Thursday, May 14, 2009

Off to Beijing and beyond

Indian Museum, Calcutta ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

I'm off on a job for the next two weeks so blogging will be sporadic. But I'm sure that I will have lot's of adventures to report about so do please look in from time to time. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Emperor Qianlong as a blogger

Qianlong in his study, possibly by Giuseppe Castiglione

I'm off to Beijing on Friday so I've got emperors on the brain. It is said that the Qianlong Emperor (Qing Dynasty 1711 - 1799) composed over 40,000 poems and 1,300 prose texts during his lifetime. Quite a remarkable feat. He would have made a pretty serious blogger as 40,000 poems means making at least 1-2 postings a day, every day for his entire lifetime, if he started writing at say the age of ten. He was a busy beaver in more ways than this, he also had 17 wives, 17 sons and 10 daughters (his grandfather Kangxi had 56 children) and travelled extensively.  

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Remembering the earthquake

Here is a brief description about what happened to us in Chengdu one year ago, something I wrote to tell friends and family. Our experience of course was nothing compared to what the people (who lost so many loved ones) up in the quake epicenter area experienced, something a hundred thousand times worse: 

As you all know the earthquake happened on Monday May 12th, 2008 at 2.28 pm in the afternoon. This was our daughter Emy's birthday and luckily, because of this we were all in Chengdu city and not up in the mountains where I had planned to take visiting friends. 

The day before the earthquake Paddy had just come home from Yunnan in time to celebrate Emy's big day. On the morning of the 12th we got Emy out of bed and celebrated her birthday in the Swedish way with presents and treats. She and Burton went off to school and I and Paddy spent a leisurely day catching up on talk and work. Just the week before I had been away in other parts of China working for 34 days straight. The day after I arrived back our guests from Sweden arrived and Paddy left for Yunnan. The 12th was a fantastically lovely day, sunny and warm and wonderful. I had sent our guests off to visit a temple in another part of town. I was feeling exhausted and loving the peace and quiet at home. For the evening we had planned to take Emy swimming, then all join up for a dinner at her favorite restaurant. 

At 2.28 pm I was sending off some pictures on the computer when the house started to rumble. It was like the whole building was in spin-cycle in the washing machine and something had gone terrible wrong. I knew immediately that it was an earthquake and shouted to Paddy in the next room. We both ran to our front door which is made of metal and thought we would be safe there. But the rumbling had turned into a roaring boil and it was like being inside of a popcorn maker. The noise was deafening. We live on the 13th floor and the house was being shook back and forth and everything was bouncing up and down and crashing on to the floor. All the other earthquakes I have been in (in California) lasted only 10-20-30 seconds. This one didn't want to stop. Paddy shouted that we should try and get out of the house. We were convinced the house was going to come down - working in China for so many years has made us all too sceptical and cynical about how houses are constructed and if the proper methods and materials were used. We both flew down the 13 flights of stairs in our bare feet (there was no time to take anything with us). I was still in my pyjamas. Bits and pieces of cement were falling around us and on every floor we met more people trying to get out. The earthquake finished just after we got out the front door where we met hundreds of other people streaming out of all the buildings around us. It had lasted for a full three minutes. All we could think of after this was to find our kids, our friends and get away from any building as soon as possible. Paddy braved running up 13 flights of stairs again to quickly get our passports, money, shoes, computers and to lock our door which we had left wide open. We had no idea if any large aftershocks would bring the whole house done. All the time he was up there I could see the windows quietly vibrating. It felt like the earth was a living, breathy animal, panting after an enormous exertion. He was gone for about five minutes, when he came down again a large aftershock hit and we all ran out into the streets. 

We quickly bought water and then two bicycles, shops were closing up and people were trying to contact friends and relatives by cellphone. Mobile connections weren't working and the streets were clogged with vehicles and people trying to find each other. Luckily no one was showing panic, even though we have heard that a small number of people in Chengdu leap out ofbuildings in fear and died that way. We made our way to where we could find our friends and children. Luckily everyone was safe and sound. Only then did we learn where the epicenter was -- just outside of the city in the mountains to the NW and that it had been enormous (7.9 magnitude). We also learnt name of towns and cities that I had never heard of: Beichuan, Hanwang, Yingxiu. Quickly we heard that two large schools had collapsed on top of 900 students. 

