June 21st 1984

posted in: The way back | 0

At a very early hour this morning, we were awoken by a loud hammering on the door, followed immediately by the door being unlocked, revealing a young employee of the hotel in the doorway, clutching a note in his hand, written in English + Chinese, prepared by the English-speaker last night.  “Hello!” it said.  “Let’s go to the bus station to take the bus!”   We weren’t quite ready for that, Val didn’t have any clothes on, for one thing, but luckily the mosquito net covered her from embarrassment.  I was able to thrust some clothes in on her.  Also, it was ridiculously early.  We knew the time of the bus, + it seemed foolish to hang around out there – the bus station was only 5 minutes away.  But our guide waited patiently in the doorway while we packed + made ourselves ready.  He had been assigned a mission, + was obviously determined to fulfil it.  When we were obviously ready, he indicated the second half of his bilingual note – “Follow me please, I will send you off” – + away we went.

He took us to a different bus station to the one we’d found last night – maybe there had been a bus after all – + after watching us buy our tickets, handed us over to a man there – a job well done.  We sat in the waiting room, attracting the usual amount of attention; one becomes used to it after a while.  And soon enough we were put onto the bus, with assigned seats, the usual thing for non-local buses in China.  A short + uneventful bus ride, an hour or so, to Emei (at last!), another bus almost immediately to Bagud, + then directly onto yet another bus directly to the beginning (or end) of the trail.  We stopped briefly for some breakfast, + then off.

At first it was very easy indeed, only gently ascending, well-paved, with steps.  It wasn’t at all what we had expected.  First of all, there were many, many more people than we’d anticipated, family groups dressed for a day’s outing as much as anything.  And to serve them, there were stalls every 50 yds or so, selling soft drinks, biscuits, fruit, hats, walking sticks, maps, brochures, handkerchiefs, + any amount of souvenir – quasi-religious junk, plastic buddhas et al.  After about an hour we arrived at a gate, then a temple.  This was clearly the final destination for the majority of our fellow-travellers, just about all of whom seemed to be posing to have their photo taken in front of it.  It is the Oriental school of photography, we have discovered: every photo, of famous building, waterfall, statue, or other work of man or nature, must have in the foreground, an individual or group, smiling or unsmiling, but usually standing formally.  And this seemed to be an unshakeable rule – I don’t think we saw a single photograph taken any other way.  For those without cameras, there were professionals to take them for them.  Nearly always, professional or amateur, with the same type of camera, an old-fashioned box-type that you hold at waist-level, + look into the top.  But imagine their photo albums – they must be stultifying.

After the briefest of pauses, we pushed on, expecting now to have the path to ourselves, + indeed the numbers were diminished.  There were still enough people to keep it crowded, tho’ people of a different ilk.  We were now firmly established among the pilgrim set, + by far the greatest majority of these were groups comprised entirely of old ladies.  They looked old + fragile, arming themselves with walking sticks + umbrellas, + quite a few weren’t finding the going easy, but they were obviously tough enough – it was a devil of a job overtaking them.  For there was another drastic change which had made itself apparent since the temple: up till then the gradient had been sufficiently gentle to accommodate a gentle stroll, but from now the path went up fiercely in a series of long, dizzying staircases.  Especially carrying heavy packs, we were both soon drenched in sweat, wetter than I’ve been at any time since Kokoda.  The atmosphere was misty, damp + oppressive, + that certainly didn’t help matters.  The refreshment stalls continues to appear at regular (only slightly less frequent) intervals; we also passed a couple of temples, of no particular note to us unbelievers, except that we were able to use them as fixed reference points, + chart our progress on  our map.

We climbed up to Xi Xiansi, or Elephant Bathing Pool, the monastery which was our first night’s destination, at 2.30, + the first people we saw that we recognised were the Singapore couple who had been of such little use on the train yesterday.  They endeared themselves to us further by telling us we could have left our bags down in Baguo or Emei – I’m being unfair, that was our own foolishness, not their fault, but the bearers of bad news are rarely welcome; if I’d had a sword I would doubtless have slain them both.  They were able to tell us we could check in at 3, which we duly did, getting a seedy but adequate room with 3 beds in it – it was pretty obvious that no-one else would be put in there however.  The whole  monastery was on the seedy side, its main function being now only incidentally clerical, acting as a huge hostel for the thousands of pilgrims, + that side of things, along with all the catering, cleaning etc, was handled by lay personnel.  So far as we could tell, there were very few monks in residence to look after the upkeep of + worship at the altars.  The most interesting part of the place was a gallery of Tussaud-like life-size figures, all behind glass, presumably depicting various former priests etc.





We ate an unpleasant + tasteless meal in the cavern-like dining hall – 2 of the dishes were so bad we rejected them after one spoonful – fortunately the food is cheap enough to enable one to do that.  While we were eating, a whole group of others on the Gringo circuit came in.  Especially in the part of China we’re travelling thro’ at the moment, there aren’t all that many places to go, + since many travellers go at the same sort of speed, you’re likely to meet the same people over + over again.  China is a big place, but is made so much smaller by having only certain towns open, approached across certain routes, + with just one or maybe 2 hotels in each town open to us.  This would all be alright if you got on well with the people you keep meeting, but of course those ones get left behind or shoot ahead, while the ones you keep with are the ones you don’t like.  Guiseppini is an excellent case in point – she was at the monastery.  There was also James, a blunt English northerner (I’ve mentioned him before), a somewhat dense American called Duane, + Ben + Mandy, an Englishman + his Irish girlfriend – the best pf a poor bunch.  Plus a French girl I don’t really know but am not attracted to – not just in a physical sense, tho’ that too.  And Allan, the only one I like, our companion from Yangshuo.  But of course, as usual Val + I kept ourselves pretty aloof.  Our insularity is a positive weapon, but is a good reason why we find it so difficult to make friends.

And now back on track; no serious consequence of our unexpected jaunt, except that we did not get the information that it was possible to leave heavy bags at the bottom, so carried our extremely heavy packs most of the way up the mountain. Otherwise, just a steady climb, and virtually all of it on a paved staircase, so manageable enough.

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