Subversions into the Green Hills of Songpan

Somewhere above the ancient Chinese town of Songpan I sat upon a horse, loping up and down narrow mountain trails. They were more like winding precipices. To my left the world fell away into a study of green, splashed here and there with white streaming rivulets. Muddy cattle trails gouged into steep mountainsides and finally, the grey slate tiled roofs of Songpan were born and cradled far below.

My steed was third in a train of horse trekkers led by two local guides. I don’t know what was more thrilling: Putting my life on the saddle of a stubborn horse; sauntering upon a rocky, line of mud between life and death as my heart skittered with frequent adrenaline shots; or the insane bus drive out here from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in Southwest China.

As a young boy, I only had two ambitions. The first was of being a cowboy in the Wild West, riding lonely mountain trails, eating peyote, consulting Navajo shamans, and pilfering forgotten ghost towns. The other was to go to China like Marco Polo exploring its wilds and cities along the Silk Road in search of the real General Tso, the great Qing Dynasty soldier-statesman made famous by Chinese takeout menus the world over. But never in my wildest, childish hallucinations could I have imagined that I would discover an amalgam of these in reality, as if a chapter in the story of my life became a chimerical tale of the Far West.

In the years since then I traveled extensively throughout Europe, North and South America and Africa. I finally ended up living and working in the Chinese city of Chengdu, where I felt my old fantasies were incongruent with the rise of modern China, indeed the whole modern world. But early in the summer of 2012 I found myself horseback riding in the mountains above Songpan. It was as if the invisible hand of the free market had scooped me up and deposited me upon somebody’s old nag. It is all quite miraculous.

The town’s name sounded like some kind of Tibetan musical instrument used by holy lamas for extracting melody from the five elements – something like the Forty-niners might have used during the California Gold Rush, panning for whiskey and a night or two out at a decent brothel. But actually Songpan is just the name of an ancient walled city in the province of Sichuan, nestled between pristine mountains in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of Aba, and famous for its good old fashioned tank and truncheon crackdowns local officials fondly describe as “patriotic education campaigns.” Songpan had once been a strategic point, guarding the approach to Chengdu and the nearby Southern Silk Road. But now it is a gateway to adventure; and adventure, by my definition, is any experience that gives you an emotional, worldview-expanding experience that will rejuvenate your life whenever you remember or tell the tale of it.

For me the adventure began on the road to Songpan which means that as soon as our airplane entered Chinese airspace all hell broke loose. But to fast forward past all the red tape I will cut to the where the real fun begins. We took Chinese National Highway G213 from Chengdu. Along the way we stopped in Maoxian. Contrary to common belief amongst the Chinese Han majority, the city is not named after the world’s dearest leader. Actually, nobody really knows the etymology of its name, but everybody agrees that it is yet another city being rebuilt according to a traditional, fortress-like architecture. Maoxian’s economy seems based solely on the twin pillars of yak skulls and karaoke. As for the G213, the highway is one of the great roads of China. Its serpentine length stretches from Gansu Province in the north all the way south nearly to Laos. It is, as the Chinese say, very convenient. But our trip to Songpan covered only a bit of its path. At times our bus careened along the sinuous course of the Min River on just two wheels, as we marveled at that furious, frothy tributary of the Upper Yangtze. All along the way the river seethed with Old Testament fury. And rubble from the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 served as a poignant reminder that we were in some of the most tragic and rugged terrain in the world.

Our guides, who survived one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history, made no mention of this however. They introduced themselves with a cheerfulness that defied any hint of pain or sorrow about geriatric appearance. But understanding and pronouncing their names required schooling and discipline to remember them in the awe-striking face of the eastern Himalayas. So it was only natural that we foreigners bestowed upon them nicknames as we journeyed into the mountains. Both men, as we were pleasantly surprised to learn later in a traditional campfire game of “Guess My Age” were in their mid-forties. While both smiled with crow’s feet around their eyes and faces as weathered as the ancient shrines and watchtowers that occasionally marked the peaks and ridges of these mountains, it was the Talkative One who proudly told us that he and his comrade had been in the same grade school class. The Quiet One preferred to listen, nodding sagely from time to time as his friend led the conversation. But it was the Quiet One who led our train of horses along the winding trails.

Travel by horse is an extraordinary, perhaps supernatural relative to our warp speed society. That is, you are able to soak everything in. You can contemplate the leaves of grass as you shamble onwards. Car travel by contrast deadens the senses as the world speedily passes. And you are strictly limited by the road itself. It is almost like channel surfing on cable television. On the other hand, hiking and riding offers the blissful hardship, yet often you must spend more time focusing on the trail itself, alert for rocks and roots that might trip you up. So horse trekking is ideal. You travel at about hiking speed, and your Tibetan guides lead, while your horse searches, foreleg first for the most surefooted path. This leaves you free to peruse the trail and ponder at will. And it is in this way that we made our way along the trail, boring through a cloud to find free ranging yak chewing sedge into cud, as yaks have a tendency to do. And then there are the villages, shrines, prayer flags, and old watchtowers – still standing mute and vigilant against raiders these many centuries. Shepherds hail your guides from distant hills. Mountaintop villagers whistle and hoot greetings to you and your horse. By horseback you can take in the grand view of the Eastern Himalayas or if you prefer, focus on the fact that you are about twenty-four hours from anything resembling a modern hospital emergency room.

The Quiet One soon led us into a remote village in a terraced valley. As we approached we saw a sprawling white walled building with a golden roof and steeple. It was a Tibetan Buddhist Temple. While our guides and horses rested we explored the beauty and mystery within. We first made our way around compound’s perimeter which was ringed with golden prayer wheels, pushing them as we had seen an elderly local couple demonstrated during for us. Shy children tailed us as we eventually made our way inside, through gates and alleys lined with flower pots, and not a few scarlet robed monks at work. Inside one of the main chambers a lama sat praying. We left a small offering for the temple, and then he blessed our journey with prayer and a pleasant chiming from a nearby gong, testifying to the power of trickledown economics.

After a full day of trekking, the lama’s prayers must have been reasonably answered. Our guides led us to a secluded dell sheltered by virgin pine. They saw to the horses and prepared our camp. Since dinner would not be ready for a while the Talkative One urged us to take a short hike up the road to Munigou National Park which is part of the Yellow Dragon Gully Scenic Area. This designated UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its mineral water lakes, hot springs, and the last good place for poaching endangered species such as the Giant Panda and Golden Snub Nosed Monkey.

Though the wildlife of any sort seemed scarce this time of day, we did find the park’s pristine lakes. Their turquoise waters revealed a phantasmagorical array of calcium carbonate deposits like a submerged fairy realm of castles, forests and supernatural creatures forever asleep beneath the crystal clear surface.

After a refreshing dip in a hot spring we headed back to camp. The tents were raised and our guides seemed quite excited as they finished their cooking. The Talkative One hunkered over a fire attending a tea pot and a cast iron stew pot. Meanwhile, the Quiet One crept away into the pines. We huddled around the fire wondering if he would return wearing a ski mask and brandishing a machete. Too our relief he soon emerged with ice cold bottles of Tsingdao beer that somebody had left to chill in a nearby spring.

This was the best time of the trek. There was just the gloaming with a trace of mist drifting in from the south, the crackle of the cook fire, a whistling tea pot, the evening commerce of birds and crickets, and the smell of dinner: A spicy Tibetan goulash of potatoes, noodles, and chunks of yak beef.

It was then over wooden bowls of hot stew, cold beer, and our worn dog-eared Chinese phrasebook passed around the campfire that we worked with our guides to learn about each other. They in turn used their few words of English, a little pantomime, and a local dialect that sounds like the earth and the rain. This process was not unlike gang violence in South Central, Los Angeles. It was slow and gradual and then we were finally rewarded with various ways to swear and curse in each others’ languages. And we learned about one of the local ethnic minorities that call Songpan home. They told us about the Qiang who, like everybody else in the world, have a legend about their origins and racial supremacy. Apparently, the Qiang people had threaded their way from Tibet, planting blue wildflowers to mark their passage through the labyrinth of valleys and ridges of these very mountains.

The Qiang are not the only people in the Songpan area. Other ethnic groups such as the Tibetans, Muslim Hui and Han Chinese have appropriated this ancient city as a new marketplace. Its great encircling walls date back to at least the time of the Tang Dynasty and before the European Dark Ages. The walls themselves are wider than a horse-racing track, and God only knows how many peasants were conscripted as fodder to defend the merchants against Tibetan raiders. And yet it also protected the nearby Tea and Horse Road, sometimes called the Southern Silk Road. This was one of the great caravan routes over which China traded tea for a Tibetan breed of horse called the Nangchen. This particular breed was coveted by commanders of the Chinese armies to facilitate the removal of Genghis Khan’s descendents from Peking.

And it is these surefooted mounts that bring us rollicking across the mountains back to Songpan, where it seems a McDonalds and Starbucks shimmer like a mirage or a glorious vision of the future.

We reentered the town one afternoon via a Wind-and-Rain Bridge, every centimeter of which is painted festively with elaborate motifs of dragons and lotuses and other Chinese iconography. Cantering down the main street, past crowds and shops evoked the feeling we were on the stage set of a Spaghetti Western, or rather a Dumpling Eastern as the case may be. It was not just an ancient-looking town but one vibrant and alive with locals in no special hurry to idle about their business. Butchers hawked fresh yak meat. Vendors flamboyantly gestured at their cornucopian carts overflowing with a dazzling array of produce and countless flavors of yak jerky. Socialist retirees lounged on the curbs, relishing the luxurious free time afforded by Mao’s vision, nibbling on yak jerky, and staring at us. Cute children saddled with overstuffed backpacks, recently dismissed from school, chased us, sticking out their tongues, and practicing their beginner English. And shopkeepers beckoned, exhorting us, their new American friends to dismount and browse their wares, the Tibetan prayer gear (made in China), ornamental yak skulls, and of course, the dried, caterpillar-fungus the color of ochre that once ingested makes one strong like yak.

After Songpan, we merrily bounced south along the G213 Chinese National Highway to Leshan. This is where one of the Four Buddhist Holy Mountains of China, Mount Emei, rises up into the smoggy haze of modern China, and the Giant Buddha of Leshan sits eternally. And it is also here that we finished our journey with a river rafting trip.

Here there are mountains beyond mountains, a land of a million and one peaks. The spectacular scenery of the Eastern Himalayas, as seen from horseback and river raft, offers a harrowing experience for those seeking a road less traveled and the opportunity to loath something new about themselves.