As time went on the numbers of casualities increased and unspeakable horrors were revealed about what had actually happened.  It is incomprehensible how entire cities can be crushed to rubble within a few seconds.

After the earthquake we have experienced fantastic warmth and generosity from all people around us (thank-you Kim, Johnny, Barry and Carin!) and we have all, Chinese and foreigners alike, gotten to know each a little better and been pulled closer together. I love Sichuan even more today than before and don't want to leave the area. Fun-loving Chengdu isn't the happy-go-lucky city it once was and everyone seems to be suffering from a collective depression, but day by day things get a little better. The Chinese people are incredibly resilient and tough and outside the city everyone is concentrating on getting through each day, minute by minute. It is too painful otherwise. 

 The kids have also been fantastic and seem to be doing all right after a few ups and downs. At the moment they are concentrating on getting through their last two weeks of school. During the actual earthquake they were thankfully outside of their school building doing sports. They felt the earth rumble and shake (it sounded strange they've said) and watched the school clocktower sway back and forth in an odd way, the lightning rod a top whipping frenetically back and forth. They didn't feel scared at that time and their teachers were very calm and responsible. Only afterwards when they joined up with their parents and witnessed all the adults acting scared and weird did they feel fear. Something for me to think about in the next disaster. Up on the 13th floor when the earthquake hit and I could hear the buildings crashing together and our terrace ripping apart, I experienced true, primitive anxiety. I wasn't at all brave, I was terribly scared and realized that I very much like being alive. I was no hero during this time and it taught me a lot about myself and my weaknesses.  

When Emy realized there would be no birthday celebration this day she said "This is the worst birthday of my entire life". In the evening, when we and a hundred plus other people had all gathered together in a garden to spend the night outdoors out of range of potentially falling buildings, Barry Jones got everyone to sing Happy Birthday to her in English and Chinese. It was very moving when we all knew that not so far from the city there were thousands of children lying dead, their parents distraught, searching for them. When Emy and Burton were allowed to drink a lot more soda pop than usual during the first earthquake week Emy said: "This is the best earthquake I've ever had".
Written June 2008

Anniversary of May 12th, 2008 Earthquake

Empty house, near Yingxiu May 2009 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Yesterday (blogspot runs on American time I think) was the first anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake. It was an emotional day for me: For one, my daughter turned double-digit and I felt that time was slipping away and that she was getting too big too soon. (I've hopefully got another 9 years with her before she moves away from home so some comfort there). Secondly, the memories from the earthquake last year are still all too fresh and recently accentuated by our visit through the epicenter at Yingxiu.

Paddy and I (tearfully) watched the documentaries and commemoration on Chinese TV and saw how the government eulogized both the victims and their families but also glorified the party and the government's efforts to save lives and make everything right again. Better to concentrate on the positive and not all there still has to be done. Or all of the people that have fallen between the cracks and aren't reached by the enormous state reconstruction apparatus. Every other picture was one of the flag of the Communist Party and or the seal of the PRC. I suppose no different than the number of American flags that were shown after Katrina or 9-11 (Wenchuan and Katrina however were natural disasters with no political agenda). In Sweden we are more discreet in showing our flag and equating disasters and tragedies too closely or patriotically with our government (even after the 1994 MS Estonia tragedy or the 2004 tsunami). 

Driving through the quake area the other day I sometimes felt like one of those "morbid tourists" that I wrote about on Feb 2. The TV showed them yesterday too, how Chinese busloads and caravans of cars and motorcycles visit Yingxiu and are guided around amongst the still highly visible ruins by the teenagers and young people that survived the earthquake. In the beginning their guides are cheery and strong and tell how boulders the size of small houses rained down upon their heads and how entire mountains slid into and over the city, crushing and smothering everything in its wake. After a while, when things get more personal and they relate what happened to them and their families and the people around them they break down crying and can hardly continue. It is all still too horrible to think about and I wonder how long these young people - just at the beginning of their lives - will have the energy and emotional balance to keep on talking about something so close to the bone. I hope that they will be able to move on eventually to a life that doesn't revolve around the earthquake everyday. But like victims of any huge disaster or tragedy loosing a large portion of your family is something that will alter your life forever. 

As 14.28 crept up on the clock yesterday (the time of the earthquake) I began to feel a little anxious and wanted to have everything in order. I made sure that this year I had already showered and dressed and that I had my shoes on (last year I was still in my pyjamas, lazing about, and that's how I ran out of the house). When 14.28 arrived the commentary on the TV stopped completely and the cameras panned slowing around the epicenter in total silence for one minute. Complete quiet in China is always something particularly peculiar and the effect was very unsettling and moving. It even seemed that the city around me here in Chengdu was quieter than usual, but a look out the window showed me that no, most people were actually going about things as usual, loading cars with goods, bicycling, chatting, talking on their cell phones. 

We spent the evening at the Bookworm participating in the earthquake anniversary benefit. As ever my extreme admiration for Peter Goff, the Bookworm staff and ALL people, too numerous to mention, Chinese and foreign, that have helped out at Sichuan Quake Relief over the past 12 months, finding earthquake victims who have "fallen between the cracks" and helping them in ways both big and small. Within just a day of the earthquake their relief efforts began and they are still going on, with numerous short and long term projects that really make a difference in people's lives. All profits from last night went directly to quake relief projects. (Burton and his band Ze Puppies played too and everyone sang Happy Birthday to Emy, thanks for the yummy cake Kim Dallas!). Last night was also the release of Abigail Washburn's (of Sparrow Quartet fame) and David Liang's CD Afterquake. The CD mixes the actual sounds of the rebuilding with the voices of relocated school children, talking and singing. Truly moving. More here

The Sichuan government, sister provinces and cities all over China, and the enormous efforts of all people in the quake areas have also accomplished a truly heroic amount of reconstruction this past year. There is so much to do it just seems so are all TRULY AMAZING.

Lest we forget: The Wenchuan Earthquake killed up to 90,000 people, injured 400,000 and made 5 million people homeless (5 million is the entire population of Denmark). A tragedy of this proportion can't be put to right over night, work will go on for many, many years so please remember how people still need our help and support. 

Emy turns 10!

Happy Birthday Emy!  Grattis på födelsedagen! 

Emy turned 10 today and is over the moon with fun on her birthday: apple pie, lot's of new clothing, a new bicycle, a cool Swiss Army knife and a new Cd of this year's Swedish Melodifestival. She also just beat me and Paddy in a game of Round-the-World Basketball. We're off to the Bookworm now for a barbecue dinner and cake but also to listen to Burton sing again with Ze Puppies for the Earthquake Anniversary Benefit. That bad old earthquake really ruined Emy's special day last year but she was very good about it when she learned how it had affected other people''s lives and families in much, much worse ways. 

Emy you are the best daughter I could ever imagine having, everyday you make our lives so much more fun and interesting and your character, cool sense, quirky humor, generosity and general all round goodness makes me puff up with pride and love everyday. We also think you're darned cute. We love you! Congratulations! Kram Mamma, Pappa, Burton och Mormor

Monday, May 11, 2009

High altitude free form ballet

©Heidi Wasch

This is a new art form created by Bob Leversee and Paddy Booz, two distinguished members of our recent pony trek to high altitudes. Mr Booz has incorporated elements of Tibetan ritualistic/tantric tongue-protrusion into the elegant ballet and Mr Leversee seems to be looking towards the sky for divine inspiration. Such grace, such style, such dedication to their inner selves...Or maybe they're just about to collide in a seismic game of jianzi.

