"See this!" the English woman said, turning to show where the back of her shorts bore a muddy and obviously simian handprint. "We got attacked by the monkeys." It's not every day that a complete stranger shows me their rear end, but reaching the summit of Emei Shan in southern China meant we had all run the gauntlet of marauding monkeys and it seemed familiarity grew from experiencing this fellowship of primate aggression.
At least we could take consolation in the knowledge that in grappling with the monkeys (actually Tibetan macaques) we joined a fellowship with a long and impressive history. Pilgrims had been coming to this steep and thickly-forested mountain ever since the first temple was built on the 3,077m main summit about 2,000 years ago. That first temple was Taoist, but the affiliation changed to Buddhist after a few hundred years. And at some point, Emei Shan's macaques had also changed affiliation, from gathering food in the forest to realising it was easier to get it by robbing the pilgrims.
The Chinese national park authority does its best to educate hikers. "If you come across some terrible monkeys in the way for food," one of its signs advises, "don't scream or run away. You are suggested to hold a rock in your hand and walk away from the monkeys with other travelling companies in a group calmly." The modern horror stories included people who had not only lost their lunches but sometimes also their cameras, wallets and passports. Despite all this, the English woman said that as she and her friends set off on the two-day hiking route to the summit, she could not help harbouring warm and fuzzily anthropomorphic views about monkeys. That attitude lasted for about an hour, until the moment when her pack seemed to suddenly double in weight. "This monkey jumped on my back and tried to open my pack," she said, her voice still thick with incredulity.
Her boyfriend managed to scare it off by wielding the bamboo walking stick which the hotels at the base of the mountain provide for that purpose. By then other monkeys had attacked the third member of their group, who had his glasses snatched from his head but was fortunate that the monkey was on a relatively accessible piece of ground when it abandoned them. They then spent the rest of their two days in the forest in a heightened state of what we dubbed monkeynoia.
Listening to their tale, it slowly dawned on me that there might be rather less randomness behind Emei Shan also being one of the spiritual homes of the martial arts known in the West as kung fu, though the Chinese prefer the term wushu. Was it coincidence, I wondered, that close to the start of the hiking route was the famous Crouching Tiger monastery, one of the birthplaces of the martial arts in China?
Even without the marauding macaques, hiking up Emei Shan is a strenuous undertaking. This is the tallest of the four sacred Buddhist mountains and the longest route involves nearly 3,000m of ascent, which makes it roughly equal to walking Burj Dubai four times. My own schedule was too short to walk up, which provided a face-saving excuse to cover lack of fitness from living in pancake-flat Abu Dhabi. So, like most of those who undertake the pilgrimage to the summit, I took the bus for 90 per cent of the way and pledged to salvage some hiking credibility by walking down.
I soon discovered that taking the bus did little to diminish the prospect of starring in a personal performance of Crouching Tiger, Thieving Monkey because macaques had worked out that the final part of the ascent after the end of the road provided the easiest source of food on the mountain. They even seemed to know what time was the peak hour for pilgrims and tourists. At first, my impressions were of the much cooler temperature than at the base of the mountain and of the atmospheric way the mist swirled through the lush green forests of pine and broadleaf trees.
But then as I walked along the wide stone pathway towards the summit, I encountered a crowd of people oohing and aahing at the sight of the first macaque, a young male. One woman threw it a peanut and immediately after the oohs and aahs turned to screams when the macaque that had been offered the desultory single nut suddenly charged her, prompting her to dump her bag of peanuts and flee. Another shriek followed as a man who had been watching this spectacle suddenly had the water bottle ripped from his hand by a monkey who snuck up from behind. Within seconds, it had unscrewed the cap and downed the contents.
With the terrible monkeys two-nil up, I headed on towards the Golden Summit temple. This was actually a network of newly-renovated temples and monastery buildings built in the traditional Chinese style with sweeping rooflines and intricate ornamentation, centred around a massive all-seeing ten-faced golden Buddha. Ideally I would have soaked up the two millennia of history here but as soon as I arrived, I encountered the Englishwoman. Soon I had not only heard about her macaque encounter but had been shown the muddy simian handprint she proffered as evidence, leaving me suffering from a heightened state of contagious monkeynoia when I set off down the mountain. As I retraced my steps past the scene of the peanut robbery, it was with constant vigilance for predatory primates instead of enjoying the beautiful mountainous terrain and dripping temperate forests. But as soon as I left the road behind and began the mood of the mountain seemed to change.
In reality, of course, it was the same mountain but without the static caused by the throngs of tourists. And because few people choose to walk up or down the mountain, there were correspondingly fewer monkeys around. Scaling back the level of caution allowed me to spend more time looking around at what was some of the finest mountain scenery had I seen in a long time. The rainy season had left the dense forest a lush shade of green and the waterfalls were in full flow as the trail threaded a route along ridgelines, below lines of cliffs and along steep-sided mountain gorges. The trail itself was one of the most impressive I'd seen, comprised of thousands of blocks of stone hauled into place to create a giant staircase. To anyone coming up the mountain, it must have been like being on the StairMaster of death, albeit one set amid impressive alpine scenery.
Even going down was arduous. Such thoughts, however, were put in proper context by the stoic locals who passed me by on their way up; the women often in heels and some seemingly of considerable age. Every 10 or 15 minutes, a small shelter would appear where an enterprising local was selling anything the hiker might require, from cold water or a bowl of steaming noodles. Every couple of hours, I'd encounter a serene moss-covered monastery in the mist, offering basic accommodation.
The only monkeys I encountered were around these little centres of population but they proved to be relatively easy to dissuade. A few times I would catch sight of one following me but they preferred to attack from behind without warning and if I turned around the stared them down, they would back off. Seven hours after leaving the summit of Emei Shan, I emerged from the forest with my knees screaming in pain and my quads and calves having turned to jelly, but feeling strangely proud at not having been mugged by a macaque.