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Four cold days to Ice Mountain and back.

May 5-9, 1999

The morning of the 5th I arrived at the bus station around 6:40 a.m. for my 7 a.m. bus. The travel agency had only given me a voucher which I would exchange for a real ticket at some window in the station. Hmm, which window? But being a China pro, I knew just what to do. With my best muddled look, I wandered around aimlessly, voucher in hand. In moments a man approaches me, looks at my voucher, takes my voucher, runs over to a window, exchanges it for a ticket and escorts me to my bus. Turns out he was also the operator of the bus. It was a tired looking old bus, likely short on shock absorbers, so it’s always best to try to sit near the front. This was no problem as most of the passengers were standing around the parking lot smoking cigarettes, spitting, and grunting.

It was a large 40+ seat bus and the aisle had already been packed full of bundles of something or other that were stacked up to a level almost equal with the seats. This was actually a blessing. I took an aisle seat on the left side near the front and comfortably stretched my legs out into the aisle atop the bundles. Across the aisle were the four other foreigners, a young twenty-something Dutch couple who lived in Beijing and the man’s parents. Typical of many Europeans they spoke excellent English. We hit it off well and their company made what was about a nine and a half hour ride quite bearable. They were going to Jiuzhaigou but would spend the night in Songpan and take the morning bus to Jiuzhaigou from there. Two more foreigners jumped on, two young Israeli girls with incredible amounts of baggage. One of the girls had a big canvas pack that I swear was bigger than she was.

Seems almost any foreigner who’s ever used long distance buses in China with any regularity has had to stop the bus for a toilet at one time or another. Well, about three hours into this ride the young Dutchwoman, who did speak Chinese rather well, asked the driver to make a stop. The driver was remarkably uncooperative claiming there was no place to stop. That is of course, nonsense. In all but the most remote areas if there is a road there are villages, and where there are villages there are, albeit primitive, toilets. A minute after claiming there was nowhere to stop, the bus passed one of those ubiquitous crumbling brick structures. Before the woman could even begin to complain about it, a half dozen men did it for her, jumping out of their seats yelling and shaking their fists at the driver. Needless to say the driver quickly found another place to stop and predictably the entire bus emptied.

Lunch was at a roadside restaurant. I was now even happier for the company of the Dutch group as the young couple could read the Chinese menu. It was a decent hassle free lunch. The second half of the trip was through far more remote territory. We climbed higher in altitude and all around us were soaring snowcapped peaks, deep valleys, mountain streams, and forests. The road, though new and improved, was still very winding, making at times for a very slow ride. I’ve heard that prior to the recent reconstruction of this road, parts of it were nonexistent. It came as no surprise to me then, to see why this route once took such an eternity.

At about 4:30 we reached Songpan. There are several companies offering horse treks into the surrounding area and competition between them is fierce. Before the bus even reached the station, two men from rival companies jumped on board and began sticking cards in my hand, urging me to read their guest books full of praise from satisfied customers. The owner of one company shoved a book in my hand open to a page that had what read like a scathing review of the company. “You don’t read English, do you?” I asked him. “No,” he shook his head. “Too bad,” if you could read English you wouldn’t have handed me this book.”

I left the bus with both operators tailing me. I knew already which company I wanted, Shun Jiang, which is the original Songpan horse trek company. It also turned out to be the same company owned by the man whose book I had seen on the bus. Once inside the office, which was just a room in a wooden shack, I looked at the book again and turned the page back from where I had been reading before. It turned out the scathing review was about another company. I laughed at my mistake and then explained to the owner, by reading to him what was written where, that he should show the previous page first and not the page he had shown me.

The treks cost Y60 ($7.50) a day and this price covers everything. They pack the horses, set up the tents, cook the food, and clean the dishes. All I had to do was sit on a horse and look at the views. The guides, one per person it would seem, also regale you with Tibetan songs and say important English words like “potato”, “yak”, “coat”, and “shit”. I still hadn’t made up my mind how long of a trip I’d take. I was thinking of three days followed by two days in Jiuzhaigou. Or maybe do four days on a horse and save Jiuzhaigou for another year, when I can really spend some time there.

