Asia 2005 : Sichuan


I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every panda that wouldn't screw to save its species. - Fight Club (1999)

Chengdu is a major city in south-west China and capital of Sichuan province, famous for its fearsomely spicy cuisine. I bought a corn on the cob which was brushed with a dark brown sauce, and was breathing fire for several hours.

On a wobbly hired bike I went to see the tomb of Wang Jian (847-918) in the western suburbs. He was one of the emperors of the Shu dynasty.

The main reason to visit Chengdu though is the nearby Giant Panda Research Base. Anyone who doesn't adore these fuzzy creatures - despite their evident incompetence at surviving - is inhuman.


Well I'm in Songpan in Sichuan province; it took 8 hours to get here from Chengdu in a rickety bus through some dramatic mountain valleys. We followed a river for most of the way, though the hand of human influence was never far away: huge hydro-electric dams harnessed the power of the river, the pylons snaking away across the mountainsides seeking out China's energy-hungry population. China's energy consumption is already at a third of that of America's, the pace of industrialisation is such that it can't be long before they catch up. The Chinese are damming the Yangtze River, flooding the famed Three Gorges, displacing 2 million people and destroying 7000 historical sites. Idwtgmsbbtcc.

Songpan is a one-street town. The ruddy faced locals wear thick coats and huddle round Mah-jong tables - it's cold here! 'Cold', an odd feeling I had become unaccustomed to since living in India, but my body seemed to remember how to shiver. My bed came equipped with about seven blankets.

The horse trek

The motley crew which assembled outside the Shun Jiang horse trekking stables at 9:30am comprised one Englishmen, four Israelis, three Chinese guides and a large number of sturdy footed horses.

I had never ridden a horse before, but I and my mount quickly reached a mutual disrespect. I decided to name him ZigZag, due to his liking for taking the most indirect route possible along straight paths.

Rather more unkind nicknames were suggested by his habit of sticking his head up other horses' arses, and taking a quick bite at any horse/person/rucksack that dared to overtake him.

The target of our journey was Ice Mountain, supposedly a four-day trek overall, but after an emergency Israeli-British conference on the first day we decided we could do it in three. Oddly there were a huge number of Israelis in Songpan and around. I learnt that horse-trekking is hugely appealing to the Israeli mindset.

The first day took us through some spectacular forested hills, the horses making light work of the terrain. I was learning to 'speak horse' in Chinese by imitating the guides. "Cheh" seemed to be "faster". "Dwocheh" meant "much faster", while "whoa!!" appeared to work well in any language.

We pitched camp in a valley, alongside a bunch of French people doing a similar trek. The horses seemed glad to shed their heavy burdens and eat their dinners out of basketballs, while we had to wait for the fire to boil some water and cook our soup and noodles.

Next morning the horses had scattered all over the valley. They were gathered without undue effort, with the exception of one troublemaker (to my surprise not Zigzag), who decided to go for a two-mile canter instead. Today, we would attempt to conquer Ice Mountain!

Trotting through tiny streams, with tall misty cliffs rising all aroun, it felt like you were in an epic film. All we needed was a quest, and some directions to follow "On the third day's travel you will reach the river. Follow the river downstream, but KEEP TO THE PATH and do not stray into the wild woods. If you reach the waterfalls, you have come too far..."

The weather was rather dismal on day two and the snow capped peaks which had been clearly visible from our campsite the previous evening were now enshrouded in fog while overnight rain had turned the path into a muddy bog. Apart from one nasty moment where ZigZag fell over, almost projecting me into said muddy bog, we slowly and painstakingly gained altitude, the land dropping away beneath us.

It was not going to be the day to conquer the mountain however. With the rain turning to hail and the horses coming to ever more frequent protest halts, we decided to call it a day about three-quarters of the way to the summit.

As is always the case, coming down is a lot harder than climbing up. It was too steep for the horses, so we had to dismount and half-walk, half-slide, half-fall down the boggy hillside. Needless to say we were in a pretty sorry state by the time we reached the foot of the mountain. It was back to camp to try and dry off in front of the fire. The guides do made very good food considering the limited resources we have. Boiled vegetables, noodles, rice, bread, lots of tea, all boiled up on the open fire. Only the chopped tomatoes covered in sugar were a little odd.

In pursuit of international harmony, we exchanged card games: I taught the Israelis "Cheat" while they taught me a particularly cryptic game called "An Idiot".

On the final day, while drinking in the scenery, I made two observations.

First, though I may mock the British love of animals, something of it is clearly in my veins, since I can't bring myself to hit Zigzag with a stick.

Second, it's impossible to resist humming the theme from Black Beauty repeatedly while riding along.

Our final stop was at a temple with coloured flags and prayer wheels. I needed a shave...

It's a bit like listening to the Shipping Forecast... SONGPAN. 3 or 4, days on horseback. Veering left, then right, then left again, nearly falling in mud. Sunny at first, then rain and squally showers, becoming heavy and icy. Arse moderate or sore. - email home

Moving on from Sichuan

Back in Songpan I found I was sharing my dorm room with two Swedish girls.

Life could be worse!

Great hilarity on the bus: we get to a police checkpoint and the conductor has to go running to the back of the bus, since she's supposed to be in a proper seat rather than setting on a tub of paint. Luckily they didn't catch us half an hour ago when there were 20 people crammed onto the bus floor.

More hilarity on the bus when we nearly ram into an oncoming car.

Have I really been on this bus nine hours???

Back in Sam's Guesthouse, Chengdu. 3am. Cannot sleep. A plague of mosquitoes.

The walls are streaked with blood. Yakir (he's Israeli, of course) is prowling the room armed with a heavy book. "I HAZ FOUND ANOZZER VONE!!!" (splat).

A Danish girl is wearing her mosquito net like an enormous wedding dress.

Chinese main railway stations are rather impressive affairs: more like airports than train stops. Giant displays show you all the trains for the day, their departure times (lateness is not an option) and which waiting room to go to. There are then airport-style security checks, before you begin boarding through the indicated gate.

There's still a chance to stock up on supplies for the journey, from the various counters: "Drink", "Food", "Tobacco & Alcohol", "Pastry", "Tea" and intriguingly "Various Household Supplies", just in case you realise at the last moment you should have brought some Windowlene.

I bought myself a pack of Hanzi (Chinese character) cards in Chengdu, which are designed for Chinese kids. These prove a good icebreaker for meeting locals; the two women opposite have just been miming out the meanings of various words for me. Next stop: Xi'an.

Next: Xi'an >>