Ride em Cowboy

Trip Start Apr 23, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Snowland Guesthouse

Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

We were up before sparrow's fart and headed down to take the bus from Litang to Xiandushou. None of us had gotten much sleep. I’d left the earplugs out knowing I wouldn’t hear the alarm with them in. At about 3am, drunk with sleeplessness because of the cacophony of local/sild dogs in concert and the bangs, shouts and general loudness of the hostel, I shoved them in only to spend the next 2 and a half hours waking up every 20 minutes to make sure I hadn’t missed the alarm!!!!

Knowing that the road was likely to be a bit gut churning, I popped a motion sickness pill and within 5 minutes of the bus setting off I was out like a light.

I awoke with a start as we went through quite a large town approximately 4 hours after we’d left. I checked out the map and started to worry. In broken Chinese I had asked the ticket seller what time we would arrive at our destination and thought she had said 4pm. What if she’d been telling me it would take 4 hours??? No-one else was taking the least bit of notice of the name of the place. Tim had shown the driver our tickets and I was pretty sure he knew we had to get off before Kangding (the final destination of the bus) and Mr Zhan had said it would take 9 hours to get to Tagong...a comforting thought but I still had nagging doubts until we came to the next place around 90 minutes down the road and I sighted the turn-off to the Tagong Grasslands just before we had entered the town proper.

We reminded the driver that we had to get off and he dropped us in the main drag. Our feet had barely touched the ground and we were besieged by an untrustworthy looking dude in a cowboy hat wanting to drive us the extra bit to Tagong. One look at him and Molly and I headed towards the bevy of mini buses the driver had directed us to while Tim and Corinna minded the packs and admired their faces in the shine of his completely bald tyres.

One word, "Tagong", had the groups attention and we quickly agreed to 20RMB/person for the trip. Our chosen driver didn’t look the all that clean cut himself...what with the beer in one hand and a fag in the other. Still he didn’t appear to be overly inebriated and most of the other drivers had one as well!! It took a few minutes to perform the usual jigsaw puzzle of how to fit our packs, us, plus a couple of locals...in this case two young monks...and we were off.

The monks were completely naught for the whole journey, jabbering to themselves, leaning over our shoulders trying to look down our tops, giggling and egging each other on. I gave them a couple of “stop that or I’ll smack your bums” looks which quietened them momentarily, only to begin seconds later with a new bout of naughtiness.

We arrived in Tagong about an hour later after negotiating some road-works that appeared to be completely the best road we’d seen since leaving Australia. The town itself wasn’t much to look at. I was essentially one main street with a mish-mash of shops, homes and restaurants with a large monastery at one end that was undergoing significant expansion/restoration. It was, however, surrounded by hills sporting thousands of prayer flags, including a km or so stretched between opposite sides of the valley.

The usual tug of war between guesthouses ensued as soon as we alighted. While the others sorted that the bags I was already negotiating our fare through to Danba in two days time.

Safely bedded down in Snowland Guesthouse we headed for Angela’s Cafe run by an American friend of Mr Zhan’s in Litang. We had a large Tibetan inspired meal topped off with a mega pot of yak milk tea and we were ready to explore.

Tim and I took a tour of the town (20min) and then made our way up one of the hills to get a birds eye view of the town. I was already doubting our wisdom to spend 2 days here. It was nice enough but if you weren’t here to do trekking or horse riding you could run out of things to do pretty damn quickly....and worse still.....NO INTERNET! Tim was up for a bit of trekking in the hills but there was no way known I would get him on the back of a horse!

The girls must have read my thoughts because when we met up on the top of the hill they had a plan already in action. We could get in a trek, a horse ride plus overnight with nomads and then motorbike out the next morning in time to make connections through to Danba...and...would I like to come too?? YES PLEASE.

Tim was quite happy to muddle about in town and sort out our photos until we returned. With the plan in motion I spent the rest of the evening sorting out a small pack to get me through the next adventure.

The next morning, Molly, Corinna and I turned up bright and early to work out where and how we would start out. Angela was busy trying to run the restaurant and extremely vague with her instructions. A French guy was also setting off in our direction and Angela had drawn him a mud map to the Nomad camp. He was quite happy for us to have it, insisting that he knew the way  and as we thought he would be walking with  us we gratefully accepted. Not long after we set off however, it was pretty obvious he had his own timelines and quickly fell behind.

We knew it was going to be a long day and whilst we weren’t exactly going fast, spending plenty of time taking in the surrounds, we didn’t want to leave it to late to liaise with our guide. Anyway, just outside a small town, right where we were very confused by the map, we met up with Tashi...A very young nomad boy (of around 15 or 16 we suspect) who was absolutely gorgeous and led us up a path of steep steps through Rale we would never have found without him. We stopped several times to look out for the French guy but after a fair amount of time, guiltily continued on figuring he’d either get directions or turn back if he didn’t work out the way. Before heading out we all solemnly spun a series of prayer wheels to bless our journey, took one last look for the French guy, and headed up the hill.

Unfortunately Molly had a badly bruised foot which was giving her a fair amount of grief. What it did do for me however, is made sure I went slowly, rather than bust my gut as I normally do, and spend some time absorbing my surroundings and enjoying the view.

The valley quickly opened u p before below us and we climbed and climbed upwards, blessed by a brilliant blue sky, lush green fields and masses of wild flowers. After about three or so hours the track got rocky and squishy and I was glad I’d worn my boots. We came to a stream that had to be forded. Out came my Keens trekking sandal...good thinking on my part....and we waded across the frigid water.

Not long after, Tashi led us past some tethered horses to a small hut where we were welcomed by his grandmother. We gave her the present of apples we had bought for her which certainly broke the ice. From the look of the provisions in the cooking area in the hut, not a lot of fresh produce made its way here from town. We sat awkwardly in the “dining area” of the hut whilst she prepared our lunch. A small baby cooed in the corner. It laughed and tumbeled about, not quite old enough to hold itself upright. Very cute.

Nanna served us copious amounts of tea whilst preparing and lunch of stirfried veggies with Tibetan bread. I think we managed to work out the familial relationships of how Tashi, Angela, the baby and Nanna fitted together. Not long after another Cowboy dropped in that we think was Tashi’s brother, Angela’s husband, the baby’s fath er and Nanna’s son...but then we might have been totally off the beam.

I left a tiny Koala for the baby, warning Nanna not to let him swallow the boomerang in its paws. This prompted a round of big hugs and smiles and thankyous all round. We inelegantly mounted the horses and set off on the next leg of our journey.

My horse turned out to have a mind of its own, giving me more than a few scares as it stumbled on rocks on steep ledges and dipped its head to munch on succulent grass and flowers. A few hours in and the storm clouds gathered in the distance. Lightning arced in the distance and the thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. At one stage it started to rain and I was glad I’d bought a thin wind-jacket...and pretty impressed I could actually get it out of its pocket and on without falling off the horse.

As we tried to hurry the horses along they seemed to get the message. We ran into another group of cowboys heading in the same direction. They seemed to have a lot to say and I’m not sure whether it was nice or not. Tashi seemed to be squirming a bit and I wandered if they were ribbing him about taking home a wife since one of his rellies had married an American woman.

As our butts really started to feel the effects of being on the horses for about 4 hours, we breached the rise and spotted 4 nomad tents in the distance. Little kids ran to greet us, their cheeky little faces covered in dirt, grime and big cheesy grins. Most of them were Tashi brothers but there appeared to be a number of cousins as well. Funnily enough they were all boys and I wondered what happened to the girls if any..

We were ushered into one of the main tents for Yak tea. It was a basic affair. A Kitchen area on one side holding the scant provisions, a sleeping area to the back, the fire in the centre with some carpets around for seating and a line of the cutest baby yaks ever lined up down the other side.

The kids very quickly overcame any shyness they might have had and produced a number of balloons that they proceeded to throw around the tent. It was amazing how much we could communicate with no common language. They spoke no English and we no Tibetan. It was only my smattering of Mandarin that could communicate the very basics.

The yaks were a hoot, following the flight of the balloon with their heads in unison like clowns at a sideshow alley. Fearing the kids would fall in the fire as the activity became more and more vigorous we ushered them outside to play in the fading light. A couple of hours of chasey, skipping, piggybacks and monsters amongst the yak shit and mud left us dirty, giddy and almost dead on our feet. We were still above 4000m and the kids were way more acclimatized than us. We laughed so much we almost peed ourselves despite having purposefully not drunk nearly enough for fear of the toilet situation.

As the sun set the temperature rapidly declined. The kids who didn’t belong with our hosts were called home and we went back in the tent to warm ourselves by the fire. Our hosts showed us our “private” sleeping quarters out the back of the main tent. Rocks had been used as the base, with yak skins, blankets and finally sleeping bags on top for our comfort. Much more luxurious than anything the family itself had and I felt a little guilty at the situation.

Dinner was a huge feast of momos and lots more yak tea. The young mother of the family was shivering even by the fire. She was a slight young thing and when she showed us that she only had two thin layers of clothes on I quickly went and found my thermal underwear and presented her with them. She had far more need than I ever would on this trip and I could always get some more if I needed before our next cold stop. When she told me in faltering Mandarin I almost wept.

The yak tea finally made its way through our systems and one by one we went out into the darkness for a pee. Each of us was stalked by a very curious black and white spotted yak that made the whole experience just a little unnerving.

We tucked ourselves snugly into our beds at an early hour. One of the local dogs had made itself comfortable by Corinna, spooning itself around her into a comfortable position as if he belonged there. I was glad I’d bought my earplugs as not long after we’d settled in every dog in the valley went berserk, including the one in our tent....It appeared it was going to be a very, very long night.

Early the next morning my worst fears were realized. I started to feel like crap and stomach cramps set in with a vengeance. Just after first light I stumbled out of the tent and up the hill behind the camp to take it in turns projectile vomiting and squirting number two’s.

 This continued on for about three hours before it was time to leave. I felt terrible for our hosts. It was probably the same bug Molly had had days before but I knew I was never going t eat another momo ever again.

The trip back was one of the most traumatic I’d ever experienced. Alternating between banging about on the back of a motorbike holding on for grim death to a wild and woolly nomad and barely stumbling over muddy, rocky roads too rough to ride we somehow made it back to town in one piece. My stomach cried out in protest at all the jolting about and my bum quickly reminded me I had been on the back of a horse for 5 hours the day before. All the time I was trying to put off thoughts of what would happen if I created any mess on this big burley guy with a very big knife OR his bike.

We finally made it in to Tagong where I had a cup of tea, a dose of tea and then went straight to bed. No way in the world we were heading to Danba today. Our journey with Molly and Corinna was temporarily suspended but we made promises to meet up in Chengdu.

At a later date, Tim filled me in on his activities for the day. He’d spent the day walking around observing the locals, especially the older ones making their pilgrimage around the temple with its hundreds of prayer wheels. His photos were amazing. He’d met up with a load of really nice and some quite strange people. A group of them had been mugged up on the hill we’d been up on the day before and had some others had less than pleasant experiences being roughed up by locals. I wasn’t unhappy we hadn’t missed out on that experience.

By late afternoon, unable to hold down even water, I raided the medical kit of antibiotics, Stemetil and Imodium as per instructions in our medical book. I then rolled up in a ball in bed hoping that tomorrow would bring enough of an improvement to see us on the road again.
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