Sunday, July 24, 2011


To anyone who stumbles on this blog (or seeks it out for some reason), it is currently retired, because I no longer live in China, and because I have other blogs that need my time and energy. But, as Peyton Manning and Buddhism have taught us, nothing is permanent, not even retirement. So I will retain the domain.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Another day, another mystery

This man drove by me at the Chengdu Lotus Market yesterday. Question! What's he doing with that peacock?

I didn't see any other exotic animals at the market (alive, see post below). And that's a pretty docile peacock. I've always been under the impression that they are high-strung animals, but this one is being very chill.

Black Market Tiger

Yesterday afternoon I went with some friends to the Lotus Market, in northern Chengdu. Most of the market was just blocks and blocks of stuff--a good place to go if you want to get a sense of what it really means to be in the manufacturing capital of the world. There were large buildings filled with mazes of shops selling everything--clothes, cloth, scarves, jewelry, toys, toothbrushes, uniforms, wool, lanterns--individually and in bulk. I walked away from my friends at one point, got lost, and had to use my cell phone to Marco Polo my way back. The aisles of the market, the sidewalks and the streets were filled with boxes. It seemed like every other vehicle going by was a truck delivering more boxes of stuff. So much stuff!

Along one street was a row of Tibetan women (at least, they were dressed like Tibetan women) selling jewelry and rare, (mostly illegal) animal products. Since I've been writing about the illegal animal trade for my research, I was really excited to see it for myself. I wanted to take a photo, but I suspected the woman would get mad if I did. I took it anyway, and she did get mad, so I walked away. I went over to another woman with similar products. I asked her what animal the paw was from, and she said (in Chinese) tiger. The things beside the tiger paw are tiger penis. I can't recognize some of the other things--but the insects in the basket are 冬虫夏草 (caterpillar fungus), which are used in Traditional Chinese (and Tibetan) Medicine and also eaten as a delicacy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Great Architect

This has nothing to do with anything, but I was reading this article in the New York Times about the extremes that Disney goes through to manage the theme park “experience.” Long story short, there’s a secret bunker somewhere under Cinderella’s castle filled with people monitoring video displays and computers displaying real-time information about the movement of visitors through the park, the wait time for all the rides and restaurants, and information about whether or not rides are being filled to capacity. They can dispatch parades to draw crowds to less-busy rides, or chastise employees who are not efficiently loading the teacups. (I assume they do this through the radio-control shock collar that is mandatory for all Disney employees. The only people I ever knew who wanted to work at Disney were also people who really loved church camp and the TV show “Boy Meets World.” I know that sounds condescending, although it genuinely describes some of my best friends growing up, and they can probably tolerate my derision, and indeed pity me for the lack of sunshine in my heart.)

Ok, so a few things. 1) I’ve only been to Disneyworld one time, and I have to say, Space Mountain is awesome. It’s a roller coaster in the dark. Hell yeah! And if you don’t want to wait in line, go during the parade at the end of the night. I rode Space Mountain four times in a row while all the suckers were crammed in Main Street watching a bunch of people in costumes and some fireworks. 2)  Anyone with a passing familiarity of science fiction knows a dystopia when they see it. And a secret surveillance bunker under a magical dream castle is IT. 3) One of their ideas in progress is a bracelet that contains information about you, specifically your name, your credit card information, and your favorite Disney character. (It doesn’t say, but I’m going to assume it uses an RFID chip to transmit this data.)

Let me expand on that for a minute. When you enter the park, you can leave worldly things behind. You don’t need to stop to PAY for anything, because you’re in a magical dream world where you wave your arm at some kind of transceiver and then receive a souvenir. Disney characters come up to you and greet you by name and give you a big hug. The next time they see you they remember you. (I can think of some less wholesome more Vegas-y, applications for this kind of technology, feeding into the human desire to enter into a complete fantasy environment.)

Side note: I would like a bracelet with an RFID chip that would transmit a signal to all computers in my vicinity to automatically switch to Georgia font. It’s the best font, and I see no reason why Word should default to Calibri, when I so clearly prefer to use Georgia. My own computer at least should remember my preferences. Saint Zuckerberg, can you hear me? (He’s the patron saint of tech that should exist but doesn’t yet. And no Brett, it doesn’t matter that he’s Jewish.)

In any case, if there’s an “environment” spectrum, it probably goes something like this: 

Wilderness Unknown (The bottom of the ocean. The moon. The human heart.)

Wilderness (The interior of Alaska. The jungles of the Amazon. The slopes of Annapurna.)

Wilderness Known (Backpacker’s paradise.)

Wilderness doorstep (Any “entryway” into deeper wilderness where people cluster for great views, i.e. Old Faithful, the southern rim of the Grand Canyon)

Rural-Wild (The Ozarks, West Virginia, Yellowknife. Places without extensive agriculture but where people live and distill very very hard liquor.)

Rural (Low population, agriculture.)

Suburbs (Where the artifice begins—pretend wilderness and highly designed and manipulated landscapes.)

City (Buildings occasionally interrupted by a park or water front.)

Urban Jungle (Like "The Wire," and much of China.) 

Theme Park

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Panda of the Day

I saw this guy at the Panda Breeding and Research Center here in Chengdu. It looks like he was the victim of a particularly destructive hurricane, but he's actually just asleep. It probably wore him out climbing up there.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chengdu Zoo

So when I'm working on this blog I like to do a lot of extra reading for each post--news articles, academic articles, etc.--depending on the topic of the post. The point of this is to educate myself (and any possible readers) on a variety of issues related to China's Environment, things that I might not otherwise learn about since my specific focus for my masters thesis is wildlife and the use of bears in Traditional Chinese Medicine (I promise there will be more on that topic later, much more).

But for today's topic, which I'm going to sardonically call "A Trip to Hell the Zoo!" I don't want to read about it, talk about it, or think about it at all beyond just posting and labeling some photos. There are few things in this world that I love more than animals (yes, human rights and human equality rank higher), and there is little that distresses me more than seeing animals in a degraded state of existence. I would rather see an animal dead than see it live out its life like a bile-farmed bear or like any of these animals at the Chengdu zoo. They would be better off dead--and that's not hyperbole, I really really mean that.

But one of the things I hate more than seeing animals live like this, is seeing human beings who think that it is acceptable for animals to live like this. And I'm not naive-I understand why people have different viewpoints on animals and their place in the world, in fact, that's pretty much what I've devoted my life to studying. But I don't think there's any gray area in this case. With many zoos you can argue that the animals are teaching people about the importance of conservation, inspiring people to care, raising money for research, etc.

But so many of these zoo animals look and act like something with its mind excavated; ratty sacks of fur neurotically pacing the years away in a cement chamber. They aren't wild animals any more. I don't know what anyone could learn from them.

Here's one of the panda enclosures. The cells are bigger than what the large cats get, but nothing like the nice habitat areas the pandas have at the Breeding and Research Center north of the city (pictures of that trip later). This was the first time I've ever seen a panda. They live up to their reputation of being cute and boring

Here are some of the tiger cages. I went behind the building to see if they had any considerable space away from this viewing area, but they were only tiny little rooms, maybe a fifth the size of their main rooms.

Here's the lion cell. I noticed that I was bothered more by seeing animals that I've seen in the wild. I lived in Tanzania when I was 11 years old, and I definitely saw a few of these guys out on the Serengeti.  

Here's an animal I often see out on mountains in Washington, the pika. Here he doesn't have any rocks to climb on; he just paces back and forth in that room.

I doubt many dog-owners would think this was an acceptable place to keep their pet all the time. For wolves it's even worse, because they're pack animals accustomed to roaming long distances.

Before I get to the bears, I want to quickly post these photos of the token African animals--the giraffes have an outside enclosure with some tree access, but the elephant only has the outside space you can see in the photos, which doesn't include the empty space on the other side of the post fence. Elephants are also herd animals, designed to roam over long distances. Their sheer size makes them difficult to accommodate in captivity, and for that reason they are one of the most controversy-laden zoo animals.

Here are the brown bears. They've been taught to beg for food.  The larger bear growls and swipes to intimidate the smaller one (bears live alone in the wild), and then stands on his hind legs and waits for people to throw junky food at him. The guard nearby doesn't stop people from doing this.

Here's the polar bear. Yeah, that's right, they keep a polar bear in Chengdu, where most summer days the temperature is in the upper 80s/lower 90s. Polar bears have a thick layer of fat right under their skin that makes them prone to overheating (which is why they live in the fucking Arctic). While we were watching, some people came over and threw food at the polar bear's head. It bounced off her and she looked at it, but stayed very still. 


Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Different Kind of Water Safety...

