Caravaning with Chinese Cowboys

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November 14th 2006
Published: November 20th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

Ice Mountain

It was almost like staying at the Four Seasons. A few exceptions perhaps...The hard, cold ground didn't quite resemble a double stuffed air mattress and the air conditioner seemed to be permenantly stuck in the on position. Room service also had an obscene obsession for oily noodles and potatoes for three meals a day...but I won't be complaining to reception. Four days of horse trekking up in the snow capped mountains of Songpan, a small town near the Tibetan plataeu have finally come to a finale. Four wonderful, sunny afternoons clambering over sheer cliff drops, pristine forests, and lush, sparkling rivers - - all on top of colorful mountain ponies. I was in pure Ashley heaven.

With only a little arm twisting and sugar coated words, I convinced Cara, Niki, and Tim to join me on the horse trekking adventure. Though none of them had ever ridden or properly camped before, they were eager for the opportunity to be real "City Slickers" and signed their John Hancocks next to mine with no hesitation. Looking back, as I recall numerous death stares from Cara as she tried stopping her eager horse from trotting over the side of the hill, I wonder how I kept them for keen for the entire experience. Camping in the cold wind, sleeping on frozen ground, and sitting on a bony horse for seven hours a day can get a little tedious for an unenthusiastic outdoorsman. However, I loved every minute of the trip.. As Niki cited, I certaintly felt at home on the back of Sniffles, my sturdy gray pony...until he threw me over the side of the mountain that is (but we'll just keep that between you and me!)

Our group summed up to seven including Sonya from the UK and her amazing six year old son, Harris. I'm trying to figure out a way to carry him in my backpack but have yet to come up with a plan. We were each supplied with a guide, a mountaineering Marborlo man who grew up on the rocky terrain and could pitch a tent in two minutes flat. Unfortunately, they also constantly liked to whip our horses purely with the good intentions of making them plod along the tricky trails at a faster than normal pace. A pointless effort for the ponies would only sputter step for a bit and run into one another, nearly knocking each other off the ledge in the process. It was a giggle for awhile until I wound up upside down on a steep cliffside. Only a few bruises and a wounded pride as a souviner.

After an early morning breakfast and seemingly endless cups of hot, murky tea, we saddled up our ponies and ambled along the snow covered paths leading up to Ice Mountain. We were usually off the trail by around 2 pm everyday, giving us plenty of time to peruse the neighboring villages and countryside. As we explored, our savy guides would hike into the forest and cut down copious amounts of wood for the nightly fire as well as armloads of branches used to pad our sleeping bags at night. Evenings would find us sitting around camp, trying to chat despite our severe language barriers. The young blokes sang beautiful songs, all in perfect tune and harmony. We tried our Western version of some bonfire sing-alongs but wound up butchering Robbie and Bob Marley to bits. sorry boys Cara and I brought along a few bottles of Fire Water, a horrid tasting 50% alcohol concoction that the cowboys loved and I could barely swallow. It warmed us up nicely for the long night on the cold ground. So did our hot water bottles, the best 7 yuan that I have ever spent. With that handy contraption to snuggle with, I went to bed comfy and toasty only to toss and turn and wake up with it frozen solid by my feet. Yes, it was that cold.

Ice Mountain was spectacular! It took a little over three hours across some nail biting, narrow cliffs to reach the snow peaked base camp. We ambled along some slate covered ridges where Sniffles had a bit of trouble keeping his footing. It was best to just close your eyes, hug the ponies neck and wish to be back in Kansas. No worries though - we made it and we able to walk around quite a bit to satisfy our curiosities. It was then much too steep for us to ride back down so we allowed the horses to stumble and slip before sliding down ourselves. Back at camp, we warmed our frozen fingers by the fireside and napped in the sun. Poor Cara was traumatized. Her quote for the day was, "someday I will marry the perfect man....he won't like camping at all!"

We stayed near a lovely Tibetan village for two nights. The town itself was quite small and was snuggled into the valley between towering mountains on either side. We meandered down to the one store city center in search of hot chocolate. I was in seach of hot chocolate. The English boys wanted beer of course. At the end of a dusty path sat a sole mom and pop, sunning themselves on their rickety patio next to a sign claiming "The Best Cold Beer." We were sold and spent the rest of the afternoon visiting with the couple. The rest of the town was set up in traditional Tibetan style. Beautiful prayer wheels dotted the landscape and colorful prayer flags fluttered from every house. The Tibetans themselves are wonderful people, so friendly and eager to chat. Perhaps a trip to Tibet is in the near future.

I think everyone was ready to kneel and kiss the ground as we came trotting into town at the end of our forth afternoon. Hot showers had never been so appreciated. I washed my hair three times! God bless Herbel Essences shampoo. A plateful of banana pancakes later and an "upgraded" room with actual heating blankets and Cara and I were blissfully happy girls.

Travelling Down South

Cara, Niki, Tim and I have already spent over three days time on trains from here to there and everywhere. It's a mode of transportation and a keen insight into true Chinese lifestyles. Lots of spitting on the floor goes on. Our first night train brought us to Pingyau, a stop along the way to Xian. Pingyau is a quaint city completely surrounded by an intact 6 km wall - one of the last remaining in China. Strolling through the narrow streets offered a rare glimpse into how towns were planned during imperial times. Cara and I got lost of course and spent two hours in the criss crossing streets and alleys. We don't really have a sense of direction! Xian was next on the map. Twelve of us boarded the 19 hour train from Pingyau to Xian station. We flew through Xian stopping only long enough only to view the famous Terracotta Warriors.

Info for the next 6th grade history paper: In 1974, local farmers unearthed these amazing pottery statues that were buried some 2,200 years ago. An estimated 8,000 life size warriors and war horses have since been found in three underground pits near Emperor Qin's Mausoleum. They served as protection and guardians to the entrance of the Emperor's burial site - quite impressive I might add. We took a tour with a very unhappy Chinese guide who provide no actual information at all. We figured her kitty cat had died that morning to cause her glummy mood. It wasn't the fact that she had to cart around eight overly excited Westerners was it?

We are still in Kansas Todo

I love rice. I think I would starve here if I didn't have my fill of mi fou on a daily basis. I simply can't stomach the various dishes such as pig's liver, horse brain, chicken heart, and chewy muscle, bone and other body fragments that happen to grace bowl after bowl of soup or stir fry. Cara and I are very adventurous with our eating habits and will stop by a busy street vendor or local food stall. We even attempt to eat what the neighboring tables are eating (in a bad decision, I wound up with some chicken feet on my plate yesterday). However, time and time again, the same options are vegetables and white rice....for good reason too. There is a legend in China about the origin of rice, claiming that the grain is a gift from animals. Centuries ago, China was overswept by floods that destroyed all the crops and caused masive starvation. One day the villagers saw a dog running towards them with a tail full of long yellow seeds. When the villagers planted the seeds, rice grew and hunger disapeared....just it does to me! I have plans on buying my own rice steemer when I return to Chicago.

There is always a way around language barriers. Despite my tiny talent for the Spanish language, I can't quite get my tongue around Mandarin. Even when a patient patron tries a quick tutor session during one of our night train journeys, I usually wind up staring in blank confusion. I have the basics covered. Hello, goodbye, how much, thank you, yes, no and a few numbers can be rattled off with only a moment's hesitation! Cara and I even have a handy phrasebook which she pulls out every so often for nightly Chinese lesson. Her skills at writing down our train destinations and needs are improving as well. We haven't once wound up on the other side of the country thanks to her speedy drawing skills.

On the other hand, we got lost yesterday....again. Apparently the long winded ramble of words shouted over the loudspeaker meant "if you want to get off for the train station, do it now because we are not stopping for another 20 kilometers and you will wind up in the middle of BFE for the rest of the afternoon" (we figure it was something along those lines). Instead of the bustling train station, we wound up on the dodgy side of town on a first class tour of lumber yards and dead skinned animal eaterys. Cara kept refusing to get off when the tiy ticket collector looked at us with a worried, questionable expression. Finally, as the two lone passengers, we pulled into the Bus 99 storage sheds. Then we were immediately surrounded by several concerned #99 Bus employees, wondering why the heck we rode all the way to the storage base. Luckily, with our non-english tourist map and excellent immitations at "choo choo" sounds, we were able to communicate that we wanted the train station, a good 25 minutes back into town. This clarification caused a lot of enthusiastic giggling and back slapping as they realized our intention. We were then scooted onto another #99 headed the proper way into town . As we departed, the helpful #99 employees stood at attention, cheerfully waving at us and wishing us luck on our journey. Just another day as a traveller.

I had a traumatic toilet experience the other day. Eight hours into our ten hour bus journey, I gave up waiting for the hostels clean western toilets and braved the "middle of nowhere public trenches" - the type that you have to hyperventilate before entering or carry some potent smelling salts with you. They cost a heafty 10 cents to use by the way. Luckily dear Cara was having the same issue so we lined up, rolled up our jeans and wished one another luck. Wow - - Never have I seen anything like these bathrooms- shocking really. No doors, just a mere two foot high partition between the stalls, presumably so one can carry on a nice conversation with the person next to you. They hid nothing and left nothing to the imagination. Below, there was simply a stone canal linking all of the stalls together, mind boggling really - no idea how they were cleaned although that could explain the deteriorated hose lying outside of the door. Anyway.....I fell in. Yup, slipped right into some unmentionable stuff all over the floor. No more details but my jeans went straight into the wash and these shoes are being thrown away as soon as possible. No amount of hand sanitizer could help the situtation. These things happen to everyone I hope.

We celebrated Niki's 25th birthday while our stalled bus sat on the side of the road. Cara and I had been carrying balloons for the past week for the special occasion. If we weren't already the bus icons of the day, after we blew up several balloons and started throwing them around the bus, we certainly made ourselves popular. Everyone joined in and the old men batting the balloons back and forth was a sight to be seen.

Ode to Night Trains

Night trains have become a common part of travel in China. I've adapted to the swaying, therputic rocking motion of a night's sleep as well as sharing a bunk with strangers who have unfortunate staring issues. I feel as if I'm in a glass cage at times as fellow train passengers go out of their way to pass our bunks and see the white ones . There was even a couple of old chaps who sat on our bunks asking for a few pictures of us together. Perhaps we will wind up on their fireplace mantel one day?

The secret is to get bottom bunks, bring plenty of snacks and tea, and sleep as much as humanly possible. Hard sleepers are the way to go - a bit of culture as you are often among about dozens other Chinese locals. There are basically 64 other bunks shoved into one train car, piled three high (top, middle and bottom). We have a window that may or may not have curtains and if you are lucky, a pretty doily on the fold down shared table in the middle of the cart. Pillow and blanket are supplied although it is worth not thinking about whether they have been cleaned. Presumably not since I found a long dark hair on my pillow last night - not coming from my head unfortunatley. On the plus side, hot water canisters are supplied for the tea lover in you as well as to heat up your pot noodles, the only thing worth eating on long train jouneys. Little ladies also walk by pushing carts of who knows what type of food and offering souviner bracelets just to remember your train travel a bit more. Bathrooms are dangerous. Avoid drinking at all costs at least three hours before boarding the train. Saying that, Cara and I have already downed two cups of tea . We have become avid tea junkies and are now carrying around our own supply of jasmine tea. Coffee, good strong espresso coffee, is only a mere dream.

We are now back in Chengdu. Sadly, we are parting from our wonderful travel buddies. Niki and Tim are heading west towards the Yunnan Province and Sonya and Harris are flying to India. The boys were fantastic travel buddies, especially Niki. Thanks for all the laughs and fun times guys. (and the pictures that I stole Niki!) It will be back to just Cara and I - scary to think since when the two of us are together we somehow get lost in the oddest places. Should be interesting though. We have one more day together and will see the pandas tomorrow! Hugable, cuddly pandas......

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Let us out!!Let us out!!
Let us out!!

Climbing the walls of Pingyao

20th November 2006

xXx Ash and Cara xXx
Hey sweeet adveture-girls! You seem to have a great time over there.Beautiful scenery and lots of adventures. Over here on the "Island of catering" I'm working my ass of at Cirque du Soleil and partying with new cateringfriends. Miss you much though, no doubt about it. Can't wait untill Ill be heading to China next year.And Ash, if you're in the neighbourhood at that time I would definitely join you for some horseback riding. =) Hope you're having a great time and that it won't be long untill we see each other again. By the way, tell Niki that if he ever is going to Sweden I would be delighted to show him around (he looks hot!) =) Love you girls!! Take Care xXx xXx xXx
23rd November 2006

hey Sweden!!! oooooh and Ash hehehe
hey girlies the Blogg has changed a fair bit since i first peaked!!! great pics girls glad to see you have used a few of mine!!! you are welcome to sell, display, lend and post any of my pics that you wish ( but if you make money i want half so i can put it to my Sweden flight!! hehehe hey Hanna........!) so im looking forward to your new blogg and im sure you have plenty more pics opf me to display so feed my fans if there is a demand hahahahaha arrrrgh i hate vanity!!! although my moisturiser is making me look pretty!! thanx girls!!! best Birthday in years!!!! love you both lots........... see you soon (in Sweden perhaps)......... niki
27th September 2007

Up there in the best bits of my year
That journey is definatley up there as on of the best times in our year out. Thanks. I wouldnt do it again though... SO cold!

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