BootsnAll Travel Network

On Two Feet or Four?

Early in the morning, which was becoming the theme for our travels through China, Chris and I boarded our bus from Xiahe to Langmusi, another small Tibetan town featuring a monastery and beautiful scenery. The leg room, astoundingly, was quite good on this bus, and we comfortably settled in for the 4 hour drive. The scenery continued to keep us entertained,and as our bus rumbled along the hilly roads, we chatted to a nice French couple, Julie and Guillaume, about their travels in China. We exchanged stories and told them about the horse festival, which they regrettably missed. Unlike many bus journeys, the time flew by along with the numerous peaks and valleys outside. We arrived in Langmusi uneventfully and without a warning, with no signs or characteristics to show us that the journey had ended. We walked around the small town and looked for accomodation, searching in vain for a guesthouse that apparently doesn’t exist anymore. We finally settled on the first one we went to, and for less than half the price of a double room in their new wing, we had a dorm room to ourselves with comfy beds and less than clean floors. Julie and Guillaume had a room down the hall from us, so we arranged to meet them a popular cafe for lunch, where we hoped to get some information about travels to the next stop on our itinerary, to where there was no direct bus. The small town of Langmusi was surrounded by beautiful and unique scenery on every side. Facing one side was a huge red plateau similar to the scenery I saw in Australia at Kakadu, while on two other sides huge hills, or possibly they were mountains now, displayed rocky formations out of the ground known as the Stone Forest. The last side showed small hills in comparison, but was built with small homes and temples for the monastery in town. It was a bright clear day and we were looking forward to doing some exploring in the surrounding hills. But first was lunch, and at the small cafe, famous for its enormous Big Yak Attack burgers, we chatted with Julie and Guillaume about their next plans, and we agree to find some transport together to Songpan, the next town we wanted to visit.

Not getting anywhere with our questions, Chris and I left after lunch to do a little searching out of hiking trails, his eye trained firmly on the highest peak in sight, the top of the Stone Forest. My lack of hiking experience and at this altitude made me second guess my ability to do the climb, but agreed to give it a try and we sought out a route we could take to the base of the mountain. Passing by the monastery, the monk at the gate tried to get us to pay for our wanderings, as we walked past the walls of their grounds. We firmly walked past along the public road, and found a path through some farms that we thought we could reach the mountain by. Satisfied with our plans for the next day, we headed back into town for some good photos of the town and surrounding area, and again inquired at various places about trying to find transport to Songpan. Our best option was to hire a private taxi for 700Yuan (8 Yuan = 1 US) which seated 6 people to take us the whole way, quite a lot of money but frankly our only option. Slightly discouraged but accepting the facts, we found Julie and Guillaume, they agreed to share the taxi with us, and we now set out to find two more passengers. After dinner, we enjoyed sunset on our rooftop, where the plateau gleamed a bright red and then orange, and the temperature quickly dropped the minute the sun set completely.  Still fighting the cold I had acquired days before, I decided to go to bed early to rest up for our walk the next day. I wrote up a small note and attached it to the message board at our guesthouse. Within 5 minutes of putting up the note, a knock on our door revealed a Chinese girl who wanted to join in our taxi, so we explained what we had found, and that we were going hiknig the following day, but that if she still wanted to come, to leave a note for us before 8pm the following night, and she agreed.

The next morning, we got up early, but not too early, and had a big breakfast and stocked up on some water and food supplies, not knowing exactly how long this hike would take us. The previous night the owner of our guesthouse, when we told him where we were going and what time to expect us back, warned us warily that he thought some tourists had gotten lost and died on that very mountain we were going, and suggested we hire a guide. I instantly felt a small sense of panic, but it quickly subsided and Chris assured him, and me, that we would be fine, but if we weren’t back by dark then he knew where to find us. So that morning, we set off on the path we found the day before, and again, as we passed the monastery, a monk rushed after us and requested we buy a ticket for 40Yuan to enter their grounds. As best we could, we explained we weren’t entering their grounds, we were walking along a public street where there were houses and such, and heading into the hills. He started to argue with us, and we both became quite annoyed at this, as we were clearly not visiting the monastery. A nice Chinese tourist approached, and with limited English he helped us to finally explain to the monk what we were doing, and though I think the monk more gave up than agreed with us, he finally let us go down the street. We found our path, and crossed through a farm towards another dirt road, and started up and over small hills, each hiding a small house or farm. In the altitude and with my cold, I quickly realized I wasn’t in good shape and was breathing heavier than I should have been for what we were doing. It would only get worse, and by the time we actually reached the base of the mountain, which took about an hour, I was quite tired already. And the mountain loomed up at me, and though the sun wasn’t as bright luckily, I was still hot and sweaty.

We started our ascent, and I kept having to pause every 10 steps or so to catch my breath. It became harder to catch my breath each time, and took longer and longer to start breathing normally. We continued to climb, and I continued to have problems, with one point reaching that it took me so long to catch my breath fully, that it scared me. I’d like to say we were about one third the way up, but I can’t be sure of that. We were at probably 10,000 feet or so, and I had never been that high before, for sure while hiking. My cold also wasn’t helping, and after a rest, we started up again, and I was instantly out of breath again. Resigning myself, I told Chris to go on without me, knowing it would take me much to long at the pace I was able to go, and not even sure I’d be able to make it much higher. It was a beautiful day on the hilltop though, and as Chris set off to the peak, I took a break and just enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine. I could see Chris making his way up and after sufficient time had passed, I decided to go a bit higher, hoping to make it to a higher clifftop I saw to one side. I walked slowly, not wanting to trip stupidly and injure myself alone, and breathing deliberately, I made it high to the clifftop, where I had a great view down one side of the mountain towards the town and views of other mountains in the distance. It was truly breathtaking, literally and figuratively for me. The view was simply stunning, and though it was slightly hazy in the distance, you could see quite far. I settled in to wait for Chris, and couldn’t think of a better place to sit and think.

An hour passed, and I looked up to see if I could see Chris anymore, and thought I saw a small dot of movement at the top of the mountain. Relieved, I waited for him to come down, and soon after I saw the small dot making its way down from the top, through the rocky outcrops and high grasses. I was wearing my hideous but effective bright blue hiking shirt, and as the figure approached about halfway down, I saw a lone arm waving, and finally a shout as he got closer. “Stand up,” Chris shouted, and he took my picture ontop of clifftop, which looked like I was standing on the edge of the world. He finally made it to where I was, and after describing the climb and the views, we took in more sights and loads of more photos. The day had quickly approached afternoon though, and we knew we needed to head back, so we finally sighed and set off down, where our hike back was much easier going downhill than up for me. As we passed through one village, raging crazed Tibetan Mastiff guard dogs started running at us, barking violently. Luckily, they were on very long chains we didn’t see, because I seriously thought we were going to be attacked. The landowners waved at us to head around a different way, and we accepted with no hesitation, unsure if those chains would hold.

We reached town just before dinner, and instantly ran into Julie and Guillaume, with news about our taxi. They had found a family of three that also was looking to get to Songpan, so now we had too many people and hoped to find a bigger vehicle to transport us. We explained we had told the Chinese girl she could come, but hadn’t seen her, so we set off to find her to confirm her plans. After a quick stop at our guesthouse, we greedily sat down for dinner and some cold beers. We chatted with the owner of the restaurant about transport to Songpan, and he told us of another taxi that would be much cheaper, but wouldn’t leave until the afternoon. It sounded good to us, so we found Julie and Guillaume again, and talked it over. We agreed on the later taxi, until we talked with our guesthouse owner who explained that it was at least 8 hours to Songpan, so we wouldn’t arrive until late in the evening. Unable to locate the Chinese girl, we talked with the French family, who finally realized even without the Chinese girl we still had too many people, and decided to book their own taxi for just the three of them. After hours of running around, talking to taxi drivers and looking for the missing Chinese girl, who we eventually found late in the evening, we hired a taxi for the 5 of us, for 700Yuan, the original price.

The taxi picked us up at 6am, bright and early, as the road was long and rough to Songpan. Shoving our bags into this converted minivan, we realized luckily that with a 6th person, we would be very cramped indeed, however much money we had saved. We rumbled along a paved road, following the French family’s taxi, and suddenly came to what we thought was just a field, but the taxi driver used as a road. Ruts and bumps for about an hour, and then we approached another paved road. We had been traveling about two hours, when we stopped for a leg stretch break. The sun had just come up, and it was starting to get warm. We set off again, and though we were on paved roads, they were unexplainably bumpy. The seats in the van weren’t the most comfortable, but easy conversation diverted us from our discomfort. After a while we stopped at a small restaurant for lunch, where for some inexplicable but nice reason, the French family treated us to our meal. They also threw some of our backpacks into their backseat, which was empty, giving us a little breathing room. Along the way, the road changed continuously from paved to unpaved and dirt, but all was uncomfortable, bumpy and hard. We were getting antsy, as 6, then 7 hours passed. Our driver apparently also getting bored, starting singing in Tibetan, and it seemed somehow completely normal to be lumbering along a dirt road with a Tibetan taxi driver singing to us as we passed horse farms and tents along the way.