Huanglong 黄龙 and Xuebaoding

Charles, Isaac and Burton having a snowball fight at the pass overlooking Xuebaoding in the far distance. 
Lungta, "wind horses": small paper offerings that Tibetans through into the winds whenever crossing a pass. 
5588 m high Xuebaoding seen from the 4007 m high pass overlooking Huanglong Valley. 
Xuebaoding in the background and the roof of the highest temple (Huanglong Si), a Daoist temple, silhouetted in the foreground. The original temple was built in the Ming Dynasty. It is heavily reconstructed today and was not open to visitors. It is also here that the annual festival Huanglong festival is held in spring.
Incredibly hardworking "beifus" carrying up to 100 kilos of wooden planks to the upper reaches of Huanglong Park to construct new walkways for park visitors. They make on an average 40 yuan a day. If they start very early in the morning and carry two loads a day they can make double. It is extremely hard work at this altitude (many of the tourists were sucking on oxygen bottles and all they had to carry was one small bottle of water). Many of them come from the earthquake areas and are desperate to find work anywhere they can. Every one of them met us with a smile as they were walking up and some of them asked for water to drink. Everytime I visit a scenic area or famous mountain in China I think of the enormous amount of work put into constructing the thousands and thousands of stone and wood steps and walkways. Truly coolie labor at its worst in my opinion, I think these workers deserve much better. 
The stone pagodas in the foreground are said to be the tomb of a Tang Dynasty general and his wife.  At this time of year the pools were the most beautiful powdery blue.
The classic postcard view of the upper pools of Huanglong.

All photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

After we left Songpan we headed back to Chengdu via Huánglóng and Píngwǔ. Huanglong is only 90 minutes by car from Songpan and one of the world's most stunning nature areas. Over 3,000 pools of incredible shades of powdery turquoise blue cascade down the mountain side beneath Xuebaoding Mountain (5588 m). Xuebaoding is the highest mountain in the Minshan Mountain Range, located only 300 km north-northwest of Chengdu as the crows flies. The pools are made from calcite deposits and have taken thousands and thousands of years to create. We visited Huanglong on May 5th, an absolutely brilliant day but still quite early in the season. The surrounding vegetation was brown and the rhododendrons were still only fat buds, almost ready to unfurl their beauty. At this time of year there is only water in the uppermost pools behind the highest temple. End of summer (lush green vegetation) and autumn (yellow, red and green leaves) are the very best times to visit Huanglong with all the pools and waterfalls bursting with water. If you are lucky to visit just after a heavy snowfall in winter everything will be blanketed in white snow, only the turquoise water of the upper pools showing. In winter the park can however sometimes be closed. 

There is a cable car at Huanglong that I highly recommend all to take. The entrance is located down the road from the main entrance. The Swiss made cable car takes you up to a high altitude viewing platform with views over the entire valley. From here it is a one hour walk on a basically level walkway straight to where the path connects with the main gate path just beneath the upper temple. From this point it is a short walk up to the upper pools. Down again to the main gate is an almost 5 km walk over planked paths and steps. Believe me, it is much easier going down than up and if you want to fully enjoy all the areas of Huanglong with ample time to truly enjoy the scenery - spend the money on the cable car. 

Huanglong means "Yellow Dragon" and takes its name from how the pools ripple down the mountain side, just like the scales of an enormous dragon. No other place in the world has such a large collection of pools as here, it is truly unique. 

Entrance fee: 
200 y full adult price/150 y for children over 1.30 m (under 1.30 free) and anyone over 65 yrs old. Cable car up is 80 y and down 40 y. 

Swine flu and Jiuzhaigou

I have just noted two things: we now have our first case of swine flu in Chengdu and the National Geographic published a photographic article on Jiuzhaigou (photographer Mike Yamashita) in the March issue of the magazine. No one that I know in Chengdu has commented on the swine flu or the Jiuzhaigou article that is now two months old. Are we that blaisé? 

By the way, nice pictures Mike!

Songpan Horse Trek part 14 Last post...

©Catherine Platt

Catherine Platt was kind to send me these pictures of me and my family (Paddy, Burton and Emy). They are really nice, thanks so much! We had such a good time :-)

It's funny, I seldom see myself because I am always behind the camera (even the picture here is of me taking a picture). Maybe I should take a closer look at myself every now and then, I look hilarious! Like a housewife from the burbs heading off from a dude ranch dresses as a red tomato....LOL. But I do ride a mean saddle however frumpy I look....

By the way, fellow Songpan Horse Trekker Cheng"dude"lians: Thanks for the great cowboy hat and envelope of Peter Pan treats, I was really touched by your generosity. 

