China has 4 sacred Buddhist mountains, one of which is Emei Shan (shan means mountain) in Sichuan province. It’s actually more of a mountain range, with several peaks. The mountain is a pilgrimage site and is littered with ancient temples and monasteries, all in a national park. Of course it is another Unesco World Heritage Site too….
As the rest of our group were enjoying a long lunch in a restaurant, we continued the drive to Emei Shan so we could start our hike in the late afternoon. Our plan was to hike from the base of the Wanian cable car to the top of Emei Shan, an altitude gain of nearly 2500m, staying overnight in one of the Buddhist monasteries.
It was 5pm before we were finally on our way, choosing to hike instead of taking the cable car to Wanian monastery. Our goal was to reach the second monastery, without knowing exactly what it was called, how far the hike would be, or if it offered accommodation.
Most of the tourist attractions in China don’t bother with maps in English, including the World Heritage Sites… We did find a crude mud-map which we take a picture of (they never have a spare copy), but there were no altitudes, distances or walking-times marked on the sections of trails. I guess you could call it an adventure, and we were thankful of the late sunsets as we head further north.
We arrived at Xixin Monastery just after they had finished their dinner. Lucky, as it meant we could still have some food too. We enjoyed our vegetarian meal whilst taking in the surrounding views.
As night fell we were split up for the first time on the trip as the monks showed us the dormitories. One for boys and one for girls… We were the only ones staying there, but had to sleep in separate rooms.
We joined the monks for an early breakfast and watched the kitchen staff chase away the monkeys, who were trying to break into the monastery, with a fire extinguisher. We wondered what they were planning to use if ever a fire were to break out…
Shortly after 7 we were on our way again, tackling the many, many steps that, eventually, would lead us to the top we could occasionally see in the distance. Emei Shan also has lots of little food stalls on the way to the top, and we had just passed one with some noisy Chinese tourists when something truly amazing happened. Jon spotted an animal, only 3 metres away from us. “Look, a fox”, he said. And all 3 of us stared at each other for about 5-6 seconds. Then the fox turned around and walked the other way. Jon and I looked at each other and we realised it hadn’t been a fox. It was a red panda!!
They do look a bit like a fox, are slightly bigger, and have a cuter, more rounded face. Its pelt was a vivid red in the sunlight and it had gentle, puzzled looking shiny black eyes. He (or she) didn’t look scared, but more surprised.
People have said seeing a panda in the wild is like winning the lottery, and it certainly felt like that (not that we really know what winning a lottery feels like, unfortunately). We just couldn’t believe our chance meeting happened!
Still floating from happiness we finished the grueling steps (perhaps 10,000 of them, we lost count) up and down until we arrived at the Golden Summit for a great, well-deserved lunch: a wholemeal baguette with cheese and some magdalenas.
We didn’t have time to walk all the way down, so after a short descent back to the car park of the summit cable car, we scored a lift back to our car park within a few minutes. Several cars had already stopped to apologise they couldn’t take us down as they were full, often with more than 3 people already in the back…
We found a lovely campsite by the pristine river and hiked the short trail down for a well-deserved wash. We both wanted to wash our hair after our 2-day hike, when I spotted a snake on the river bank which had just eaten a frog so wasn’t moving. Jon had nearly stepped on it, but when I told him about the snake he jumped as when he looked down, he realised he was virtually standing on another 2 snakes! He thought I warned him about those 2. We counted 9 water snakes in the little section of river we could see and decided to take it in turns to wash so the other could stand guard. They were beautiful and very fast and graceful swimmers.
As it was a beautiful evening, we watched the squirrels and giant squirrels fossick in the forest on the opposite side of the river. And when the sun set we saw hundreds of bats leave the cave we were parked next to.
Then, after dinner, just as I was about to find a secluded spot for a little toilet break, I spotted another snake. This time a land snake with a beautiful ochre and black pattern was crossing the little dirt track we were parked on. And then another, and another and another! In the end we lost count how many snakes we saw. It was amazing, we would see 3 or 4 snakes in view at any one time, crossing or about to cross the track!
They must have known we were there, but were never bothered or scared (neither us nor the snakes that is). They just kept doing what they were doing and we wondered if it was mating season and they were all out to find a partner.
A few days later we spent an entire morning looking at more pandas, both the giant and the red panda, at the Panda Base in Chengdu. This is a well-setup research and breeding base for both types of pandas. Whilst not quite as special an experience as seeing the red panda in the wild, it is still amazing to see all the giant pandas, especially as they have all been bred from just 6 animals.
After Taman Negara, we headed East, passing endless palm plantations and Chinese-Malay petrochemical complexes, before hitting the East coast. We were a bit flat when we finally reached Cherating, a beautiful laid-back beach town.
We camped right on the beach, and set about, unsuccessfully, doing a few jobs on our ‘todo’ list. The problem was the friendly and inquisitive Malays, the first of which was Hani, a young guy who rolled-up in his Pajero 4WD. He excitedly talked about always wanting a Defender and insisted we have his model Defender, which took pride of place on his dash. ‘Mini-Lara’ is now pride of place on our dash, along with our other mascots. Shortly afterwards, Jon was enrolled into the local 6-a-side beach soccer team, and was luckily on the winning team as the opposition had to do push-ups every time we scored.
Next stop was Lake Kenyir, where we worked up an appetite kayaking round some of the many jungle-covered islands. Dinner here proved pretty challenging. We were now off the beaten track and fewer people spoke English. The girls working at the local restaurant appeared to draw straws as to who would have to try their English on us – but in the end we got our dinner and some pretty disgusting drinks (something looked like cola, but had bits floating in it).
A long drive back to the West took us to the Cameron Highlands. This was paradise, pleasantly cool at 1,500m, full of manicured tea plantations stretched over idyllic valleys and jungle walks. More important than all this though was the number of Land Rovers. Every second car was a beaten-up Land Rover pick-up (Land Rover would never make a ute) ferrying bags of tea or fruit about the place. For a brief period, Lara was in heaven.
Penang, on the west coast, claims to be the food capital of Malaysia. It was also the over-development capital and full of flash Malaysians showing off their sports cars. I think they call it ‘progress’. But if you look beyond that, the old colonial heart of Georgetown is a unique melting pot of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cultures and the food choices are endless. We chose Penang assam (fish) laksa and char kwey teow (substantially better, and cheaper, than you would get in a Brisbane food court) followed up with fried oysters.
We then met the only rude person in Malaysia. Whilst we were camping in the car park of the Penang National Park, the security guard, Mr Grumpy himself, woke us at midnight to tell us we had to leave before his boss came at 6am – even on a Sunday. We were then evicted at 5am, and moved next door to the smelly and noisy fishing docks, not so nice. But the park itself was great, we even saw some wildlife!
After Penang it was north to the Thai border. We covered 1,750km in Malaysia, and regarding breakdowns, I have proven my colleague Andy Way wrong. The Malays are wonderfully friendly and polite, if a little shy. Its just a a bit of a shame that the world has developed such an appetite for palm oil!
PS don’t forget to place your bet for the total number of kilometers you think we will drive from KL to London!!! You have until 1 April to place your bet! 🙂