In Search of Snow — on Horseback
One of Z’s signal complaints – his desire for a skyline safely sated by China – over almost two years in the tropics has been the absence of, well, snow.
So I did a little research on the prospects of finding snow in China in the few weeks before we return to Europe.
The ski slopes of Yabuli? Not open till December, when we are meeting Z’s grandmother in Hong Kong.
The ice palaces of Harbin? Not even built until January.
Everest Base Camp? Requires a commitment of weeks.
Artificial ski slopes outside Beijing? Both cheating and, most likely, quite painfully crowded.
So, like any self-respecting parent, I parked the whole snow concept as just too, well, difficult.
Yet when, in Tiger Leaping Gorge, he eyed the snow on the upper slopes of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and exclaimed, “I wish I could fly! I’d just fly to all that lovely snow,” I realized I really had to pull my finger out.
The result? Songpan, an ancient walled city on the northern frontier of old China, only seven hours out of Chengdu. The hinterlands beyond it, a place of pristine mountains, alpine meadows, streams and forest, were, in so far as anyone drew maps, part of Tibet’s wildest province, Kham, until the Chinese absorbed the region into Sichuan a century or so ago.
Not, to be honest, that anyone really bothered drawing maps.
As we roll into Songpan, I awaken my spawn. He has stayed up even later than usual the night before, arguing, logically enough, that since he cannot read on the bus, he might as well sleep on the bus, and since it’s a seven-hour bus ride what IS the point of going to bed? Huh? HUH?!
“Z,” I say. “You need to get up. We’re in Songpan! Going horse-trekking to the snow.”
“Umph,” he says, and goes back to sleep.
“Come on, darling,” I say. “Isn’t it exciting? We’re going horse-trekking! Into the snow!”
He opens his eyes. “I told you I hate horse-trekking,” he says, sullenly.
This is a new one on me, and, after seven hours on a bus, destination horse trekking, frankly unwelcome. “No, you didn’t,” I say. “And, no, you don’t. You loved it in Guatemala.”
“That,” he says, contemptuously. “Was because I was riding Western style. And we didn’t have to trot. I hate trotting.”
“You liked galloping,” I say, wheedling.
“Yes,” he says. “But I hate trotting. And anyway it’s going to be freezing.”
“But you wanted SNOW!” I said. “And where there’s snow, there’s cold.”
“Yes,” he says. “I wanted snow. But not on bloody HORSEBACK.”
I find a room, then a restaurant, and settle him by a brazier. After food and hot chocolate his weltanschauung improves from early-period Dostoyevsky to something more Nietzschean, if hardly the Famous Five jollity I’d been anticipating. We arrange that, the next morning, we will set out on a three day adventure on horseback to the suitably snow-clad Ice Mountain.
Only a few small matters to address before morning.
Such as, umm, clothing.
Now, my attempts at expedition outfitting are not normally the best organised.
But the prospect of sitting on a horse in temperatures well below zero at altitudes of over 4000m in November is, well, a strong motivating factor.
The chaps will provide extra overcoats. I need to arrange the rest.
In a spectacularly bad-tempered whirl around town, I acquire one balaclava, one hat, four pairs of woolly socks, one pair of waterproof snow pants, two extra pairs of thermal leggings (Men’s XXL for me, Women’s XS for Z), two pairs of boots, and a spare pair of gloves in case of snow dampening.
The shopkeepers, in exchange, acquire essential English phrases such as:
“Put that bloody sword DOWN!”
“We are shopping for GLOVES not KNIVES!”
“Back in its scabbard NOW! I MEAN IT!”
“STOP waving that around. It’s SHARP!”
“If you really want a sword you can have one for your birthday but NOT NOW.”
“How do you think you’re going to get it on a plane, anyway? This isn’t Kill Bill, you know.”
Anywise, layering this lot with the coats and layers we already own should be fine, I figure.
Well, apart from the coffee, that is. Nowhere in Songpan has any coffee but I can last three days without coffee, can’t I?
A couple of days with no caffeine will be really good for me!
After a night spent in temperatures which fill me with genuine awe at the green approach to heating (best summarized as “you have blankets, don’t you?”) and a desire to shower somewhere where my breath does not make steam, I figure we can do without washing for a while as well.
Our horses are stocky, round-bellied, with coats so coarse they’re pretty much furry, hardy mountain packhorses, the treasured and vilely abused possessions of Martin, our guide.
“>*&^*&(^&^(%%$%$$&^”, he says, in Chinese so utterly incomprehensible it makes the rural burr of Kunming and the nasal liquidity of Chengdu sound like the product of the finest Beijing elocution school.
Not only the guys who’ve arranged things with us but Martin are under the impression that I speak basic Chinese.
As, for that matter, was I until I met Martin.
“I don’t understand,” I say, helplessly. “Speak slowly.”
“^&$*%$*&^%^&(&**%^,” Martin bellows, at the same pace but several times the volume.
I begin to wonder whether he’s actually speaking dialect.
“He wants us to get on the horses,” says Z.
Martin tries again. At the tail end of his sentence I think I detect the phrase: “CAN HE DRIVE A HORSE?”
“A little,” I say, hopefully. “My son can drive a horse a little. I can drive a horse not so bad.”
This mutual comprehension, if such it is, only inspires Martin to further conversational efforts, interspersed with exclamations of “Your Chinese is VERY GOOD! VERY GOOD!”.
We pile onto the horses and head out into the great wide open, slouching, jouncing and rolling from the hips, Western style.
Or, as we say in England, like a sack of potatoes.
The autumn colours hit me, coming out of Songpan under a bright blue sky, like late era Van Gogh. Reds, golds, russets, berries and hips in shades of egg yolk yellow and vermilion, climbing up the mountains, deliriously bright, scarlet-breasted song-birds flirting in the trees like robins.
I can see a dusting of snow in the distance, but it seems a long way away.
There are silver birch, leaves blazing in the sunlight. Tall conifers weeping golden strands like willows. Bushes stripped down to a scarlet web of twigs.
“This is pretty cool, right?” I yell back to Z, from high above a steep descent.
“Hoss is in control, not me,” he yells. “I’m just a passenger here.”
As facilities in Songpan do not extend to riding helmets, and the single motorbike helmet they dredged up from somewhere on my insistence was cracked from ear to ear, we are riding without skull protection. So this is not good news.
“If you need to stop Hoss,” I say. “Get your feet steady in your stirrups and your weight solid and just pull the reins hard back into your stomach, hard as you can, until he stops.”
Songpan disappears and, all of a sudden, we are in the wilderness, a fine dusting of snow, like icing sugar, coating the slopes ahead of us. Martin begins to sing.
“I want to get off,” says Z, a couple of hours and several magical vistas in.
“Why?” I say.
“To play in the snow,” he says, pointing to a receding patch of pristine snow besides a snow-clad bush.
As we rise, in fact, the countryside feels more and more Tibetan. The few scattered houses we pass in their alpine pastures have low, wooden eaves, and tall bright flags, I guess to serve as markers once all the world is white. Each is surrounded by a stockade of firewood, parching wheat and drying animal fodder, preparing for the long, cold winter.
“There’ll be more snow,” I say. “Lots more snow.”
As if to prove my point, a gaggle of yaks block our path, and one galumphs into the brush, pelt and furry tail swaying, and lollops down the slope to a mountain stream.
We meet a horse train descending the slope, uncomplainingly towing great girders of pine, a boy about Z’s age driving them onwards, and a peculiarly recalcitrant yoked yak-hybrid pair doing the same.
And here it is, our first great sheet of snow, backed by spectacular mountains, your classic wilderness of brilliant white, azure and granite. Z’s face lights up.
We stop the horses by a cairn decked in flags. Eat doughy bread. And, after a brief exchange of snowballs, Z builds his first snowman of the trip out of the almost pristine snow.
He rolls in the snow. He slides in the snow. He makes snow angels in the snow. He’s a picture of snowed-out bliss.
It is magical. To go from Chengdu, a city bigger than New York, into this almost empty wilderness inside a day is extraordinary. Particularly in China, the most populous nation in the world.
Best of all, our layers are holding up.
Mid-afternoon, we reach a sheltered valley by one of the streams that rushes, grey-green with meltwater, down from the surrounding peaks, its piney slopes shaded white with snow.
A couple of tents stand in the open past a dry stone framework, the beginnings or the end of a mountain hut. The meadow is strewn with stripped trunks of pine.
“My god,” I say to Z. “Imagine living somewhere like this. Imagine living in a tent in this weather.”
My aching knees, my chapped lips and my rather chilly feet (my dismal circulation a testament to the potency of Marlboro Lights) are all looking forward to reaching our first night’s destination after six hours on horseback in an exfoliating wind.
I am looking forward to a hot drink, a fire, a hot meal, blankets and maybe, if the environment supports it, changing my clothes, brushing my teeth and maybe, just maybe, washing my face.
BUGGER! I think. No COFFEE! What was I thinking?!
It’s a beautiful spot, though. A lovely place to pause.
Martin dismounts. We scramble off our horses, too, my knees creaking somewhat.
“Do you think we’re staying here?” asks Z.
“Nah,” I say. “We’re in a homestay with a Tibetan family.”
My son looks at the yaks resting by the snowy hill.
“I think this is our homestay with a Tibetan family,” he says.
Helped by a little boy about Z’s age, Martin liberates the horses, which roll, emitting luxuriant, bassoon-like farts.
I watch with mounting horror as he unpacks the saddlebags, producing as his pièce de résistance what is, terrifyingly yet undeniably, a bog-standard, two-man tent…
Camping? In November?! WITHOUT COFFEE?
“Right, Mum,” says Z, taking charge. “We need to make a fire. Where’s your lighter?”