What will our next adventure be???

Songpan Horse Trek part 13 Songpan Town 松潘

Central covered Bridge on Main Street, looking south.
South Gate, looking south from central covered bridge.
Tibetan shopkeeper with amber hair decorations and turquoise and coral silver jewelry.
Red coral and amber hair decorations and a traditional friendly greeting - sticking your tongue out.
Even monks like a little walkabout to check out the action and shop a little. 
Sonpgan is about 20-30% muslim.
Teahouses along the Min River are as much for drinking tea as for playing mahjong. 
Bread! A delicacy in China.
On the way to school - a baozi a day keeps the doctor away.
Yinyue Bridge, renovated with kind donations from local Songpaners in 1986.

The Chinese princess Wencheng (Wénchéng Gōngzhǔ 文成公主, Tib. Mung-chang Kungco) passed through Songpan during the Tang Dynasty (ca year 640 or 641) when she was travelling to Lhasa to wed the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in a peace agreement between the two nations. She was a niece of Emperor Taizong and died in 680. I must admit I am not sure who is the man beside her, surely not Songtsen Gampo as Wencheng was transported to Lhasa by a high official and was rumored to actually be pregnant with his child by the time she arrived in Lhasa almost a year later. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Songpan Horse Trek part 12 Travel tips

"Songzhou", the old name for Songpan on the north gate ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Most people visit Songpan only as a springboard for a horse trek or a drive-by on the way to Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou. Little Songpan doesn't deserve quite such a cold shoulder. This town of about 70,000 people has a unique history that deserves closer scrutiny. Indeed places like this in China are rapidly disappearing so if you want to catch a last whiff of a town with a "frontier" feeling please spend at least one day exploring its back alleys. 

When I first visited Songpan over 20 years ago it was half the size it is today, there were only a few  remnants of the city wall left, the bus station and its attached "hotel" rooms were some of the filthiest, grottiest in China. The bus ride from Chengdu took two 11 hr days and it was the only journey in China where I actually hit my head on the ceiling of the bus, the roads were so bumpy, bad and dangerous. Whenever I was in Songpan I was either exhausted and dirty myself from a recent trek or horseride and usually also just "passing through" to other areas. But I did spend time there and truly enjoyed the rough-and-tumble Wild West feel of the town. It was a great place to see Tibetans dressed up in their "city" finery: leopard-skin trimmed long coats, amber, coral and turquoise decorated hair, gold teeth and brilliant smiles. People rode horses up and down the streets and the shops were all wooden two-stories with oxblood red trimmings and warm yellow facades. Just as today there was a strong muslim influence with a lovely neat and tidy mosque, ladies with their hair covered and halal butchers. It was a touch of the Silk Road, Lhasa and frontier trading-post-China-of-the-past all thrown into the same mix, ready to be savored along with some dried yak beef and a loaf of bread. 

Songpan has existed since the Tang Dynasty and has seen numerous battles and wars in its role as an important and strategic military post. Situated at a crossroads between Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan it has also served as a vital trading center for tea and horses. Songpan suffered heavy damage during the Ming Dynasty and it was from the Ming that the remaining city walls date. Volatile relations between local Tibetans and Muslims have also witnessed numerous tragedies in the past but today one could say that relations are quite stable and peaceful.

There are numerous daily flights from Chengdu to Jiuhuang Airport that is about 1/1.5 hour from Songpan. Buses leave daily from Chengdu and normally take 8-10 hours to arrive. Since the May 12, 2008 earthquake the road via Wenchuan-Maoxian has been in serious disrepair so the road can not be guaranteed. The road via Mianyang/Pingwu/Huanglong however is in perfect condition and takes about 9 hrs by private car or rented bus. Songpan is easily accessible from Huanglong (1.5 hr) and Jiuzhaigou (ca 2-3 hr). There are no buses from the airport to Songpan, quickly grab a taxi from the airport, hopefully you will find other people to share the cost. We rented our bus from Sam's Travel (2nd fl Holly's Hostel) in Chengdu, very economic, great driver. 800 y a day plus a sum for the driver's lodging and meals. You can seat 14 people in the bus including one row reserved for luggage. A bargain if you have enough friends to split the cost. 

