I’ve been meaning to post this for awhile, but it got away from me. Last October (2015!) I had the privilege of attending the ICOMET (International Conference on Molecular Energy Transfer) in Chengdu (Sichuan province, China). Organized by Prof. Aart Kleijn, the meeting was hosted by the Chinese academy of Engineering Physics and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It covered a wide range of topics, including experimental and theoretical topics in energy transfer across the gas phase, gas/surface scattering, liquid phases, astrochemistry, and biochemistry. The meeting organization was flawless and the treatment we received from our Chinese hosts was extremely generous.
Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province (Sichuan means ‘four rivers’), has an interesting history. The Chengdu region has been inhabited for at least 4000 years, and it has existed with the place-name “Chengdu” for over 2000 years. Wikipedia lists its population as 14m, but our Chinese hosts consistently cited populationfigures closer to 20m. The ICOMET meeting kept me busy, but I had the opportunity for a little exploration. I visited the former home of Du Fu (one of the Tang dynasty’s most noted poets); I saw some of the antique markets in central Chengdu; and I also had the chance to sample a hot-pot & some mapo tofu. These days, Chengdu is a polluted and crowded megacity; it sort of scared the shit out of me, and made me properly wonder where all this free-market consumption is leading our species. On one occasion I happened to stroll into a suburban shopping mall where they had a four-story aquarium containing four massive whale-sharks, which you could glance at while you browsed for Nikes and ate your McDonald’s.
After the meeting finished, I took an extra few days and made my way to 峨眉山 (transliterated as “Éméi Shān”; translated as “Mt. Emei”), essentially the gateway to the Himalayas – about two hours west of Chengdu via bullet train. Éméi Shān is one of China’s four Holy Buddhist mountains, with an elevation of about 3100 meters. It’s a holy beacon that draws Chinese tourists from all over, but most folks cluster at one of two places: (1) the temples at Éméi Shān’s base; or (2) the golden summit (there’s a bus/cable car combo to get the top if you’d rather not walk). If you choose to walk, then you find yourself alone the moment you set out on the path and start climbing, which is exactly what you want on Éméi Shān. As much as Chengdu frightened me, Éméi Shān comforted me: it’s where I met face-to-face the full force of classical China in all her glory – and Good God, Lord have Mercy!
It’s a solid 12-14 hour day walking up to the summit, and a slightly shorter day back down. An ancient Buddhist pilgrimage route that dates from the first century C.E., the entire path up Éméi Shān is hand-laid: tens of thousands of individual stone steps. The path is dotted with more than 70 ancient temples, each of which seamlessly blends into that little bit of mountain where it has resided for centuries. On approach, many of the temples seemed to quietly emerge out of the sub-tropical mist that bathed the mountain. Every temple had a shrine room where visitors could make prayers and offerings. Each shrine room was full of some of the most amazing artworks I’ve ever seen – statues, mandalas, thangkas, textiles… In many of the temples, it was possible to wander around the entire place freely. Most of the temples are actively tended by monks, who kept the fires and incense burning. Many even offered tea or a small cell where pilgrims could sleep on their journey to the summit. There’s also monkeys on the path – and they’re aggressive little buggers if they think you might have something they want. I was warned to carry a bamboo stick just in case, and it was good advice (I had a rather edgy encounter on account of an orange that I was casually peeling during descent).
A massive four-headed golden statue of Samantabhadra buddha sits at Éméi Shān’s summit, with the high Himalayas off to the West. At sunrise, the mountain weather patterns are such that that Éméi Shān’s summit often pokes just above the clouds, allowing you to see what the Chinese call the ‘cloud sea’. Samantabhadra is positioned so that his head catches the rising sun from the East and glory scatters, casting a rainbow-ringed shadow onto the cloud sea below… Absolutely amazing. Éméi Shān is one sacred place that I sincerely hope I have the good fortune to revisit again at some point in my life.