As it turned out the two Israeli girls on the bus were also doing a trek and were considering four days. Since I really didn’t care what I did I went with the four-day plan and was grouped with the two girls. It’s also worth noting that the operators conveniently time the return of the treks with the arrival of the buses from Chengdu. As I’m standing around the office two guys, one from Oregon, one from Japan, are in there having just returned from a four-day trek of their own. They were giving it a glowing report. So arrangements were made, which consisted of paying half the fee and agreeing to show up at the office at 9:00 a.m. the following morning. I had no idea where we’d go, there were many options- to lakes and waterfalls, to Tibetan villages, or to 5588-meter (18,329 feet) Mount Xuebao (Ice Mountain), or some combination thereof. The tour operators will go anywhere.

I had a few hours free to find a hotel and explore the town. There’s not much of a hotel choice. Most people opt for the Songzhou Hotel. Nobody seemed to know what the rooms cost either, that included the staff. I paid Y40 my first night, but got the same kind of room for Y30 after returning from my trek. This was also one of the few hotels that had private bathrooms and showers. However, there was no running water except from 8:00 p.m. onward when they turn the hot water on. It stays on until it runs out, about an hour or so. The rest of the time there isn’t even a cold trickle.

Songpan is a quaint little village and certainly not a bad place to kill off a day. It still has the old gates at its southern, northern, and eastern entrances. The main road through town, Zhong Jie, is about a kilometer long lined with small shops and eateries. The village is very Tibetan and many people dress in traditional Tibetan outfits. Many women wear their hair in the traditional style, wrapped in 108 thin braids. They all have those bright red rosy cheeks, too.

It was a raw chilly day. Songpan sits at something like 9,000 feet give or take a thousand, and the temperature was maybe 40 or 45 Yankee degrees and a light drizzle was falling. No wonder they all wear those huge overcoats. Due to the popularity of the horse treks, there are a few restaurants with English language menus. One such place, the Yu Lan Restaurant, is run by a wonderful middle-aged couple with a rudimentary command of English. They serve decent food and under every table are these little electric heaters to keep your feet warm.

Around town are numerous sidewalk vendors selling various local snacks. There was some kind of skewered meat that I never tried and assorted bread and other bakery items which I did. Those that I tried were delicious. One vendor was a little annoying, though. Every time a foreigner walked by he‘d start screaming, “HEY!! LAO WAI!! HEY!! FUR’NER!! HEY!!” I can’t imagine this technique worked very well. Every foreigner I know hates that kind of thing.

The morning of my horse trek I had breakfast at the Yu Lan where I was joined by a young Austrian girl with a bald head and a generous array of body metal. She spent a lot of time complaining about all the ridiculous rules and regulations and related hassles of traveling in China going on about her rights, and yadda this and yadda that. She might as well have been speaking Chinese to me for I mostly just nodded my head and said “uh-huh, uh-huh”. Finally, feeling it time I offered something to the conversation, I matter-of-factly reminded her that she was in China and that she has to play by China rules, take it or leave it.

Across the street from the restaurant is the local PSB office. Right on cue an officer walks in, comes to our table, and very politely asks to see our passports. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but it’s my job”. Whatever. No, I don’t particularly like random requests to see my papers but I’m in China and have to deal with it. Still, foreigners are almost always afforded far better treatment than the Chinese are. That’s not something to lose sight of.

He examines my passport and informs me I have fifteen days left on my visa, which I knew anyway, but I guess he needed to justify his “job”. Regardless, it’s to your advantage to keep close track of these things, as China is not a country in which you want to overstay your visa. I thanked him for his concern while the girl expectedly looked like she was about to explode. ‘You really need to get out of this country,’ I thought to myself. Granted, she had a frustrating experience with the PSB that certainly shows the ridiculousness of Chinese law.

At some town somewhere, I never did catch where, she had been invited to spend the night in a local family’s home. Not only would this be a great experience, it saves money, too. However, it is illegal to have a foreigner spend the night in a private home without special permission from the PSB. The PSB somehow found out she was in this home and they came to evict her. However, from everything she said it sounded as if the PSB bent over backwards to find her suitable accommodation and treated her with nothing but respect. They were simply following their rules. Rules which some of them may have even considered ridiculous. Unfortunately for the girl, the hotel they had found for her was 100 yuan; far more than she would (or could) pay.

