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North Sichuan…into the hills…on horseback

October 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Amy from Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one that you may recall was going to write her master’s thesis on 19th century buttons and fastenings, suggested that we travel north from Chengdu to Songpan to participate in a horse trek.

“I did it for three days!” she bubbled from behind her tripod as we photographed a waterfall that spilled over the mountain trail.  “It’s really great and they provide the tents and they cook out on a campfire for you and everything.”

“Oh Emily!  I really want to do it!” Megan said, looking at the Songpan entry in Lonely Planet.  Megan had experience with horses, and I (to put it mildly) did not.  My single experience with a horse had been posing with a cowboy hat on the back of a miniature pony when I was three years old.  However, this was an adventure into the unknown, and I felt that if I was brave enough to ride the Chinese taxis, the Chinese horses had to be at least as trustworthy if not more so.  The buses were another thing altogether.  We arrived at the station at 5:45am before the doors opened, enveloped in a mass of people squatting beside their taped-up cardboard boxes and bags of potatoes.  We bought a plastic bag full of steamed baozi from a street vendor who seemed more than delighted at the sight of la wai so early in the morning.

Right away we spotted two blonds, nearly a head taller than everyone outside including ourselves, and a girl with Chinese features along side them but clearly dressed in American garb.  When the doors to the station opened, they were the first to muscle their way inside.  Everyone pressed against the single metal turnstyle, bottlenecking, old ladies pinching and people tugging at elbows–ours stuck out to block anyone who tried to pass us.  And they didn’t stop trying to pass us even as we put our bags through the x-ray machine, fingers needling their way through the center of us, gate guards hopelessly, unheeded, barking at the tangle of limbs and bags.  When we finally broke through, looking back, I detected traces of exhilarated grins between exasperated faces in the crowd.  Quite a fight for 6am…

We loaded onto the bus and fell back against our seats, preparing ourselves for more sleep.  That is, until we realized that the bus we were on felt almost completely disconnected from its wheels, the top bending and shaking and weaving with every turn in the highway.  Maybe sleep wasn’t in our futures after all…

Also, something worth mentioning about Chinese toilets is that if you have to pay for it, chances are you’re going to have to hold your breath the whole time.  This may seem non-sequiter, but trust me.  It isn’t.

We arrived in the dusty town of Songpan after 11 hours of driving, mostly through construction zones.  Mike came and picked us up and walked us to a tiny hostel, women running out of restaurants along the road to hand us their business cards and encourage us to come for dinner.  We checked into a hostel attached to an adjoining room where three European girls lay on their beds absorbed in books.  They were scheduled to go on the trek the next day too, and we arranged to meet at the nearby Emma’s Kitchen for pancakes before we had to meet at 9am.

I woke up in the middle of the night to intense stomach pain and congestion.  I leaned against a wall in the single bathroom and combined laundry room, waiting for the nausea to pass.  It didn’t.  I was late for breakfast and nearly abandoned the expedition to lay on the bed with a book as we’d found the three other girls in the first place.  But I made it, munched on some oatmeal, and watched our guides walk a team of horses down the center of the main drag, out in front of the business and the restaurant where we’d parked ourselves.  When we headed out of the restaurant to join the group, we discovered the three Western girls from the Chengdu bus station made our riding-party a group of 8 Western women and 8 Tibetan and Chinese men.  We found out these girls were all club-rugby players in Beijing, a comforting idea when headed into the woods with a group of strange men.


Our idyllic camping spot outside of Songpan.

It was about four hours over the mountains, beginning at 9am and arriving around 1, with a break.  My horse was cream colored, and didn’t seem to care about what I said or did to him in the slightest, but reacted quite strongly to the hisses and commands of the Tibetan man who rode his horse behind me.  Megan advice about how to ride a horse consisted of: “lean forward when the horse goes uphill and lean backward when it goes downhill”.  Not many down-hills occurred–the guides would have us dismount and follow them down the hill on foot, but I did a pretty solid job of following these instructions.  When the horses ran, however, I found myself wanting to cry and vomit all at once.

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon at a wide green meadow beside a clear-water stream.  The men pitched a blue tarp over a stake, fanning it out into the sort of triangle a child would draw to represent their home.  They pitched single-size tents for all of us to share, two by two, and then left us to explore the meadow.  We did as much, the younger men guiding us down a hill into another meadow populated by quarter-sized toads and wildflowers.  We explored the source of a waterfall, one of the rugby players leaped into a freezing mountain spring that showed opalescent in the sun, flawed only by decomposing logs that had sunk to the bottom.

With complete silence and little else to do, we began sharing our talents and stories with one another.  The Chinese-American girl led us in an impromptu yoga class.  I sang the Habanera from Carmen.  One of the rugby players from Wyoming gave us an instructional speech on how to field-dress an elk.  The girl from Spain repeated, “The horses are over there,” in six different languages.

At night we gathered under the blue tarp to munch on soup ladled from a giant cast-iron pot by my horse-whisperer.  We drank tea made from plants that the men gathered from the brush around our camping site.  We sang songs for each other, them regaling us with folk songs, us harmonizing to old Backstreet Boys tunes.  They told us ghost stories about a vengeful woman who had drowned in the nearby lake and returned to lead the horses away and drown unsuspecting campers.  Surprisingly unsettling…nothing is scarier in all of literature than the ghost of an Asian lady.  But that is one horror-fan’s opinion.  The boy who told us that story, topped in a hat that said “WIPEOU!” ventured out to the tents of the girls who’d retired to bed early for some juvenile tent-shaking and terror tactics.  Later, when I excused myself to “use the bathroom” I rounded the back of the tent and surprised him, much to the mirth of the other girls.

Those “we’re not so different after all” moments are kind of awesome.  Especially in such concentrated doses.

We tromped back the next day over the same route, having sufficiently bonded with one another and our guides and not changed our clothes in about 48 hours.  As we arrived to the front of Emma’s Kitchen, our eyes watering with allergies and our pores filled with dust, the rain that had followed us all the way from Kunming returned.

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Categories: Hiking

Second part of Tiger Leaping Gorge, Part One

August 5, 2010 Leave a comment

We were following three people from Singapore who had decided not to leave their backpacks–their BACKPACK backpacks– in Qiaotou.  One of them had speakers built into said backpack blasting hits of the 1990’s such as Edwin McCain along with Michael Jackson classics such as “Bad” and “Billy Jean”.  We were apprehensive about the bell clangs of horsemen behind us, but decided to wait, preferring such a fate to an extended nature hike accompanied by ubiquitous tinny pop tunes.  We were at least two hours from the nearest KFC–why injure our ear drums?

When we finally began to walk again, Kay and I kept exclaiming infuriating things like, “Is this the 24 bends?”  “Which bend do you think that was?”  Megan kept saying, “Just don’t think about it!”  We would stop at every…bend…and look at the clouds’ shadows playing on the mountains.  For some reason, neither Kay with her Nikon that was responsible for both Kay and Patrick’s pictures, nor Megan, nor I ever got tired of trying to capture some of the different aspects of the range on the other side of the Yangtze.

One of the many ways the clouds complimented the mountain ridges

The landscape, though special, though deeper and more jagged and more extreme than many of the trails I’ve hiked in the past, made me long for Californian mountains.  Particularly with the familiar accents around me, the trees, the hillsides, and even the gravel and loose earth we tromped over seemed like a different version of something I’d known forever.  Call it wishful thinking, call it making waste of the present, call it Jungian.  I enjoyed it with that kind of heart on the butcher block sort of anticipation that makes people use phrases like “It killed me” for things that are wonderful.

We came upon houses in the mountains, clustered together around a few hostels that were marked by orange spray-painted arrows.  It overlooked, of course the canyon, but also rice terraces and people constructing more houses in preparation of the growing tourist groups that will inevitably be arriving within the next five years or so (more on that later…).  We, however, had heard that the Halfway House, was one of the best places to stay in the gorge, and we could already hear the voices rising from the hostels at this place.  We continued through completely flat land that merely wrapped in and out of rocky cliffs, but level, and uninteresting as the sun went down more quickly than it would had it not been for the towers of the mountains that formed the thing we’d come to see.

We walked into a courtyard of a house, after following a green arrow and been welcomed by a family of proprietors of Naxi ethnicity, the ethnic group that lives in the Lijiang/Tiger Leaping Gorge area.  They’re matriarchal, one of the few matriarchal societies in the world, and as we walked we saw that the workers, the people tending the animals that were so often women in the rest of China…weren’t.  The inkeepers, however, were.  They took us to our rooms—only 50 yuan for a double with a glorious view of the mountains (that’s about $7.50 split between two people), showed us the bathrooms, the toilets of which had open upper spaces that also faced the mountains, and finally a big open patio with menus that offered Chinese favorites and Dali beer.

The view from our hotel room.

Everyone sat out together on the upper patio until late at night.  There were so few of us that the stories emerged almost collectively–ours, a British girl named Amy who was traveling before writing her thesis on 19th century buttons and fastenings, the be-radioed Singaporans, a young American couple who were planning to cycle-tour through Japan, and an older American couple who were currently cycling through China.  The two of them, Alaskans, had cycled through India the year before–the woman a 40 something school librarian who had not a single drop of fat on her body, the man an environmental lawyer who had met her when they’d cheers’d each other from separate apartment buildings across the street over morning coffee.  When I heard their stories, the part of me that was crying YOU MUST GO HOME TO WORK!  YOU WILL NEVER SEE ANOTHER PIECE OF THE WORLD AGAIN! was silenced.

We departed the next morning, the hike now substantially easier than it had been the day before, and cooler due to increasing cloud cover, the kind we’d seen in Dali and had been thankful was not present when we began our hike.  Something in the girls, at least, started to say “ok, that’s enough” particularly as we tried not to slide down steep declines toward the end of our trail.  In fact, I finally said, as we climbed a fallen tree to a bridge across a waterfall, insisted on turning around and going back down a path that, had the rain started in earnest, I could see totally washing out.  Patrick was disappointed that we didn’t continue up the hill on our hands and knees, insisting that we could make it if we wanted to.  The other girls not so much.  But remember, I’m the mean one…I guess for as many places I’ve gone or risky things I’ve attempted, I don’t see why I should put myself in obvious danger if I’m not bringing life-saving medicine to orphans.

Which I’ve never done.  But would probably be a good thing to do, right?

We climbed down to the hostel at the end of the main trail, about two kilometers from the “official” end (Walnut Grove), and ate egg sandwiches and noodles at Tina’s Guest House.  Then we hopped in a Mian Bao Che that ended up taking us along the lower path of Tiger Leaping Gorge, where they appear to be building a tremendous road.  Thumps in the distance that I had earlier thought to be thunderclaps, we now realized were responsible for the great piles of boulders in our path that we had to get out of the van and cross on foot, more than once.

Road construction in the gorge

It seems as if within a few years, the piles of dirt our little vans galumphed across, me with my head down, mouth covered in the back seat, will be gone.  There will be a paved road in addition to the high mining road we took.  Come October, the gorge may have blended into the same kind of cable-car ridden tourist trap that characterizes Lijiang and the holy Buddhist mountains.  I’m glad we had a chance to experience it before that happened.