Well since we last wrote, we've been to our highest point ever, horse trekked in the snow, stayed in a Tibetan village, and seen some spectacular countryside. We left Chengdu for an 8 hour bus ride to a small town called Songpan. We were met there by our horse trekking guide, put up in a seedy hotel and slept the afternoon away - we were only 2850m above sea level but completely wiped out and headachey.
The next morning we woke up to clear blue skies and sunshine, our first in a while after the smog of the cities. We were doing a 3 day trek to 'Ice Mountain' and each day was about 5-6 hours of riding. Luckily we have calloused hardy bums from all the biking, so didn't get too sore.
The villages and people in this part of the world are very Tibetan, although officially we're still in Sichuan province. We saw lots of prayer flags, the architecture is very different, we stopped at a monastery to spin the prayer wheels, there are lots of yaks around, and the people all speak Tibetian. We were planning to go to Tibet, but the NZ government have emailed to let us know it's too unsafe there at the moment due to independence protests. The Chinese claim its under control, but I think we'll stick with The Herald as a more reliable source. Anyway we've got 5 more weeks for it to settle down, but this might be as close as we get.
The first day was stunning, through Central Otago type hills (but higher!) and river valleys. We arrived at our very basic accommodation with a Tibetan family. The house was freezing cold, well below zero each night, not helped by the hole in the wall masquerading as a window through which the falling snow drifted in (a quick plug for Fairydown and Kathmandu here, whose equipment I am convinced prevented me from being carried out frozen on a stretcher). The kitchen was where we spent most of our time, huddling over a plate of embers to warm up. Chairman Mao posters lined the wall, and dried meat was hanging from the roof. Luckily our budget didn't extend to the food with meat option.
Day 2 was a hike up to the base of Ice Mountain, which had covered itself in a cloud for the day. Very impressive nonetheless, with frozen waterfalls cascading through snowy tree-lined slopes. We explored the ruins of a Tibetan monastery at 4300m above sea level. The return to our accommodation coincided perfectly with the onset of snow, which continued throughout the night. We woke up to our last day to white everywhere.
A quick aside here to talk about toileting. Apparently the family didn't have a toilet. On the first day I was shown to the barn (unfortunately I was having stomach troubles, necessitating regular visits to the great outdoors) where I had to go in the corner with the pigs. It sounds terrible, and let me tell you, it was. After that D and I found a quiet corner of a field to relieve ourselves in (we weren't allowed to use the barn at night anyway because the dogs would bark and wake everyone up). So in the night I had to crawl out of a warm sleeping bag and scramble up a slope and under a fence - and bear in mind the second night it snowed all night! Very glad to be back in civilisation. Nice views though.
Our last day we went back to Songpan via a monastery. The going was slow through the snow and we had to walk some of the icy patches. We passed a team of yaks hauling logs uphill, but weren't allowed to take photos so you'll just have to imagine that bit. It snowed quite heavily on us for about an hour and we were shivering in our saddles. It certainly makes it picturesque though so not too much complaining. A quick wander around Songpan in the afternoon (ancient walls guarded by bronze warriors, covered bridges, impressive architecture etc) and back on the bus today for our 8 hour journey back into the grey.
Now debating the best course north, will keep you all updated as usual. Photos of horses and snow at: http://picasaweb.google.com/steelbaker/CentralChina