I sympathized with her plight to a point. I can understand not wanting to pay the equivalent of $12.50 for a room, but one should never travel on such a tight budget as to get into one of these jams. It’s amazed me how cheap some travelers can be. It really bothers me when I see some dirty foreigner arguing with a taxi driver or restaurant waitress over a sum of money like twenty cents, especially when the taxi driver or waitress is right. If you’re really that poor, go home. In any event, breakfast finished, I bid the girl farewell and wished her all the good luck in the world as I think she needed it. I returned to my hotel for my things and walked over to the Shun Jiang office.

There were six of us total, three guides, the two Israeli girls, and myself. Horses loaded, we headed east from town, crossed the river and began climbing up into the mountains. The horses were amazingly tame; actually they were downright lazy, but it sure beats getting tossed on your rear end. I had the unruliest one, but the worst thing she ever did was bolt on me once. Otherwise, she, more than any of the other horses, often wanted to stop and eat the bushes or drink some water.

We left Songpan under heavy cloud cover, but the clouds quickly gave way to spectacular blue skies. Throughout the morning Tibetans in full Tibetan dress passed us the other way as they hiked from small farms scattered for miles across the mountains and valleys. Our guides entertained us with Tibetan songs.

After crossing over a ridge we came to a collection of buildings scattered over several small farms. We dismounted from the horses and walked down into the valley. This was procedure for most of the descents as some were steep and I suppose a potentially hazardous spill from a horse was a real possibility. I was glad to see I could handle the descents on foot after the wrecking my left knee took in the Tiger Leaping Gorge a week or so earlier. It wasn’t painless, but I could do it. Riding was no problem at all as the horses moved at walking pace putting no stress on my knee whatsoever.

On our descent a group of children were hanging around and several wanted to look through my camera. But like most Tibetan children they weren’t real keen on having their picture taken but put up with a few shots anyway. We also passed a few yaks. I thought they were kind of interesting, not yet realizing that I’d see them by the hundreds later. A yak is basically a cow with a long thick coat and horns. It’s also one of the slowest and mellowest (and probably stupidest) animals on the planet. They spend most of their time either grazing or standing around looking at you as you walk by.

I guessed that most of the mountains around us were about 13,000 to 14,000 feet as there wasn’t much snow on them. In the distance to the west I could see a few snowcapped peaks, probably in the 15-16,000 foot range. The biggest in the area I knew to be 18,329 feet. We followed a stream for awhile, then turned a corner revealing a massive mountain to the south. It wasn’t the tallest thing around, maybe 14,000 feet, but it sure was one massive piece of rock. We rode through a nice meadow and then climbed up again, reaching a mountain pass that I guess put us at about 12,000 feet. Our guides wanted to continue right away but the three of us protested and stopped to enjoy the view and take some photos. To the west was still the long ridge of snow-capped peaks. To our south, the massive rock, and straight ahead east a most spectacular ridge of jagged peaks that I’d guess to be about 16,000 feet. Next to us on the ridge was a big mound of rocks with flags on it, which I believe is some kind of Tibetan burial thing. These are all over the place, always in a high prominent place.

We then headed down on foot until we leveled off in a small valley with a stream, and in a clearing were a dozen or two yaks. Another snowcapped peak rose from beyond the valley. We turned left, following the stream a few hundred meters before stopping in another clearing protected by a small cliff to the west and surrounded by fur trees on the other sides. This was to be camp for the night, though it was only 2:30 in the afternoon. We were also very hungry. The sun at this altitude was hot, and here, protected from the wind, we were quickly down to our shirtsleeves. Soon our guides cooked us a fine meal of potatoes and bread which was more or less to be the staple of our existence for the next four days. There was occasionally rice and vegetables, but it was mostly potatoes, a chewy thick homemade noodle, and assorted bread. All things considered they did a fine job with the food.

I was awoken from a short nap by the sound of yelling coming from the low field where the yaks were. Soon, two Tibetan women on horseback came into our field herding the yaks off somewhere. They were whooping and yelling at the yaks that only with reluctance followed their orders. Our little field was crossed a few more times when small groups of men came out of the forest with several teams of yaks pulling huge cut tree trunks.

