Above the clouds

Undated Handout Photo of Mount Emei. See PA Feature TRAVEL China. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL China.
Undated Handout Photo of Mount Emei. See PA Feature TRAVEL China. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL China.

The cloud of smog that engulfs most of China is actually visible to astronauts orbiting the earth, which hardly makes it the most appealing destination in the world.

But instead of giving the entire country a wide berth, you simply need to modify your choice of location. Ignore the obvious choices of Shanghai and Beijing, and instead, look further south, and to places of high altitude, such as Emei.

In Chinese terms, it’s a village, but with a population of around 425,000 - roughly the same as Bristol - it’s anything but.

There’s much to see and do here, but the jewel in the region’s crown is undoubtedly Mount Emei.

It’s the tallest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, located around an hour’s drive from the centre of Emei. Dozens of coaches travel up there each day. It’s around £8 return, and you’ll also need a ticket to enter the national park, which is about £17. The bus will only take you so far, however, so you’ll have to walk to Jinding - the top of the mountain - which takes about four hours up the stepped path, or you can walk for an hour and get a cable car up the rest of the way. It’s not too strenuous, especially as you’ll be stopping to admire the scenery. But with the high altitude and thin air, it’s breathtaking in more ways than one.

As you go, you’ll no doubt meet a number of golden Tibetan macaques. It’s their habitat and they’re known to get a bit hands-on with tourists and their backpacks, but guards armed with catapults line most of the pathway to keep them at bay, and sticks are available at the base, in case you want a bit of extra protection.

When you reach the top, all your effort will be rewarded with some of the best views you’ll ever come across. As you’ve climbed above the clouds and pollution, you’ll feel the sun on your face for the first time. The effect adds to the zen-like calm at the summit, looking out across the so-called Clouds Carpet with the wind whipping around your ears. Time seems to stand still up here, and it’d be easy to spend a couple of hours just staring out. There are also two Buddhist temples, one of which dates back to the first century and was the first-ever built in China.

A giant gold statue of Buddha himself stands 48m tall - symbolic of the 48 wishes of the Amitabha Buddha - weighs 660 tons and has faces in 10 directions; north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest, up and down.

After you’ve made your way back down the mountain, you might want to visit another giant Buddha, this time at Leshan. You can get to it on foot (£8.50 a ticket), although if you want to fully appreciate how big it is - 73m - you should go past on a boat. The Buddha is the tallest in the world, and by far the tallest pre-modern-era stone statue, although the tourist ‘experience’ around it doesn’t quite do it justice. Our boat trip cost £6.50, lasted around 10 minutes and consisted of a quick drive by.

Emei is a tourist hotspot, but a lot of that is internal tourism, meaning Brits will stand out and attract (friendly) stares from the locals. The market, which is a must to visit, also has a live area, which you should probably only venture into if you have a strong stomach and don’t mind the sight of hundreds of eels being masterfully filleted in front of you.

There are a number of great places to eat around the market too. Lookout for the chicken noodle broth served in piping hot stone bowls, and the roadside barbecue joint we ate at one evening was one of the best meals you’ll ever have for just over a fiver. Here at the One Arm BBQ - so called because the owner has, well, you’ve guessed it - plates and plates of grilled meat and veg on skewers keep on coming.

The nearest good hotel to all this is the Anantara Emei. Recently opened, it’s set in a sprawling compound, and features 90 rooms, 40 pavilions and 20 villas, varying wildly in price from about £140 a night to around £400.

It’s likely you wouldn’t just go to Emei if you were visiting China, and it’s probable you’d get there via Chengdu. It’s about two-and-a-half hours away by road, although a new high-speed rail line is now open, which can also take you to all the way to Shanghai in 15 hours, via Wuhan and Chongqing.

Food in Chengdu is excellent. This is Sichuan, after all, the capital of hot and spicy food in China. They will, of course, make concessions for British palettes and serve you a milder version of whatever you choose, but when in Rome, as they say...

The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base is a must-visit, as are the bustling food markets of Jinli Street and the beautiful nearby Wuhou Memorial Temple. But best of all is the People’s Park. Here, locals gather to put on mock fashion parades, take part in keep-fit dance classes, play Mahjong and, if they have single children over the age of 25, post notices to marry them off.

The region is unique; a mix of the ancient and the forward-thinking, and in case I haven’t made it absolutely clear, blessed with some of the best food you’ll ever taste.