To Songpan, and beyond!

by Ant Stone on September 24, 2007

in China

Staring intimidatingly into two fresh black eyes, I barked menacingly, ‘reach for the sky!’. No response. I yelled, ‘this town aint big enough for the two of us’. Zip. ‘It’s not a laser. It’s a little light bulb that blinks’. Nothing. ‘Somebody’s poisoned the waterhole!’. Nada. ‘Who are you calling busted, Buster?’. Zippo. He just slumped aloofly on his backside upon a grassy verge, nonchalantly chomping his way through a mound of bamboo. The lardy giant panda was seemingly uninterested in impressions of my beloved Woody, yet the cowboy in me refused to be repressed. A few days after my showdown with the 50-or-so Chengdu pandas, I was in the one-horse town of Songpan, trotting unstably towards the magically entitled, Ice Mountain.

The supposed “22 hour” bus journey into Chengdu (home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding) from Lijiang had slowly become a 36 hour test of nerves, so it was no surprise that the “8 hour” journey onwards to Songpan became an equally grueling, 12 hour biscuit-munching marathon. My affection for Songpan continued to tumble when I was forced into purchasing gloves and thick woolen socks, the two undesirables taunted my usual flip-flop-flaunting policy. I felt violated at being infiltrated by cold. Any affection was then positively abolished when at 5am I was woken by a stray door-knocking Chinese tourist in search of travel advice, or perhaps a flag – I should explain, our room was in the aptly named Traffic Hotel, in the bus station where a brass sign, inconveniently reading ‘office’ shimmered smugly above our door. Reb and I grabbed a few more z’s, each aided by 2 duvets and an electric blanket and then clumsily mounted our hagged stallions- named Scruff and Rocky respectively. Our Tibetan centaur-like guides – whom we named Will (after the Fresh Prince, due to his colourful cap) and Smiler (after his forgive-me-anything smile) – led us out of Songpan and up into the beyond, through endless valleys and over mist-covered mountains via trickles of steep, narrow, rugged trails.

The mountainous landscape changed gradually from a mottled pallete of tightly packed, autumn-coloured bushes into a vast conical pine forest merging various shades of striped green into a comforting vision of a thick, lush, emerald rug. The views, momentarily, allowed me to forget the backbreaking nature of the ride. After just a few hours, Ice Mountain had formed a permafrost of resentment on my spine. The next 2 days would be a challenge. After 7 hours we reached our campsite – an idyllic clearing flanked by a rushing river and a rising mountain range – which at over 3800m was quite literally, breathtaking. Within moments the grassy plot acquired an awning under which blazed a cozy campfire. Our weary hands were swiftly gifted chopsticks, and we delved through a bowl of freshly chopped, subtly seasoned tomatoes while clutching freshly baked bread from the campfire. The afternoon was mostly spent reading and writing upon a granite rock in the middle of the river or exploring the local surroundings. White coloured edelweiss – the rare alpine flower – speckled the ground. Together with a vibrant blue, tubular cousin they acted like finishing touches upon this brilliant masterpiece.

That evening the tent was embraced fully-clothed, the sleeping-bag, duvet and sheepskin rug did little to stave off the shivers as we drifted off into unconsciousness, were safe in the knowledge that tents are always warmer in the morning. Morning found a way in, ‘are you awake?’ Reb asked with a telling chill in her voice, ‘I am, but I think my eyes are frozen shut’ I stammered. Will ignorantly hollered ‘get up!’ (though in Tibetan sounds something more akin to, ‘reeeeee-jibba-jabba-joooooo’) into the tent and we clambered out, our noses immediately becoming hooked upon the scent of our potato and baked bread breakfast. We dared not mention the ground frost that sapped the colour from the vibrancy of the previous days scene. Four or five mugs of Chinese tea later, we silently trotted off in search of the relative warmth of Ice Mountain. It’s blinding snow-capped peak frequently flashed it’s brilliance, asserting a piercing sense of power over all that lay in it’s shadow. We were helplessly caught in it’s gaze and by afternoon we were gasping for air at over 4500m within a barren graveled expanse with awesome, uninhibited views. While Reb flaked out on a rock, I tried in vain to reach the frozen white shroud masking it’s upper-reaches. I was denied by Smiler’s recall, echoing eternally up the valley. I bounded downhill like a renegade marble, eventually reaching Rocky et al. though the magic of Ice Mountain did nothing to disperse the exasperation I felt towards the return journey. ‘Clip bloody bone-crunching clop’ I groaned.

That night I dreamed a tale of an endless search for love, the streets of emotion navigated in the rear of a taxi, driven by the delightful French movie character, Amelie. Though as her taxi pulled up (in vain), my brain stuttered into consciousness and I realised I still had a days horse-trekking ahead of me. My back felt like someone had wedged a telegraph pole through it’s base. My knees felt like someone had taken a shotgun to them. My face was sunburned. My toes were cramped from the extra thick socks. My guts were bubbling from the fodder. My ankles were numb from bashing the stirrups. My arse was as tender as a rotting tomato and my mood, rightfully, reflected my afflictions. Will and Smiler – obviously eager to get back to Songpan asap – fed the feisty, gonna-beat-you attitude Scruff and Rocky had developed over the last three days. At every opportunity they would carelessly canter, as my menu of misery grew out of control. I sighed. I fell silent. My head slumped. ‘That wasn’t trekking. That was torture…with scenery’. Next stop, Tibet.

Selected images for ‘To Songpan, and beyond!’.

Gimme a hug, ah go onPandas break a sweatReb takes a stretchYak and I enjoy the viewMe aboard Rocky NEWThe Gang NEWEdelweisMe and Ice MountainThe river by our campsiteSmiler and Will NEW


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Graham Hobbs November 15, 2007 at 11:15 pm

Well I never- didn’t know you were a Panda and not even a Red one – Communist, I suppose they are – but the one’s you know are just Black and White – like your stories on Ink and Paper – have you tasted Bamboo lately – we eat mushrooms at home – Oh no sorry, we are mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed on bullshit – Bet you’ve never heard that one before – Are you going to publish a book when you get home? It will be extremely interesting – but nobody will buy it – so you’ll be even poorer – because nobody cares about a true explorer and journalist – Change you name to Michael Palin – It may help!! – All the best and hope my words encourage your before you feeling like topping yourself – Hobby!!!

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