As I was drinking from my Haoqixiaozi-brand reusable water bottle the other day, I noticed this sticker:

Translated, it says “SGS Inspection, American FDA food-grade standards.” The little red circle says “qualified.” (As if a company would ever label a product “unqualified” or better, “unfit for human use.”)

My first reaction was “yeah right,” so I went to the SGS website to check it out. I learned that SGS is an international consumer product inspection and certification company. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the environment, other than it offers a service to help companies comply with environmental standards, if that’s what they’re looking for. Not relevant in this case.

I also went to the Haoqixiaozi website to see if there was any reference to environmental standards of production or any reference to being BPA-free or anything like that. I learned that the Haoqixiaozi (“curious kid”) brand is affiliated with GE. I also learned that their English web pages are badly translated. Also, I learned that their water bottles are bulletproof. Don’t believe me? Here’s what the website says, and we all know that the internet doesn’t lie.
So-kid's freshness preserving water bottle for sports is manufactured of 100% GE bullet resisting glass resin. It has obtained American FDA authentication and 8 Chinese patents. Its products are sold all over the world. It is leading in the industry.

GE bullet resisting glass resin, chemical name: super high polymerization PC, is different from common medium and low polymerization PC. Its miraculous property makes it widely used in bullet resisting glass manufacture and space .
Did I say bulletproof? I meant “bullet resisting.” Because bullets are something that can be resisted, like the urge to eat ice cream for breakfast every day. Since I'm currently in China I don't have access to my gun collection and consumer-product safety inspection shooting gallery, so I can't verify the claim.

The company sells its water bottles to Wal-Mart, which makes sense, since I bought the bottle at Trust-mart, which is the English name Wal-Mart uses for its China stores. (The actual Chinese name is 好又多, which translates more accurately to “good and plenty.”) They do actually have a certificate from the FDA.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Chengdu Bicycle

So this has nothing to do with China's environment--except for maybe that riding bicycles is good for the earth--but I wanted to post this photo of my really cool bike lock.

When I bought the lock from the bicycle 师傅* he kept saying that it was 很方便, or "very convenient." I quickly saw what he meant! The lock is a metal circle that is permanently attached to the frame of the bike around the wheel, and opens/closes very easily with a key. It's so much better than using a U-lock.

I'm going to write a heartfelt ballad about how much I love this bike lock. I want to sky-write a marriage proposal to this bike lock, and then take it to Canada and marry it. This bike lock and I have a future together. (At least until someone steals my bike, which is apparently 99.9% likely to happen.)

*skilled worker, or master of a particular trade or craft

Chengdu Water Pricing

Quick description of water pricing in Chengdu, as of June 2010:

Water pricing is different for households and various kinds of businesses. Household water is the cheapest, and it's subsidized. I don’t have any figures for industrial water pricing.

Household water price:
1.70 RMB/m3 for tap water
0.80 RMB/m3 for waste water treatment
Total: 2.5 RMB/m3 (0.38 dollars)
This price is a 0.35 RMB increase that started in July, and there will be another 0.35 increase in January. This is to get the water price close to the actual household water price which is about 3.00RMB in urban areas.

There are several categories of special businesses that pay a higher price for their water, because they are high-profit luxury businesses, and because they use a lot of water:

Spas and saunas, massage parlors:
10.50 RMB/m3 for tap water
4.50 RMB/m3 for waste water treatment
Total: 15.00 RMB/m3 ($2.25)

Auto-cleaning businesses:
6.60 RMB/m3 for tap water
3.40 RMB/m3 for waste water treatment
Total: 10 RMB/m3 ($1.50)

Tea houses, tobacco industry, soft drink and alcohol industry, and entertainment industry:
5.60 RMB/m3 for tap water
1.80 RMB/m3 for waste water treatment
Total: 7.40 RMB/m3 ($1.11)

Professor Yan thinks that there is an inequity in the special business water pricing. The auto-cleaning businesses obviously use a lot more water, with high-pressure hoses, for something that is pointless. (OMG what will people think if there is dirt on my car? How is this anyone’s priority? Ever??) Most likely the officials that voted on this all have personal luxury cars, and didn’t want to pay more to have them cleaned. No matter where you live, it seems, you can’t escape public officials that are preening morons.

The current actual cost of water and wastewater treatment, varies by region:
1.00-3.00 RMB/m3 for tap water (0.15-0.45 dollars)
0.50-3.00 RMB/m3 for waste water treatment (0.08-0.45 dollars)

In addition, some large cities pay a water resource exploitation fee that goes to the Ministry of Water Resources where it is allocated to water protection projects. Beijing pays 1.10 RMB/m3 and Chongqing pays 0.10 RMB/m3.

Questions I still have: How much water do households typically use? Compared to America? Why are their not more low-flow fixtures? Also, a question I can’t get a straight answer to is, can you drink the tap water? I mean, it’s treated, right? But none of the foreigners here drink it without boiling and/or filtering. I was told that the heavy metals in the water were something I should definitely avoid. But the tap water in cities is treated--a major development goal is to get city-quality tap in rural areas. I just don't know.

Dragons: Celestial Beings, or Bureaucrats? In China, Both!

My first semester at UW I took a class called Government of China. This class taught me that there are people out there who understand how the Chinese government works (the textbook writers, some political scientists), but I think it’s byzantine, and I can’t bear to try to puzzle it out for too long, even if it makes me a better person for trying. The water governance system is no different, called “nine dragons administer the water,” a charming name hiding a tangled hairball of bureaucracy. (It's worth noting that the offices are most likely called "dragons" in reference to the ancient myth of the Dragon King, who lives in an underwater palace and controls the water. I might write more about this in a later blog post, because it's way more interesting than writing about government.)

I’m using two different sources for this summary. The first source is my professor at Sichuan University, in the Department of Environmental Engineering. I think she is taking her basic info about the water management structure from the different ministries’ publications. All the Chinese ministries have up-to-date websites in both Chinese and English--I'm working on putting the links here, but I'm limited by the wireless here at Pete's Tex-Mex and the unreliability of my Russian-administrated VPN. The other source is this really dry (har) 2006 report in the journal Water Policy, published by a group of professors affiliated with Yunnan University.

The nine dragons and their responsibilities:

National Development and Reform Commission 国家发展和改革委员会

Can you imagine how powerful this branch of government is? Is anything in China more important (at the official level) than development and reform?

One of the responsibilities of the NDRC is to approve and oversee large construction projects, like the Three Gorges Dam project and the South-North Water Transfer.

Ministry of Water Resources 中华人民共和国水利部

The MWR is responsible for the overall water resource management and exploitation, including hydropower, shipping and transportation, and resolving the conflicts that occur at the lower levels of water management. The MWR has sub-offices at the province, county and city levels. Within the MWR there are also river management committees for each major river, which are subdivided into river section management committees.

Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development

The M-HURD (I’m not sure if that’s the real acronym, but I like it, because it sounds appropriately like the ministry that handles the “herd”) is in charge of the water inside of cities. They work with the local-level offices of the SEPA and the MWR to deal with pollution.

State Environmental Protection Administration 中华人民共和国环境保护部
Deals with water pollution, ob, and establishes the national standards for pollution control.

Ministry of Agriculture

The MF deals with irrigation and non-point source pollution, as well as the environmental health of fisheries.

Ministry of Construction

Deals with water projects, including supply infrastructure and sewage disposal.

State Forest Bureau

The Forest Bureau controls watershed protection, i.e. planting trees to protect the rivers from erosion and flooding.

State Electric Power Company

Hydropower! Controls large and medium-scale projects, mostly dams.

Ministry of Communication

The MC controls pollution from ships on rivers. This is kind of a weird place to house this responsibility. Why doesn’t it fall under the MWR’s control over shipping?

Ministry of Health

The MH controls drinking water standards—no easy task, I’m sure.

Wait, are you counting? That’s ten! Ten dragons! Where’d the extra dragon come from? The Yunnan University report doesn’t include the M-HURD, but these city officials definitely have a say over urban lake and river management. They can even request increases in the amount of water coming into the city by buying "credits" from reservoirs upriver.

It’s no wonder it’s so hard to get water pollution problems addressed in such a bureaucratic system, even with lots of money available (what's left after embezzlement and kickbacks). I hate to end on this cynical note, so I'll end with a cautionary water proverb:

 Water floats a boat, but it can also sink it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dams, Rivers, Lakes

Monday's Environmental Issues in China class was all about water. I think the most interesting thing we learned was how cities in China price and distribute water. (On a personal note, I'm about to receive my first-ever Chinese utility bill! I need to learn some appropriate Chinese expressions to use when I'm grumbling over the high cost of utilities, along the lines of "these fees are breaking my balls".)

I want to write down some of the basics of Chinese water issues, but before I do I also have to make a correction to my previous blog post about the water quality ranking system. Our teacher told us she made a mistake when she was telling us how differently-ranked water can be used. Grade V quality water (most polluted) can't really be used for anything, and Grade III quality water (medium-level pollution) can be used for agricultural irrigation (not Grade V, like I wrote before). Industry, depending on what kind, can use Grade II, III, or IV quality water.

Moving on...China has a lot of water resources, but a fairly low per capita water capacity, that is decreasing. This is due, of course, to the high population. Plus the concentration of the population in massive urban areas (megacities!) presents a Herculean set of transportation/distribution/treatment challenges. Shortages abound--basic water resource shortages, shortages caused by pollution, and shortages caused by underdeveloped infrastructure. I really couldn't explain the water scarcity issue better than this article.

Some info about the Yellow River:
  •  The Yellow River is China's "mother river," but her little flooding problem (one 19th century flood killed possibly as many as 4,000,000 people) makes her a very, very unstable mother, something like a tiger with bipolar disorder.
  • It flows through a semi-arid area, and is one of the most over-exploited and polluted rivers of all time.*
  • In the 1950s, only 19% of the river was being exploited. In the 1980s it was 69%. In 2009 that number rose to 79%.
*English usage side note, can something be "moderately exploited"? Or "a bit exploited"? Why then do we have to say "over-exploited" to really get the meaning across? And is "Ecosploitation" a possible new film genre?

Some info about dams on Chinese rivers:
  • As of 2003 the rivers in China had 22,000 dams, a little less than half the number of dams in the whole world. At that time the other many-dammed nations were the U.S., with 6,575; India, with 4,291; and Japan, with 2,675. Western European countries and South Africa also have a fair amount of dams, for their size. Russia only had 99, which is surprising to me, considering the soviet legacy of large-scale engineering projects. 
  • In Sichuan, the province where I live, every river has 10 or more dams on it.
  • There is a lot of competition between state-owned electric companies to "take what they can, while they can," according to my professor, which is why there is such a ridiculously high number of dams.
A fact about bottled water in China:
  • In 2004 the per capital bottled water consumption was 9 liters. (The US was 91, and Italy was the highest at 184--mio dio!) 
The Chinese number seems pretty low, right? Bottled water is pretty ubiquitous here, including the large office-water-cooler style jugs that a lot of people buy for home consumption. The jugs are returned to the distributor for reuse, so they're not exactly like the personal-size bottles of water that can be bought at any convenience store, so I wonder if they're being included in the statistics. 

Some important environmental events that have focused public attention on water issues (with links):
  • 1994, Three Gorges Dam project begins.
  • November 2005, Songhua River 松花江, an explosion at a petrochemical plant dumps benzene into the river.
  • June 2007,  Tai Lake 太湖, eutrophication due to chemical dumping turned the lake into Nickelodeon-quality green slime. Because the lake is bordered by four provinces, the different governments had to create a framework for cooperation across provincial lines. China is currently revising its system for managing rivers and large bodies of water that pass through multiple provinces.
  • August 2010, Bailong River 白龙江, mudslide, most likely due to intensive hydropower development. Or Dam! We built too many.
  • Ongoing, Dian Lake 滇池, massive pollution.
 If there's anyone out there that loooves reading World Bank reports, here's one called "Water Pollution Emergencies in China" from 2007.

I have a lot more to write about on the topic of water, but it will have to wait until tomorrow, because my brain is powering down to conserve energy. (I'm carbon neutral, and contain no BPA or rare earth elements!) Still to come: The "nine dragons manage the water" system, Chengdu water pricing and household use (this might include a picture of my toilet, you lucky people), subsidies, and the hard lives of water activists.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Food: Origins

Interesting article posted on grist by Andrew Stein, a writer/researcher who lives in Hangzhou. He decided to try to trace the food that he buys at his local markets to see where it comes from. He uncovers some interesting quirks in the Chinese food supply chain.

I'm currently taking a class at Sichuan University called Environmental Issues in China. The teachers are a great source of information on just about everything. We recently discussed the budding organic movement in China. They also told us that some of the farmers around Chengdu actually rent out plots of land to city-dwellers, who visit the farms on the weekend to grow/pick their own vegetables. Also, a student in my program  told me that her host family took her out to a farm where a group of Chengdu-ites come out 3-4 times a year to work. They harvest vegetables and then cook a big meal together. Organic farming tourism, fascinating!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some thoughts on water...

