Day 1 - 21.Sept.06 - The Bus Ride from Chengdu to Songpan
The last few days in Chengdu have been really great. The other day, we spent $50 U.S. to pet a real live panda! It was a really exciting experience, but afterwards we both said how we wished we had ben more into the moment. I wanted to feel his arms and shoulders and paws, but it was hard to just be in the moment, rather than have my mind racing about what I was doing. His fur is very corse and wire-y, and when I tried to run my fingers under his fur to feel his skin, the fur was so thick that I couldn't feel it!
Today, we took a really long bus ride (10+ hrs!) from the Loft hostel in Chengdu out to Songpan, where it's really cold. The bus driver was really aggressive on some rather precarious mountain roads. We also lost almost an hour of time because we were stuck in a traffic jam. J was miserable on the ride up, calling it "almost hellish" and our bus driver was simply mad. He was passing trucks and cars and bikes and goats and tractors and yaks at blazing speeds around blind corners and he honked at EVERYTHING! There would be nobody on the street for miles, and he's just blow this crazy fog horn. I guess it's par for the course with these tour busses, but the saddest thing is that in every town we passed, kids and grandmas on the street were getting these really loud horns blaring in their ears. They must be scarred and pissed off, because it really made us mad on the bus and made it impossible to sleep.
The scenery on the way up here was something to behold: we passed by huge valleys and rivers and quaint old Tibetan villages with archaic architecture. They had stone walls, hay drying on huge wooden A-frames, and brick kilns dug underground. The people here dress in wonderfully colorful clothing, and all the women here have the reddest cheeks ever (presumably from getting them frost bitten and wind burned all the time!). The people seem friendly and genuine, and all the kids yell hello to us from the streets. Tomorrow we begin the 3-day horse trek up to the Ice Mountain lookout, which is over 4000 m above sea level.
Day 2 - 22.Sept - 2:20 pm - Basecamp in the Songpan wilderness, 3300 m above sea level.
Today, we started the horse trek. It's raining a bit and it's very cold (we're SO glad we bought Tibetan long-johns yesterday, as well as gloves and hats), but worse than that is that the conditions are extremely rustic and we're both still a bit sick. J and I were on our own with 2 guides, a young guy of 20 years named Zhou (like Joe) Jiuming and an older guy whose name we never learned. Zhou was always singing and laughing and spoke a fair bit of English. We rode for about 6 hours, starting before 9am, and the scenery was simply gorgeous. We scaled the walls of several valleys and in no time, we were shrouded in clouds.
Our group of 4 has an extra horse (whom we have named U-Haul because he's carrying our backpacks), as well as the 4 horses for us. On the way to the first campsite, our guides sang songs, reignd in U-Haul, who ran away more than a few times, and kept Justine's horse (named Bitey) in check: Not only did he go the wrong way a few tims, he also blocked passage of my horse (named Farts Domino), even biting Farts twice. (We called my horse Farts Domino because when she would go up hills, she farted with each step!) Finally, after walking down a super steep and muddy slope in the rain, we made camp with 4 others and their 4 guides. The 4 other tourists we had met before: Two Germans, named Katherine (an M.D. student) and her boyfriend Martin took the bus from Chengdu with us, and the two Israelis we camped with, Ravid (a detective) and Eric (a biology Ph.D. student), we had met the night before at dinner.
The main shelter here at the camp is two dirty old tarps slung over a some hand-made poles (made out of trees from the woods here). There's a fire INSIDE the shelter, with no chimney hole, so smoke and ash just escapes out the two sides that are open (or into our mouths and food). The ground is cold and wet, and the tents for us (one for J and I and a bigger one for the 4 other tourists) are basically smaller versions of the same thing. They're really just rain flys put up over wood, again cut from the forest. For "bedding," they have lain down some tree branches to keep us off the ground, and I suppose they'll throw a few blankets or pads over those.
On the plus side, the valley we're in is stunning, which is situated at 3300 m above sea level, the company is good, and there are yaks across the stream from where we are. However, b/c J and I only have 3 days to ride, it's raining, and we're both sick, I fear we won't make it to Ice Mountain.
