Pheweeeeee!! Let me say that again,.. Pheweeeeeeeeeee!!
Back in Songpan after 3.5 days of trekking including some of the hardest walking I have ever done. What a trip!
Leaving Songpan on Tuesday, we had a bit of time in the morning for a quick wander through the town as we were due to leave at 9.30am. The night time arrival the previous evening meant that we were seeing the “small town” (our Chinese guide Zu Han’s description) of 80,000 for the first time. The first thing you notice is the tremendous statue outside of the 1300 year old city walls.
Greetings from Songpan
The next thing you notice is the constant noise of construction. It is happening everywhere and is a result of the huge earthquake that occurred two years ago.
One of the trekkers in the group is the husband of the winner of the raffle prize from the Australian and New Zealand Roadshow in July. Spud is from Perth and, perhaps unsurprisingly as he is from Perth, works in the mines. He is astounded at the apparent disregard of health and safety. In a way it is refreshing, the Chinese construction workers work extremely long hours, from dawn until dusk it seems and they wave cheerfully at us as we pass, shouting Ni How (Hello) and then laughing at our badly pronounced replies. The town is gradually being rebuilt but it is a slow process and will take a few more years before the town is once more back to its former glory.
The rebuilding of Songpan
9.30am saw us all gathered at the hotel foyer with our bags pared down to trekking weight, although as this included bottled water for four days the bags were still pretty heavy. Just before we set off we were paid a visit by the local constabulary. Apparently unhappy that we had not filled out the required visitor form for this region. Exceedingly nice, the police officer was merely interested in getting his paper work done and once we had bowed to bureaucracy we were on our way.
A visit from the police
A short hike up the road with all our gear and we were at the meeting point with our local horse team. As with anything out of the norm in China, a crowd quickly gathered and intense discussion at high decibels ensued. Laughter, shouting and 18 bewildered westerners watched as the seemingly implacable horses were loaded up for the four day trip. Initially there was some consternation as to how much weight they were carrying but the resulting four days have shown us that they are very capable and lovingly cared for. (Even when wandering through the campsite at 2am with bells clanging…)
Packing up and heading off
…..And then we were off. To say the first hour was a test of our endurance and ability would be an understatement. Due to climb 600m in the first day, it seemed we did that in the first hour. The group quickly spread into a long straggled line of huffing and puffing, red faced animal lovers.
We were due to climb from 2800m to 3400m and then back down to 3100m for the evening camp. The altitude was affecting a few of the group and many pauses for breath under the guise of taking photographs seemed to be taking place.
We quickly left Songpan and headed into the hills. The town was spread out below us and the incessant sound of car horns diminished by the minute. The day had started brightly and we were sweating very quickly. The higher we climbed however saw more and more dark clouds gathering and then the rumble of thunder in the distance let us know that we were soon to be hit with another storm, this time with no pergola to shelter us.
Doing it tough from the start, leaving Songpan
As (bad) luck would have it, we were hit by the storm when we reached the peak of the hill we were climbing. Lashings of rain and peals of thunder with lightning strikes every few seconds, made it a rather eventful descent. Particularly so for those that had put their waterproofs in the bag the horses were carrying and not in their day sack, (you know who you are!!).
This meant that after the rain, the stateswoman of the group and experienced trekker, Gill Thomas, dug out her spare gear and stopped the trekking novices from getting hypothermia. (Man was it cold!!). An at times perilous descent saw us hit a road where our local guides quickly built a fire to warm us all up. Then it was a 30 minute hike to the first nights camp and for some, the shock of the basic amenities we were to endure for the next three nights.
The tents were essentially filthy white canvas, with sticks as pegs and logs for poles. The ground was soaking and our gear had been exposed to the elements on the back of the horses and so were also not faring well. To top it off, a car on the road had spooked one of the horses which had bolted, shedding all of its gear, including a couple of rucksacks and the head horseman’s monthly rice supply for his family.
Head Horseman Mr Mah
This was a tough day for all of us, and to get to camp to discover the quality of the tents, the fact that nothing hot was yet available and that sleeping bags and gear were damp, was disconcerting for some… to put it mildly.
Altitude was also affecting a few of the group and Vicki Baker, the New Zealand contingent of the trek was severely struggling and opted to pull out that evening. Zu Han organised a car to take Vicki back to the hotel in Songpan and a few were tempted to join her.
The next morning saw three more of the group in difficulty. (Although one of these was self inflicted due to an over appreciation of the local Sogram spirit…Oh yes Ros Metzke.. The youngest of the group, Emma Mitchell, was having difficulty breathing and had pains in her chest. Heidi St John had been hit by a stomach bug and was struggling to eat. Both opted to return to Songpan as there was no going back from this point on.
Compared to day one, day two was a breeze. About five hours of mostly flat terrain, through beautiful forest clad countryside and we were at the campsite for the evening. With only a light shower along the way we were all pretty dry but having climbed to an elevation of 3400m it was considerably colder on the more exposed plateau. A huge roaring fire solved that issue and dinner was prepared quickly.
Considering the amenities available, the food was superb throughout the trek. Hot, spicy and delicious and that was just breakfast. Lunch seemd to be an afterthought though, never materialising on the second day and essentially consisting of bread on the others.
The second day also saw a fourth casualty, Anthea Van Leent was struggling and as we had passed the point of no return was ferried to the campsite via horse and then spent the majority of day three on horseback. Jealousy abounded amongst the group until we learned that Anthea had fallen off and added to her woes with some lovely bruises and a very sore arm.
For the rest of us, day three was a killer. The promo literature stated that we would reach a summit of 3900m and after a killing hour and a half we had topped 3850m. Easy peasy we thought… oh no.. We topped out at 4200m and it was a case of one foot in front of the other. The scenery was stunning, spectacular, breathtakingly beautiful. We were on top of the world and all the effort was worth it.
Grinning and bearing it.
Spectacular views as we reach the summit
The feeling as we reached the top was one of elation. All of us, without exception had pushed ourselves to get there. Some of us thought that we wouldn’t make it and so the pride and sense of achievement was exceptional. A shared joy, to be savoured forever.
Yes! We did it! Hitting the summit.
The trip down was made faster by impending rain. Everyone was in high spirits. We had done it, broken the back of the first trek with just a few hours along the valley floor tomorrow. The boulders and shrubs in the tent, the 45 degree angle of the ground and the fact that almost everyone was out of water and drinking either boiled or purified stream water, did not matter. A wonderfully raucous evening of sogram spirit and swapping Chinese songs for English ensued, (the Chinese won hands down..).
And that was the first of our two treks. A special thanks has to go out to Wah Wah, our beautiful guide dog who covered at least twice the distance we did making sure we were all still there. If we could smuggle her back with us I think every single one of us would do so.
Wah Wah (Lady), checking that we are keeping up
Tomorrow it’s up at 4am and a flight to Chengdu. then off to see the largest stone Buddha in the world, since the Taliban blew up the one in Afghanistan. Then it’s Emei Shan and more trekking. This time through Monkey Forest, studded with Buddhist Temples.
Tonight we have all gone to Emma’s Kitchen, run by a lovely woman who speaks fluent English. Almost everyone had western food and feels a lot better for it. So good in fact that about half the group have shimmied down to the local nightclub for some serious techno.
For me, bed is calling…..