The two girls and I passed the afternoon playing cards. Soon the sun fell behind the cliff and things got cold very quickly. The guides built a nice fire and served up our dinner of rice and bread. After dark, the guides pulled out a bottle of Chinese whiskey which I wouldn’t go near. They were rather surprised about this, likewise my rejecting their offers to give me cigarettes.

I’m not a big liquor drinker anyway, but of all liquors, whiskey is far and away my least favorite. I gag just on the smell alone, and this cheap Chinese version was particularly pungent. It was obviously strong whiskey, as our guides’ already loose nature became even looser. They broke into Tibetan song again and then the Israeli girls sang Israeli songs. Then it was my turn to sing an American song. Those who know me know what happens when I sing, so being sober my mouth remained firmly shut.

The two girls and I were in one tent while the three guides shared another. Although the temperature was to drop to the freezing level, the bedding and coats provided were very warm, but still I didn’t sleep well. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the outdoor environment, but whatever the cause, it was only a few hours of rough sleep. The general lack of hygiene was also taking effect on me in the form of stomach cramps that necessitated one 4:00 a.m. venture into the frozen forest. Stomach cramps were to plague me for three of the four days spent in the mountains, with the morning of the fourth day particularly uncomfortable, but never so severe as to detract from my enjoyment of the trek.

Sunrise came and we rose quickly, but we rose to an overcast, dreary day. After breakfast we loaded up the horses and headed along the stream, then up an incline, over a mountain pass, and down into a long valley cut by another stream where small farms dotted the landscape and Tibetan villagers wandered about. We had just passed a small collection of farms at the end of the valley when it began to rain. A few minutes later a small middle-aged man was walking the other way. Turns out he was kind of like the village chief or something and lived in the main farmhouse we had just passed. Apparently our guides knew him and had sheltered people with him before. Arrangements were made for us to stay the night in the farmhouse. I was thankful. Not only was I going to be out of the 40 degree rain but I would also have the opportunity to spend a night in a Tibetan farmhouse.

The house was typical of most of the houses I saw in the valleys. It was a wooden structure with the living quarters upstairs and the livestock kept downstairs. A high stone wall surrounded a front courtyard. Our presence was a curiosity but not to the degree of annoyance as this was not the first time foreigners had been brought here. The rooms completely lacked windows save for two small openings on one wall covered with plastic sheets that only let in light. We were led into the main room, which even in the middle of the day was rather dark. A wood burning stove sat at one end and along another wall were large shelves with glass doors. Upon the shelves was a large collection of dishes, cups, and the like, which appeared to be more for show than for use. A stovepipe rose from the stove to the roof. The roof was not sealed around the pipe, which helped to bring in a little more light. They did have some kind of electrical source but it required a battery and when turned on, only lasted a few minutes.

Soon the rain turned to snow flurries. We passed the afternoon near the warmth of the stove, the girls and I playing cards, the guides and our host taking periodic shots of whiskey. Other people came and went, as apparently this house was the social center of the village. Our host was hacking away with a very sickly cough. He hit me up for some medicine but I doubt it was going to do him much good. He sounded like he needed a lot more than over-the-counter cold medicine.

Although there was a stovepipe to remove the smoke it wasn’t very effective, and much of the smoke found other ways to escape. The room was becoming a difficult one to stay in; forcing me to step outside in the cold every now and then to relieve my burning eyes and breathe some fresh mountain air. The smokiness of the room didn’t seem to bother the Tibetans in the least, but why should it? They all had bad coughs anyway.

As the sun began setting, the room filled up with about a dozen villagers. Men and women, young and old, they assembled themselves around the wood stove talking, cooking, and sharing food with one another, their faces silhouetted by the dim firelight. The men shared whiskey and cigarettes, the women knitted and shared tea. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Ah, yes, close your eyes and imagine a beautiful evening, snuggling by the fire in a Tibetan farmhouse high up in the Sichuan mountains, while outside, snow gently falls and yaks graze in the fields. Nice, huh? Okay, now keep imagining…  wait… “THWONK!” A woman turns and spits a wad of snot on the floor. “HACK, HACK, HACK!” One of the men breaks into an uncontrollable coughing fit, finishing it off with a resounding “THWONK” as he sends snot and probably a few pieces of his lung splattering upon the floor.

