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
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