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“Just keep going,” I say urgently. I look down to where a monkey roams menacingly around my ankles. I keep it at bay with my bamboo stick. My girlfriend Nelisa is having even more trouble.
Two apes are swinging from the side pocket of her backpack, tantalised by what they think is food, but is – in fact – hand sanitiser. This isn’t what I signed up for.
Two days earlier, five of us decided to tackle Mount Emei, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains. I knew it would be a challenge, but it was the climb that I was focused on. The monkeys weren’t even an afterthought. How naive I was.
Getting to Mount Emei
We took a bullet train from the modern city of Chengdu, making a quick detour to the riverside town of Leshan, where a 71-metre tall Giant Buddha sits carved into the rocks. While we couldn’t get down to the bottom due to construction work, it was impressive enough to stand by his head and gaze at his 7-metre-long ears.
We boarded the train once again, continuing to a small town at the foot of the mountain where we stopped for lunch. On the first day, our plan was to make a steady ascent towards the Wannian temple.
This first trek was gentle enough, albeit with a few steep staircases. We would have to get used to them. Like many other mountains in China, Emei Shan is packed with staircases, making the climbing experience very much like being on a Stairmaster for hours on end.
Warnings of Monkey Gangs
Along the way, we saw a couple of signs warning us of ‘gangs of terrible monkeys’ in the area, but we made it to our hotel without encountering any. Nevertheless, a couple of us bought bamboo sticks from a lady at the side of the road to ward off any monkeys that did try to tackle us.
The receptionist at the hotel warned us that we had 10 hours of climbing ahead of us the next day. We set off for Mount Emei after breakfast the next morning. “This isn’t so bad,” I said confidently half an hour into the trek. How naïve I was.
Soon, staircase after staircase loomed in front of us and I had to keep pushing myself to climb each one. After a couple of hours of this monotony, I had to do something to keep my mind occupied. Sometimes, I took two stairs at a time.
Other times, I ran to get ahead of the group and took a couple of minutes to gasp for breath. And sometimes, I simply stopped halfway up a staircase to admire the rolling mountain scenery.
While Emei Shan is one of China’s tourist hotspots, many people prefer not to tackle the paths. Instead, they take a winding bus journey to the top of the mountain, affording us a mostly peaceful ascent.
I say “mostly” as the only thing disturbing the peace was a man who insisted on repeatedly shouting to hear his voice echo around the mountains.
While we enjoyed his carefree spirit at first, it got very old very quickly. After the fiftieth time or so, we all rushed ahead to get clear of him. As we stood exhausted, that familiar yell appeared once again. There was no escape.
The First Monkey Encounter
My friend Dec was usually out in front, so he was the one to spot the first monkey. As he reached the top of a staircase, he suddenly took a step back. “Look at the size of it!” he yelled back to us.
We soon saw what he meant. Unlike the little mischievous macaque monkeys that you often see scampering around Asia, this one was big, squat, and didn’t look friendly.
Suddenly, it made a grab for the backpack that Dec was carrying by his side. Instinctively, he pulled the bag back, which only antagonised the monkey further. It bared its teeth, but Dec stared it down. After a couple of seconds, it backed off. Crisis averted.
Further along the trail, another monkey leaped from the side railings onto my friend Luke’s back. He had left his bag slightly unzipped, and a packet of bread rolls was tantalizingly near the top.
The monkey took them, jumped away to safety, and began greedily enjoying his bounty. We didn’t stick around much longer to find out what else they wanted from us.
A Much-Needed Lunch Break
We continued our ascent up the mountain, staircase by staircase. My mind started to drift away, and I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I counted in my head in time to each step. ‘One, two, three’ and then in all the different languages I knew ‘un, deux, trois’, ‘uno, dos, tres’. Still, the staircases kept coming.
Late in the day, we stumbled across a couple of makeshift restaurants where the owners yelled and clamoured to get our business. We chose one, leaving the couple who lost out to wait glumly for the next passers-by.
I wondered if they could remain on friendly terms, living in such isolated conditions while having to compete for business every single day.
Our bellies full, we kept going. A relentless march up – one stair after another, stopping periodically for Snickers and fizzy drinks at the little shops dotted along the path. Occasionally, we would have to move to one side as donkeys laden with goods trudged past us.
From time to time, we took a few minutes out to explore the temples and monasteries dotted around the mountains, many of which offer a bed for the night. This was China at its most peaceful and remote – a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the urban centres and megacities.
Without warning, the stairs stopped, and a flat path stretched out in front of us. The relief washed over me. And what’s more, we had made good time. What was supposed to take us 10 hours had only taken us eight.
The cold beers that evening tasted all the sweeter. But we couldn’t celebrate too much as the final hike to the Golden Summit was still to come. And we planned on arriving at sunrise.
Reaching the Summit of Mount Emei for Sunrise
A disorienting early alarm clock startled me from my sleep, and it was time to leave. Only one of us – the ever-practical Weifeng – had the foresight to bring a headtorch, so we used our phones to light the way as we stumbled our way up yet more staircases.
A couple of hours later, a magnificent golden statue of Buddha astride elephants loomed before us. We had made it. Unfortunately for us, we would not be seeing the spectacular sunrise we had hoped for as the whole mountain was enveloped by fog. Still, we basked in the glory of reaching the top.
The Climb Down Mount Emei
All that was left was the matter of getting down. Our three friends decided to take the bus, leaving me and Nelisa to walk down. Compared to what we had faced over the past couple of days, this should be easy.
As we climbed down a staircase, we saw a group of Chinese tourists being terrorised by a gang of the terrible monkeys that the signs had warned us of. Their belongings were searched, and snacks were stolen.
Nelisa and I exchanged a glance. We had no choice but to take this path or go all the way back to where we started. We strapped on our backpacks and removed anything edible. All we had missed was a bottle of hand sanitiser.
A Terrible Monkey Gang Encounter
Around 12 monkeys waited for us – some on the path itself, while others leered from the handrails. Litter is scattered around them from the bins that they must have ransacked earlier.
We clutched our bamboo sticks and moved slowly forwards. At first, they just eye us suspiciously. Suddenly, one makes its move, dashing towards Nelisa. She bangs her stick on the ground. Without a second thought, the monkey grabs it out of her hands and flings it to the floor with contempt. He has seen it all before.
“Just keep moving. Don’t stop!” I whisper. But the stick-throwing monkey grabs onto the side pocket of Nelisa’s bag and won’t let go. Another one dashes over to join in. She continues edging forwards, screaming as both monkeys dangle from the side of her backpack.
After a few paces forward one of them grabs what it was looking for – the hand sanitiser. He inspects it and tosses it to one side with disgust, realising it is inedible. Meanwhile, I am trying to repel a monkey around my ankles, while being careful not to have my stick snatched from me.
Stories to Tell
We pick up the pace. Realising that they had got everything they could, the monkeys start to lose interest. We breathe a sigh of relief to get away unscathed from what was a genuinely terrifying situation. The rest of the way down, we turn every corner anxiously expecting to see more monkeys ready to mug us. Luckily for us, there were none.
Finally, we make it to the bottom and meet up with our friends to tell them what they had missed. It also gives us a chance to count our losses. A packet of bread rolls, a bamboo stick, and a bottle of hand sanitiser. As muggings go, it could have been a lot worse.
Book This Trip
Start planning your trip to Mount Emei in China today. Check out OMIO Travel Partner for the best flight deals, train tickets and ground transportation options. For places to stay, trust Booking.com for hotels, hostels and other accommodations throughout China.
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Author Bio: “Chris spent more than a year living and travelling around China, enjoying all its complexities, challenges and charms. In his 20s, he also travelled to over 40 countries around the world. He is now happily settled in London with his girlfriend and two mini lop rabbits but still takes every opportunity to travel whenever possible.”