Asia | China | Sichuan Province | Songpan – Horse Trek
8:30am. We walked into the office of Shun Jiang Horse Trekking Company on the dot, ready to ride our way into the majestic mountains. I recalled the prep school horseback riding lessons, and sat on the horse with my head up, feet pointed out, and calves tight, but the horse was trained to only obey the guides’ whistles and commands. So I followed its wishes instead and awed at the intense color blocks of yellow broad bean flowers, green wheat and the blue sky. My horse embarassed me with its ultra-competitive spirit, as it propelled itself ahead by gassing Daniel and his horse. Half an hour later, Songpan was but a tiny white dot cradled in the grooves of the steep slopes.
Both of our guides were local Muslims. One of them used to be a herder and often drove his cattles to the hot spring area, leaving at 4am and coming back at 10pm. He said he liked being a guide even though it was hard work and he got no vacation or weekends. Already a father to three children at the age of 25, he probably lived the care-free life vicariously through his clients. The other guide spoke to me only when asked, but his acrobatic agility was enough to keep me entertained. The mule he was riding was only partially trained, but he would always fly off the saddle the second before the animal started bucking, and his 5-feet physique was enough to tame the mule with one strong pull.
We passed Tibetan herding tents, pristine alpine forests, and wild-flower covered meadows, and arrived at the camp site. Thunder rolled through the perfectly clear sky the minute we got to Er Dao Hai Park. Then it poured, occasionally splitting the dark sky with firy lightening. We hid underneath a pagoda only to find that its thatched roof was so leaky that it would have been the same standing outside.
The ‘hot spring’ was so cold that I drew my feet out with a quick scream, and referred to it thereafter as the ‘pond that smells like rotten eggs’. The rain, however, did wonders to the lakes in the park after a month of drought. A futuristic mausoleam, the skeletons of the dead trees lying at the bottom of the piercingly clear water were grotesque but stunning. The wooden trails floated on top of the water, and I felt I was treading directly on top of a large liquid sapphire.
Coming out of the park, a boy held on to the reign of a yak four times his size, and ran after it until he stopped it. He seemed quite proud at my compliments. His grandfather then invited us to his simple hut to dry our wet feet by a fire basin. Like the rest of the herders living by the park entrance, he came here during the summer to make some extra incoming by renting horses to tourists. The boy we saw earlier helped him out full time, while his younger brother, still in elementary school, just came up to spend his summer vacation here. The two boys were at first a bit timid, but soon grew out of the shyness and started singing a Tibetan pop song with their juvenile but nevertheless clear and loud voices so typical of the Tibetans. Before we knew, they were rolling in bed and wrestling with each other as if performing for my camera.
We sat by the fire back at the camp site and had a simple but fulfilling dinner of cabbage and Tibetan noodle soup. Wrapped in sleeping bags and a Tibetan robe, I fell asleep with the rain seeping through the tent and falling on the tarp that covered me like a burrito.
Daniel told me in the morning that he was sleepless all night because of strong altitude sickness. I felt bad, but didn’t know what else I could do aside from worrying.
I was antsy to get on the horse and get going, but the horses were not done with their playing time yet. The guides had let them loose at night, and had been out looking for them for hours. By the time I heard the tapping of hoofs on the trail and saw them riding fast like cowboys, it was almost 11. We took a different route back, stopping briefly at a nice Tibetan village perfect for photo-ops with its colorful prayer flags, high mani pile, and a bright water-propelled prayer wheel in a pogada. We saw the top of the snowy peaks as we approached Songpan, and a fleeting thought of joining a four-day trek to the foot of the snowy mountains went through my head. I killed it right away after getting off the horse at Songpan, hardly keeping my eyes open because of the excessive sun exposure.
The hotel where we had reserved a room had just been closed because its karaoke bar had been too loud. I couldn’t understand the logic behind that reason, but was too tired to think. My only other mission for the rest of the day was to sleep, which I accomplished as soon as I found another hostel.