Day 3 - 23.Sept - 8:15 am - Basecamp
Everyone of the tourists we're with on this trip feels like we do: Yesterday we stopped too early to make camp, after having ridden for only 6 hours. I feel like we could have gone another 3 hrs, at least, but perhaps there are no good campsites within reach. For lunch yesterday, we had boiled cucumbers and flat bread, which was good but not too filling. The guides then got drunk on Tibetan wine (which tasted like bad vodka, to me) as the horses just ran around the surrounding hills. After a few hours, everyone seemed to sober up instantly as they began to prepare dinner and our sleeping accomodation, both of which were quite excellent. For dinner, they made this stew of potatos, cabbage, onions, and hand-made noodles (that they made here, at the camp site!) and 2 bowls were sufficient to fill us all up. The bedding, which was lain down over the previously-mentioned twigs on the ground, was several pads and then a sleeping bag, then two blankets and a thick jacket over that. We wore warm clothes (and our knit hats) to bed and stayed warm and dry all night. Now I'm watching 2 of the guides prepare our breakfast, which appears to be a potato and squash stew with sweet bread, which is fried in oil. Although I'm coughing a bit and J is really congested, this is a really fun trip, so far! I think today we visit a Tibetan village, ride a bit more (hopefully to the Ice Mtn. lookout), then come back here to camp for one more night. The next day, we'll ride back to Songpan and on Monday take the long bus back to Chengdu.
Day 3 - 5:30 pm - Back at Basecamp after Ice Mountain
The day started a bit late for us today, following the excellent breakfast (mentioned above), we set off for Ice Mtn. around 9am. After a long ride (about 4 hours) we made it to the Ice Mountain lookout 4000 m above sea level and about 1880 m below the summit of Ice Mountain, the top of which we couldn't even see because it was so cloudy. The peak towered over us and into the clouds, with a steep climb to the summit over rocks and gravel, so after a short break at the lookout, we started back. The journey took us through some of the most beautiful terrain we've ever seen, through a Tibetan village where everyone was smiling and waving at us, and a small stone schoolhouse full of kids who interrupted their daily lessons to come outside and yell "hello" at us! The structures we passed by and the homes in the villages were simply stunning. We also wen past lots of livestock (yaks, pigs, cows, goats) and several prayer sites marked by prayer flags.
From the start, we crossed a small river by our campsite and then were waylaid by 80-something horses from a huge tour. Our horses (J and I plus our guide, Zhou) went beserk, biting and running all over the place. Bitey was so bad that Zhou had to carry a rope attached to J's horse so that he wouldn't misbehave and I had to give up Farts Domino for the first part of the day so that Zhou could keep her under control. After things calmed down, we took the horses up a steep muddy slope, rounded a corner, and set our sights on a gorgeous river-valley from the top. We slowly descended the valley walls and crossed into the cute little Tibetan village, which is marked by a few houses and some crops. We took a short break, then began the climb towards Ice Mtn. Over the next 3 hours, we gained something like 2000 m up crazy-steep mountain paths. At one point, my horse took two knees and I almost ate it, but he recovered quickly. Near the top were ruins of a prayer-tower, though why it was in such bad shape we didn't know. By the time we reached the top, J and I were both very sore (our bums had seen better days!) and on the way back down, we passed the Germans and Israelis, who had set up camp near the village. When we got back, soreness had reached new heights and J collapsed from exhaustion and sickenss. We're SO glad to be going back to Songpan tomorrow!
The terrain here is gorgeous, as I said before, but is also quite strange. From Songpan, most of what we saw reminded us of the Santa Monica mountains with Chapparel-like plants (pale-colored leaves, low bushes, etc.). This morning, however, our climb took us through trees and it was very damp out, which reminded us of Monterey county, with various pines, and later still in the day, we passed what looked like Alpine terrain. Finally, on the way up from the village, everything was rocking and so jagged... like nothing we'd ever seen before. There was water and blue and yellow flowers everywhere. There were pines and conifers and other trees that we couldn't identify, as well as bushes that had red bulbs strangley-reminicent of rose hips.
Soon, we'll eat dinner again, go to sleep, and head out tomorrow.
Okay, travel fans, that's it for the first 3 days of our trip. There will be more to share about days 4 and 5, so keep your browsers pointed here for the completion of the story once we get to Shangai. Also, beware the pending publication of "Deep Thoughts, By Justine" on this very web-log!