Thursday, June 02, 2005

Songpan Horse Trek

I've heard that sometimes people take on the appearance and personality of their pet. Growing up, I had a neighbor -- a middle aged woman -- with a bow legged Scotty dog. She walked funny, too, with a curvature between her legs that reminded me of cowboys. It was then that I decided that this myth had some truth in it.

And so it was that the horse that became 'my horse' for our three day horse trek in Songpan seemed to be a mirror of myself. He liked to eat; he was lazy in the morning; and he liked to be at the front of our caravan. Where we differ was in his tactics. He liked to eat thorny bushes; he would still climb muddy mountain slopes despite his lethargy; he would bite and kick the other horses who tried to pass. I'm much nicer than that...

Songpan,a small town in Northern Sichuan, is situated at 8,000 feet, and nestled at the foot of the Minshan Mountains, in the midst of idyllic countryside of hills made to look velveteen by sunlight captured in overhangs, tall grass, terraces... Surrounding Songpan are unspoiled forests, lakes, waterfalls, and farm land... a setting and a place that hearken back to bygone days of the original township, which was established over 23 centuries ago.

A passageway to the Jiuzhai Valley, Songpan is a part of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture, with a community of Tibetan, Qiang and Han Chinese residents. Once a stop for traveling merchants, Songpan is now a tiny, inconsequential town seen from the window of a bus heading to Jiuzhaigou nature reserve, or for those who choose to get off that bus and spend some time, Songpan is a quaint, picturesque place with an Old West vibe, where horses can be seen in the streets mingling with autos and bicycles. It's the perfect place to saddle up and get out in nature in a way you couldn't or wouldn't be able to do otherwise.

Day One
Our caravan included 10 people and 10 horses,there were 5 of us 'tourists', each with our own guide and horse handler. We were a group of Americans, Israelis, a Frenchman, and local Chinese (the guides). We left town in a flourish of clip-clopping hooves and bright smiles, passing townspeople, shops, tea houses, and homes. We passed through the ancient city gates and found ourselves climbing the mountainside immediately. Villages perched on hillsides overlooking the bright green valley; farmers were out tending to their crops while children sat nearby playing in mud; fences made of sticks surrounded gardens; the skies were a mix of blue and gray with puffy cotton clouds sparring with heavy brooding clouds, taunting us with the possibility of rain; expansive vistas filled the horizon from the top of ridges that looked down upon grassy fields and rambling rivers.

After a bit of riding on the horses, we stopped to dismount for the steep climb down. It's too dangerous to ride the horses downhill and as my feet tackled the sheer, rocky hillside, I began to wonder if was not also dangerous to walk it. That's the pattern we set... riding horses up twisting, steep mountain passes, walking down the other side of them. As we entered a dense, dark forest, my skin prickled with goosebumps as the temperature dropped and my appreciation for the horse grew as he tackled impossible muddy trails leading up the mountain. The mud was deep enough to meet the knees of the horse, each step made a sloooorp and suction noise as the horse methodically worked his way uphill. Walking down the muddy tracts was something, I thought, would have been great fun as a kid, when falling is fun and getting dirty is the modus operatus. I'd wished I had real hiking boots on my feet as the wet muck seeped into my sandal/sport shoes, but once I gave in to the fact that I was camping after all, I let go of the tree branches I'd been using along the way as a series of impromptu walking aids and let the mud have its way with me.

About 3 hours after the start of our journey, we arrived at a meadow sprinkled with tiny yellow flowers where we set up camp for the night. Rather, the guides set up camp for the night. The rest of us had to do nothing but enjoy the scenery and the secluded lake nearby. We ate a dinner of rice, spicy vegetables and tomato/cabbage soup and as the darkening evening set in, the fire was stoked and the Chinese whiskey was passed around the group, an occasional Tibetan song rang out in the quiet. The sound of thunder in the distance eventually came upon us, rumbling across the sky and illuminating the meadow with lightening as rain poured upon the protection of the communal tent under which we all sat. When bed time came, Benjamin and I retreated to the canvas tent we shared with the Frenchman and laid down upon our bed of tarps and quilts that had been laid over the boughs of pine trees to soften the hardness of the ground.

Days Two and Three
The rest of the horse trek went on in this way, with changing scenery as we rode, different meals, and a new place to sleep at night... Having become accustomed to the ways of my horse, I was able to appreciate the details of my surroundings. In the forest, there was moss hanging from trees, like fine silk wool the color of sea foam green... villagers in Tibetan dress popped up here and there, some with babies on their back, others with spinning prayer wheels in hand... wild horses played in streams... sheep grazed in green pastures... prayer flags flapped taughtly in the wind... undulating hills gave way to plateaus with grazing yaks... clouds hung in the sky lightly, far below us... at one point the sound of a helicopter broke me from a daydream and looking out into the distance for the sound, I noticed that it was below me. What an awesome feeling, to be higher in the sky than a flying machine.


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