It is around 7:30 when Mr Lin, the tracksuit Red Bull energy bar, knocks on our door. He is already ready to leave, they are taking the bus down. Vikl and Ren Tao groan…and so do we. It is barely light outside, but the summit beckons. I think, rather foolishly, that the summit must be close by considering how freezing it is outside, and inside the room.
One last photo, and Mr Lin and his wife, who I think had a headache because she needed to wash her hair or because she did, leave. And of course, you know that you will never see them again. A quick wash, and we are off, Vikl and Ren Tao sharing two packets of milk with us and some bread. Unbelievable kindness from strangers never met. The air is still foggy. At the Leipingdong bus station, a horde of Chinese tourists jump out. Unbelievably, we spot a woman climbing the slippery, icy steps in HEELS. “How can she climb in those?!” asks Vikl, aghast. “Very stupid,” she says shaking her head. I agree even as I step gingerly over the ice-encrusted steps. This last stretch though is tough. The air is biting cold. It is around 8AM when we begin, and my hopes of reaching the summit in half an hour quickly fade. The clock turns to 9AM. Vikl and Ren Tao have long gone ahead. We try the crampons on the boots, but they keep dropping off, reluctant to be out in the cold long. Even Miss High Heels walks ahead of us. Steps. Iced. Snowed over. And as we reach closer and closer to the summit, the mist that envelops us soon starts to fade. The sun starts to win the battle, and glorious blue now shades the sky.
I am now beginning to hate Emei Shan though. It’s not that the climb is hard – no. It’s just an enduring relentless series of steps designed to numb your legs. Once you start slipping and sliding over the ice, it’s just Chinese torture, pun intended. 10:30AM, and we reach out to what seems to be a huge courtyard. Vikl is there, and we catch up. “Where is the summit?” we ask. “Just around 10 minutes,” she says. She was wrong. It was just a minute.
And there is the Samantabhadra, looming over Emei Shan in pristine golden glory. We are long past the sunrise – but Emei’s famed sea of clouds await us. It’s hard for the photos to do justice. Ice still lies in huge chunks next to little statues of elephants that circle the Bodhisattva. Chants fill the air.
It’s here that we lose Vikl and Ren Tao – one moment they were taking a photo, and then…we could never see them again. It fills me with regret. I wanted to have time for a final goodbye with them, exchange emails or phone numbers. I know that I am not the sort ‘to keep in touch’ just because you are bound to so, but I definitely would have liked to have thanked them for being the angels who led us this far. Without them, I wonder if I would have turned back long ago.
And so there it was – Emei Shan’s summit. Of course, technically, the real summit is a monorail away. Trust the Chinese to make us use a monorail so that we can preserve the fragile ecosystem. Ingenious! We didn’t take the monorail. It was already approaching noon, and I wanted to reach the comfort of my room in Chengdu today. We descend the same way we came from. It had taken us 12 hours to reach the summit from Wannian Si, and I thought it might take less than half of that to reach Wannian Si again, and then back to the base town. Again, how wrong I was. Never underestimate a mountain. Climbing down icy steps is far far tougher than climbing up. And where the steps disappear into the ice, there was just one option – to slide down. I could feel the snow seeping into my clothes as I slid, trying to hold on to the rails and not slip into the ravine, inviting as that seems in its snowy embrace. It’s a torturous descent. It’s a hellish descent. It’s something I would not want to do again. As evening slowly falls, we start looking at the map anxiously. Is there a way out that we have missed? Just how long is it to the parking lot we left two days ago? To Wannian Si? Turns out very very long. And very far.
And I witness the most unbelievable sight of them all. A man prostrating his way to the summit. Armored in knee pads, gloves, and hiking books, he has a bandanna around his forehead as protection. Buddhist chants emanate from a player he has attached. Three steps and he bends down full length, bows, prays. Gets up. Three steps. Repeat the process. All the way to the summit. In the ice. In the cold. That is some feat. Some test of faith. Some test of endurance. Some test of madness. I shake my head, awed.
As dusk falls, we reach Chu Si temple. Birdy suggests we halt here for the night. By then, tired and with toes begging to be released from my foot, I had abandoned plans to reach Chengdu. Reaching Wannian Si would do, I thought, the vain thought of saying I climbed the summit and back in two days quickly dispelled. Except that I don’t like the place. RMB50 per person. Can you reduce it, we ask only for the lady at the temple to hoot with laughter. It’s evident that she has a joke that is funny to the other Chinese around too. I grit my teeth. One day, I will know this language so well that no one can dare laugh in my face. Right now, all I can do is refuse the room. Birdy looks like she would kill me. But then, I have some crazy principles. I cannot respond to the woman through language, but through action I can. “Let’s go to Wannian Si,” I tell Birdy.
She has no choice, but to accept, and we climb down the darkening gloom. Soon, at 7PM, the darkness is total. Only a little reading light guides us on the way down. Switch the light off and you can experience total darkness. And total stillness. I apologize to Birdy. “I am sorry, but I am sure we will make it to Wannian Si,” I say, hoping that stating it might turn faith into conviction. My steps falter. It’s no longer icy at this point, which is a blessing. All we have to do is mind our steps in darkness. Simple. Just one foot over another. It’s not tiring, but my feet are shivering. Each step I take, they tremble. A spasm of pain runs from my toes to my calves to my thighs. I find myself thinking if only I could walk on my hands! There is not a shop in sight as we descend now. “How long will this light last?” wonders Birdy. I try not to think. “We have the phone, we can always call the police if we can’t make it,”I say, my voice more confident than I am. China Telecom works all over Emei Shan. Memories of my friend, Tee, standing on the toilet seat back in Coorg so that she could get a network connection come back. She wouldn’t have to do that here, I think, rather inanely.
The lights of Wannian Si twinkle far below. But every step we take towards it seems a mirage. It’s around 8PM when we find a shop that we had the day before bought a few things from. Birdy had found the old woman at the shop a lovely character, and taken a photo of her. By now, I am ready to give up even reaching Wannian Si. Take the bamboo stick, bang on her door. Wait. A yell. She opens the door in surprise. We ask her for the way to Wannian Si. She erupts into rapid fire Chinese, glancing at the clock. We understand it may be closed. We want to sleep, we indicate. More rapid fire Chinese. Then she indicates us to wait. She runs inside, grabs a huge flashlight, and comes out, telling us she knows a place we can stay. I can’t believe it. Into the utter darkness, she comes with us. “Come slowly,” she urges, watching our tired steps. She must be more than 50 at least, but is sprightly. Her steps are nimble even as mine are ponderous. “Just a little more,” she urges, talking all the while even as I think that I can no longer go another step. But just 10 minutes later, we are there. Down a small path we would have never taken, she finds us a small guesthouse. RMB150 for a big room. We thank her profusely. Hug her. She is another angel of Emei Shan. Without her help, I wonder if I would still be roaming in the darkness of the forests of despair that enveloped me that evening.
A night’s sleep later, it takes us the entire day to walk from Wannian Si to the base. I had a foolish idea of walking all the way to the town bus station, but give up once I realized I had 10 more kilometers to go.
I had long since reached the base, and my feet were no longer my own. My mind was distanced from my body. My spirit was weakened. My body was just a shell. Carved from ice and molded in despair. Yet, 2 years after doctors told me never to climb a single step again, I had climbed thousands of them. At least, I had climbed Emei. To me, that was worth the promise. That and the renewed faith in human angels. Maybe that was the real reason after all to climbing Emei. After having seen some crassness in human beings over the past few months, it was worth every painful toe-cramped, ice-crusted moment just so that you know there are always strangers who are unfolding into friends.