Monday, June 06, 2005

A Stairway to Heaven, A Hell on Earth

If anyone had ever asked me what my definition of 'hell on earth' was, I would have described the hike that we did two days ago... a climb in the mist of fog and chill of rain up endless, ancient stairs to the top of a mountain over 3,000 meters tall (that's 9,840 feet). Ironically, the steep ascent into thickening clouds also makes this hike feel like a stairway to Heaven...

Emei Shan is a sacred mountain, one of the Middle Kingdom's four Buddhist Mountains, and home to active temples and monasteries. It's also the big tourist draw in Southern Sichuan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a residence for monks and nuns, and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhist followers and insane backpackers like me.

Looking at maps of Emei mountain, I noticed that the summit is always illustrated as a lonesome but majestic peak that overlooks a sea of clouds... and this is the lure of the Golden Temple, situated at the top of Emei... it appears to be a tiny kingdom above the clouds. The goal of many visitors to Emei Shan is to witness a sunrise from here, over the carpet of cloud underfoot while standing on the peak. Under good weather conditions, it's rare but possible to observe a phenomenon where one sees his own shadow in the clouds with an aura of rainbow colors around his silhouette. It's said that pilgrims and monks used to interpret this as a special "sign" and would often throw themselves off the face of the mountain, to their deaths, in joy.

The day before we left for our hike up the mountain, I sat at a small table outside a cafe looking at the misty dark hills. I was feeling a bit anxious... about the pain, the physical exertion... I'd heard too many stories of suffering in the preceding days. A San Diego woman I met in Chendgu told me she turned back after several hours. She couldn't keep up with the group she was with and when she saw an Israeli girl limping down the mountain with swollen knees, she decided to go back to the bottom with her. I'd heard stories about people who got 'stuck' at a monastery at the top for several days because their legs seized up and they couldn't move. One girl, I'd heard, had torn the ligaments around her kneecap in a fall and had to be carried down the mountain after waiting for days for the weather to clear. Inside the cafe, written upon the walls, were the stories of travelers before me: people with tales about treacherous wild monkeys, slippery scenic overlooks, and impossibly sore bodies.

I put the physical nightmares aside -- I knew the hike was going to test my fitness so there was no point in worrying about it -- I was more concerned with the weather conditions. Emei is often shrouded in mist, fog, and rain which reduce visibility and give the steps a slick, slippery coating. I didn't want to put all that effort into climbing the mountain, only to see nothing... I wanted some sort of pay off for the pain. The climb, I thought, would be a waste of time and energy without a big payoff. I wanted to see mountain views. I wanted to see the sunrise. Heck, maybe I'd be one of the 'lucky' ones and would see my shadow, rainbow aura and all, in the clouds... And as everyone knows, the more you worry about something, the more it is likely to happen... so, of course, the two days I spent hiking up Emei were so misty, so foggy, so cloudy, so rainy that I barely saw anything but the thousands of steps in my future and anything within 10 feet, which mostly consisted of the thousands of steps in front of me.

That's not to say that what I could see was not beautiful... the stairs were hewn from aged stone; the forest was lush, green, and dense; mist swirled in the air and settled like massive cotton balls in valleys; the sound of dripping water pattered softly on leaves; tiny wildflowers sprinkled color along the stair path. Every now and then, we would come upon a monastery, quiet in its solititude on the face of a mountain. One even had a thriving garden of light green cabbages, their enormous heads pushing out from dark, damp soil. People in the distance appeared as fuzzy silhouettes, their shapes and colors subdued by wet mist.

In the first 1/2 hour of climbing I was miserable. I was especially miserable because I knew I had 14 km ahead of me that day and I was breathless and annoyed with never ending steps already. Why are we doing this, I wondered. Why does anyone do this, I wondered. How are people capable of doing this, I wondered. I began to flip through a mental album of superheroes to answer the last question... Superman wouldn't do it -- he'd just fly to the top and be done with it. Spiderman would travel there on a web cast from the top of the highest hotel at the mountain's base. Wonderwoman would arrive to the Golden Summit in an invisible plane... and the Supertwins would just turn themselves into an escalator. No, not even superheroes would do this climb, I concluded... but there I was climbing the mountain and there was no turning back... I have too much pride for that. And besides, once you are hauling yourself up the mountain, with no road access, there really is nowhere to go but up. Walking down is just as hard on the body.

I asked Benjamin why the Buddhist pilgrims do the hike. What do they get out of it? I thought perhaps if I knew their purpose, I could make it my own, thereby giving a reason to the madness. I wanted to know what their reward was and to adopt it as my own. I wanted the effort to result in something, to have meaning, to have a purpose I could work towards.

