Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Horse Trekking in Songpan

Early the next day we boarded a bus headed for Northern Sichuan. It was one of those where the bus leaves late and it takes a lot longer than it should, so what should have been an eight hour journey was more like an 11. The only saving grace was the scenery which was spectacular, Sichuan falling into huge mountain ranges not long out of Chengdu. The saving grace certainly wasn't the toilets at the rest stop. One thing which doesn't seem to have changed much in five years is the absolute grossness of public toilets in many parts of China. They are hard to explain, but picture a line of open cubicles (no doors) with a tiled ditch running through which you are supposed to squat over and do your business- with no running water to wash things away!! Yuck. But hey, when you have to go you have to go.

Arriving in Songpan brought back a fair few memories, the Tibetan faces, the smells of fires, the cold air! It is a nice place, a lot bigger than I thought it would be and nestled in between lots of mountains. After finding a room we gulped down some food at Emma's Kitchen (Emma is probably the most friendly person in China, she has a fantastic little cafe and speaks perfect English- both bonuses for me!)... After my yak burger (yum yum) we arranged our horse trek for the next morning- a three day trek to “Ice Mountain”. I was possibly the most under prepared person that has ever been on this trek. I think spending so much time in the heat of SE Asia must have addled my brain because it didn't occur to me that going up 4,000m might be a little cold, even if it was June. Therefore I managed not to pack any proper long trousers, and take my swimming suit and sunglasses! Of course I never used them.

I found the trek to be many things: spectacular, exciting, beautiful, and hard hard hard!!! I had a bit of a cold which didn't help, but I also found that not having been on a proper horse ride in nearly twenty years meant that riding wasn't as much of a breeze as I thought it would be. To be fair the horses are extremely well trained and responded almost entirely to the Tibetan guides, which is remarkable to witness. Although when they don't behave themselves the guides tend to throw small stones at them which makes them jump into action! When I was on horse back climbing and descending really steep cliffs in rain and mud, I have to say it was more than a little scary...

The first day we went on a 5 hour ride to our base camp which takes you along mountain ledges, through rivers, up and down all over the place. The scenery is fantastic though, huge green mountains with lush valleys, and past lots of Tibetan villages. We were joined by two Israeli's, Shya who was diabetic and Adas who was traditional and therefore was carrying and cooking all of the food she would need on her months trip in china!!! I found this fascinating and quite bewildering really. Being such a foodie I can't help feeling you miss out on so much by not being able to eat whatever you want in foreign lands, but each to their own...

We set up for the night in a green valley and our four guides magicked up a big tent we all hung out in (and they slept in) and smaller ones for us to sleep in. We were also joined by an Aussie lady (who was extremely quiet) and a Chinese lady Xiaojing from Heilongjiang who was on a “business trip” (Xiaojing was extremely pleasant but of course Adam and I have earmarked her for a spy... why would someone who works for Petrol China 800 miles away go on a business trip to Songpan?!). Needless to say my shoddy packing efforts were revealed and I literally ended up putting on all the clothes I had with me, plus borrowing a Tibetan coat (we all had one) as it was ABSOLUTELY freezing! And raining..... beautiful though... Highlight of the evening was teaching Xiaojing how to play shithead...lowlight being to explain the name!

The next morning we were woken up for brekkie (the guides made excellent food the whole time- at one point they even cooked bread on the open fire! The portions were a killer though so I kept having to sneak my leftovers to the horses who are bizarrely fed out of old basketballs which are tied to their heads) and the guides told us they were concerned about riding to Ice Mountain today as the weather had been so bad and it could be slightly dangerous, however they said it was our decision.


I knew Adam's vote straight away, and the Male Israeli, Shya, obv wanted to go... Adas and I were both a bit more sceptical but when the Aussie and 'The Spy' said they would be up for it I felt I would be a spoil sport if I said no... so we got ready!

My Pappa (the name Adam and I gave to the older guide who looked out for me on the trip as if I was a delicate flower) wrapped me up in a tight bundle and put me on my horse, who I named Bob. I think in retrospect I was given Bob because he was a pair of safe hands and they obviously felt I needed all the help I could get in my strange outfit which surely must demonstrate a complete lack of sense, and I think they had a point! So Bob and I and all the rest set off, in the rain, to Ice Mountain. Adam on the other hand had a horse with an attitude problem who insisted on running in second and got upset if any horse tried to over take. Added to that he had a wooden saddle and his stirrups where too he copped I'll never know!* Influenced by Alan Partridge Adam named his horse Rommal, which didn't go down too well with the Israeli's who thought he'd been influenced by the German SS officer Rommel!!! Cultural fauxpas.

To start with we went through several stoney rivers (que- scary!) when ten minutes later I realised Adas was asking if she could return to camp. An Israeli backing out!!! Ah what have I got myself into! I say this because by my reckoning the Israeli's are the hardest bastards you ever meet travelling, no doubt induced by their compulsory time in the army.

So... minus Adas we headed on. To be fair like many things it is one of those experiences I will no doubt gloss over in years to come as one of those amazing things I have done that was both exciting and showed wonderful scenery.... all of which is true! But I was also bricking it for most of the time. On the occasional flat plains it was pretty pleasant, and I'd enjoy it when Bob would every now and then decide to trot... simply a delight! But when it came to going up and down 65 degree mountain ledges, whilst all the horses are fighting to get in front of each other and shyas horse is kicking mine... it was all a bit tense! I did feel like I was in my own weird version of City Slickers at points.

When we reached the top of Ice Mountain it was non surprisingly spectacular. We were surrounded by snow covered peaks and mist, it was invigorating.... But I have to confess I did not really relax until I was back at the camp!

That night there was a cheery feeling in the camp, perhaps as we (well, most of us) had braved Ice Mountain and survived. There was a Tibet vs. Israel game of Chinese Chequers (Shya actually won!) and Adam and I even brought out some Bai Jiu (white spirit) which we shared whilst listening to the likes of U2 and Jack Johnson (Gaz would have loved it). The next morning I woke up with my face streaming from my cold and the realisation that although I hadn't thought it possible- it was even more freezing! The guides ordered us out of bed at half six so they could start taking the camp apart, and as the rest of us huddled together over cups of tea and another mammoth sized breakfast, it began to snow!! We all sprang about in delight at the winter wonderland appearing in front of our eyes, in the way only the English and (I imagine) Israelis can do.... until the serious task of getting on horseback came round.... Adam loved the journey home, I have to admit I found it was about as much as I could take! Bob was slipping and sliding around all over the place whilst managing to go at a snails pace which prompted constant shouts and hits from Pappa, causing Bob to break into a slightly alarming canter every now and then. Two of the Mountains we passed on the route were so muddy and slippy that we had to walk down on our own, this was of course preferable to me than running the risk of getting squashed if Bob fell over, although I did manage to fall over myself a couple times in the mud. We had one stop at a Tibetan Monastery which was very welcome and interesting, we set off to turn the prayer wheels which extend all around the monastery, and halfway round managed to get told by an old Tibetan lady that we were going the wrong way. We righted this spiritual faux pas by turning them all back again in the hope this meant we had a clean slate with Tibetan Buddha...
Riding into Songpan I definitely had one of those City Slickers moments.., we were no longer the lily livered pansies we had been three days ago – we were hardened Tibetan Horse Riders! Yeah right. Still, it was all a fascinating experience, definitely an “adventure” and even though it meant I couldn't walk properly for a day or so, I am very much glad I did it... and survived!

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