Monday, June 16, 2008

Salvaged Goods

The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep. Robert Frost

There were only four hours of daylight remaining in the day when I arrived back at the bus station four miles from the summit of Emei Shan. On the walls of the guesthouse at the foot of the mountain, former guests from across the world had scrawled messages claiming the descent took anywhere from six to sixteen hours. Despite the fact that the lone six-hour boast was nearly covered with a message insisting that anything less than ten hours was far fetched, I let the final bus depart for the base of the mountain and set off by foot. Part of me reasoned that in four hours, at a very fast clip, I could reach a point where the final descent could be completed without the aid of the sun. Part of me replied that if such was my reasoning, I should have at least made sure to bring the flashlight I did not have. But the rest of me concluded that the sites along the descent were too good to miss, and anyway, the challenge of surpassing even the far fetched claim of a six hour descent was too tempting to avoid.

Thirty minutes later I had dropped 1540 feet, nearly that many stairs and the first three and a half miles of my descent were behind me. The only way to appreciate how quickly that meant I was moving, however, is to understand why the first leg passed at such a blistering pace. Fifteen minutes into my descent, a young man in a faded black suit ripped past me, hurtling down the steep as anything stairs with hardly a care for his personal safety. I had no idea where to or why he was running. But the only way to find out was to follow him. So I took off. For the next two miles we nearly flew, barely pausing around hairpin turns and often doing nothing more than simply tumbling down the endless stairs. When we finally arrived at Elephant Bathing Pool— the next stop along the route— the Bond movie baddie turned to me, and with a pause to grab his side and gasp for breath, asked why I was running after him. I replied by posing the same question. His answer? “My friend is here, I had to tell him something.” I told him I had the same need, though running was my means of communicating my message, and he—rather than his friend—was the person I was speaking to. From the bemused look I received in response, the guy might not have quite appreciated what I was saying. But he surely knew that one day when downhill running becomes the competitive sport it ought to be, the two of us could justly take our place as pioneers down the slopes of Emei Shan.

The best way to imagine how I spent the next two hours is to picture yourself descending the emergency stairwell in the Empire State Building—or the CN Tower for the Canadians oot there. Except instead of tackling 1,250 ft or 1,815 ft of stairs, you have a whopping 6,791 feet of brutally short, very very steep, concrete steps laid out before you. To complete the picture, imagine the stairwell has been painted with a majestic tableau of mountainous jungles taken straight from a Chinese oil painting. And remember, of course, that as you descend the light in the stairwell is slowly fading.

All that would be a close approximation of my thrilling descent except that it ignores Emei Shan’s most famous inhabitants: the monkeys. Despite laying claim to China’s oldest Buddhist temple and a sunrise that is rumored to best even that of St. Kats (Sinai, wup wup!), the mountain is far and away identified with the scheming macaques that populate the slopes. The monkeys have little fear of humans and most visitors can expect a hairy arm to make a grab at their backpack or camera. Visitors are advised to avoid provoking the hairy fiends, travel in large groups and not make any sudden movements.

None of these tips were particularly helpful for yours truly.

I was somewhere in between Elephant Bathing Pool and Magic Peak Monastery (Xianfeng Si) when a sharp turn brought me into a small crowd of monkeys. A large female was parked right in the middle of the stairs. As I approached she showed her teeth, flexed her claws and made me question whether doubling back up the stairs might not be the wiser course of actions. Unfortunately I had done my homework and knew all too well that as of 1997, scientists had confirmed that all macaques are carriers of the deadly Herpes B-virus. The smallest peck and I could receive the most unfortunate honor of joining the exclusive list of twenty reported cases of the B-virus, only four of whom survived. I like to think I am comfortable around members of the fairer sex, however, so with my camera clutched to my side I tried to slip past the harry baboon as unobtrusively as possible. My plan was to avoid eye contact, not make any sudden moves and as necessary, do something with the puny six inch twig I had lamely grabbed for protection when King Kong little sister appeared.

I was lucky I had the twig—all six inches of it. As my right foot passed by her outstretched leg, the large female monkey raised herself to her full height and brought her face within a few inches of my own. For a second I froze—and then she opened her mouth and I decided one look at her very sharp teeth was as close as I wanted to get to them. I could not move suddenly or the monkey might have reacted. So I gave her the twig. The distraction worked. In the second it took for her to sniff the thin piece of wood and casually snap it in two (much stronger then they appear, promise ya that!), I was past. While the rest of the pack gave me no further problems, I decided I had had enough of going mano el mano with the lonely ladies of Emei Shan. When a construction worker came into view at the next rest stop, I asked him how to protect oneself from the monkeys. His answer was to the point: he took the stick he was holding and smashed it against the closest tree trunk. Despite my misgivings of provoking a group of macaques and thereby inspiring a sequel to Congo, the all too forgettable man. vs. monkey film that ran away with worst film of the year awards in 1995, I carried a hefty branch with me the rest of the way down the mountain.

Before you get the impression that the monkeys of Emei Shan are all about sharp teeth and misplaced sexuality, let me share the story of the very first monkey I ran into on the mountain. On my way up to the summit I came across a fearsome sight: a woman selling fruit was faced off with a hungry macaque. One was behaving as you might expect: shrieking, yelling, and waving its arms like a windmill. The other combatant was seemingly blasé, leaning against the banister and watching its opponent in wonder. The hysterical one was, of course, the saleswoman, while the cool customer was the large, male monkey. After screaming failed to chase the monkey away, the saleswoman went at her opponent with a slingshot. Before her aim finally forced the monkey to hop off into the trees, a passing Chinese tourist gallantly threw a bottle of milk to the animal. In one smooth motion, the monkey caught the bottle, whipped off the cap, chugged the contents and then even wiped its brow before tossing the bottle aside and scampering away from the incoming rain of slingshot projectiles.

The sun went down shortly after eight o’clock. I had nearly reached my target, Qingyin Pavilion. At 2,329 ft the site was only a short distance to an exit from the mountain and my ticket to making it back to my guesthouse for the night. Unfortunately, as the night sky closed around me, I was lost amidst the valley of the monkeys. No such name exists on any map but the final mile to Qingyin is awash in carved statues of monkeys. Clambering over rope bridges, unable to see clearly in the gloom, the valley took on a spectral reality.

And that is when things got really strange. As I followed the path alongside a stream, a tall, thin man came into view. He was bent over in the midst of the creek, seemingly selecting river worn pebbles from the hundreds of specimens lying beside him. Acknowledging my presence was the best course of action. No sooner had I done so than he waved me over. In a voice that bounced off the water and around the trees and stones, the elderly man listened to my destination and then instructed me to follow the creak rather than stay along the path. I did not follow his advice without misgivings: it was now very dark, the creek was both very wet and cold, and the only thing keeping my confidence level as high as it was may have been the easy to follow pathway I had stayed on all the way from the peak of the mountain. Of course I did follow his advice. Or at least I tried to. The water was up to my ankles when I shouted back to the man that walking through a river was not my idea of a sound shortcut (if you must know, I was thinking of all those family members I lost fording the rivers in Oregon Trail). He replied by giving up his search for the perfect pebble and accompanying me through the waterway. With him as my guide, the otherwise hidden stone pathway in the midst of the water would have been impossible to find. When we met back up with the path later on, I tried to thank my guide. But without saying a word, he quickly turned back the way we had come, returning to the river and melting into the darkness that had enveloped the entire valley.

It was now truly night. I proceeded slowly. Buildings came into sight but I had little idea which was the pavilion—or more to the point, where I needed to turn off to find the road and the way back to the supplies I had left at a guesthouse outside the main entrance to the mountain. I had not walked more than twenty yards when a light shone out of the darkness. The light was accompanied by a short, middle aged lady. For reasons I never discovered, she was bursting with good humor. After quickly explaining to me that I had little chance of finding a ride back to my guesthouse, my new guide volunteered to lead me to a small hotel nearby where I could stay the night. I could hardly refuse under the circumstances. Arriving at one of the seedier hotels I have ever stayed by, I quickly ascertained that my good humored guide was in fact on the staff of the hotel. It was impossible to be angry with her however. Not only did she arrange a motorcycle driver to take me first thing in the morning to my guesthouse but the lady and I gabbed away for over an hour about the future of tourism in earthquake hit Sichuan province. I was the only guest in the hotel. After choosing my room—I was given a tour of each, eventually settling for the cheapest option— the rock of a bed and the ridiculousness of the last six hours could not prevent me from immediately slipping into a deep sleep.

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