The road to Songpan was a bone-jarring, gut-wrenching 9 hours on a bus built for Chinese knees. We stumbled onto the bus in Chengdu in the smoky dawn to find a recalcitrant occupant in one of our reserved seats who steadfastly ignored Dan's hopeless Chinese lecture on the nature of seat reservation. After a stern rebuke from the bus's ticket taker, she promptly took a seat immediately behind Dan and made it her occupation for the next 9 hours -- using variously her knees and shoes against the poorly padded seat back -- to make Dan's trip as miserable as possible!
We had anticipated the discomfort of this trip and, in particular, the inevitable boredom for the boys, but the reward of taking a horse trek was enough for them to choose to endure the bus ride -- and ultimately, the return trip to Chengdu.
We arrived in Songpan and quickly got the details of the treks from recently returned travellers. Anxious to get going, we booked a trip that night and settled into a comfortable -- if frigid -- hotel nearby. Songpan is located in a valley surrounded by high hills and higher mountains; the picturesque town has a village-like feel and has a strong Tibetan influence. We also felt the altitude -- while we're not sure exactly what the altitude is, it's somewhere between 2000 and 3000 meters and we are experiencing the mild physical effects of the thinner air.
At 9 am the next morning, we strolled over to the trekking office to find a bevy of small horses and guides awaiting us, all saddled up and ready to go. It was cold, and we were bundled up as best we could be in our newly purchased gloves, hats and scarves, while wearing as many layers of regular clothes as possible. We had opted for a 3-day trek that would take us to a spectacular waterfall, a scenic mountain and then back to Songpan. The trek included 3 guides who took complete care of us, from setting up camp, cooking our meals, cleaning up afterwards, and doing their best to keep us from freezing (they chopped down one tree each night for a massive bonfire which they created using a bellows made from the body of fox).
Over the first day we learned first-hand of the wide weather fluctuations in the microclimate of this region. By 10:30 a.m. it had become so hot that we had to shed most clothing and by day's end Dan (who'd left his sunhat in Chengdu) was feeling the effects of sunstroke. Immediately after supper, it began to hail and we made a bee-line for our tent. One hour later, our guides beckoned us to emerge to a beautiful bonfire and as the hail had let up. However in the nighttime, it poured so hard that we thought it impossible that our rudimentary canvas tent could keep us dry. Miraculously, it did, and in the morning things were back to normal for late October, that is, cloudy and cold, but mercifully dry.
The boys were particularly thrilled with riding their own horses. Adrian had done so on prior occasions, but we were quite uncertain whether Robin could manage without a guide's lead. Almost immediately upon being given the reins, Robin tumbled straight to the ground, and he spent the rest of the first day miserably rebuking himself for the faux-pas. His horse was led by a guide for the rest of that day, but on day 2 they let him try again on somewhat easier terrain, and from then on it seemed a piece of cake. By day 3 the terrain became an exceptionally rocky and muddy climb high up through the mountains, but the boys -- to our surprise -- skilfully managed to avoid any more tumbles.
The scenery on the horse trek did not disappoint us. We passed through several Tibetan villages which sported lovely wood-and-stone houses, piles of grains mounted on scaffolding to dry, and the omnipresent satellite dishes!
After passing over a hill into the next valley, we journeyed toward a regional park. Once in the park proper, we set up camp in a secluded wooded clearing and walked to a glorious serious of cascades leading to a spectacular waterfall.
The next day we trekked along a river valley replete with beautiful fall colours until stopping in an alpine meadow at the base of a splendid, rugged mountain. We did some hiking and again took in the lovely scenery of the area.
The final day was unquestionably hardest on the horses who had to climb a seemingly endless series of switchbacks to gain ultimately two ridges of the mountain range. The terrain was rugged, the path was wet and by the time we reached the top the weather was cold and damp as we were well into the clouds hugging the range. Even more difficult, perhaps, was the horses' descent down the other side of the range back toward the town of Songpan. We quickly learned how difficult it is for horses to descend abruptly with heavy loads. There was much uncertain footing, and when the descent became too steep we got off our horses and descended the last hour on foot.
It was good to reach the village again, and we looked forward to some more tangible fare for supper that night (although the guides did a great job varying the menu, the food on the trek was not what you'd call "haute cuisine"). We looked forward most directly to a hot bath for our filthy bodies, only to learn that the hot water did not come on until 7 pm.
After refreshing ourselves, we headed over to Songpan's Yun Lan Restaurant, a.k.a. the "Pancake House", where we have taken every meal since reaching this town. The boys happily chowed down on French toast with honey and a huge fruit salad, and the adults took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some traditional (read: spicy) Sichuan food.