Sunday, June 8, 2008

Killing Sacred Cows

What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! What hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone- we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imagination; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we began quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers. (Pride and Prejudice, 106)

I spent Thursday killing my calves. In the course of the day, quite a few myths about one of China’s most sacred mountains were also laid to rest. More than anything, however, it was a day of the incredulous, a day of wonder. So please read on, and together we can try to make sense of a level of sublime ridiculousness unusual even by my traveling standards.

Before doing so, a quick note about the lead-in quote and the source, Pride and Prejudice. Those nearest and dearest to me have praised the book to no end. As gifted a writer as the book demonstrates Austen to be—as the above quote validates— I find all the character’s save for Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner to be insufferable (and esp. in Darcy’s case, boring as anything. Yes Eliza is a great character but as the protagonist, that at least I expected). That the plot is beside the point is, of course, beside the point. But if this is Austen’s idea of romance, count me firmly in the camp where emoting counts for something.

Meanwhile, back to mountain climbing…

No one but the clouds and the treetops were my witness as I stood at the highest point atop Emei Shan and shouted Am Yisrael Chai, Ode Aveenu Chai. I had arrived at one of China’s most famous mountains (shan) at midday, determined to make my way to the peak and descend in time to catch the return bus to Chengdu on Friday morning. At 3099 m (10,167 ft) and with over 30 km (20 miles) of concrete steps from top to bottom, Emei Shan is not quite cut out for a one day campaign. So I cheated, taking a shuttle bus to 7,972 ft, placing me only some four miles from the summit.

The path up the summit was steep as anything. But the challenge to yours truly was nothing compared to that faced by the porters who composed much of the fellow foot traffic en route to the summit. They were hard at work schlepping dry cement to the many temples scattered up the side of the mountain. During the Cultural Revolution these temples, like most traditional cultural sites in China, were put to the torch. Today Emei Shan is one of China’s most popular tourist destinations and so frantic reconstructions efforts are (literally) afoot. I watched as the porters’ loads were weighed to determine the wage earned for carrying the sacks of dry cement up the mountain. At first I walked alongside the porters, although their backs were bent so low under the weight that it appeared I was walking several steps ahead of them. Eventually I did rush ahead, reasoning that my own relatively carefree ascent could do nothing but add to the misery of the porters’ taxing climb. When an hour passed and my own speedy ascent had slowed to a pace resembling the porters’ slow trudge, I turned to a surefire means of revving me up for the final mile: music. Tuned into the same songs that accompany me on my runs, I was immediately rejuvenated and in no time reached the summit.

I expected the summit to take my breath away. What I did not expect is that atop one of China’s most popular tourist and pilgrim destinations, I would be the only one there. With the earthquake having scared away regional tourism, the construction workers and the odd domestic tourist were the only signs of life atop the mount. I quickly took in the requisite sites on the aptly named Golden Summit: the massive gold statue of a four-sided Buddha sitting atop four elephants playing some sort of guitar, and the Sheshen Cliffs that plummet 10,095 ft to the trees below. While staring into the clouds resting on (not above!) the summit, a red roofed temple suddenly came briefly into sight. Although no path was evident amidst the clouds, I immediately know I had to—and somehow would—find a way to the distant temple.

After mucking around in the bushes—and chancing upon a basketball court in the shadows of the golden Buddha—I spotted a sign that said: This Way to the Monorail. I had previously spied a thin metal strip edging its way through the woods to the temple lost amidst the clouds and so reason quickly merged with experience to prove that the monorail was the sole route to the distant temple. Unfortunately the monorail was closed due to the absence of visitors. Luck was on my side, however, as the electric grid powering the monorail had been turned off. When the construction workers were looking the other way, I hopped over a fence and, at first slowly and eventually with greater confidence, carefully walked along the eight inch plank into the forest.

I have never been particularly skilled at balancing and my fear of roller-coasters does not say much about my taste for great heights. Nevertheless I must have a talent for making the most of the circumstances because, despite the height of the slim rail, I soon mastered the art of walking in a very straight line. The trick was to move along without hesitating, as the few times I stopped to bask in the feeling of walking atop the treetops, my vision wavered and the reality of what I was doing quickly set in. After a mile’s distance, the rail ended at a small station, I hopped off, and it was only a brisk ten minute climb to what turned out to be Wanfo Peak, crowned by the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple.

My surprise at being nearly by myself at the Golden Summit was nothing compared to the disbelief of finding myself completely alone atop Wanfo Peak. Within the small temple, the clouds whisked by under foot and a few treetops were the only disruption to the blanket-like embrace with which the clouds surrounded the peak. Alone amidst the clouds, with no one to respond to my cries in Hebrew, English and Chinese, the world seemed to have come to a rest. I was too exhilarated to be scared, too overcome by wonder to understand how fortunate I was to have stumbled into such a slice of heaven. It was tough to make my way down and slide back along the monorail to civilization. But after reminding myself of Nachman’s simple words kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar m’ode, v’haikar lo li’haphed clal I parted ways with a site that next to Namtso’s blue hues is unparalleled in my China experience.

The Jewish holiday of Shavout is drawing close, and so the remainder of this story—of monkeys, and mad chases, and calve killing descents and eerie wanderings along a nighttime creek—will have to await the future.

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