These thoughts distracted me from the pain for a while but eventually, my mind returned to the lifting of my legs, the thinning altitude, the thickening fog. And then it happened: my brain went numb. I'd entered a meditative state and found a rhythm of stepping and lifting, stepping and lifting. That old saying, 'one day at a time' was easily transferable to 'one step at a time', but I realized this sentiment was nothing but a tired cliche. There were no answers in it. What more can I get out of this experience, I asked myself. Again my thoughts turned to the pilgrims and Buddhism... and in between panting breaths and bursts of heat in my quads, I thought that maybe the only lesson to be learned was something I already knew of Buddhist teachings: that life is painful and to get through it, I just needed to work through it -- deal with it, to achieve the ultimate goal of peace and quiet... a simple goal, an honorable purpose. But still, it was damn hard.

My ego got in the way, of course... this Buddhist 'test' was not only one of physical and mental endurance but also one of humility. A group of younger 'kids' caught up and eventually passed us as Benjamin and I stood on a step clutching the hand rail and wiping the sweat from our foreheads.

"Just don't stop," I heard one of them say to another, "The trick is to keep moving because once you stop, you have to start again."

I'm sure he felt my eyeballs searing into the back of his head. Easy for you to say, I thought... If I did this thing without taking a rest after every 100 or so steps, the Emei Shan authorities would have to recover my body from the bottom of a ravine where I'd have plunged after getting dizzy, falling unconscious, and hurtled over the side of the mountain.

So this group of 'kids' (they were probably in their mid 20s) passed us and something in me, the part that denies my age and waning physical prowess, wanted to stay in step with them, even if it meant my ultimate death. 'If they can do it, I can do it' I thought to myself. Benjamin noticed the competitive edge to my nonchalant comments, "Do you hear something? Sounds like footsteps... let's get going again..." or "Shit, they're gaining on us..."

He told me not to worry. He said, "Everyone does what they can do," and happily remained motionless on our perch, a step in the middle of the biggest staircase on Earth. After thinking about it for a while, I agreed. It actually didn't take much for him to convince me -- I was f-in tired and the power of that was greater than my ego. Another lesson learned, I thought... shedding of the ego. As the day progressed, I began to recite my newfound wisdom in quick quips, calling upon the vocal stylings of Yoda, "To the top, we must go..." I'd picked up a walking stick in the shape of a cane along the way and when I found myself leaning onto it with both hands during periods of rest, my resemblance to Yoda (despite the difference of several feet in height and and the face of an ancient fetus) was uncanny.

I was getting something out of this experience, this pilgrimage, afterall... I began to think of it as a 'tool' I would use in the future, during hard times. I use the large tattoo on my lower back in this way. When I'm in a situation that calls for it, I think to myself, 'if I could sit for four hours enduring the pain of the needle, I can do this...' Now I had Emei Shan to add to my toolbox.

After 7 hours of trudging up stairs, we finally arrived at a rustic monastery where we spent the night. Inside, it was dark and still, years of burning incense imbued the wood walls and creaking floorboards with perfumed scent; bald headed monks in dull orange robes moved about swiftly and silently, as if their feet hovered above the floor; golden Buddhas peered out from behind glass encasements, keeping watch over the place, the people, and their little patch of mountainside. After a bit of bargaining with a monk (they're crafty, those monks), we had a bed for the night, a dinner of noodles, and we retired to our room to the sound of the monks chanting in the temple. We slept well and awoke at 9 in the morning to the sound of knocking on the door. Apparently the monks thought it was time for us to get up. We made jokes about how they must have thought we were lazy. They'd probably been up since 5 a.m. and our waking hour was midday for them.

Our second day of hiking was spent in hard rain. We wore blue trash bag ponchos to ward off the wetness to no avail. We were sopping wet by the time we reached the summit, another 7 km from the monastery, and in the misty mountain, there was no chance for our only clothes to dry out. For this reason, we decided that we would not stay overnight at the top of the mountain for the sunrise for fear of getting sick. Besides, we reasoned, with weather like this, there is no way there will be a visible sunrise in the morning. We took the bus down the mountain, a 2 hour ride, and arrived back to the bottom with one thought on our minds: it's time for a beer.

And when we woke this morning, the day we should have been waking on the summit, I learned the final lesson of my Emei Shan experience. The lesson of passive indifference. We woke to bright blue skies and shining sun. We're positive that had we stayed on the mountain, we would have seen the sunrise afterall... and with all the hard work to get to the top, it would have made the pain all worth while. But in the end, despite the low visibility and strenuous effort to see nothing, the journey to the top was an achievement... sunrise or no.


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