China 2015: June 24 Mt. E-mei

Mount E-mei or E-mei-shan (shan = mountain) is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains in China and is included in every guidebook about Sichuan Province. I was excited for this trip - how could I not be? I read that there were monkeys and you can sleep in temples on the mountain. I have collected plants in pretty amazing places but never with monkeys overhead, and I have set up camp surrounded by epic scenery but never among monks! It's funny in retrospect how much I romanticized, and was subsequently wrong about, the appeal of both of these things.

Golden summit on Mt. emei complete with temples and massive statue.

On this journey I was joined by graduate student Ya-Ping Chen who studies a genus in the mint family. We took a 19 hour train ride from Kunming to the town of Emei. This in itself was exciting because I have never taken a train before, and we took an overnight train and slept in bunkbeds stacked three high. I slept pretty well considering the circumstances but I was happy to arrive at the station and head to the mountain. As an aside on our way there a tourist from Beijing told me I looked like a movie star, specifically "like Meryl Streep."  Not sure what to make of that.

Mountain islands above a sea of clouds.

Anyhow, we first went to the botanical garden at the base of the mountain to meet up with the head botanist at Emeishan, Mr. Li. The three of us boarded a bus to the highest parking spot on the mountain before hitting the trail. And by trail I mean stairs, thousands of stairs. But, just like Mt. Jiaozi (see previous post) the stairs were needed to corral the thousands of tourist who visit the mountain every year. It was overcast at the foot of the mountain, and once we made it to higher elevations to start hiking we were enveloped by the cold, misty clouds for the next few hours. As we approached the top, appreciating some endemic Rhododendrons along the way, it seemed that the clouds broke and we were greeted with blue sky. Now, I had read about the temples and this being a sacred mountain but after hiking for a few hours through the sub-tropical forest I forgot about all of that. I was, therefore, awestruck when my first glance of the 10,167 ft summit yielded not the barren alpine landscape I expected but instead ornate temples and a massive golden statue. Additionally, I was wrong in thinking that the blue skies were a result of the clouds parting; we had hiked up and through the clouds and were now standing on mountain islands above a billowing sea of clouds. It was stunning.

But, I didn't travel all the way to China to take in breathtaking views, I'm here to look for Micranthes! There was an antiquated collection of M. pallida from the summit but after an onerous search involving crawling over handrails, down cliff-sides, and through stinging nettle / blackberry brambles we safely concluded that since the collection was years older than the temples and sidewalks that species likely no longer occurred on the summit. As sunset was fast approaching we headed over the other side of the mountain to sleep at a temple recommended by Mr. Li. Now the spacious, warm, welcoming temple with chanting monks and colorful thangkas that I was imagining was not only inaccurate but unrealistic. Where we slept was more of a small, dank, dark boarding house, falling off the edge of the mountain with no plumbing. I'll admit I missed my tent and sleeping bag at this point, but our hosts, who were not monks, were very hospitable, and it honestly ended up not being the worst place I stayed while in China. 

Leaves of Micranthes Davidii

The next morning after a strange breakfast of poached eggs in sugar water Mr. Li lead me straight to Micranthes davidii. This species had flowered and fruited over two months ago so without the help of Mr. Li I likely would never have found it - by this date the plant consisted only of a few browning, nondescript leaves. We made the collection and put the plants into our plastic plant bags and headed back towards the base of the mountain. This collection seemed anti-climatic after everything else I had done and seen on Emeishan, but I now know I was a bit hasty in that decision. 

Mr. Li holding the plant bag as the aggressive Monkey glares at us. 

As we rounded a corner, maybe twenty feet ahead, sat a monkey on a fence post with other monkeys swinging around above us. For once there were no other tourists in sight and here was this monkey perfectly posed! Perhaps, too perfectly... I was oblivious to what the monkey was doing as I tried to take his picture, but I did note that it was not the cute, cuddly monkey I had imagined. This was confirmed as it moved towards me, staring at my plant bag thinking it was food, and sat his unpleasant face a few feet away from me. He barred his monkey fangs and growled and hissed! He lunged towards me to grab my plants, and I froze, thinking about how glad I was to have gotten a rabies shot before I left, when he placed his little monkey hand on my plant bag! Mr. Li sprang to action, grabbed my plants, shooed the monkey away, and managed to push him off the trail with a hiking pole. We took a few minutes to regroup as the the impudent monkey glared at me from the fence and the monkeys overhead hooted and hollered in mockery of the whole scene. I put the plant bag deep in my backpack and we made it down to the base of the mountain without any other incidents, but we moved at a slightly quickened pace.