The Nitty-Gritty Near Tibet
I was at the end of my rope with China when I arrived in Chengdu. After two weeks of crowded cities, cheating taxi drivers, and shady tour guides I was beyond frustrated.
This wasn’t all China’s fault. I didn’t do my research and went at a peak time for domestic travel. Fatigue was also contributing to my state of dissatisfaction. I tried to see too much in too short a time; catching 16 hour train rides and all night buses for several days in a row. At the risk of stating the obvious, China can overwhelm you; there is just too much of it for one trip.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is famous for panda bears and hotpot, but I had other reasons for the visit. From Chengdu, I was going to travel to Tibet and then on to Nepal. I wanted to see Lhasa, of course, and also get out into the mountainous country side, and maybe even to the Everest base camp. I was going to the top of the world. My goal was shot down almost immediately.
“No, no, no, right now is impossible, impossible.” a young lady informed me.
Tibet was closed off to tourists due to recent protests and a heavy crackdown from Beijing. That sealed it for me.
“I’m done with China, just book me a ticket to Thailand. I’ve got to get out here.”
“Hey, did I hear you say you wanted to go to Tibet?” a voice said from a nearby table. “I think I have a good alternative.”
The voice belonged to a Fin named Mikko. It was an interesting voice, a fantastically unique accent in English—like someone smashed a Norwegian and a Russian together, stuffed them into Dolph Lundren’s little brother.
I quickly noticed a few oddities about my new acquaintance. First, he was a walking encyclopedia on all things Chinese—from History to Geography, he was prepared to dish out information about a place, at any time, whether you asked for it or not.
“Did you know that when the Mongols invaded this area, they killed over a million people?” he would say, which is interesting, if I weren’t in such a crab of mood about the whole country.
He also had an incredibly deep knowledge of idioms in English. Hearing him explain the origins of Tibetan Buddhism or the Analects of Confucius was interesting, but hearing Ivan Drago say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” was rather peculiar.
Mikko needed one other person to book the trek, and so he explained the options. We could book a horse trek up to Ice mountain. The mountain was (and still is) in the same chain as the Himalayas, and the trek would be led by Tibetan guides. It was Mikko’s feeling that we could get a better experience of Tibetan culture this way, since, at the moment, Tibet was impossible to get to.
“I don’t know. It sounds good, but I’m looking to head out of here. How many days would it be?”
“Oh, it varies, from 2 days to 2 months.”
“Have you ever ridden a horse?” I asked.
“No, well, once when I was 7. Let’s do 8 days.”
I wasn’t sure what I thought of the old boy just yet. He was big enough to be intimidating, so I listened to what he had to say, but I knew if we were on a trek up in the mountains I couldn’t just accidentally lose him in a crowd. However, Mark Twain once wrote, “there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” So I went for a compromise.
“You haven’t been on a horse in over 20 years, and you want to be on one for eight straight days? Come on, let’s do four, and see how that goes.”
He agreed, so we signed up and paid the money.
We caught the bus at 6am the next morning. The ride, we were told, would take between 8 and 10 hours. I had stayed up nearly the whole night, with the hope of being unconscious for most of that time—any way to avoid a history lesson from little Dolph. The driver, as it turns out, had other plans.
We were up early, first in line, and were sat right in the first row, over looking the driver and the gigantic windows.
“Ah, this is great. Perfect seats,” Mikko said, “the early bird gets the worm, aye?”
I propped my feet up and prepared for a snooze.
Sleep hadn’t completely taken hold when we pulled up to the traffic light outside the city. When the light turned green, the driver morphed into a Rally car driver; handling the bus up and down mountain roads, passing slower vehicles, and around livestock traffic jams with the skill of a champion racer.
When your holding on for dear life, conversation is limited, but we managed a few utterances.
“I’ve got to get out of this country, I said, I think it’s killing me!”
“Oh, no , You should stay a while, I’m heading down to Yunnan, it’s…”
“OH S—, watch out for that YAK.”
The passengers held on to anything stable, while the driver turned and gassed and braked—all while simultaneously downing pints of green tea and chain smoking Chinese cigarettes. The bus ride was said to take between 8 and 10 hours—we made it in 7 hours and 7 minutes.
I got off the bus in Songpan, dazed, and looking for the nearest place to pass out. Mikko jumped off the bus, gave the driver a high five, and came my way.
“Let’s go check this town out!”
“What about our stuff?”
“Oh, let’s just carry it, it’ll be fine, it’s not a big town.”
And he was right. Songpan isn’t a big town, but it is a bustling one. The streets are filled with motorbikes, carts, cars, horses, and tour buses. Souvenir shops, cafes, and trekking companies line the main-street all the way down to the ancient city walls, where a nice new Statue sits.
“So, Songpan was founded around 618 AD by the Tang dynasty, and rebuilt by the Ming dynasty and used as a military outpost.” Mikko started.
“That doesn’t mean much to me, I don’t know any of the dynasties.”
“Oh, right, right, well, the Tang dynasty is…and the Ming, well, you’ve been to Beijing, they commissioned the Forbidden City. That statue is of a Tibetan King and his Chinese Wife, I guess it’s supposed to represent the bond between Tibet and China ”
That didn’t clear much up for me at the time, but I did appreciate the effort. And I found that last bit interesting, considering the bond between Tibet and China is the reason I ended up in Songpan in the first place.
Mikko went on and on like that until we’d covered the town, and he’d had enough. “Let’s hit the hay.” he finally said.
“You got it man, I’ve been ready for that since 6 am.”
We stayed at one of the nearby Hotels, and woke early the next morning. We met up with our group around 6:30. It was a good mix of people; China, Japan, Australia, France, Canada, Germany, America, and, of course, Finland were all represented.
We packed up the horses, headed out of town, and up the mountain path. The trail was steep and the ride not terribly comfortable. The saddle and stirrups were not for handling those above five feet. A few griped, but all continued onward.
The first hour was spent getting away from the Town, and was not very scenic. After that hour the land opened up to mountains in all directions.
“This reminds me of Montana.” Mikko said.
“What? You’ve been to Montana?”
“No, ha, just pulling your leg, but I did see it in a movie, and this is what it looked like.”
As we continued, the path continued—steeper, wetter, and rockier. And although I wasn’t at ease on the tiny horse, I was impressed with it’s stamina. That feeling was short lived.
We came up on a shallow creek and all started across, with the exception of Mikko’s horse. This horse decided a bath would a better choice. It circled around an open area in the creek, like a dog trying to get comfortable in its bed—and then laid out full body in the water, with Mikko still on-board.
Mikko went headlong into the water, and came up grinning. He was laughing, he loved it.
“Oh, whoa, that’s cold. What’s that one about beating the dead horse?”
“I don’t know if that one fits here, but take it.”
For a serious looking person, this Mikko was sort of entertaining. The trip was starting to turn around, and for the first time in two weeks I was beginning to enjoy myself.
The trek went on, with a slightly soggy Mikko, for another 3 hours. On the way we passed the sun worn faces of Tibetan farmers, working their Yaks through creek beds and up the mountain trail. We passed colorful prayer flags, that were strung along the ridge, and stones, called Mani Stones, with Tibetan mantras inscribed on them.
Around 5pm we came up to an open field, surrounded by steep hills, and divided in two by a shallow stream—one side was to be our base camp. A villager had set up a small wagon with goods for sale on the other.
The guides set about setting up, and several of the travelers explored the surrounding hills. Mikko and I tried to help set up camp. Steve, one of the Americans, and one guide set off for the wagon. They returned with all the beer the villager had to offer…and a goat.
“Alright, the beer’s on me, but everybody throw in 100 yuan for this goat.” he said.
This was my first transaction involving any type of livestock, so 100 yuan sounded reasonable.
”What’ll we call it?” some asked.
“Oy dunno, Whatcha reckon we call it ‘Wanfan.’” Australian George responded.
“Great, what’s that mean?”
We drank the beer and watched, some what amazed, as the guides slaughtered, skinned, and skewered the goat–all in about 20 minutes, and then roasted the thing over a fire.
The meat cooked for an hour or so. They covered it with salt and spices, cut squares into the sides, and we ate the freshest and finest goat meat I’ve ever had. Actually, come to think of it, that is the only goat meat I’ve ever had.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of screams and laughter. We popped out of our canvas shelter to find our guide yelping and hooting and chasing our horses all around the open field. “Looks like the horses are on the loose.” Mikko uttered.
Apparently tying the horses up at the end of the day was left off of his to-do list. The rest of the guides were sitting by the fire, drinking tea and laughing at our young friends foul up.
By the time he had found all his horses, we had eaten and were ready to ride out. We took a dusty country road, through small villages with stone shingled rooftops until we reached the mountain trail that would take us all the way to the base of Ice Mountain.
Ice Mountain, was bit anti-climactic. It wasn’t bad, but, because of our late start, the clouds had rolled in and visibility was limited. At that height, movement can become stagger. Only professionals and the hard core mountain climber could continue on. We hung around a while, taking pictures, and headed back to camp.
That night, we ate a less spectacular meal of stewed cabbage and mutton. The sky had cleared and the stars were bright. It was strange to be in a group of so many, with so many different experiences to share, only to stay completely silent staring out at the sky. No one even touched a beer.
When the sun came up the next day we packed up and prepared for one more grueling day on the horses. I was feeling fatigued from the altitude, sore from from the ride, and not really dying for another full day of trekking.
“OK, We go back to Songpan,” one of the guides announced. “What’s that?” Mikko exclaimed. “We paid for a 4 day trek.”
I kept my mouth shut.
The guides hadn’t counted on this. They looked confused. So, they huddled, discussed, and came back with a solution. Our rookie horse guide would guide us the rest of the time, alone, all the way to his house.
We parted ways with rest, exchanged contact info, and headed to the house. We pulled into his place. It was like a compact farm, complete with crops, a stable, goats, and a dog. The guide’s wife greeted us with stare of confusion, that quickly faded into a welcoming smile. Their rosy cheeked child just stared.
The guide showed us to the common area, which was underground and cool, a relief from the hot sun. We drank tea and relaxed as he went out to unpack the horses.
It was not long after the guide stepped out that we were visited by the younger brother and his friend. They were coming back from the temple and dressed in the robes of young monks.
We attempted to communicate using English and Mandarin as best we could manage. The Tibetan is as indistinguishable to Mandarin Chinese as French is to Romanian, but with the help of hand gestures and facial expressions, we got by fine.
They explained that our guide, despite having a house, a wife, a son, several horses, a small farm, and the forearms of an arm-wrestler, had only just turned 22 years old. His wife was 23 and the baby 2. And that he and the other brothers had built the house—on their own.
He came back after 30 minutes and showed us the area. He took us to a small road-side temple, and on to a small cave. Pray cards littered the cave floor. We climbed down until we arrived at tiny crack in the wall.
After some communicative effort, we came to the understanding that we could continue on this path, underground, all the way down into the valley and back up the other side of the neighboring mountain, in less than a day…if we weren’t so fat.
We went back to the house and explored the rest of it. It was a rather spacious house. There were several stories. The rooms were simple and devoid of anything from IKEA, Mikko noted. Mikko took this time to explaining more Chinese history.
“China’s claim on Tibet goes back to the Yuan Dynasty…”
“That doesn’t tell me anything, I’ve never heard of it.”
“Sure, you have. It’s the Mongolian Empire…you know Genghis Khan.”
“No kidding? That’s strange, isn’t it? Claiming land conquered by a foreign invader?”
“Not strange to Chinese. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is History, I guess.”
Dinner was animal fat, green beans, and several pints of yak butter tea, which I learned was a sort of delicacy. After dinner, we were led up a few flights of wooden stairs to the attic. Before he opened the door, he turned and winked like we were about to be in on the secret. It was a pray room. A picture of the Dali Lama dominating the area. The room smelled of incense and had an orange glow to it.
“Do you know who that is?” mikko asked.
“That’s the Dali Lama,” answering himself.
“You don’t say.”
“He is the leader of Tibet, but since the 50s he’s been living in India. China views him as a separatist, like a revolutionary.”
“No, definitely not, if you put Mao’s picture up your house wouldn’t get raided by the police.”
“So it’s illegal to have his picture up like this?”
“Yeah, I think it’s fine out here because we’re in the middle of nowhere, but it could be bad news closer to Lhasa. That’s just what I’ve heard.”
We sat in the room a while, just sort of soaking in the experience. But the hour was getting late, so our guide showed us to a room where his wife had made pallets for us to sleep.
That morning, we loaded up and headed back to Songpan. The ride was short, and the goodbyes to the guide brief, but I had a great feeling of contentment. My trip that had started so hectic, had led to a fine horse trek and impromptu home-stay; complete with a constant stream of cultural information from an eccentric travel partner.
There were two buses leaving Songpan—an eight hour hell ride back to Chengdu or a 24 hour bus down to Yunnan.
“So, what’s your plan? Still heading to Thailand?” Mikko asked
“Eventually, but you never finished telling me about Yunnan.”
“That’s right. Did you know that Yunnan is China’s most biologically diverse province…”
“Nope, but tell me all about it. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”