Shunjiang Nianqing Kezhan, a regular "motel" that you can drive your car into at night.

We stayed in spotless double-rooms with attached WC/hot shower at the Shunjiang Nianqing Kezhan right behind the horse trekking company and Emma's Kitchen in the northern section of town, not far from the North Bus Station.  120 y a night. Hot water all the time if there is electricity in Songpan (!). There are of course both cheaper and more expensive hotels in and around town.

There is a great massage centre (Snowland Tibetan Medical Massage Centre) located right beside Emma's run by Henanese Dong Li Xia (Lisa) and her Tibetan husband Hago Tenzin Wangyal. They also employ a local blind man (Mr Mi You Jun). High quality massage and nice, cosy atmosphere. Tel 13678372990. Email:©

Best teahouses and cosiest atmosphere on a sunny day is along the Min River near the south end of town, the old wooden Yinyue Bridge and the Guanyin Fort (Guangyin Ge).  

There are two mosques and a muslim center in town, the finest is located behind Emma's in the northern end of town. Don't miss the two beautiful old wooden covered bridges. The Guanyin Ge on a SW hillside, the old city gates and reconstructed city wall, the kitschy historic-romantic statue of Princess Wencheng outside the north gate. The main street has lots of shops and good people-watching. Around the mosques you can buy the best China-famous dried yak and beef meat (great for treks). Local honey, mushrooms and medicinal herbs are also a very good buy. Outside Songpan on the way to Huanglong is a quite grotesque, over-the-top monument to the Long March, that supposedly passed this way (debatable as to whether they actually went this way) in the 1930s. You can't miss the huge statue of a soldier holding a rifle surrounded by some very clunky statues at his feet.

Horse trekking
The two former horse trekking companies are now combined as one: Shunjiang Horse Treks (Shunjiang Luyou Madui), office on Shunjiang Beilu beside Emma's in N Songpan (tel 723 1201) just south of the bus station, east side of the road.

Songpan often suffers from lack of electricity (= no hot water), bring a flashlight. Be prepared with patience when this happens - think of the people who have to live with this every week of the year. Altitude: 2835 m, which can cause headaches for those having just arrived by air. 

Songpan Horse Trek part 11 Emma's Kitchen

Emma (Li Guirong) at her café, May 2008 ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

A large part of any successful travel experience is meeting and connecting with interesting people along the trail, fellow travellers of course but most important in my opinion are the local people that actually live in the places you visit. They are not just props that colour your travel experience more vividly but people with real lives that if you can communicate in a mutual language (or are clever with body language and show them genuine empathy) often make your experience one of great warmth and depth. 

As you can see from the posting below we really had a great time with our horsemen but let me tell you a little about a person that most people probably remember best from a visit to Songpan: Emma of Emma's Kitchen. I have to admit that I actually knew Emma before this visit to Songpan (she is the sister/sister-in-law to friends in Chengdu) but she is such a special person that I want to give her a "promotional plug" all on her own. Emma was born in Songpan and has lived there her entire life. She is one-quarter Tibetan/three-quarter Han Chinese (her Chinese name is Li Guirong), speaks fantastic English, knows every single person in Songpan and the surrounding valleys and has since the early 2000's welcomed foreigners into her café with one of the warmest smiles in China. She has energy and gusto like few others and during peak season works 20 hours out of a 24 day. She barely stands "five feet off the ground" but is a powerhouse of organisation and positive energy. Her entire family is like this: her little brother David helps out in the kitchen with her, her mother is often seen behind the counter, there is another sister somewhere and her brother Mike Li used to run one of the horse trekking companies in Songpan (before Emma opened her café she worked in the horse trek company). 

During last year's earthquake Emma generously took care of all the foreigners stranded in Songpan and she will gladly help you in any way she can. She has very interesting ideas on how tourism can expand and benefit the Songpan area and helped very importantly when I put this family horse trek together. If she has the time she will gladly tell many interesting things about life in this very unique part of China. 

