Spring Festival, Chinese New Year. Copy and paste “spring festival train station” into your search engine and you’ll understand why we didn’t travel on the first day. The second day is much quieter, but it meant we had one less day, giving us 4 days to go somewhere before we had to work again. We didn’t have a plan. I suggested we take fast train to Chengdu. Once we got there we’d go directly to the coach station and ask for a ticket to anywhere. My friends agree and so we set off, not knowing our destination.
The ticket seller is confused, so I repeat.
“5 tickets to good place. I don’t know good place. You know good place.” In Chinese.
She doesn’t know what to do.
“Far away. Mountains. Any good place. Where do people like to go? That’s where we want to go.”
I swap the money for the tickets and leave the bemused old woman behind. I haven’t bothered to shave, I sweat chilli oil and rice wine.
Emei Mountain. We had no idea how long it would take us to get there, or even where there was. If it was too far away, we’d just have to take another day off work.
5 hours on the coach, plenty to look at out the windows: Farms, small town girls, firework sellers.
Emei mountain is heaving; the whole mountain seems to breathe people. We get off the coach and wander up and down. Men call at us to stay with them, everything is expensive, out of our price range. All the hostels are full. We barely manage to find a place to stay. Two rooms for five of us, the couple takes one room. We eat barbecue, drink beer and wince wine. We go down the mountain a bit to find a night club. I kiss a couple of girls and we are chased into our taxi by a mob who thump on the windows as our driver races away.
We wake up at midday. The owner of the hotel speaks to us personally over breakfast. We are hungover. He speaks English.
“What are your plans?” He asks, grinning.
“We’ll climb to the top, I guess.”
He says nothing. Goes away. Comes back with a map. Thuds it down onto the table.
“First you go here. Sleep here. Tomorrow you go to the top.”
“We don’t have time for that,” I explain, looking at the map. “We need to go to the top today.”
“Impossible,” he laughed. “It’s 60km. It will be dark before 7 o’clock. You will stay there tonight, and tomorrow you go.”
Only slightly disheartened, we had no expectations of the place before we came here so it was difficult to feel disappointed, we decided to climb the mountain for a couple of hours until we got tired and then head back. We checked out of the hotel and took all our bags with us and enjoyed the relaxed walk through the foothills, playing ninja warriors with the bountiful bamboo along the way.
Two hours in and 2/5 were done. They suggested we take a car as high as a car will go and get the cable car to the peak. I looked at the remaining two.
“I think we can make it to the top,” I said as if it were a fact.
“I think we can definitely make it to the top,” my friend agreed.
“Let’s do this,” our third concurred. We offloaded a load of our clothes into our friends’ bags, but kept several items just in case we got lost on the mountain. It was February and was probably going to get cold up top. Leaving our friends to find their own way, we set off running, to make up for the slow pace we had carried for the first two hours.
We ran for an hour. It was tiring work and we took a rest stop. We watched old ladies being carried up the mountain on bamboo chairs. We had a cigarette and chatted to a Chinese man who was suitably impressed when we told him our plan to reach the top.
“It’s far,” he said. “I think it’s impossible.”
We climbed quickly, overtaking person after person. Our pace was good. We decided to keep going as quickly as possible until dusk when we’d eat dinner and get in touch with our friends at the top. People along the way were selling torches and crampons. We decided to buy two torches and three pair of crampons, just in case. And some Oreos.
We ate at a temple. Good, expensive food.
“We’re at the top. Just saw a beautiful sunset,” our friend told us, sounding very relaxed. “Where are you?”
“We’re not certain. We think we’ve done about two thirds of the hike. We’re at a temple. There’s lots of temples.”
“It’s snowy up here, guys.”
“Really? Well, we were right to buy some crampons then. We’ll be ok. Did you find somewhere to stay?”
“There’s a hotel up here, we’ll wait for you.”
Our pace slowed. There was snow and ice. Eventually we attached the clumsy crampons as we trudged through the ever thickening snow. Each rest stop we passed offered a place to stay. Each time we told them our plan, they angrily muttered, “stupid foreigners”.
Our cheap crampons deteriorated. Every fifteen minutes one of us had to stop to re-tie one or both of their crampons, the laces shortening every time, the metal claws bent and blunted by the unevenness of the ice. The light of one of the torchers dimmed as it ran out of battery, we used the other two sparingly.We ate all of our food.
It had been dark for a long time. Every time we reached a rest stop, we thought it must be the penultimate one. I began to imagine what it would be like to huddle up in the bushes and wait out the morning. It was brutally cold. I was tired, hungry. I hit the wall. I kept going.
A hut; a light on. I knock at the door.
“Do you have food? I have money.” I show him a 100RMB note from my wallet. The man angrily slams the door. “Stupid foreigners.” I remember there are a few sunflower seeds left in my pockets. I crunch them down with the shells on.
We are all tired. We keep going. I start a chorus of “Always look on the bright side of life”. We keep going.
At 30 minutes past midnight we reach the top, exhausted. Our friends managed to find one room for us. We sneak in so they don’t get annoyed. We made it. 60km hiked up a snowy mountain in twelve hours with no preparation and a hangover.
We spend the following night in Chengdu. Make our way back to mundane normality; back to work. We recount our adventure again and again. We go to McDonalds. I win a McNugget eating competition. 53 chicken nuggets in half an hour.
I’ll never eat McNuggets again.
Here is where my story began.
Check out some of my most recent posts: