With our adventure issue about to hit the shelves, Hunan Province-based English teacher Dave Madsen shares this unexpected encounter from his China adventure file.
The morning sun crawled over the peaks, leaked through the haze of fog and slipped its way through the dense quilt of trees to illuminate the monastery where I’d taken shelter for the night after a six hour hike. The previous day’s rain hadn’t dissipated the fog, as it often does in the mountains of Hunan Province, my temporary home in China. The deep mist persisted through the night and threatened to extend my two-day hike into a three-day excursion. I zipped up my rain shell and clipped my pack onto my shoulders; my neck gave a muted crack as I tightened the strap across my chest. My watch read an even 6:00am.
As is often the case for foreign teachers (外教 wàijiào) in China, I wasn’t told about my week-long vacation until just two days before it began. “You can have a travel,” my colleague explained. “It will be good for you to see China.” Having already completed the Tiger Leaping Gorge circuit, Sichuan Province seemed ideal for a week’s sojourn: a place well-known for its mouth-numbing spices, its beautiful flora, and its ability to retain expats far beyond their budgeted time within its borders. A few days into my vacation, I boarded a bus from the capital of Chengdu to Mount Emei, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China and a pretty safe bet for a bumbling foreigner to visit.
Golden Buddha statue at the summit of Mount Emei
I snuck to the main door of the monastery to determine how many layers to have ready once I reached a higher altitude, but a monk stopped me before I could get near the giant, brass handles. The warps in his face resembled the wax of a melting candle and his robes clung to his skinny frame like a damaged windsock.
“It’s too early,” he said in Mandarin. “You need to eat breakfast.”
His tone did not invite discussion, so I resigned to eat whatever fuel the monk could provide for me before trudging through the rain. Unlike many of the conversations I have with middle-aged Chinese men, the monk and I didn’t speak of money; rather, our polite banter lingered on the topic of food and whether or not I could tolerate the spice in Sichuan. Eventually, my vocabulary was exhausted, our cultural exchange dwindled, and the monk served me a bowl of congee topped with zhacai (榨菜, a pickled mustard plant stem famous in Sichuan). I burned the roof of my mouth as I rapidly knocked back the steaming bowl’s contents.
“I’m full,” I said as polished the bowl and patted my stomach. “I’ll go now.”
I paid for my meal with a crumpled RMB5 bill. As the monk took my payment, he mumbled a word not recognizable to my very limited grasp of the language.
“Excuse me,” I interjected, “What did you say?”
“Mon-key,” he replied in heavily accented English. He then immediately reverted to Mandarin. “Please wait a moment.”
The monk scurried into a dusty room near the entrance and, after a hollow clattering, he emerged with a bamboo pole about two meters in length and two inches in diameter. With a severe look on his face, he struck the stone floor a few times with the end of the pole and then gently handed the rod over to me. I smiled and thanked him, but the monk’s face did not lose its stern expression.
“Mon-key,” he repeated.
When I finally set off, the fog layered the continuous stairs of Mount Emei; its trail disappeared into the mist. With a full stomach and a cramp in my side, I pushed through the flurry of rain in a desperate hope that the sky would clear before I reached the 3,099-meter peak. My watch, its face spotted with droplets of moisture, read 8:00 am—a full two hours since my departure from the monastery and I’d only made it a tenth of the way. The largest slope of the mountain still lay in front of me and, after a few exhausted huffs, I stepped forward to climb the mist-obscured, heavily-ridged snake of concrete. The stairs glimmered with a thin layer of wetness and, for a few seconds, I debated whether to conquer the mountain as most Chinese tourists prefer to: by crowded buses and expensive cable cars.
A quarter of my way up the slope, my head tilted upwards to gauge how many more grueling steps I had to endure before I could make time to rest. Through the dense fog, I spotted a faint, lumbering, bipedal shadow tracing my movements. I froze. The ominous, gray shape mirrored my abrupt change in movement. Carefully, I began to creep forward and the shape took on a fur-lined form. A rather skinny Tibetan macaque was my observer, its hair a slick, golden-brown and its mouth slightly agape. In a syncopated rhythm, its head and shoulders bobbed about in order to get a better look at my comparatively hairless figure. Like me, the macaque’s face was a deep pink with cold and its breath dwindled in the air with brief puffs of steam.
Either frightened or simply pleased with its observation, the monkey soon turned around and scampered back into the clouds of fog and rain. I gave a steamy sigh of relief, the white-knuckled grip on my bamboo pole loosened, and my eyes drifted back to my soggy trainers as my concrete march continued. Only a few steps later though, the thin, staccato chattering of primates broke through the haze and my sharp glance upwards revealed the scout backed by a small congregation of red-faced brothers, their sizes varied but their stares unwaveringly focused on the sweaty foreigner.
More than a dozen monkeys lined the winding staircase, their expressions stoic but undoubtedly honed in on each, deliberate step of my trudge—it seemed as if even their blinks came in unison. Forming untouchable, breathing handrails, the primates were hunched, animated gargoyles on the skirts of the staircase. With no alternate route and no choice but to continue, I opened my palms as a peaceful gesture and proceeded up the stairs, careful not to make any sudden movements or any signals of discomfort.
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter,” I cooed under my breath as I made my way through the corridor of fur and beady eyes. The expression served to comfort me more than it did the primates. “Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.”
Like the fog on Mount Emei, the small horde of monkeys failed to wane as I ascended. Most of my anxiety appeared unjustified—the monkeys didn’t bear their teeth and only a few gave an indifferent stir as I passed by them and their black and silver babies. Convinced that I was one with the macaques, I felt a wave of confidence surging through me and my pace quickened to escape their expressionless faces.
No more than a few legs ahead of me sat the largest monkey of the troop: the muscles of his torso tucked behind a dense layer of firm fat and his whiskers like those of a Civil War general. His seat was plum in the middle of my path. Like many alpha males—simian and otherwise—who exert their dominance over their underlings, the chief of this tribe did not devote his attention to the soft chatter of the young; rather, he focused solely on his penis.
Not the monkey king himself, but another Tibetan macaque who looks to have been in a few scraps
The monk’s anti-monkey measures ultimately proved pointless as I gave three sharp raps of my bamboo pole on the stair in front of me—the monkey king lifted his head, his eyes half open, and gave an unimpressed snort of steam from his snout. A slight twitch of his eyes informed me that I was being measured, sized-up. Skepticism swept over the macaque’s face, as if to say: That’s it? I struck my bamboo against the stairs once more and the disinterested primate went back to the far more important matter of prodding his genitals.
My next movements were to be uncomfortably intimate as strategy and safety were both rendered meaningless by the macaque’s refusal to budge from his stony throne. Determined to show confidence behind my trickles of cold sweat, I tiptoed to the side of the staircase and around the monkey king. Faint chirps of objection and warning sounded from the audience behind me as my trainers inched closer to their chief—a guttural noise emanated from his rounded belly as an obvious hint of discontentment. The dull, electric sensation of being watched surged through me and, while I passed the alpha, the group of spectators grew eerily silent.
A smaller breed of monkey snapped on the ascent
I passed unscathed.
Suddenly, though, my bamboo pole jerked back. My grip was a tense vice and the harsh tug spun me around to reveal a set of arms, long and toned from a lifetime of tree-swinging, clutched on the opposite end. Eyes ablaze, the monkey king was not satisfied with my lack of a snack offering. I pulled on the stick to retrieve it, but on the other side sat the hairy, 40-pound anchor of raw monkey. In retrospect, foregoing the bamboo would’ve been the safest option, but, nerves on overdrive, I clung to the pole.
In an instinctual change of tactic, my weight shifted and I gave the bamboo an aggressive thrust in the macaque’s direction. His eyes widened and the beast stumbled backward as he released his grip to regain balance. I smirked, smug with satisfaction. The monkey king blinked a few times, his face contorted with rage. His lips curled back to revel a set of twisted, bamboo-stained incisors.
As the macaque sprung forward, my perception of time decelerated to the speed of an action scene in a Shaw Brothers movie. However, unlike Huang Feihong (a revered turn-of-the-century folk hero and martial artist), I was incapable of twirling my pole in a Shaolin monk-like flourish to knock the primate back to his rightful place on the evolutionary ladder—I was cemented to the stairs. He lunged toward me, his surprisingly large hands extended, and managed to nab a fistful of my left pant leg before I could step aside. A yelp escaped me and I frantically shook my leg to pry the fabric free. For a few seconds, the monkey king’s hold stayed solid and I winced, anticipating the piercing pain of his bite. But, having proved his point and demonstrated his superior masculinity, the primate unexpectedly released my pants and I tumbled up the steps.
With the exception of his surge toward my shin, the monkey king and I didn’t break eye contact during our altercation. Even as I scampered up the remainder of the slope, our stares were inexorably linked. Mine was a gaze that reeked of terror. His, though, was a glare that simply said: “Go home, Lao Wai.”