Horse trekking in the Sichuan mountains
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
We drive North out of Chengdu into the Sichuan mountains and the temperature starts to drop to my relief. For the first time in several months I feel cold in my T-shirt.
Eight bum numbing hours later, the bus drops us off outside the horse trek operator's in Songpan. They offer us a 3-day trek to Ice Mountain for Y450 each (about GBP30) including a bed the night before and after the trek. It seems like a good deal so I resist the natural temptation to haggle
At 8.30am next morning we meet our transportation for the next 3 days, the guides, and some others who are joining us on the trek.
Rachel's horse is called Juju and is in fine condition - Rachel immmediately bonds well with her. My horse is called Chemo and is a rough and brawny gelding with a bit of an attitude. He flattens his ears and tries to take bites out of his equine colleagues.
There are 7 guides for seven clients - all Tibetan guys with blackened skin, big smiles, and rough clothing. Only one or two of them speak English and they converse with each other in Tibetan, reverting to Mandarin only when necessary.
We meet Marin and Veronique from Holland, Michael and Grace from Shanghai, and York from Wuhan. With no briefing whatsoever we jump up on the horses and get started.
The track leads up the steep grassy hillside behind the town. In addition to the riders, the fourteen horses are laden with all the food and camping equipment needed for the next 3 days
The track passes through pine forest and Tibetan villages where it feels like we've gone back 2 months in our travels. The women are dressed in colourful aprons and headgear, and children with grubby sunburnt faces and snotty noses run alongside the horses shouting hello.
After passing over some hills, we enter a river valley where the harvest in the postage-stamp sized fields is nearly complete. The sheaves of corn are hanging on tall wooden frames to dry, and the potatoes are being dug up as we pass.
After about 6hrs trekking with a couple of short breaks we reach the campsite on the bank of a noisy stream in a grove of pine trees. Despite seeming comfortable at first, 5 or 6 hours on a horse does cause some pain. Some of us fare better than others; Grace from Shanhai sits with her head in her hands while the guides set up camp and prepare lunch
The tents are a simple canvas stretched over a single goalpost-like frame. There's no groundsheet or inner, so it looks as though it will be well-ventilated accomodation. The guys lay down a thick layer of pine branches on the ground and cover this with blankets. On top of this go the sleeping bags, a duvet, and then thick Tibetan coats which can be added and removed to adjust the warmth level required. If it rains, and as the canvas will leak, there are waterproof ponchos available that can go on top.
Late afternoon and evening is spent lazing about. I wander down to the village nearby and take a look at the Bon temple and visit a shop in someone's front room. These local people are the last remaining remnants of the Bon religion which predates Buddhism. They have practices like rotating their prayer wheels anti-clockwise and sacrificing animals which makes the mainstream chinese, and even the Tibetan Buddhists, think of them as odd.
In the evening the guys cook up dinner on the campfire using the most basic of equipment. We've all had our fill of the vegetarian fare when one of the boys wanders into camp with a leg of lamb bought from the local village
The guides produce some of the local 'fire water' and the singing gets louder and more raucous. At about 9pm everyone runs out of energy and people head to their tents. Rachel finds the accomodation uncomfortable and manages to get about 2 hours in the whole night. I fare somewhat better.
Next day we trek up to the foot of Ice Mountain. Its a fine day and we have great views of the snow covered pyramidal peak towering above the surrounding dark mountains. The altitude is about 4500m at the foot of the mountain and despite this, the horses energetically sprint up the long winding trail. Having lost the piles of mattresses and sleeping bags, the wooden saddles seem much less forgiving on the posterior regions, and I am more than happy to get off when we reach a flat area.
We climb on foot another 1/2 hr up to a lake where we get good views of the 5500m mountain. The thin air makes the walking tough, but its good to get out of the saddle.
We walk back down to base camp because its too steep to ride down on the horses. Back at camp the guides have lunch ready at 3.30pm, to be followed by dinner at 5.00pm. In the evening the guides lark around with each other and sing songs which I wish we could join in or understand.
Our last day of the trek, going back to Songpan, the weather turns nasty and a steady dribble of icy rain begins. Up at this altitude its very cold and we put on all our layers and the ponchos to keep out the cold. One guide leading the descent doesn't have raingear so he decides to walk infront of his horse to keep warm. I see him taking a pee whilst walking along leading his horse in the rain; a new trick that I dont think I will ever try to copy.
On the way back we stop in a small Tibetan shop for some instant noodles and a chance to warm up. One girl is shivering so much that she can't talk properly and her friend has to undo the noodles wrapper for her. Fortunately, although cold, we have decent enough clothes to prevent this level of chill.
We finally get back to Songpan late afternoon, caked in mud from walking some of the steeper sections, and thoroughly tired out. Rachel disappears next door for a Tibetan foot-massage, and I collapse on the bed.