The reward of tackling wild monkeys, hordes of snap-happy tourists and a 3,099-meter climb up Mount Emei in Sichuan, China.

Shrouded in mist, speckled with antiquated monasteries, and inhabited by bands of brazen macaques, the holy Mount Emei is the quintessential romantic image of ancient China. Two divergent paths of stairs and a smooth highway snake their way to the top, up more than 3,000 meters from sea level. There, Emei Shan promises to reward those who have come with some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – the Sea of Clouds, Buddha’s Halo, Sacred Lamp, and Sunrise. As if these natural wonders are not enough, several magnificent temples and the ethereal statue of the many-headed Samantabhadra Bodhisattva riding the holy elephants preside over the Golden summit.

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Enticed by the promise of such rich rewards – a holy mountain that hosts ancient treasures throughout as well as spectacular natural wonders at the top – we set out for our three-day, 54-kilometer ascent to the summit of Mount Emei.

Now, China has an interesting way of dealing with all things holy, ancient, or anyway special to its cultural and historic heritage: bedazzle, Disney-fy, and pave the way for mass tourism. At its base, Emei Shan is no different. The national park is filled with paved roads and stretches of relatively flat stairs that provide easy access. The first several hours of our hike were filled with wondrous ‘antique’ cement sculptures, serving as a backdrop for swarms of Chinese tourists playing emperor-poet for the day. A bit further in, we hit a very picturesque stream and countless bridges across the rocks as well as signs warning of “joking monkeys.” And then we saw them.

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Dozens of macaques were scurrying up and down trees and chain link bridges, a few fed by tourists in exchange for photo ops. The whole scene was reminiscent of a zoo, except in a non-controlled environment. At one point a group of tourists who had just finished feeding the monkeys and taking pictures with them started to walk away, making their way across a lengthy chain-linked bridge. The monkeys, who clearly were expecting more for their troubles, followed, jumping one by one on each of the members of the group. In one swift motion backpacks were opened, belongings extracted, water and snacks consumed at lightning speed. Struggling was not an option – teeth barred, the “joking monkeys” refused to dismount their victims, biting and scratching those who put up a fight.

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Terrified we seriously started to question whether our journey – filled with fake sculptures, hordes of tourists, and attacking critters – was going to be worth the effort. Thankfully, just around the bend, away from the wild monkeys and agitated tourists, things started to look up – figuratively, and very, very, literally.

Up and Away

The crowds, mostly interested in photo ops and definitely not in trekking, thinned out quickly. More than halfway through the day, and the bridge of terror behind us, we faced a staircase up into the fog. There was no turning back. So up we went, climbing the sturdy cement steps leaving the theme park behind us. The ostentatious man-made intrusion of steps dissipated quickly into the natural beauty of the endless mountain peaks and rich vegetation bathed in fog. Further up the mountain, the carefully constructed steps are actually fused with nature. In places rockslides have eroded the perfect stones and broken down the concrete hand railings. Tiny pagodas and impressive monasteries – erected centuries ago in celebration of Buddhism – provide a perfect breakpoint from the endless climb. Weary travelers can breathe in the heady incense for spiritual strength and take out the thermos to warm up for the next hour on the Stairmaster to heaven.

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And so it goes on, for as long as the physical strength holds or until the sun sets – whichever comes first. We clocked eight hours the first day, coming to a stop at the Hongchungping Temple. Accommodation for those choosing to trek the mountain is beyond basic, but nothing that the brave souls undertaking the climb would blanch at. There is something to be said for sharing damp, cold quarters with the monks who tend to the holy grounds day in and day out. We turned on our electric heat blankets, filled up on hot tea, and drifted off to sleep to the sound of raindrops beating down on the window.

Day two began at dawn with stairs beckoning us onwards in the intense fog and rain. Filled up on delicious pancakes and Nescafe from Hard Wok café, we carried on. And on. Stairway of a hundred bends – impossible to verify the true number of hellish turns, as thoughts of sheer survival and perseverance caused us to lose count. But just as on the first day, day two was filled with jaw dropping scenery – the forests and waterfalls competing with pagodas and temples for the visitors’ attention. Despite the ominous warning on the map of more ‘joking monkey’ areas, we made it through without coming into contact with the brazen critters until the base camp for the Golden Summit. A few times we heard the raucous noises from the forest along the way, yet no danger came our way.

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Another eight-hour day of walking up and down thousands of stairs and we reached the reality check at the last plateau before the coveted mountain peak. The area was filled with bussed-in tourists in ridiculous white high-tops, feeding the insatiable monkeys. Concession stands sold hot dogs and noodle soup, alongside a rental of parkas for the below freezing temperatures at the top. Exhausted and faced with fog so intense that we couldn’t see our outstretched hands, we passed on the sunset at the summit, and hoped for better luck the next day. We had climbed for so long, braved hordes of tourists and monkeys, slept in a room so damp and cold it could have been outside, surely the travel gods would reward us with a beautiful sunrise at the holy top.

Defeat

And so, there we were, up at 4:30am, incredibly sore and freezing cold. We had put on all the layers that we had brought on the hike and began to walk through the rain and hail. Climbing more stairs, we kept our eyes on the prize: the natural wonders at the apex of Mount Emei. As the dawn began to break, the awful truth emerged – there would be no sunrise or any of the natural wonders at the glorious Golden summit. But we pushed on, hoping for a miracle. Alas, it was not to be. We climbed 54 kilometers to reach the top, only to be handed a big fat dud of a view. The fog was so thick that we could not even see the famed Samantabhadra Bodhisattva statue or any of the temples at the Golden Summit. The temperatures were frigid, and we were so tired. Defeated, we turned back and boarded the tourist bus to take us back to the base of the mountain.

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Hours later and finally warmed up in our guesthouse, we reflected on our heavenly asscent up Emei Shan. Sure, we were disappointed in our luck, especially seeing others brandishing photos of the amazing sunrise they managed to capture just the day before. But you know what? Having climbed 54 kilometers of stairs through the fog, rain, tourists and brazen monkeys, our journey turned out to be more than just about the destination. To this day, our three-day trek was the most challenging adventure we have completed, and also the most rewarding. We did not see the wondrous Sea of Clouds or Buddha’s Halo, but we have learned just how far and how hard we can go – which is a much more precious and special gift to us than the one we could take pictures of. The misty beauty that we saw on the way up, not shared with the crowds, is pretty mesmerizing as well.

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IF YOU GO
Mountain Emei is open all year round. From what we hear, predicting a good sunrise and clear views up at the top is near impossible.

Tickets cost Y185 (USD30) or Y90 (USD15) with student ID. Ticket checkers are posted at a few areas throughout the bottom of the mountain, so make sure to hang on to your admission voucher.

Accommodation is available in temples along the two trails and at hotels at the base camp for the Golden Summit. Be prepared to pay top dollar the higher up you go, lack of quality notwithstanding. Also, mind your daylight as temples are spread out throughout the mountain, and there is nothing worse than being stuck in the forest at dusk with wild fauna on your heels.

Vegetarian meals are available at temples for a symbolic fee; otherwise a few meal stands and snack shops are scattered throughout the mountain. Try legendary pancakes at the Hard Wok café right before Hongchungping temple.

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This article is co-written by Jenia Ustinova

Images by Sergey Guryakov and Jenia Ustinova

Bio: Sergey and Jenia set out to see the world and have a bit of fun in August 2013. They quickly realized that travel is not a sprint, but a marathon and are in it for the long haul. They blog about their quest for a sustainable travel lifestyle at www.housetolaos.com.