ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 33

Northern glory

In this second part, Nishy Wijewardane crosses the Eastern Tibetan Plateau in northern Sichuan Province, witnessing Tibetan highlands around Songpan in full autumn glory

North of Sichuan’s capital city of Chengdu, the landscape changes dramatically. Leaving the plain on which this large industrial city is situated, I boarded a public bus early one morning, hoping to reach later that week one of China’s pre-eminent scenic regions, Jiuzhaigou (450km). My interim waypoint was Songpan, a beautiful mountainous region with isolated Tibetan villages situated at above 8,000 feet and a day’s journey north (350km), though I was forewarned of landslides and delays en route.

The Gorges of Sichuan

The motorways out of Chengdu were necessarily impressive (with bizarrely good English warnings, every 50 metres at motorway endings, on “Rear-End Collision”, a peculiar official obsession everywhere despite no visible accidents) but a few hours later they yielded to a potholed but featureful road that meandered gradually upwards. Heavy traffic, in the form of buses and earth-moving trucks (-few civilians use cars though affluent corporate and army Landcruisers often sped by), clogged the single lane mountain roads, perilously denuded in places by both heavy rains and worryingly large dislodged boulders. The bus gingerly ambled “off road” on occasion, circumventing uncleared blockages, with the temporary bypasses themselves being on earth pushed out onto the slipside of landslides. The vegetation soon closed in with thick distinctive bamboo forests on steepening slopes, but occasionally the country opened up suddenly to reveal gigantic flooded valleys, bunded by enormous dams. Remains of recently drowned villages, with personal debris still floating above the curved turrets of abandoned houses, protruded above the waterline. I began to worry less about the road and sensed a certain elation as the scenery uplifted the gloom that the Chengdu smog had cast earlier.

Morning views from the tent

Many hours later, the road suddenly improved significantly, being concretized but narrow. Sichuan’s gorgeous gorge scenery emerged: huge beehive-shaped interlaced mountains, densely covered with unyielding wet forests, with a broad swift flowing river parallel to our road. The narrow gorge gap and dark wet green foliage cover (not a flower in sight) cast deep shadows in the valleys, while thick swirling mists caressed higher elevations. An odd farm house peeped out on the slopes but it was the endless forest cover – the subject of many a landscape painting – that dominated. The long bus journey, as with many I was to make, was punctuated by fleeting toilet-stops and a brief wayside lunch.


The Chinese WC

The state of local rural toilets is a matter of some fascination. Only those in need of lighter relief are spared. In all formal rural toilets, a tiled gully without flowing water runs across barely divided wall sections two feet high, affording privacy that is curiously communal (the Chinese psyche treating this as mere routine and not an intimate activity, curiously just as Romans did). The gully smells and sights are never conducive to any relaxing squat and the mere thought of slippage brought instant paralysis. This aspect of rural China, experienced in other provinces with only slight variations in wall height, is hard to forget – some upstair guesthouses with these toilets are unapproachable due to the stench and of necessity I always ate little to enjoy my travels unimpeded. That one was semi-obliged to pay rural folk for such wayside “facilities” amounted to a serious act of good faith. Indeed, I found it amusing that the [only] two English words universally understood across Sichuan were a fast uttered “bye-bye” and “WC” (no relation) - “Water Closet” even being painstakingly written in English above a few toilets in case of doubt. Often more difficult was my identification of the male/female entrances which required some shady loitering, not that it would matter much.

More happily, after a day’s travel, the countryside began to assume distinctive Tibetan forms as the bus negotiated roads above 6000ft. The orderly but uninteresting square concrete buildings of Han Chinese towns lower down were now replaced by older, dirtier but pretty wooden farm houses, decorated by multicoloured cloth pelmets and Buddhist insignia, and with sloping roofs of shingle ending with elegant upward turrets. Many sported rusting satellite dishes, presumed to receive local TV in these signal-blotted valleys, and not HBO. Drying agricultural produce such as bunches of suspended yellow corn kernels were stacked at different levels in farmhouses - some seemed decorative, with yellowing sheaves of wheat and other cereals adding colour and texture to darker wood frames, aged by the climate. Here and there white chortens (Tibetan stupas) appeared and colourful triangular prayer flags on lines stretched across courtyards dispersed Mahayana blessings to the wind to ensure prosperity and safety. I noticed an easy mix of farm families and their livestock.

Panoramic views from the Horse Trail

No Tibetan house is complete without a fierce, shaggy, chained dog, barking incessantly at passing strangers. The Tibetan Mastiff – a huge Tibetan dog (said to be the forefathers of St. Bernard strains in Switzerland) with special affiliation to the lamas (as a peacock is to Hindu gods) has traditionally been the Tibetans’ guardian against wolves and snow leopards in these lonely mountains. The history of this dog, alas, is a separate story, though sadly the mastiff is now on its way to being bred out altogether.

The shadow valleys of Songpan

My first night in Songpan town was a lonely one, away from the bustle of Chengdu. At “Traffic Hotel” (8000 feet), my request for a single room was fulfilled by a clean cold bedroom with five beds, a matter that needed some clarification before I was told they were all “unoccupied” (I assumed, for the moment, literality being as important a Chinese concept as a wedge on the door at night). Still, there was hot water which is neither a standard nor reliable in rural China. Soon, the symptoms of high altitude - distracting and throbbing headaches, with upcoming nausea - appeared, marring a pleasant evening with a local roasting a leg of lamb on an open roadside fire, and slowly shaving away tasty chips. Ever-curious young lama monks from Songpan Monastery, wrapped up in flowing red robes against the cold night, scuttled down the main street, clustering momentarily - like draculas to prey - around me but with bemused chatter. With an early morning start due, my worries mounted during a restless night, although after medication the symptoms eased somewhat by dawn.

I arrived at Songpan to spend some days horse trekking with Tibetan horsemen to witness the country in the raw and hopefully ascend up to the foot of picturesque Xuebaoding or Snow Mountain Peak (18,400 feet). Songpan was an important walled garrison town in Ming (AD 1368-1644) and Qing (AD 1644-1911)) dynasties, being a strategic control point between Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Shaanxi provinces. Today a few cultural monuments remain and in a distant valley which I visited later, an important Buddhist shrine was being restored.

Early morning, with a pack of horses carrying meagre provisions and tents, we rode slowly out of town and ascended leafy but steep mountainsides on narrow horse trails. Within an hour, all traces of modern settlements vanished. High on an opposite mountainside a small isolated monastery could be seen and – in a scene reminiscent of “Tintin in Tibet”, the deep reverberations of the monastery’s horn echoed resoundingly across the valley.

The countryside out of Songpan town was remote and changed slowly. Huge valleys with miles of vistas crisscross the plateau here; autumn forest cover in different hues line slopes. Coarse scrub like vegetation populate the land and the horse trails yo-yo, dropping by an easy 1000 or 2000 feet and then climbing as quickly. At this altitude and a thinning atmosphere, small tasks are more tiring and I could only respect with awe the temperament and ruggedness of my stocky mountain horse as it patiently found its way up 70 degree inclines with an absolute surefootedness (and some coaxing). With several precipices, one soon learns to put life entirely at the mercy of the animal.

Streams gushed across the trails in places and dangerous squelching deep mud engulfed some wooded paths. Foot holes, one foot deep, were visible in this mud (it was extremely difficult to walk through on foot); undeterred, the horse pack painstakingly stepped into these as they followed the course. Earlier on, we had passed a pretty Tibetan village near a valley bottom, waving to a group of happy grubby kids with rose red cheeks. Women in long black Tibetan gown and with smiling faces, a Tibetan characteristic, greeted me. With much ground to cover before nightfall, exchanging pleasantries was, alas, too time consuming.

Trekking on the Tibetan plateau

Trekking through this beautiful silent landscape, one has days to reflect on many fluttering thoughts and observations. The ability to enjoy the sound of pure silence is precious, broken only by an occasional howl of wind through forests, the intermittent songs of my Tibetan companions (perhaps trying to keep awake in saddle), or a rare tinkling of a yak bell, something I missed since enchantedly crossing Bhutan many years ago. Staying in saddle is not without its problems, mainly when ascending steep inclines; often, however, one has to dismount and carefully descend for an hour or two down steep ravines as it is too dangerous for the horses to carry extra loads on scree slopes.

As the trail gradually ascended, a blush of deep autumn reds took over the vast scrublands. Songpan’s ranges are renowned for their dark and brooding nature; overhead clouds suddenly cast long transient shadows on open land and quilted patchworks of light could be seen dancing on territory ahead yet to be crossed. From time to time, we startled yaks, a welcome sight of life; these big boned animals were handsome with their long horns, shaggy matted black and white coats and an almost comical triangular bushy tail. On narrow paths, the horses were made to carefully bypass the excitable grazing yaks, avoiding any encounter with those long horns. Later, dark specks a kilometre up in the sky signified huge vultures as they spiralled on wind currents above incredibly remote crags that must conceal their lairs, free of any human proximity.

Camping in Tibetan country

The stop to camp usually occurred by about 3 p.m., with no halt for lunch, or lunch. The late October weather on the plateau was pleasant throughout the daytime, especially when in sunlight, but temperatures fell rapidly by early evening. As soon as we dismounted, the three young Tibetan horsemen who led the pack released our horses from duty; the animals relished their freedom with frivolous head shakes and a thorough roll on the grass. A bell was placed around a leader to monitor movement before the beasts were left to roam the pastures during the long freezing night.

They were then checked and worn horseshoes fixed before nutritious red beans were carefully measured into half-cut old basketballs that were muzzled on each horse. Utmost care of the animals was vital: there is no help available here in the wild.

The boys (who spoke no English) then set about their camping chores: they rigged two tents, a worryingly bare tarpaulin strung across a pole, laid fresh cut pine branches for my bedding (which thankfully then included a -10C sleeping bag and local rugs), and established their own “mess tent” with its all important communal fire. A good hour was usually spent cutting and gathering firewood from the pristine forests around us. Another two hours passed dicing a few root vegetables and kneading dough for hand-made spaghetti which was then torn into scraps and thrown into a soupy spiced brew. Chinese tea infusion boiled in an old tin pot throughout. By 7 p.m., pitch darkness engulfed the land and a chilly wind picked up. One was decidedly grateful for any warm food and the noodle broth was surprisingly tasty. Warmed but exhausted by the day’s rides, one crawled into a sleeping bag early to escape the cold. On some days, however, the joy of sealing up in the bag was curtailed by the inability to clean oneself or change mud-caked clothes.

Getting out in the mornings was more of an endeavour! An everlasting memory is the acute aroma of heady fresh pine that only permeated in the dark hours of pre-dawn as I lay in my tent. Each breath drew in entire forests and it was a truly exhilarating titillation of the senses. Mornings also revealed spectacular panoramas, with high forest scenery around us and snow capped peaks ahead. The overnight temperatures were subzero as I discovered from frozen puddles around the tent and a white frosted landscape around me. Performing the morning ablutions was no easy matter in the cold; I often made my way on frozen ground to a nearby flowing stream but the water simply chilled the blood instantly, too cold and painful to cup even momentarily to wash one’s face. Other rituals were performed, necessarily, with the attempted grace of a ballerina as one strived to undress and keep atop of one’s boots all the while (fingers being too numb to handle shoelaces). Walking around bottomless in an anorak felt, strangely, normal in this natural environment; once in secluded bushes at 6.30 a.m., I was surprised by a yak herder who appeared out of nowhere with two enormous yaks lumbering under a huge heavy pine tree stump, tethered between the two poor beasts. He grinned and greeted and so did I, somewhat compromised; he then beckoned me to move my toothbrush off a rock by the riverside, an odd move in this vast wilderness, and I did this to enable a yak right of way.

The final push

The final trek to the Snow Mountain was memorably exhausting. Against the deep backdrop of a breathtakingly beautiful valley, clad in its finest autumn gown, and framed by the stone ruins of a long abandoned Tibetan watch tower, we ascended a dizzying mountainside for some hours. A snow-blizzard blew in making it more treacherous and on one occasion, luckily not at one of the innumerable razor edges, my spare horse slipped and buckled down, unable to rise under my weight due to its exhaustion at this high altitude. Eventually we reached a vast upper valley floor at about 14,000 ft, gouged out by a former glacier eons ago, with the brilliant white snow capped peak of Xuebaoding (18,400 feet) above it. A small stone monument signified the end of this journey. We had little time to rest and enjoy our surroundings before turning back, as the descent in mid afternoon was more difficult with mists and impending snow storms closing in.

Next week: stunning sights of Jiuzhaigou World Biosphere Reserve and travels in western Sichuan - the plateau lands of the Tibetan Kham

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