Spicy food, early mornings, and Buddhist mountains don't mix.
My first stop after leaving the comforts of my roommate's Chengdu apartment was meeting up with my travelling buddy at the main bus stop in town. He and I tower above the rest of the patrons there- two huge white dudes laughing and chatting in a crowded building. I use my rudimentary Mandarin to get us tickets to Leshan, just south of Chengdu. Once there, we instantly get flocked by guys with taxis. My buddy makes an executive call- we're not going to take a taxi. We're going to take motorcycles. So I negotiate with the gentlemen by their bikes, and soon enough, we're careening through Leshan. Our large frames dwarf the drivers, and with every turn our bikes threaten to tip and throw us all into the gutter, but somehow we make it to our destination.
Leshan is famous for just about one thing and one thing only: the Great Buddha. Unlike Hong Kong's modern, metal Giant Buddha on Lantau Island, Leshan boasts and incredibly old and impressive statue of Buddha, carved in a seated position into the side of a river cliff. It's hard to describe, and was almost harder to fathom once I was standing in front of it. The idea that people could craft something of such size and beauty is beyond me. Regardless, Leshan was hot as hell and we didn't linger at the feet of the Buddha.
After a strange and tiring negotiation to take a private car to our next stop, we arrived at the base of Emei Shan, or Mt. Emei. Mt. Emei is one of the four holy mountains in Chinese Buddhism, and it lives up to expectations. After a few hour bus ride, we were 2500 meters in the air, surrounded by lush, misty forest. Due to time limits, we decided to keep our hiking to a minimum. From our bus stop, we hiked a few hours, till the sun set and we couldn't see three feet in front of us. Luckily, around that time we happened upon a restaurant and hotel, attached to someone's house. We hung out with some Chinese travelers who were very obliging with their speaking speed, and shared a meal of spicy pork skin and soup with them. Finally, we drifted off to sleep in certifiably damp beds.
We were up at 5am, shivering cold from sleeping all night in our icy bungalow. I had a crippling stomach ache, the effect, I was learning, of eating nuclear hot food before bed. This was a mistake that I would make time and time again. We gathered our belongings and hiked the remaining 45 minutes or so to the Golden Summit, one of three peaks on Mt. Emei. The trail was packed with other pilgrims, mostly impressively advanced in age and, apparently, stamina. I've never seen old folks carry on the way they were, and I guarantee I will not look as good as they did when I'm that age.
At the top was one of the most beautiful temples I have ever seen, highlighted by an enormous, multi-faced golden Buddha. We waited patiently along with the hundred or so other tourists for the sun to rise, and when it inevitably did, we were not disappointed. As the sky went from grey to azure blue, and the sun rose slowly over Mt. Emei, it was easy to see why it was such a destination. I don't know that I've ever seen an area so magnificently beautiful. And all the while I was trying not to vomit and pass out. It's hard to fully appreciate the relationship between the earth and the heavens when your stomach is trying to expel peppers as fast as it possibly can. Somehow, I persevered. Didn't vomit. I'm a legend.
We hiked and bused back down to the base, where we parted ways. My companion set off towards Beijing, and I was heading towards Tibet. The next few days were some of the longest and strangest of my life.