Emma's Kitchen (Xiao Ouzhou Xicanting/trans. Little Europe Western Café) is the only really authentic backpacker's café in Songpan and she serves both Western and Chinese food. She also gives all sorts of advice and travel information for free. You can contact her via her email and she will gladly help you: The café is located in the northern end of town (Shunjiang Beilu), next to the horse trekking office (Ma Dui) and the horse trekking motel (Shunjiang Nianqing Kezhan). Give her a hug from me when you meet her in Songpan!

Spider in my bra

Sign at Indian Museum, Calcutta, India ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Finished dinner a few minutes ago and picked up a basket of fruit, the homemade basket we bought a few days ago from an old man on the street in Pingwu. Hugging the basket I felt something large fall into my cleavage, DAMN, a jumping spider was lodged in my bra. Lickety-split off came the shirt and the bra, to the hilarious laughter of my children.  

That reminded me of a scene from my childhood when my family lived on a sailboat in Central America, my mother suddenly thrashed out in a hysterical dance and ripped her clothes off in front of us: a cockroach had crawled into her shirt. 

Which made me think of a friend whose mother had put on her underwear one day in Arizona only to be bitten in the worst place by a scorpion having a cosy nap in her knickers. 

Burton then related the story how he the other day took a deep drink from his water bottle only to find that he had a large (drowned) cockroach in his mouth. 

Which reminded me of a story my Cuban grandmother told me when I was little. She shared a bedroom with her sister in Havanna and one morning she woke up to shrieks: her sister, who like Emy had extremely long hair that had never been cut, slept with it tied up in a braid. During the night a python had snuck into the room and proceeded to eat up her braid, centimeter by centimeter, until the greedy snake finally choked himself to death. The sister woke up with the dead snake stuck to the back of her head, thus the shrieks..... 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Songpan Horse Trek part 10 Our horsemen

The horsemen that lead your trek are as important as safe, strong, stable and reliable horses. They know the personalities of their horses inside and out, they stay close to you if you are insecure, let you be independent if you prove yourself to be a good rider, set up camp for you, make your bedding, cook your food, sing you mountain songs, boil water for your coffee and tea, drink moonshine with you if you like and generally are salt of the earth, rough and ready guys that live very hard lives but are full of laughs and smiles if you give then half a chance. A horseman/groom/stable lad is called a  fū 马夫 in Chinese, (the name also means pimp or procurer!) and we had 11 along on this trip. They were great guys and kept us safe and happy the entire time. They were especially attentive to the needs and safety of the children.
The youngest one (not this guy, who said hardly a word the entire trek!) was teased and taunted by the other younger horsemen, one of the mafu looked just like David Niven with a thin moustache (sv. "tangorabatt"), one of them suffered from terrible asthma and weezed up and down the mountains, but also smoked cigarettes. The two oldest men - 59 and 60+ - were quiet and sage about everything; the muslims mock chided the Tibetans often about how quarrelsome and problematic they were as an ethnic group, but reassured us that in the Songpan area the different peoples just tried to get along without too much trouble. Songpan has a very strong muslim presence and in the past centuries horrible, murderous fighting has gone on between the two dominant groups. The muslims in our group gladly drank wine and spirits but were very firm (all the horsemen actually) that we absolutely not let any of our pork sausages come near their cooking pots or into the cookhouse. 
The oldest horseman, 60 something. 
Break in the sunshine while the tea water is boiling. The horseman to the right took every breaktime to catch a lie-down.
Most Tibetan men in the countryside carry knifes. In the larger cities this is usually not allowed although many still do. Since the troubles last year all knifes in the Tibetan shops in our street in Chengdu have been taken away and are not allowed to be sold (even small pocket knifes). This horseman is carrying a beautiful knife, probably a family heirloom, handcrafted in silver. 
Our horsemen all live in villages around Songpan. The horses we were riding were their own horses and the mafu's ages ranged from around 19 to somewhere just over 60 yrs old. Most of them were Tibetans, the rest Hui Muslim and even a few Han Chinese. When they are not working for the horse trekking company they are farmers or herdsmen. They split the horsetrekking fee about 50/50 with the trekking company and when there are lots of tourists (i.e. no earthquakes or political problems that close off the Songpan area to travelers, particularly foreigners), they can make a fairly decent wage if they work many treks a season. None of them wore proper footwear (in our eyes) usually only simple sneaker boots or leather shoes. They had on thin jackets and coats, easily ran up and down the mountains if needed, slept around the mess campfire at night and were up early in the morning, cooking, gathering firewood, getting drinking water and calling down the horses from the mountains. 
This horseman (the same guy as the first shot above), 59 years old, was severely kicked in the foot by his horse on day 2. Bob L is a doctor and is inspecting his swollen foot for any serious damage. All the other horsemen were very curious and as soon as they knew there was a doctor in the group they gathered around, helped interpret (from Chinese into Tibetan) and one even showed a cut finger and shyly asked for a band-aid.
My horseman Meng Jun and me upon arriving back in Songpan. His name means "Mongolian Soldier" and he is a Hui muslim. He has been riding horses since he was four years old, now he is 24, married and has a 4 month old little girl. He's a great guy and was sort of the leader of the mafu, probably because of both his leadership ability and that he could speak both standard Chinese (some of the Tibetans only spoke rudimentary putonghua), a little English and could communicate well with all the ethnic groups among the horseman. An all-round great guy.
At the end of the second day he and I raced our horses back to camp at breakneck speed. I won but I have an inkling that Meng Jun just might have let me win on his lead horse Blackie. When the others got back to camp all the horsemen and my kids gave me the "ultimate awesomeness" riding award. I felt elated afterwards but also glad I didn't fall and break every bone in my body. Not to be recommended!

All photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Songpan Horse Trek part 9 Return to Songpan

One of the three largish Tibetan villages (Shang Zhai, Zhong Zhai and Sanlian) in the Munigou Valley. In the foreground a pile of mani stones and prayer flags. 
Six year old Tuva Appelquist riding all by herself with her ever attentive horseman. 
Heading home on Day 3. The first hour was spent riding for a little over an hour on the main, paved road from Erdaohai past Shangzhai village. We then headed up into the mountains, following paths past fields and farm houses. The weather was brilliant with clear blue skies and views of distant villages and snow-clad mountains. The distance between our camp just below Erdaohai back to Songpan was covered in about 3 1/2 hours.
Burton Booz. 
"Sleepy" taking his usual lie-down. 
View from the pass over the city of Songpan with a distant Xuebaoding (5583 m) (the highest peak of the Minshan Range) in the middle of the picture. Spring has arrived and the mountainsides are quickly turning green in this first week of May.
At the pass. 
It is in villages like this that some of the horsemen live. 
Walking down from the pass (too steep to ride), Songpan in the far distance. 
Just above Songpan walking the horses down the last part of the mountain path. In the background a part of the ancient Ming Dynasty city wall and the reconstructed city wall and main south gate can be seen.
Our triumphant return to civilization was straight through the main streets of Songpan. We all rode with straight backs and happy smiles on our faces, the kids were particularly proud of themselves (rightly so!). My horse Blackie, of course, could hardly contain himself and I had to fight hard to keep him from galloping all the way back to the trekking company. I shouted back to Meng Jun behind me: "Which way? Which way?" and he shouted back "Don't worry, the horse knows the way!" All around us were cars, trucks, bicycles, tourists, vendors, music, tooting and noise, noise, noise. What's good about cities: hot showers and good food. Bad? Crowded spaces and.....NOISE!
Another group photo of the Songpan Wild Bunch on the last day before we ride back to Songpan, see how happy we look!!! L to R, front row - Ingrid Booz Morejohn, Su Wen Bo (our great driver from Sam's Travel, Chengdu),  Zoe D, Isaac G, Burton Booz, Charles D, Maya L, Heidi W, Emy Booz, Sam G with mum Catherine P, Tuva A with two horsemen. Back row: interspersed among the mafu: Isabelle D, Meng Jun, Bob L, Arnaud D, Paddy Booz, Ethan G, Kattis and Nicklas A. (Missing the four Belliers, Staci and DJ Latoison who returned to Chengdu earlier and Ingrid Sr who stayed in Songpan during the horsetrek). 

All photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn