The plan for this trip is a week long trip, including a 3 day trek up to see Siguniang Shan and a day in one other valley in the area around the town of Rilong. Then on the way back to Chengdu, it's a night over at Danba to see the old villages on the mountain side. Expecting to spend 6 days for this leg, and the backpack is full to the brim, including a full camelbak filled with day long supply of Nongfu spring water, which seems to be on sale everywhere in this country.
Siguniang shan is surrounded by 3 valleys. The most accessible one is Shuangqiao gou where there is a tourist bus herding tourists, the next would be Changping gou where most treks up the mountain start but Changping gou also has its own trek path on the valley floor that requires a bus ride to get to, and Haizi gou, where you will have to trek its slopes to reach base camp for those who are planning to go up Siguniang shan.
9 November 2008, Chengdu to Rilong: The first bus from Chengdu to Xiaojing leaves at 6:25 am. From there, I will have to take a taxi to Rilong. From what I have heard, the direct bus to Rilong does not run anymore from Chadianzi Station here in Chengdu because the route passes by Wenchuan which was the place worst hit by this year's large earthquake in this region. So longer trip. On the map, Xiaojing looks not further than 300 km but today's bus trip is expected to take 8 hours. Gasp!
Feixiang Cun: the bus has just got off the highway and seems to be swinging north. Before that it passed by some really deep valleys. The scenery is on the left side of the bus but my seat is on the right instead. There are a couple of chain smoking peasants in the bus. Dick heads. Luckily I moved from the back to the middle of the bus earlier. Need to concentrate now. Bus goes fast on a swervy mountain valley road. Hope he is fully trained.
Because of the recent 2008 earthquake, the short 5 hour route to Rilong is now shut, as I was told. And so, Chengdu to Rilong requires half a day of travel, say first to Xiaojing through Danba. At Xiaojing you could either pack into a private van which takes off when full or get someone to pick you up. Rilong is another full hour from Xiaojing.
The scenery to Rilong is subliminal. But at times it is possible to see how poor people are here. When I left off writing earlier, we were going thru a valley and eventually we went through a pass at 2500m altitude and went through a long tunnel. When exiting the tunnel its clear this is definitely mountain country with snow covered craggy peaks and looking down at deep valleys teeming with villages. At this point the villages still look chinese but one could start to see some signs of buddhist influences. The route would drop in altitude to 1500m along the way, all the time hugging the valley wall and rapids running right through it. After a few hours of looking at awe the tall peaks that surrounds me, some with trees in fall colours, but mostly naked peaks, anyway, we start to go through what looks like a perpetual construction site. First I thought it was cleaning up after the earthquake but there were sideboard with 'sinohydro' everywhere and there are some hydro electric stations to be seen but no dam. There are many tunnels dug into the cliffs and not small ones at that. There are caterpillar tractors on the mid level of the mountain, and cable lines everywhere to haul debris from up the mountain to the valley floor. There are evidences of landslides as well and a caterpillar buldozer crushed and submerged in the river. Very obvious it fell from up the mountain when the rocks gave way. The road where we travelled on is barely enough for 2 lanes, with steep cliff drops into the rapids on one side (mostly right side). Quite obvious the driver was going as fast as he could realistically go. Some sections would be reduced to one lane because of landslides, or herds of mountain goats would be blocking the way. Interesting sight. No herds of yaks yet. As time goes on, the villages start to look more tibetan, especially the area just outside Danba. We passed a village with many watchtowers on top of a hill and the typical houses with a distinctive roof. Houses here are made by stacking shards of rocks (me thinks it is limestone) and very very colourful decoration.
Another thing I observed: there are quite a number of rock slides along the way, and I suspect it's more human made than weathered. I saw a few section where locals were, via pure human brute force, collecting the slabs of rocks, and I believe they harvested rocks by the roadside or causing a small landslide as well, in order to build homes.
So I got into Xiaojing when sun is starting to set, a full 11 hour journey cramped into a bus full of chinese. They're generally ok except for the irritating habit of spitting on the floor and just about all men are chain smokers and I can tell you they had no issue lighting up in an enclosed bus. Bastards. I will ride with oxygen masks.
I was met in Xiaojing by a tibetan driver I asked the hostel in Chengdu to arrange. he drove a standard issue countryside minivan with his family and brother inside. Apparently he was returning to Rilong so agreed to pick me up. 1 hr later in a country road, we drove into the hill side town of Rilong just when it was starting to get dark. Not too many shops were open, but we went directly to RiYue inn just after the entrance of Chang Ping Gully.
There I was greeted by a friendly old lady that runs the inn and also cooked dinner for me at the large inhouse restaurant. Local dish, pork and vegetable but very very nice with overdose of Sichuan peppercorns. People here are very warm and trustworthy. The driver told me to pay him later when I'm leaving Rilong and the inn proprietress didn't even ask for deposit of payment for the food and gave me key to the room right away! This would be the first time this has happened to me here in China. I have 4 more days here, lets see if the hospitality is kept up.
Altitude here is 3100 m at least so I will get an early sleep to acclimatize.
10 November 2008, Haizi Gou: Woke up at 9 am and the owner of the inn prepared my porridge and some preserved vegetable. And she also made me yak tea, which tastes like buttery and nutty soup, and it tastes really good. Woke up with a headache, has to be the altitude here. Went outside and was greeted with a spectacular morning view.
Before long it is 10 am and I paid the inn keeper 95 RMB. 60 for the room and 35mm for the food she made for me, really good value.
Then its time to go trekking with a guide and a horse. The mountaineering centre is located just next to the RiYue inn, but the trek is brutal from the start. We start at the bottom of Changping valley, climbed to the top of the ridge with Changping to the left and Haizi Valley to the right. It is brutal because of the altitude and I felt as though my head was going to burst. I took breaks every 20 m or so, while my guide goes off and wait for me at the next clearing, probably so that the horse can eat some dried grass. After 8 hours of slugfest, we reached our little cattle herding hut at 4 pm. The view on the way is amazing, with alpine mountains all the way and still covered in snow at its peak. Temperature is about 10C along the way, enough for me to sweat under my fleece. At some stop I would take a few photos but no tripod for use. At the camp site, I set up my tripod while the guide proceeded to prepare dinner (rice, preserved vegetables, tomato omelette, and a bag of preserved pork parts). Right after that, its time to go back to photographing. I was hoping to catch alpen glow but not the mountain directly front of me, called Pa Ge Peng (8 friends). At 5000 m it was probably too low. But I did get the moon rising just above it and a shot where the mountain and the moon was not under or over exposed. Nice. Right after dinner and photo op, it was time to move back into the stone hut, made entirely by stacking slates of rock on one another. There is a wood frame for the ceiling and more slates overlapping to form a water tight roof. Its quite ingenious as we had a campfire in the hut and there were only some smoke inside and most of it escaped through the ceiling.
11 November 2008, Haizi Gou: It is time to gain some altitude today up to camp 1 of the climb up Siguniang shan. I don't plan to go further than that. But last night was probably the worst night of my life. Head throbbing because of the altitude, we camped at 3862 m last night according to my suunto observer, if I have not mentioned it yet. Slept at 8pm but woke up with a splitting headache and didn't really get back to sleep at all. Woke up at 6am, in time to snap a few photos of morning light encroaching the mountain tops outside the camp. Does not glow on the DSLR. After a big bowl of instant noodles it was time to head out uphill for the next 5 hours. Started off alright but once I got to see the peak I was supposed to get to by lunch time, my legs started giving way. Plenty of encounters with hairy mountain cows and horses. And saw 1 other tourist today. Easy to tell, locals wear tennis shoes and jeans plus a nicely worn waterproof jacket, tourists are always overdressed. This one I met was on horse back, and had a balaclava on in the hot sun.
Things didn't go well for me. I had to take a break every 10 m of the way, and gave up around 4500 m on the way up to camp 1 to have a nice view of Siguniang shan. It was unwise to go this high without a few days of acclimatization. But no disappointment for me as the main aim for this trip is to shoot some alpine scenery. I gave the guide my ricoh and 1 hr later he was back with a blurry photo of a distant peak.
The way down was no less difficult. Braking downhill seems to break havoc with the legs, and I and expecting some butter legs tomorrow. Once we reached the same camp, it was time to do dinner. While the guide was at it, I set up my tripod to catch the moon rise. Saw it yesterday so I have a good idea of what to look for and how to compose the picture. The winds started coming in and chill factor made me tremble of cold. Moon came up later than I thought, and I shouldn't have been so complacent to not check the almanac on my GPS. The singh ray gold and blue polarizer did its magic, adding hues to an otherwise dull scene. Holding it in front of the 62mm threaded 105mm micro lens did the trick.
Dinner was rice and preserved vegetables again with tomato omelette. According to the guide he was told he had to bring a japanese client so no Sichuanese pepper and chillis. Ah well, monotony of an universally passable meal. Again, after meal its time to crowd around the campfire inside the hut and chat in whatever little chinese I know. Its boring as boring can be. Asleep at 8pm and up in the wee hours in the morning wondering what it takes to sleep 12 hours a night.
Tomorrow we will return to Rilong and back to the inn I stayed earlier this week. Wondering what the lady boss of the inn will cook for me this time. 12 November 2008, Haizi Gou: Woke up to see the sun illuminate the peaks outside the hut. Colours are not subtle, and its the type that doesn't seem to appear well when photographed. After morning camp fire to heat up and loads of tea and instant noodles, its time to head out back to Rilong at 10 am, with the sun out in full force.
The trek back down to the inn at Changping gou drops 800m and about 3 or 4 km. Will take me almost 4 hours. The noon sun made the pictures difficult to take without blown highlights or deep shadows. HDR is an option. Mountain cows were little to be seen today, saw a large colony of vultures and what looked like a large furry marsupial foraging for food underground. The day was again full-on sunshine, but in shades temperature drops. I still need to keep my fleece on, but with the arm pit ventilation opened full.
On the way down, caught a nice sight of Siguniang, all 4 peaks visible from the hill directly before decending into Changping gou.
Went straight to my room at 3pm and quickly took a shower and its time to check my sms and emails after 3 days of no mobile coverage.
During dinner time with the inn boss, met 3 other Sichuanese sipping tea at the tibetan inn boss' living room. They just came back from 3 days in the valley and the recommendations started coming in. I was hesitating between Shuangqiao and Changping. And the verdict is very clear. Changping gou it is, and after a few tens of negotiations, the inn boss will arrange me a local price, meaning: a guide with a horse I will sit on, and no entrance fee as we will sneak in at 6 am, and I pay the horseman instead of to the establishment. This should make my altitude issue go away!
Got to sleep early and repack light for tomorrow.
13 November 2008, Changping Gou: Woke up just before 6 am and at 6:20 am in the dark, my horse and guide was waiting. The inn owner boiled eggs, 4 of them, took two before leaving and the other 2 during the course of the day. I will stay away from eggs for a long time.
The principle for today is easy, I ride the horse and my guide guides the horse. Simple enough. The ride to the entrance is 7 km long, meaning an hour and a half before I get into the official entrance. Just before the road swerves to the left, my guide went into the cypress forest to the right, climbing like crazy with me on horseback. Never knew horse riding could be so uncomfortable. So, the idea here is we don't go thru the official entrance so we get to skip the entrance fee. The ride is quite interesting with leaveless trees and moss growing and dangling off branches, like in Sleepy Hollow. That's where I learnt to lean forward when climbing and backwards when descending. Its impossible not to get pain in the knee or cramps in the leg when horse riding!
I was concentrating so much on not falling off the horse and the scenery that I didn't have time to take photos. Anyway, since we were in a valley, there was no sunlight till noon. The narrow valley has a fast flowing river going through it and surrounded by thousands of metres of peaks on both side. This is definitely looking like a chinese Yosemite, with 5000-6000 m peaks.
Not intending to recant every step of the trip, I got to see spooky trees, frozen streams, dead fir trees still standing in river, white sand riverbanks, wild (cant confirm) horses, and effect of the 2008 earthquake which locals just call 512. Funny that the epicenter was not more than 50 km away.
Not remembering the names of all the spots I passed, after 5 hours we reached a cow ranch and the end of the official trail. That's when it started getting interesting. My guide told me that the rangers make their rounds once a month and unfortunately we met them today, and after giving the excuse that the ticket booth was closed when we got there, we had to pay him 70 RMB which is the normal rate for Changping gou, and pick up the ticket on the way out. We were telling the truth anyway, the entrance opens at 730am while we were already in at 700am.
The way out was a torture, not used to being on a horse that long, I had to take many breaks. As we had to go thru the official entrance gate to retrieve the tickets, I had to walk 500m of the way and it was a long long walk for this altitude. Got back to the inn at 6pm and straight to bed. Very nice scenery but need to be tougher next time.
I write bad chinese, but what the horse lady told me, the two major peaks I saw today was Luotofeng (far in distance, something about climbers from Beijing killed a few years back) and Waipheshan (from first view of it from the entrance, looks perfectly conical).
14 November 2008 Rilong to Danba: As this post is getting a little long, I think it would be a good idea to roll out Danba as part 3. Nice night sleep last night. Up early again and now waiting for the inn boss to make me porridge before leaving around 7 am. Realised something wrong with my right eye as I see everything bright as a smudged orangy spot. Hope it has to do with the altitude and not permanent.
All in all, I really like this trip. It seems that people here are really lax about collecting money from you. And they really go out of their way to treat guests well. Perhaps its because of the earthquake this year (known as 512 here) where visitors dropped to a trickle. At Changping gou yesterday I counted 6. At Haizi Gou I counted less than 5. The people here tell me last year it was streaming with people and the shops are opened all the time. I barely saw open shops in the 5 days I was here.
All three valleys are amazing. I did not go to Shuangqiao Gou, but Changping Gou is like Yosemite surrounded by tall peaks covered perpetually in snow, and Haizi Gou with its alpine lakes and mountaineering activities. All I got in the time here was perfect blue skies. Morning was freezing but goes to 15C at least at noon.
Promised the inn keeper and the driver on the way out to Danba that I would return next year and they would be the ones I will look up... Got their phone numbers of course. And by the way, when I got back to Chengdu, found out what they call hairy cow and what I call mountain cow here is actually Yak! I had yak meat with really knowing!
Next: Part 3...