Approaching 4pm, 10 hours after leaving Langmusi, we finally arrived at Songpan, a beautiful village in northern Sichuan province, nestled in among mountain scenery. The main reason tourists visit Songpan is to go horse trekking in the mountains. The four of us had booked a three day trek from Langmusi, and checked into the small guesthouse associated with the trekking company. Needing to stretch our legs, we first checked in to get information about what to bring for our horse trek the next day, and then walked through the cute village, which seemed cut more from a European cloth than a Chinese one. A main thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants, we bought up some supplies we would need, including very dashing cowboy hats. Chris’s search for a long sleeved collared shirt to keep the sun off proved harder than imaginable, but we were eventually successful. We ate dinner at a popular restaurant near our guesthouse, and packed up our small bags that we would take with us on the horses. We had, you guessed it, an early start, so we resisted the urge to have beers in the full restaurant, and went to bed early.

We checked our big bags into luggage storage, and set off for breakfast the next day, determined to eat peacefully before setting out. We gave ourselves enough time, and as we left the restaurant, we saw tons of horses and their guides walking down the cobbled streets towards our guesthouse. Plenty of tourists were milling around, unsure of themselves, and we realized we would have a big group for our trek. Not getting any direction, we stood to the side and watched as different people started to get on horses and get their bags rigged up to the packsaddles. Finally, a guide motioned towards us and started loading our water and bags onto what I thought was our pack horse, but turned out to be my horse, who I thought looked awfully small for me. But the guide just heaved me up without a second thought, Chris got his horse, and without further word or instruction, our horses started following the others down the street, a path they were obviously familiar with.  Riding took a little getting used to, it was unlike my ride in New Zealand, which was down to every imaginable safety rule and proper equipment. This was slightly different, as we sat perched on top of our mattresses, with old saddles or blankets underneath. My horse, who I named Fred because I couldn’t pronounce his real name, seemed resigned to his fate and trotted along, but it quickly became evident he was slow, and I found myself slowly getting passed by each and every rider.

We started uphill, climbing smaller hills and paths, the horses easily following each other without any guidance from us. We passed over small streams, and up forested hills reminiscent of Europe again. After about two hours, we were instructed to get off and stretch our legs, and our guides took the horses downhill passed a steep and rocky crossing. Without realizing it, I had gotten front of some of the horses, and as I tried to get out of the way, a horse lumbered past me down the hill, hit me with the huge pack saddle, and knocked me flat on my ass, off the path and over the small embankment. I quickly got up unhurt, but the view over the edge of where I fell gave me a start, as we were on a fairly big hill with rocky edges. Somehow, no one had seen my tumble, and I brushed myself off and joined the rest of the group. After the short walk, we got back on the horses, and I noticed a twinge in my left knee, something I noticed while riding in New Zealand. I had my guide adjust my stirrup which felt a bit better. After riding another few hours, we reached a clearing along a small river, surrounded by forested hills. This would be our camp for the next two nights, and we had reached it early, about 2pm, givng us time to rest and explore around.

The guides prepared food for us, bread and tomatoes, a simple meal for lunch, and people lounged around or napped, and chatted and got to know one another. Nighttime arrived quickly, and the fire was started, and dinner was served, a simple stew of potatoes, cabbage and chili peppers. The guides had also brought along a sheep that some people had contributed money to, and while we lounged, they killed and prepared the sheep to roast over the fire. My time at my friends sheep station had given me plenty of opportunity to get used to this. We settled around the fire after dinner, and the group of Chinese tourists with us sat around singing songs, and we chatted and shared some beers and rice wine people had brought. It was a tiring day though, and we returned to our tents to discover our beds had been set up by our guides, and we sank under the huge blankets and Tibetan wraps that we used as covers, and quickly fell asleep. The next morning was a relaxed affair, and they gave us plenty of time to eat a simple breakfast of bread and leftover stew and some tea. Our horses were saddled, this time without all the padding, and I looked with dismay at my very hard leather saddle. My butt was already a bit sore from the previous day, and we had a long ride ahead of us to reach Ice Mountain and back.

After the first hour, I knew I was going to have a problem. My left knee twinged already, and everytime the horse trotted, I slid too much around my saddle. As we climbed uphill, I slid back almost off my saddle, and I had to hold on to not fall off. I asked the nice Polish couple if I looked like my stirrups were okay, as she had a lot of riding experience. She said I looked fine, but that my saddle, and probably my horse, were too small for me. We rode almost constantly for hours, stopping only once for a quick walk while the horses navigated a difficult crossing. As every passed, I got more and more uncomfortable, and my knee ached. I prayed for a stopping the whole time, and when we finally reached our destination, Ice Mountain, 4 hours later, I hobbled off my horse, my knee seething and my butt numb. It was a cloudy day, so Ice Mountain was partially obscured from our view. We had been told we would be hiking to the base of it, but discovered that was not the case. The guides handed us some bread for lunch, we luckily had brought other stuff with us, and ate a quick lunch surrounded by mountains. Before we could blink twice, lunch was over, and the guides motioned at us to get going. Luckily for me, we were walking down the steep path, and the more I walked, the more my knee loosened and I felt better and better. Until we had to ride again.