Some interesting statistics on Chinese water quality, from a 2006 report by the World Bank:
  • In the almost 500 sections of China’s main river systems that are monitored for water quality, about one-third have water quality with very limited or no functional use, and only 28 percent have water suitable for drinking. 
What does this mean?  China has a 5-point water quality rating system.  Level 1 and 2 water are fit for human consumption (although level two quality water still has to be filtered). Level 3 water can't be consumed, but is acceptable for fishing and fisheries. (Ugh, right?) Level 4 quality water can be used for industry only. Level 5 quality water can only be used for agriculture. (Issues abound--the water that's going on food is worse than water being used in industry, and there's not been much research into what affect that is having on consumers' health.) There's another rating called "less than 5" quality water, which is what runs through the Fu and He rivers here in Chengdu. I'll say more about that later when I post about the local river rehab project.

So only 28% of the water in Chinese lakes and rivers is level 1 or 2 quality. Swimming not advised.
  •  In 1980, the proportion of urban dwellers constituted less than 20 percent of the population, in 2000 it was 36 percent, and by 2020 it is projected to be 54 percent....The increase in urbanization results in a rising demand for water from the established water supply system and an increase in water pollution in the short run. 
This is pretty self-explanatory. It's interesting that what is perceived to be the main source of pollution--waste from heavy industry--has become less of an issue than the pollution from urban wastewater.  A lot of effort has been put into controlling industrial pollution, but the growing urban population demands accessible, clean, and cheap water for drinking and household use. A plus for quality-of-life, but minus for China's rivers.
  • By relating water demand projections to expected sector growth, projections indicate that this growth will lead to an increase in water demand of 6.5, 32, and 35 percent (2003–2020) from agriculture, industry, and residential users respectively (Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, 2004). These figures imply that a total increase in demand for water of 83 billion m3 will be essential if China is to maintain its current pattern of economic growth. However, with a relatively constant water supply, the increased water demand will have to be met mainly through water savings and improved water quality.
The simple fact is, northern China will have to clean and manage the water it already has. Even with supplemental water from the North-South transfer project, the increased population in this area and the unsustainable use of groundwater has made this a really pressing issue. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mecury Rising

Article from The Sunday Times,

'Green' lightbulbs poison workers

Hundreds of factory staff are being made ill by mercury used in bulbs destined for the West

WHEN British consumers are compelled to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs from 2012, they will save up to 5m tons of carbon dioxide a year from being pumped into the atmosphere. In China, however, a heavy environmental price is being paid for the production of “green” lightbulbs in cost-cutting factories.
Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs. A surge in foreign demand, set off by a European Union directive making these bulbs compulsory within three years, has also led to the reopening of mercury mines that have ruined the environment.
Click here for the full article.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tour Bus to Heaven: Monks and Monkeys

This last week was the Mid-Autumn Festival, and we got some time off from school (although we have to make up for it on the weekend, which is weird) so my classmate Kiana and I decided to go to E’Mei Shan, the highest of the four Buddhist holy mountains of China (3,099 meters or 10,167 feet if you're American), and home to around 30 temples, all dedicated to the bodhisattva Samantabhadra (in Chinese: Puxian) who got around the eastern world in style, by flying on the back of a white elephant.
As a tourist destination, E’Mei Shan tries to be all things to all people.  It’s renowned for the  martial arts practiced by masters and monks, and it's the namesake of the proto-feminist E’mei sect in Wuxia fiction. It was the site of the first Buddhist temple in China--built in the 1st century CE--but most of the original temples and religious structures have been rebuilt following some catastrophe or another.  There are about 50 kilometers of “trails” that run roughly circular around the mountain.  I’m scare-quoting “trails” because the paths here are not maintained dirt routes running through a wilderness, in the American hiking/backpacking cultural sense of the word; they’re stone walking paths, and lots and lots and lots and lots of stairs.  (I think I climbed/descended the equivalent of Queen Anne Hill 800,000 times.)
Kiana: Wushu victim

Hold me back!
At the bottom of the mountain there are resort-y things to do--fancy teahouses and hot springs that look like water parks, and even an obstacle course where you can play soldier for an hour.  For the lazy, elderly, time-constricted and infirm, there’s a bus that goes within 6km of the top of the mountain, and from there you can climb the rest of the way to the “Golden Summit”(2 hours)  or take a 65 kuai cable car (5 minutes).  There’s a small ski resort up there too, as well as numerous tchotchke stands with truly tacky items for sale (plastic prayer beads anyone?) and for the kids there are…monkeys!
Fake-ass butterfly tchotchke
The mountain is home to ruthlessly clever Tibetan macaques, who rob all the tourists.  Everywhere I saw monkeys, I also saw a ton of trash.  Most of it was from tourists who had their goods stolen and rifled through, and discarded by the monkeys, or from tourists who just threw their food to the monkeys for fun, or out of fear. (They were amply warned beforehand about the monkey "problem" by extensive signage and verbal admonishment, so they have only themselves to blame if they suffer the loss of their overpriced souvenirs and/or get monkey herpes).  Kiana and I saw a monkey leap on top of a guy and climb all over him aggressively until he yielded his bag of food.  Kind of depressing actually.*  I also saw a monkey drinking a can of Red Bull.  The monkeys left me alone since I was empty-handed, and maybe also because I was born in the Year of the Monkey, making me the wily and brilliant Monkey Queen who can control the macaque with her mind.
They do look like Ewoks.
Non-handsome trash-pickers
Bottled water: modern scourge

Kiana and I started our trip by taking the bus up to the highest accessible point by road, and stayed in a hotel under the cable car station.  We asked for the cheapest room, which turned out to be accessible only from the outside of the building, inside the basement where one of the hotel guards lived (a man’s home is where he hangs his socks to dry).

We got up at three in the morning to climb to the summit, called Jinding Peak, to see the sunrise.  This is the biggest tourist draw on the mountain, and we were surprised to see no other people on the trail.  (Kiana later said, bitterly, “I guess they knew something we didn’t.”)  It was cold and rainy, the air was thin, the trail was steep, with only my headlamp to guide us…we suffered, but we persevered! Kind of!
小红鬼 at one of the temples along the way
At the top of the mountain, the trail opened up into a wide expanse of steps, and it was very very dark and foggy.  There were elephant statues everywhere I shone my light, and somewhere looming over us was an enormous golden statue of multi-faced, multi-elephant-riding Samantabhadra.  And it was spooky.  At the base of this statue we saw a light from a door, and we wandered over to it like refugee children in a fairy tale, cold and tired.  We went inside a small anteroom connected to an even smaller office, and sat down to warm up.  Soon a groundskeeper came back to the room, and very kindly invited us to sit in the office with him beside a plug-in heater.  We did.  He listened to a radio broadcast of the morning prayers, and then said his own prayers out loud, and then we all fell asleep in our chairs for about half an hour.  About 15 minutes to 6:00 he said “time to eat!” and walked out of the office.  We followed him across the plaza to a monastery building where the monks were finishing up a chanting/drum thing.  We lingered a little longer then decided to look around outside.  Everything was covered in a haze, there was no sunrise to see, but it was beautiful nevertheless.  In the morning light the elephant statues looked less sinister.

Samantabhadra and the Little Red Ghost

The first tourists started streaming up from the cable car station as we were leaving, and I could tell that the place was going to turn into a madhouse in half an hour or so.  We returned to the bus station, and Kiana and I parted; she decided to return to the hot springs at bottom of the mountain, and I decided to endure the weather and walk down the mountain.  I wanted to see the “nature” part of E'Mei Shan.

Immediately after leaving the bus stop the trail turned quiet and scenic.  I saw only a handful of people on the way to the monastery where I planned to spend the night--the Elephant Washing Pool monastery. (Once, a zillion years ago, Samantabhadra flew in here on his white elephant for a quick rest and wash, not unlike a Flying J Travel Plaza.)  This monastery is in a great location, as you can see in the picture, but the rusted metal roof sure makes it look “rustic” (a less generous person might say “janky”).  Lots of monkeys.  I saw a monk take a running swipe at a macaque.
Elephant Washing Pool

Tin roof, rusted!
I read for several hours in a small restaurant beside the temple and then another hour while sitting on a hard bench inside one of the inner courtyards of the monastery. (the book I brought: Portrait of a Lady, which I described to the restaurant’s laoban as 一点没有意思, seriously James, frequent paragraph breaks let your reader know you care.)

I watched the monks and nuns walk around (one nun was wearing very stylish knee-high blue wool socks and a cape, natch).  The toilet room had one of those really scenic views that BW** and I have noticed all over the backwoods Cascades and beyond, I regret not taking a picture, but I didn’t want to be another western-blogger-complaining-about-Chinese-toilets, since that ground is pretty well worn.

That night I had a six-bed dorm room to myself, and there were a number of other Chinese tourists staying at the monastery too.  The monks did a nighttime chant/prayer, and I wondered if it was distracting to them to have all those tourists wandering around the monastery, talking on their cell phones and chatting.  It’s strange that a place built to be a remote spiritual retreat (is that the purpose of mountaintop monasteries?) is a tourist destination.  For many—maybe most— of the tourists, the Buddhism is a big draw, and the trip is something of a religious journey.  But the tourists also bring their (predominantly) middle-class, secular, worldliness with them, and I wonder how this effects the day-to-day life of the monks and nuns who live in the monasteries.  Perhaps they polish up their tarnished hearts during the off-season.
My bed
Best thing ever: waking up in a monastery.  It smells like incense and damp stone (the mountain is pretty much located inside a cloud).  The bed had a heated mattress pad and a very heavy blanket, quite warm.  At 5:30 a monk with a beautiful voice started chanting, and I lay there for half an hour listening to the music and the sounds of the forests and the scuffling around of the waking-up hikers.  I left about 20 minutes later, and continued walking down the trail in the dark grey-blue morning light.
Before I left the monastery though, something confusing happened.  I was walking through a courtyard when one of the monks pointed me towards the dining room where they were serving everyone breakfast.  I kind of wanted to walk for a few hours before eating, but I thought maybe it was a free breakfast, so why not?  The dining room was chaotic, I couldn’t get a sense of the procedure, so I grabbed a bowl off the table and took it to get some porridge.  One of the servers told me not to use the table bowls, (they were kind of fancy) but rather to use the cheap bowls in the cabinet.  I thought that maybe the fancy bowls were for the monks.  I apologized and took a cheap bowl, filled it with porridge and put it on the table and noticed that the fancy bowls were not being used by the monks, they were for some other variety of Chinese tourist.  I went to get a spoon from the servers, and they said no, to give them 8 kuai, so I took out 10 kuai and tried to give it to them, but they ignored me.  I was tired of trying to figure out the situation, so I left to go be on my own again on the trail.  What does it all mean?  I have to say though, I love porridge with pickled vegetables.  (“I’mma let you finish baozi, but I just gotta say, porridge with pickled vegetables is the best Chinese breakfast of all time!!!”)
That day on the trail was one of the best days of my life.  I walked along through beautiful mountain scenery, stopping in several small outdoor restaurants to drink tea and eat fresh fried bread.  Every 4 kilometers or so there was a small temple with a few buildings around it, built to suit the landscape.  

At one point I was sure I saw a fox (which has long been one of my favorite animals because of The Little Prince).  But it turned out to be a large orange cat.  The cat stopped and meowed at me, walked a little ways down the path and waited for me to follow.  It did this all the way down to the next little temple along the path, and once there, it ran off down a rock-lined trail towards an outhouse and disappeared.  At this point a monk in orange robes appeared from behind the temple (I’m not saying he’s a magical monk that can transform into a cat, I’m just telling you what happened) and headed down the trail in the same direction as me.  For the rest of the day we were walking in tandem, sometimes he walked ahead of me on the trail, then he would stop to sing a song to the scenery, and then I would move ahead, and he would follow.

Orange Cat Temple

The Buddhist fairy tale I had been living in since leaving the bus stop started to fade the closer I got to my destination at Wannian monastery, a popular tourist spot accessible by cable car from a bus stop.  I was a little stunned to be back around so many people, and even more knocked out of my shell by a large group of tourists that asked me to be in like, 800 photographs with them.  (“But I haven’t showered in three days!” “No problem, you are beautiful, SMILE!”) After looking around for a while, I escaped into a cable car, which was a lot more fun and less tacky than I thought it would be.  Best form of automated transportation:  floating glass pod

This elephant butt is 1030 years old.  That's actually not an exaggeration.
Path to Wannian

Some flora and fauna:

Blue Punkapillar!
Banana Slug is my favorite slug, but this is my second favorite slug.
It wouldn't be paradise without one of these.
Turtles and money, at Wannian monastery

*This reminded me, in a tangential way, of the scene in the movie Into the Wild when Chris McCandless leaves the wilderness and goes to LA, and all of a sudden his free-spirited existence in the wild spaces of the world turns into what looks like, you know, dirty homelessness.  Context means so much, in our perception of wild animals.
**Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy