[Sichuan Province, China. 30-Jan to 02-Feb 2006]
On the days leading up to the Chinese new year, the whole of China shuts down. I was caught unawares at KangDing and was stuck there for a couple of days before deciding to turn back to ChengDu and go on north towards Songpan and JiuZhaiGou. It was two days before the buses started running towards Songpan and i was on it along with a bunch of other people eager to experience the beauty of JiuZhaiGou first hand. I was also looking forward to JiuZhaiGou as the highlight of my trip and considered Songpan as just a stop over point to kill a cpl of days. I was going to be pleasantly surprised.
I checked out of the hotel at around 8am and headed off to the horse trek company to start my trek. On the way i picked up some water and a ridiculous looking cowboy hat, its a good thing i got it though otherwise at those high altitudes (4000 to 5000m) where the air is thin and the sun strong, i would've been totally roasted over the next three days. Sun blocks never seem to have any effect on me. Anyway, my guide was a quiet little chap, a 30 yr old Chinese muslim, he talks a little bit of broken english so at least we could chat a while. We walked for a little while out of the town and then got on the horses for the climb up the hills. It was a funny feeling being on a horse but it wasn't as hard as i had imagined, just keep your body loose and maintain your center of gravity and you are all set. The mountain horses were also of a much smaller stature compared to the other horses, so i guess that helped.
The arrangement was like this, my guide would ride out in the front and my horse will be tethered by a rope to his horse. All i had to do was sit on the horse and try not to fall down. The ride to the 'ice mountain village' (what I'm gonna call it) took some 4 hours, the path took us up and over many hills and numerous little streams. The entrance to the Tibetian area was marked by the usual mound of stones and numerous prayer flags fluttering, it was a beautiful sight and i felt like i've left china and entered a different world. Different it was.. unspoilt and pristine, the village was set in a beautiful valley overlooking the Ice Mountain. The houses on one side, beautiful alpine forest on the other side both split in the middle by a charming little stream criss crossed by small wooden bridges and huts with prayer wheels constantly turned by the power of the flowing water.
We were to spend the next three days with a Tibetian family after dumping my bags in my room and a light lunch of sweet dumplings, left over noodle stew and some rousing butter tea, i went out and explored the surroundings a bit. Pretty soon i settled down in the shade of a tree, taking naps and contemplating becoming a shepherd in turns. After about an hour the sun started to go down and i had to get out of the shade and move around in the sun to keep warm. I didn't help my cause much by slipping into the stream and getting my feet wet. Gortex is of not much help if the whole shoe gets dunked in the water, i had to spend another hour laying out the shoes and socks in the sun while roaming around barefoot, clicking pictures. The rest of the evening was spent with the Tibetian family drinking more butter tea, some great food and endless unsuccessful attempts at a conversation in tibetian. The only conversation that made any sense was the head of the family trying to persuade me to have some of the rice wine and me trying to resist having that vile stuff. I resisted for a while and then gave up and took a shot.. then another and another........
I had a nice sleep, tucked under some 3 layers of blankets and a sheepskin coat. After a quick cleanup with a basin of hot water and some light breakfast, we set off towards the ice mountain. If i was expecting a comfy ride like the earlier day, i was in for a suprise. The horses were stripped off of the heavy luggage they were carrying and i had to sit right on the saddle with no cushioning layer between it and my delicate underside. Some 100m into the ride i could already feel the pain and the rest of the ride i was uncomfortably shifting from one side to another, shifting and leaning forward putting more weight on my legs instead of my ass. The only other time i was so uncomfortable was during the 5 day cycling trip last october with cycle china.
Whatever pain i felt was soon forgotten.. as we got nearer to the ice mountain the scenery began to get progressively better and i was soon enjoying myself. My guide must've thought that i was getting better at this riding thing or something, he let me take the lead and i was very proud at being given the chance to lead. All my pride was soon shattered when suddenly my horse decided that it wants to take a stroll up the hill side and went off the path. I was clueless as to what to do and started tugging on the harness, it must've annoyed him and he started moving fast.. it was like in the movies, i finally got hit by a low branch and fell off the horse, luckily my feet didn't get caught anywhere on to the horse, that would've been more movie like getting dragged along the mountain side. Anyway i wasn't hurt and i was grinning when i got up, i must've been a funny sight screaming and falling off the horse. Well.. that was the end of our little experiment and my guide took the lead once again.
Pretty soon, after one last steep climb we reached the end of our little trek and the ice mountain was in sight. It was a spectacular sight to behold, surrounded by a icy barren landscape. A landscape which i wont be exaggerating if i said.. was out of the this world, lunar almost, solemn and grey. It was undoubtedly one of the best travel experiences of my life, just to be on top of the mountain with not a soul in sight.. i was running around jumping over the snow, making Bigfoot impressions with my hiking shoes, taking photos in all different poses (without realizing that i had my stupid hat on, thus rendering all the photos useless :). Finally i just sat down for a good 15 minutes, taking everything in, the memories of that day will remain with me forever.
Then it was time for us to climb down. Since the climb was very steep we had to lead the horses down by foot, there was no hurry and i decided that i would walk the rest of the 10km or so back to the village. I wanted to savour the moment and walked slowly back, taking as many stops as possible. The only trouble, if i could call it that, was my guide going some distance and patiently waiting for me there, i'll then again smile and ask him to carry on. Like this we went for some 2 hrs and finally reached the village. An interesting encounter i want to share here.. I was walking along the stream, when i spotted a teenage tibetian girl with her little brother on the other bank. They excitedly waved to me and came over to talk, obviously we couldn't talk anything, we were just smiling and gesturing to each other. The girl was leaning on her little brother, hugging him and her chin on top of his head, it was a beautiful sight and i asked her if i could take a picture. Like all tibetian people, she was very shy and shook her head saying no. I was disappointed, then she started asking me for money to pose, i was even more disappointed and walked on. I was pretty beat on reaching back and after dinner and a couple of mandatory shots of the rice wine i went to my room and hit the bed.
Day Three :
It was the 3'rd day and today we were planning to go to a different village and stay overnight there. But somehow i wasn't looking forward to it much, my back was really sore and i was dirty and dusty not having taken a bath for 3 days straight. We said our goodbyes to the family and set off back to Songpan. In retrospect i shd've stayed the extra night at the ice mountain village itself, explored it a bit more, rested and relaxed instead of being on the move once again. That would've been the perfect way to finish off the perfect trip, but otherwise i cant complain much, it was a wonderful trip.Â