I was instantly in pain, and I knew that my saddle was adjusted wrong, but now it seemed futile to try anything new. We set off back towards our camp, and with every trot I gritted my teeth and tried to slow my horse down. It was without a doubt, the most uncomfortable horseback ride I have ever been on. Poor Fred, it wasn’t his fault, but I was silently cursing him under my breath. Our guides knew all along that Fred was slow, and kept hitting him, urging him faster to keep up with the other horses. But I would quickly slow him down, and finally I think I managed to explain to the guide behind me that I didn’t want him to go fast because it hurt. Since we had finished our descent and were now just walking along the river back towards camp, the guide went ahead of me, and I slowed Fred down at a bearable pace. When we reached camp, I couldn’t get off that horse fast enough, and fell into our tent, too sore to move except to reach for the ibuprofen. Dinner was quickly called, and I managed to crawl out of the tent to eat. Sitting on the ground was difficult, as sitting back hurt my butt, but sitting crossed legged hurt my knee. It was a no win situation, and after dinner I washed up in the river and went back to the tent to lie down a bit more, the only comfortable position I felt.

A fire was started again, and we enjoyed some beers, more to dull the pain than anything, and bedtime couldn’t come fast enough for me. I knew I’d be sore the next day, but surprisingly I wasn’t as bad as I thought. Granted, I hurt, but I felt it could have been worse. Once I got on the horse, however, my opinion changed. Though the saddle was now padded again, I was still seated strangely and perched forward. But I knew it was only about 5 hours back to town, and I gritted my teeth and settled in for the ride. It was hot that third day, and I was wearing black pants and a long sleeved shirt. I quickly became hot, and in the sun I started to feel kind of sick and lightheaded. With about an hour to go, I knew I had to get off the horse. I was starting to feel kind of faint and thought I was going to throw up, so I motioned to the guide that I needed off, not something they like to hear as it means he has to walk with me. I felt completely shaky and nauseous, but it subsided after a few minutes. I explained I needed to walk a bit, and ended up walking about 20 minutes until we caught up with the back end of the group where Chris was waiting for me. They had started walking as well down a steep hill, and after we reached a level area, I got back on the horse for the last bit home.

Still feeling slightly ill and hot, we thanked our guides and gathered up our gear off the horses, taking last minute pictures. The owner of the company took one look at me and asked me if I was alright, so I just told him I was feeling a bit sick, but nothing to worry about. We checked into our room and rested a bit, and then I got in the shower to clean off three days of dirt and sweat. We were meeting the rest of our group for dinner at 7, so we headed towards the cafe next door for something cold to drink and check email. My ears felt kind of hot and itchy, and my neck and arms felt itchy as well. I noticed when I went back to the room that I had little red dots on my neck and wrists, which I assumed to be just a heat rash. By the time we sat down to dinner, my entire torso and upper body had broken out in huge hives. Julie and Guillaume, both doctors, thought I might be having an allergic reaction to something, but I wasn’t sure about that. But I did now that I was uncomfortable, and after what really was a good and enjoyable dinner, I had to excuse myself. We had an early bus to Chengdu the next morning, a long drive again, and I needed some rest.

In the morning, the rash had spread to my legs and back, along with the upper body. I tried not to scratch, but my whole entire body was on fire. I felt that my body was finally rebelling against me and our very full shedule over the past two weeks. Our bus left Songpan for Chengdu at 6am, and luckily we had booked the “new” bus, which had relatively comfortable seats and air conditioning. The 8 hour drive turned into 10, as road construction and landslides slowed us down. I had taken an antihistamine that Julie had given me, which knocked me out but I was groggy and ill on the bus, just wanted to get off and get in a cold shower. My rash seemed to be gettign worse, and while I think it was a heat or irritation rash, I wasn’t sure, and I was still miserable that day. As we arrived in Chengdu, the hostel we first went to only had dorm beds, which Julie and Guillaume checked into, but I just needed to have our room and shower, so we found another guesthouse with decent accomodation. Knowing deep down that I needed some sleep, we opted to put off visiting the panda center, since it would have meant another early start the next day. We found a nice cafe for dinner, and researched a bit on cruises for the Yangtze river cruise, but I was feeling miserable and Chengdu was hot and humid, so we headed for home early, not realizing that in less than 24 hours, I’d be in a Chinese hospital.

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