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

Songpan Horse Trek part 8 Wuzuogou

In the early mornings the horses were called down from their morning grass munch on the surrounding mountains for a breakfast of last night's vegetable leftovers and broad (fava) beans which are also called horse beans in English ( dòu or cán dòu in Chinese). The horsemen had special high-pitched calls to bring the horses in, most came willingly but a few had to be chased on foot. 
Beautiful muted Tibetan colors of a saddle pad.  
Day 2 was a ride up a side valley slightly south of Erdaohai that was a geological extension of Erdaohai called Wuzuogou (Five Lakes Valley). We reached this from our camp just below Erdaohai by riding for a short distance on the paved road then taking a path heading east. There was a small tractor path up into this side valley which local villagers used to collect rocks for building material, firewood and get access to camps where they herded yak. We rode the horses through the water to cross. 
Wuzuogou has many strange geological formations where you can literally witness how the surface skin of the earth has been pushed, twisted and shaped into the landscape we see today. Cars can't come this way, only those on foot, horseback or small tractor or motorcycle. At the very end of this valley are five small interconnecting lakes and a rock formation called Kuashi (Collapsed) Cliff. Unfortunately we never made it that far because of an incident with one of the horses. 
Logs were laid across the river for those crossing on foot. Some of the horses could walk over this way but one of the horses fell through the logs and almost broke its leg. It had to be lifted out by its tail. Luckily it wasn't injured and no one was hurt. Later another horse kicked its horseman badly in the foot and tried to bite and kick another horseman. 
Folded over and over again, you can literally see the formation of the topography here (click to enlarge). 
Tibetan camp with yak hybrids out to pasture. The camp was guarded by tied up dogs, best not to get too close. 
Because of the seeming irritability of the horses today and the various mishaps we experience getting this far (and lot's of small children) we decide to give everyone a rest and a wonderful laze about in the sun. We break for coffee, tea, chocolate and gorp (or "CRAP" as Ethan G called it: cranberry, raisins, apples and peanuts). The horses calm down after this and we still have a wonderful day out in beautiful nature, sunshine, perfect quiet and pristine air.

Tea time!

All photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Songpan Horse Trek part 7 Food

Inside the cookhouse all hands pitch in frying up a batch of morning yóu tiáo 油条 (deep-fried dough/breadstick, a kind of Chinese dounut that you can dip in sugar or just eat the way it is). The food is included in the cost of the trek. It is tasty, abundant but very simple and can be perceived as quite monotonous by some picky foreigners: potatoes, pumpkin, rice, tomatoes in sugar, cucumber and squash, dry tofu (dòufu gan) in a tasty broth (yum!), breadsticks, horse tea (see below), Songpan bread etc is pretty much it. There is no meat included in the price. You can order a goat to roast but this costs about 600 yuan per goat. 

I did this trek the first time a little over 20 years ago and the food hasn't changed or improved one iota since then - this is one of the things that most foreigners complain about during the trek. So if you are a stickler for meat or good munchies and are heading out for several days (like up to the Ice Mountain Lake) bring extra delicacies from Songpan or Chengdu (where you can buy just about any delicacy under the sun). Songpan is famous for its various dried and cured meats, these can be easily transported in plastic bags and eaten with bread. 
Boiling up water for tea, hot chocolate and coffee on Day 1. 
Mr Booz has to have his morning tea, horse tea isn't good enough, has to be Lipton's!
Day 2 Burton spent too much time close to the fire last night roasting marshmallows and has swollen eyes (or maybe he just woke up on the wrong side of the sleeping bag this morning). He's hugging our huge box of trail mix/gorp.  
Maya L warming her hands with a mug of hot chocolate. 
Potato and pumpkin stew, yummy but not to the taste of the kids unfortunately. They preferred dough sticks dipped in sugar or whatever goodies their parents had stashed away for them from Chengdu. 
Even horses have to eat! Mush is served out of cut off basketballs that can be tied to their bridles. Whatever we and the horsemen hadn't finished for our meals they ate mixed with chewy broadbeans. 

All photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Songpan Horse Trek part 6 Camp life

Day 1...DJ Latoison just as the rain turns into snow. DJ road his horse all the first day up over the ridge and down to camp but unfortunately got altitude sickness later that evening and had to return to Songpan with a car that we called up to camp. Our camp was at about 3300 m and we had ridden over a pass that was around 3800 m. Songpan is a little lower at just over 2800 m. DJ returned to Chengdu the next day by car and is feeling just fine now. You never know who will have a problem with altitude sickness, it can hit anyone. It felt good with so many children along that we had easy access to the main road and a quick escape back to Songpan in case of an accident. 
Emy uses her mother (me) as a big, comfortable camp cushion. 
Life at camp was - I suspect - a large part of the fun for the kids - not just the awesome horseback riding. We spent three days on the trek, riding for an average of 4 hours a day, just enough to keep everyone excited, have their fill of riding but also not get too bored for the youngest children. Or too tired for the horses. The rest of the time was spent poking about at Erdaohai (Day 1), lazing about in the sun at Wuzuogou (Day 2), making bows and arrows, whittling sticks to roast marshmallows on, exploring the surrounding woods, playing cards, playing Chinese shuttlecock (jianzi),  joking about etc etc. Time flies when you're having fun!
Burton, Emy and Charles hanging out with the horsemen (conversing in Chinese!).
Quote of the day: "We are going to go hunt horse chickens!" Isaac and Burton with their homemade weapons. Horse chicken, maji in Chinese, Capercaillie in English, tjäder in Swedish, Lat. Tetrao urogallus are protected in China. We saw them in the woods and crossing the paths. We saw quite a number of beautiful birds: common pheasant, dove, quail, common kingfisher, ruddy shelducks (Tadorna ferruginea), Lammergeier, eagles, blue-eared pheasant, river chats (Chaimarrornis leucocephalus), blackbirds and crows. As for mammals we only saw pikas, small chincilla/mouse-like mammals with very short tails. Not a panda in sight of course, hihi!
Paddy, the tea expert himself with a handful of macha, "horse tea" (and of course his preferred drink a bottle of beer in his left hand). We were served horse tea ( a very poor quality tea that is almost tasteless and upon which the Chinese have since the Song Dynasty built an entire trading economy with the Tibetans) until the horsemen realized we actually preferred boiled water which we could use to make coffee or chocolate or whatever we liked. 
Maya, Emy, Isaac and Zoe playing a fierce game of WAR! All the while shouting expletives like "camel puke!", "horse turds!", "goat farts!" and so on.....
Everyone shouted Hurrah! when rice was served on day 2. Emy's rice-eating record is seven bowls in one go in Chengdu.
Mifan laile!
Charles and Burton chow down. Later in the evenings we roasted hotdogs and wonderful sausages we had brought up from Chengdu. Fantastic!
Sausage time, big interest on the part of the kids. Meat and marshmallows seems to be what kids prefer most. 
Evidence of adults having fun too, we preferred wine, whiskey, coffee, crackers and sausages over the marschmallows ;-)
Mesmerizing heat from the campfire kept us warm in the evenings before we had to crawl into our cold tents. It also thawed us out in the morning and coaxed the reluctant kids out of their sleeping bags. 
Emy Booz tucked into her sleeping bag for the night. She is sleeping in full clothing because of the cold in early May  (0°+). The trekking company provides very basic sleeping bags, pads, blankets and tents for all trekkers but the sleeping bags are: 1) very thin  2) very dirty 3) possibly full of ticks (Paddy killed one) 4) very smelly. The tents are small and short (ok for me!) but keep the rain out. Because it was still early in the season and we had a transport vehicle that could drop off stuff at camp most of us brought our own sleeping bags and extra pads. In summertime the equipment provided by the trekking company should be enough for those staying in the Munigou area (most going to the Ice Mountain complain bitterly about the cold, even in summer, if you're planning on heading that way bring a bag, the trekkers provide Tibetan coats). Those who are picky about hygiene would do well bringing a sleeping bag liner. You can make a pillow out of your clothes and stuff them in a t-shirt. (22 years ago they didn't have tents. I slept out in the open and in my own sleeping bag and woke up covered in snow. Little did I know then that one day I would have a great daughter like Emy and that she would sleep in the very same sleeping bag that I had used all that time ago!)

Maya L playing with her DS by the fireside. Remember to keep those camera batteries warm or the cold will quickly zap all the umph out of them!

All photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn