I glared at the bottom of the stairs, colder than any words, my feet frozen into agony blocks, snow falling, and I wondered not simply how I’d get up, but what in the world was going to happen if I slipped going down?
Then I had my answer as two stretcher bearers lugged a groaning man by, his right foot twisted at an abnormal angle. Suddenly the miserable 5:30 AM start in Chengdu looked good, though at the time, crammed into another undersized minivan, I had thought it was hell, legs folded then refolded, ass athwart the rear bench and rear axle, catching every bump in the road with impressive violence to my butt, neck, spine, jaw, and teeth.
Where were we going? No idea.
How long would it take? No idea.
What would the weather be like? No clue except this: It had been cold from Day 1 and one of the characters in our destination, Emei Shan, means “mountain.”
After two hours on the freeway we got off, pissed, were given our tour lanyards, handed over to our new guide, and were bundled into a larger van that seated twenty and amazingly only had twenty passengers.
Pretty in white
Our guide’s Chinese was so thickly accented that I immediately gave up on him, and he on me after I forked over $95 for the tour plus $30 for lift tickets. “Lift tickets?” I wondered.
We ascended an endless, spectacular climb for about an hour, going alongside a huge gorge on the right with a river whose bottom was strewn with boulders that were mythically huge. The bamboo forest, the thick mist, and the driver’s penchant for passing around blind curves left me feeling that I should imprint the memory in the unlikely event I survived.
We stopped and filed into a shop renting massive coats, earmuffs, gloves, and crampons. I was already so chilled beneath my wool overcoat, California hoodie, thin wool sweater, t-shirt and jeans that I could only chatter.
Cheaply, foolishly, I refused to spend $10 while all others snapped up the rental clothing. I had been entrusted to the care of two ladies from Inner Mongolia who pooh-poohed the rental clothing. Only later did I realize, too late, that for them this was balmy spring weather, and only later did I realize that their parkas and hats were Himalayan-rated, and that they had gloves and long underwear beneath their jeans … they said.
We changed buses again and ascended until the relentless snow and icy road forced us to stop and put on chains. After half an hour we reached the destination, which was the bottom of a 2-mile staircase covered in ice. At the bottom, old women were handing out free crampons but my Mongolian friends scoffed and, too embarrassed to strap on the life saving steel claws, I scoffed too.
Thousands of people were on the stairs which led to the summit temple, and it drove home this: Travel in China is for the hard.
No liability concerns in an environment where one slip would shatter your hip or back, and the thought of the average fat American making it ten steps was laughable, as Chinese of every age and degree of unfitness tackled the steps, cigarettes dangling from their lips.
I warmed a bit on the ascent from terror and exertion, each step a careful calculation. It occurred to me to wonder, isn’t this why we have brains? To measure and take risk? The fear built because however treacherous the climb, the downhill would be a thousand times worse. Had it not been for crews salting the steps it would have been undoable, yet no one fell.
On top of Old Smoking
At the top we got a brief lecture about the history of the site, but all I could think was, “We sat in a bus for basically two hours and then walked a manicured staircase for two hours. When this place was founded 2,000 years ago I’m not sure it was that easy.”
After the lecture we were turned loose for an hour to walk the grounds, freeze, and die. This is Sichuan–it is never heated anywhere for any reason except in your hotel room, and there it is only warm between the sheets courtesy of your own body. Everywhere else, you had better wear clothes and accept that you will be cold. I had an hour that I didn’t think I would survive and have never been so cold in my life.
My feet were stone, as my core alone had stayed warm, sacrificing everything else for survival. Incredibly I found a giant trash fire where offerings, candles, plastic, and paper were being burned. I huddled so close it burned the hair off my wrists and singed my brows and lashes even as my face and body were covered in smelly, plastic soot.
One single fuck I did not give.
We reconvened and headed down but the rising temperatures had quickly melted the steps, even at 11,000 feet, aided by the salt and the foot traffic. The remaining ice patches made it even more treacherous as you had to pay attention and not be lulled; many of the patches were almost invisible and lethally slick.
I got to the bottom. Four hours of solid walking and shivering, completely kaput.
Almost not even close to being finished
Did I mention it had been 24 hours since I had last eaten? We descended a while then offloaded for a late lunch, which was dreadful but ample, and included buckets of instant ramen. The restaurant, unheated, didn’t warm me anymore than the lukewarm food, but starving people are never choosy, and the proprietors knew it.
At 2:30 we filed out and I assumed that the tour was done. “Next we were dong a hike to see some more temples,” our guide said, pointing to a giant map and sketching out the course that looked as complex and covered more topography than the Odyssey.
“How long is this gonna take?” I asked my Mongolian caretakers, who spoke very clear Mandarin.
“Four hours. Maybe five.”
Though out of the snow, it was still bitterly cold and off we went. After the tour of the icy staircase these other several thousand stairs were easy, and my days of following tour groups had really gotten me into walking shape. I also learned not to assume anything from seeing a guy chain smoke. Our guide was one of those guys but climbed like a goat. Over the day I got to talk with all my fellow tourists. Some I understood quite well, others not at all. They came from all over China and brought their accents with them. As with every group, people were so exceedingly helpful and kind and solicitous that it was humbling.
Would they have been treated this warmly had they been touring in America?
I couldn’t have gotten lost or separated if I had tried, so carefully did my fellow travelers look after me. People were astonished that I traveled without a cell phone. It was easily the most remarkable thing anyone had ever heard of, so daring, reckless, devil-may care.
“What if you get lost?” they asked.
“I will ask directions.”
“What if you don’t understand?”
“I’ll ask some more.”
“What if you run out of money?”
“I’ll be in trouble.”
“How do you stay in touch with their family? Aren’t they worried?”
Interspersed with these comments, most took time to praise my Chinese. Although much of it was obligatory and fake, some of it was sincere.
Our guide and his assistant said that in ten years they’d never seen a Western tourist speak as well as I. Of course that set the bar pretty low … and there were many times when I made an ass of myself over the simplest things, like understanding the amount of a fee, but the constant repetition of many things was great.
“Are you cold?”
“Are you tired?”
“Are you hungry?”
We transferred to our original van and this time I got to ride shotgun. It took another 2.5 hours to reach Tianfu Square in Chengdu, and a bit more subway riding to get to my street. Stomach rumbling, I stepped into a small shop, pointed at a picture on the wall, confirmed that “hot” was okay, and $1.40 later had eaten a steaming bowl of noodles with Sichuan red peppers. At a convenience store I stepped in, got a sleeve of Oreos, and at the hotel made some green tea, ate the cookies, and collapsed, dead, at ten o’clock.
Sometime long after that, I thawed out.
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