal herbs when he had a vision of Samantabadra preaching on the summit of the mountain. This legend continued to grow and eventually in the fifth century the first Buddhist temple on Emei Shan (today’s Wannian Temple) was dedicated to Samantabadra. Eventually the entire mountain became dedicated to him, and to this day in almost every temple he is depicted somewhere. The huge statute of him here in this temple he shows him is shown in his traditional pose, seated on a slightly smaller-than-life-sized elephant, with the right hand upraised in a preaching gesture. This is the most popular temple at Baoguo and many people, especially the elderly, come here to make prostrations and circumambulate the statue.

After completing my own orisons in the Samantabadra temple I spent a leisurely hour or two strolling in the botanical garden and then retired to the tea shops, where the charming young women clerks, not overly taxed by customers these winter days, were more than pleased to prepare sample cups of tea from the dozens of varieties available. I bought four different kinds of green tea to drink during my sojourn on the mountain.

The next morning right at sunrise (by coincidence 8:00 sharp) I left the Teddy Bear and after two steamed buns and a large bowl of rice gruel at a street side stand (two yuan = twenty-four cents) headed up the road to the entrance to the mountain. Visibility is at most a hundred feet and soon a light drizzle commences. I had visions of a replay of the year before when I spent two and half days walking to the summit of the mountain in rain and fog. About a mile and a half from Baoguo the trail up the mountain cuts off the paved road. Here is the police checkpoint where you pay the entrance fee to the mountain. Last year the price was 70 yuan ($8.43); now the charge has been raised to 110 yuan ($13.25). This fee, which applies to both Chinese and foreigners alike, is not cheap for entry to what in the United States would be considered a state or national park, and it is this tariff which most raises the ire of the foreign budget travelers who air their beefs on the wall at the Teddy Bear Café. How the Chinese themselves feel about this is unclear, but the price does not appear to have cut down the size of the summertime crowds. And not only has the price been raised, but this year a new twist has been added. After paying the entrance fee you step to the left and stand on a yellow line while a instant camera takes your photo. A machine then spits out your ticket with your mug shot on it. This is the first time I have ever seen this innovation anywhere in the world. My photo in the data base of the local authorities I start up the mountain.

From Baoguo Si at 1770 feet to the so-called Golden Summit at the top of Emei Shan at 10,055 is a stiff vertical ascent of 8285 feet. According to the tourist map sold by trailside vendors the actual walking distance by the way I am going—there are several alternatives—is 28.2 miles. The entire trail is either paved with flagstones or consists of stone staircases. There are reportedly over 40,000 steps on the way to the summit. This is another gripe of foreigners who are expecting some kind of wilderness experience but instead find themselves walking on the equivalent of a city sidewalk, albeit one in an extremely hilly city. There are even handrails on many of the staircases and protective guardrails at many of the scenic overlooks, where a misstep could easily lead to a plunge of a thousand feet or more. And wandering off the trail is pretty much impossible, given the precipitous slopes, if not cliffs, on either side and the jungle-like vegetation.

In wintertime, however, the trail is nearly deserted. My only co-walkers are small groups of very elderly women, some of whom appear to be in their eighties, who are making pilgrimages to the temples on the lower mountain. Some are bent over almost at a right angle from age, but they keep up a lively chatter with their companions, and their voices ring loudly in the mountain air damped by a light drizzle.

There were once more than 100 temples on the mountain but the ravages of war, age, and most significantly the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s have taken their toll, and today only twenty-six remain. Between the entrance point and the summit there are ten on the route I am taking and I intend to stop at all of them. First are the Leiding Temple, just a half hour or so past the entry gate at 2244 feet, and then the Chunyang Temple at 3020 feet. Both are now empty and I can concentrate on making prostrations in each of the chapels. Then the trail drop down to the Shenshui Monastery, where I have a mid-morning meal. An old woman at the trailside snack shop serves me a bowl of noodles with scrambled eggs and then fusses over me, pouring cup after cup of tea, insisting I help myself to a bowl of peanuts, all the while chattering away in Chinese, of which I of course do not understand a single word.

After Shenshui the fog begins to clear and rounding the corners of the trail I am confronted with immense tree-clad crags looming up into the clouds, giving me just a hint of the immensity of the mountain in front of me. As mentioned, on my previous visit here I had seen nothing but the trial in front of my feet, but these scenes seem familiar. I have seen them before on hundreds of different painted scrolls in museums and gift shops. These are the landscapes which have inspired Chinese artists for millennia.

Soon I reach the Qingyin Pavilion, a temple built on a dramatic point of land between where the White Dragon River and the Black Dragon River come together. There are many day-trippers here, since buses can reach a small settlement about a mile below, and a good trail leads up to the temple. From here the trail winds up through the bottom of the gorge of one of the Dragon rivers (I couldn’t determine which one) through the so-called Monkey Zone. This is one of the favorite haunts of Emei Shan’s notorious “Laughing Monkeys.” I encountered them the last time I was here and have heard many stories about them. At first they appear friendly, begging for food, but have no compunction against grabbing peoples‘ handbags, backpacks, or anything else they think might contain a snack. If you attempt to protect your possessions they get downright surly if not violent. They became particular incensed by attempts to pet them, something which teen-age girls for some reason are prone to attempt. Stories abound about people terrorized by these monkeys and forced to flee running back to Qingyin Pavilion. This year I did not see a single monkey here.

Beyond the monkey zone a long, steep set of staircases leads to Hongchunping Monastery. Here I intend to spend the night. Just before the monastery, however, is a trail-side snack shop which has a sign in English reading “The Hard Wok Café” I had not intended to stop but the woman who runs the place comes out onto the trail and beckons me in. I motion that I am on my way to the monastery. “Just coffee!” she insists in English. This was a siren call I could not resist, though it turned out to be only nescafe. The woman, in her fifties, round-faced, and amply proportioned, acts as if seeing me is the biggest event of her day, if not the month. She is positively overflowing with good cheer and seems vastly amused at anything I have to say. She knows a few more words of English and makes me promise that after checking into the monastery I will return here for dinner.

Hongchunping (Ages Old Trees Monastery), sits on the edge of a narrow ridge, surrounded by the huge, smooth-barked trees which give the place its name. By now the fog has lifted a bit more and directly behind the monastery massive cliffs soar into the cloud banks. The monk who handles the accommodations, a plumb, round-faced man in his twenties, is taking an afternoon nap when I arrive and after being rousted it takes him fifteen minutes to compose himself, then another fifteen to fiddle around with the registration forms, receipts, key deposit, and change. This done, he puts on headphones from a CD, leans back in his chair, and closes his eyes. He hasn’t given me a key and I am not sure what to do but I am not about to interrupt his revelry. After five minutes a young woman appears with the key and a thermos of hot water and leads me to my room. This is one the second floor, opening onto a balcony that runs the whole way around the central courtyard. It appears that I am the only guest.

I had just settled back with a cup of green tea when the monks when their afternoon chanting. This began with several tolls of a deep-voiced bell following by chimes and rapid drumming. The chanting itself, punctuated by more bells and chimes, lasted for about an hour. I was tempted to view the ceremony from the balcony but it was more pleasant to sit in my room with my eyes closed, just letting my mind follow the rhythm of the chant. At five o’clock the service ended and I went downstairs. A monk motioned me to come and eat with them but I signaled that I was going to the trailside cafe just below the monastery.

The woman was as bubbly as before. She chattered away while fixing me fried eggplant and then sat at my table and watched me intently as I ate it. Dinner done, she followed me fifty feet up the trail all the while chanting in English, “Bye-bye, come back soon, bye-bye, come back soon.” At seven o’clock began five minutes of rapid drumming followed by a single monk half-singing, half chanting in a low voice for half an hour. Then complete silence descended on the monastery until six o’clock the next morning when the lone monk again did his solitary sing-song chant for half an hour.

At daybreak I was back on the trail. The fog had cleared overnight and rounding the first corner from the monastery I was suddenly confronted by the entire main massif of Emei Shan rising up more than 7000 feet directly in front of me. The view from summit of Emei Shan is one of the most photographed sights in China, but for some reason in all the innumerable magazines articles, books, and tourist brochures about the mountain I had never seen a clear, unobstructed view of the massif from below. Now here it was, immense cliff faces and protruding crags with the temple just visible on Jinding, the Golden Summit.

All day I followed the trail as it wound its way up the side of the mountain. Even the pilgrims had thinned out by now, and I appeared to be the only person making the ascent via this route. By noon it clear noticeably cooler and by three o’clock I had reached the snowline at about 6,200 feet. An hour later I arrived at Xixiangchi Monastery (6771 feet) where I planned to spend the night. In the reception room a dozen or so monks sat huddled around a warming bucket of charcoal as they watched a kung fu movie on television. A young woman signed me in and lead me to my room. I had just settled back with a cup of tea, anticipating meditative evening, when the monastery was overrun by what sounded like a pack of yelling, shrieking banshees. Actually it was a group of college students on a overnight excursion—the bane of all solitary travelers. I learned later that there were fifty-three of them, plus six instructor-chaperones, and that they were students from the ecology department of an institute in Chengdu. They had descended to Xixiangchi from Leidongping, a small cluster of hotels and gift shops where the road up the back side of the mountain ends. The floorboards in the hall creak loudly with even the light step of a single person and soon some fifty kids are tearing up and down, slamming doors and raucously shouting and laughing. In the background I eventually hear the monks begin their afternoon chants but I didn’t have the gumption to leave my room and thread my way through the throng to the main temple. Instead I settle back with Martin Palmer’s Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion. Finally I use the divination technique described in the book and come up with Prediction 14, “In the Clear”:

Like the beautiful undying crane that breaks free

You can slip the bars of your cage and journey on through—

North, South, East and West nothing is obstructing you—

The chün, the wise one, can rise to the highest Ninth Heaven.

The next morning I wait until the banshees have left before proceeding upward. At the first snack shop beyond the monastery I have rice and scrambled eggs and buy some cheap (10 yuan) ice creepers for my shoes. From here the trail rises just over 1200 feet in a series of precipitously steep staircases to Leidongping at 7980 feet, each step glazed with compacted snow and ice. Soon here’s at least five inches on the ground and all the vegetation is coated with a clear sheath of ice. Halfway up at a snack stall on a landing between the staircases a man in his fifties and his wife beckon me in for tea. This turns out to be basically hot water garnished with a few sad looking tea sprigs. I take out my tea selection and shake some leaves into the cup. The dried tea quickly unfurl to reveal tiny bright green leaves obviously picked when they were very young. The man picks up my glass and stares at the leaves, frowning. He shakes his head and grimaces while he rubs his stomach. His wife does a similar pantomime, all intended, I presume, to indicate they are not impressed by my selection of tea. Indeed, it is very bitter, but I had attributed this to vaguely medicinal properties.

Having critiqued my tea, he asks in English, “Country?”

“USA,” I say

Nowadays in many places this is an automatic conversation stopper, but he merely nods, takes out some palm-sized tobacco leaves, rolls up a thick cheroot, and offers it to me. It not my habit to turn down gifts offered in good faith, but a smoke like this would have certainly sent my head reeling, not a good condition on the perilous staircases, so I refused as politely as possible. His wife laughs good-naturedly, apparently agreeing with my decision.

An hour later I emerge at the large parking lot at Leidongping. It’s a bit disconcerting after walking for two and half days to get here suddenly to be confronted by hundreds of people, many of the men in suits and loafers and the woman in skirts and stylish fur coats and ski jackets, who have arrived here after a couple of hour’s bus ride from Baoguo. From here it’s just over under a mile walk to Jieyin Palace, where the cable car to the summit starts. Almost the whole route is lined by stalls selling tea, medicinal herbs, stone jewelry, and Buddhist knickknacks. Presumably the buses stop short of the cable car station itself just so visitors will have to negotiate their way past all these attempts to separate them from their money.

At the cable car base I am sorely tempted to ride the last 1812 vertical feet to the summit, especially since a near total whiteout has set in, limiting visibility to twenty or thirty feet at most, but finally I decide to keep to my plan and walk the whole way. Again I am alone. Apparently no one else wants to negotiate the ice-slicked staircases. And it has suddenly gotten much colder. Up until now I had been walking in cashmere pullover and a windbreaker vest, but soon I have to pull out my winter jacket and gloves. I was anticipating a replay of last year, with the summit enshrouded in pea soup fog, when suddenly at 9460 feet I emerged from the clouds. Above was the summit outlined against an unmarred dome of mazarine sky.

Twenty minutes later I reached the large paved courtyard at the Jinding (Golden) Summit. Below a solid cloud bank extended to all horizons, pierced by the tops of the Emei Shan massif itself and in the far distance off to the west by numerous snow-capped peaks, most notably 23,750-foot Gongga Shan, which stuck out like icebergs in a frozen sea. This is the classic “Sea of Clouds” view which many of the hundreds of visitors here have come to see.

After taking a room at the monastery (40 yuan = $4.81) just off the courtyard I proceed to the temple at the very top of the Jinding Summit. To access this final point you have to shell out an additional ten yuan. It’s just this nickel and diming that hacks off so many foreign tourists. The Chinese, inured to this sort of thing, shell out their yuan without complaint. Paying for something automatically makes it more precious. The top chapel is itself nothing remarkable. Most people come here to make incense offerings in the small courtyard in front, and this vantage points provides an excellent view of the Emei Shan massif. Actually Jinding is not the highest point of the mountain. Off the south, a little more than half a mile away, is the Qianfo Summit, and another half mile farther is the true summit, Wanfo, the Ten Thousand Buddhas Summit, at 10,099 feet, forty-four feet high than Jinding. According old guide books you could once walk to Wanfo, but in 1998 a new temple was constructed on the top—the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas—and a monorail train was built to travel from the cluster of hotels just below Jinding 1.2 miles to the true summit. To encourage people to take this train walking to Wanfo is now apparently banned. The toll for the train, I discovered, is 50 yuan, which seemed a bit excessive, so I decided to forgo the actual summit of the mountain.

From the courtyard at the top of Jinding staircases lead down to the main temple, this one quite well appointed with portraits, not statues, of the Eighteen Arhats and array of fifty nearly life-size Buddhas on the back wall. While I am circumambulating the altar with the three main Buddhas statues grey robed monks start filing in and soon the afternoon chanting begins. I remember quite an elaborate ceremony lasting over an hour from the year before but now after fifteen minutes the monks quickly disperse. For one thing, it’s a lot colder this year.

After dinner in the dining room of one of the more up-scale hotels down the hill from Jinding (a policeman having dinner there by himself insists I drink a shot of some clear-colored rotgut with him) I retire to my room at the monastery. This is tiny and austere, with a single short lumpy bed, a nightstand, and a thermos of hot water. The winds whistles through cracks in the window frames and of course there is not heat. There’s some shouting and running through the halls but all is quiet by eight. It’s New Year’s Eve and the New Year begins very quietly indeed.

At six the next morning the temperature is 23º F. in my room and 18º F. outside. A small eddy of snow has piled up on the floor under my window. Bundled up in my winter jacket I sit on my bed and consult Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion. I get Prediction 49, “Wisdom”:

Heaven below zero, the earth freezing, water congealing

[certainly appropriate!]

So what is the point of being famous and well-known?

It’s best to wait and see beyond all of this—

Until the real time comes, and your eye can see clearly.

Sunrise is at exactly 8:01. At 7:50 I ventured out into the big courtyard only to discover a hundred or more people already waiting for the sunrise A few at apparently stayed at the hotels just below the summit—I appeared to be the only quest at the monastery—but most had come up on the cable car from Leidongping. Buses leave Baoguo at four in the morning for the cable car base to accommodate people who want to see the sunrise on the mountain. Many are wearing bulky overcoats rented from a store connected with the monastery. There’s a fierce wind blowing and it seems much, much colder than 18º F. Fiddling with my pen and notes my hands are frozen numb almost immediately.

This morning the cloud bank has disappeared completely, allowing an unobstructed view some 8000 feet down to the base of the mountains. The cliffs just below the east side of Jinding drop straight off for at least 2000 feet to a jumble of crags and ridges. To the shouts and cheers of some rambunctious teenagers the sun finally appears for the first time this year (according to the Gregorian calendar, at least), but no sooner clears the horizon before it disappears into a bank of nacreous clouds. I have greeted the New Year in Emei Shan and now there seems no other reason to stay.

I had never taken cable car before so as a treat I ride down to the lower station, a trip of five and a half minutes. I intend to descend by a different route, ending my walk at the mountain’s most famous temple, Wannian, and hopefully catching a bus back to Baoguo in the evening, so I waste no time hurrying through the tourist snares before Leidongping and am soon picking my way down the treacherous staircases to Xixiangchi. The man who had offered me a cheroot greets me as I pass his snack stall with a big toothy grin and a thumbs up, apparently impressed that I have decided to walk back down the mountain instead of taking the bus. Just below Xixiangchi I am having lunch at a snack stall when a couple of families of Tibetans appear from below. The adults have elaborate strings of prayer beads around their necks and one of them notices the yak bone prayer beads on my wrist. “Lhasa?” he asks. Indeed, I had bought them in Lhasa three years before. My offer to trade to my cheap prayer beads for the man’s, strung with chunks of real coral and intricate silver ornaments, elicits loud guffaws from the group. The man then points to a cloth covering bag I am carrying. “Lhasa?” he asks again. Indeed, I had bought it in Barkhor Square in Lhasa, just eight days before, on Christmas day. The man’s young son, who speaks a few words of English, relates that the families are from Lhasa, in China for a holiday and on a pilgrimage to Emei Shan. When I leave they all shout “Tashi Delek,” Tibetan for both hello and goodbye.

Just below Xixiangchi, at the Juiling Hillock (elevation: 6062 feet), I leave the route I had followed up and take the cutoff to Wannian Monastery. The trail drops precipitously 2790 feet, the staircases broken only by terraces at the Chudian and Xixin temples. The steps here below the snowline are bare, however, and I make good time to Wannian, but arrive completely bushed, my knees and calves throbbing from the relentless downhill pound.

From a parking lot a thousand or so feet below, linked by road with Baoguo, cable cars ascend to Wannian and most visitors arrive here at the mountains oldest and most famous attraction this way. We’re back in the near sub-tropical zone, with huge fronds of greenage lining the path, and I am drenched in sweat after climbing the long, wide staircase to the monastery entrance. Inside the spacious grounds, well-appointed with attractive gardens, I head straight for the Ten Thousand Year Temple. This unusual structure sits on the site of Emei Shan’s first Buddhist temple, the Pu Xian, or Samantabadhra Temple, built during the reign of Emperor Long'an of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (397-401). Buddhism may have reached its fullest expression on the mountain some five hundred years later, during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and it was then, in 980, the fifth year of the Taiping Xingguo reign of the Northern Song, that the emperor sent artisans to cast a twenty-four foot-high, sixty-two ton bronze statue of Samantabadhra seated on the back of a six-tusked elephant. Sometime during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) Ten Thousand Year Temple was built to house this statue. This structure, seven-five feet square with a round dome roof, is made entirely bricks without a single wooden beam. Based in Indian designs, it is radically different from any other temple on Emei Shan and may be unique in China.

It is this temple, now painted bright yellow, and the huge statue within that now attracts the most pilgrims on Emei Shan. In addition to the Chinese, there are several families of Tibetans making prostrations in front of the statute; at least two guided groups of Indians, many of the women in traditional saris; a tour group of Germans; a British couple with a couple of unruly brats; and others of indeterminate nationality but clearly not Chinese.

I would have liked to linger here and soaked up the atmosphere of this remarkable temple, but in truth my rapid descent from the mountain had thoroughly discombobulated me. My shins ached and my dogs were barking. I took the cable car down to the parking lot and caught the bus back to Baoguo, and by seven I was relaxing in the Teddy Bear Café over a big plate of hot and spicy bean curd. I retired early to the Teddy Bear Guest House and there ended the first day of the year 2004.