Forget the hominess, this place was a pathology lab. There was not one single healthy person in that room. At best they had bad colds, at worse they had tuberculosis, what they probably all did have is acute chronic bronchitis. These people had not a clue about hygiene. They had snot running down their faces, they spit on the floor, they coughed in their food, which they shared, and did all of this in a smoke-filled, poorly ventilated room. I witnessed one sickly woman put her fingers to her nose, blow a wad of snot on the floor, then grab with the same hand a pile of wooden chopsticks which she then passed out to everyone. The cacophony of spit and hacking was only broken by the sound of one woman running out to vomit in the hallway. It continued throughout the night climaxing in the morning when all these sick people gleefully removed their full night’s worth of collected phlegm by splattering it all over the floor. I remember lying half asleep at the wee hours of the morning drifting in and out of sleep to a steady chorus of “THWONK”- “SPLAT” upon the floor. But perhaps sickest of all was our host. About four in the morning he broke into one of the worst bouts of coughing I’ve ever heard. I was awoken by his coughing fits which he accompanied with painful moans. I caught a glimpse of his wife helping him away, and I then heard vomiting between the long series of coughs. I truly believe that man is not long for this world. I certainly feel sorry for him, but living his life in a smoke-filled room with a staple diet of whiskey and cigarettes is not going to keep him around much longer.

And there was the whiskey. All these sick people passed around and drank from a single jar of whiskey. They wanted me to drink from it, too. Even if I drank whiskey, I wasn’t going to touch that pathology sample. It took a little firm insistence on my part to keep the whiskey away, likewise the cigarettes that were constantly thrust in my face. I only evaded the cigarette issue by communicating that I am now an ex-smoker, and have been for four years. Surprisingly, that earned me some respect, but they still seemed to uphold the belief that whiskey and cigarettes are good for a man’s health. “Just like you?” I say to a man with snot running down his face, chronic bronchitis, and probably a shot liver.

The host, his whiskey intake increasing, became an annoyance. Once drunk, he decided I was to give him something. He knew one English word, “money”. He walked up to me, tapped me on my shoulder pointed to himself several times and began yelling, “Money! Money!” He repeated this several more times, and each time one of the guides would restrain him and lead him back to his seat in the corner. But a bigger and potentially real problem came when our host stumbled over to our packs and began to look through one of them. Again, one of the guides quickly intervened, again placing him in the corner where he continued muttering something about “Money!”

Despite the unhealthiness of it all I actually slept well that night. It was the best sleep I was to have in my three nights in the mountains. I awoke about 6:30 a.m. unaware that just an hour or two earlier events had unfolded in Yugoslavia that were to have a noticeable impact on the remainder of my trip. But here in the Sichuan wilderness we were far from any newspaper or television. As I was contemplating rising from my spot on the floor, I saw a woman changing a baby on one of the benches by the fire. That was okay, except that when I did finally arise a few minutes later I saw a nice little puddle on that bench. One of the women motioned me to sit upon the bench. I smiled and shook my head ‘no’ making motions about going outside instead. Having declined the bench, one of the other women promptly sat right down on it, puddle and all. I went outside breathing in the nice cool morning mountain air wondering how many days it’d be until I came down sick. The snow had been only flurries at our elevation, but the tops of the 15,000+ foot peaks lay under a solid fresh blanket of snow.

Not wanting to spend any more time in the pathology lab I stayed outside most of the morning. There was some sun, which made the otherwise crisp morning quite comfortable. Now to be fair, despite everyone’s ill health and one annoying drunk, the people here were very nice, just sickly. And as I didn’t come down with any major diseases I can look back at this experience positively. When I weigh the positives (a night in a Tibetan farmhouse) against the negatives (err, a night in a Tibetan farmhouse), the positives clearly win out. Like climbing a Chinese sacred mountain this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something everybody should do just once.

I came inside long enough for a quick snack, a cup of coffee, and to get my bag. As we were preparing to leave, a few of the villagers permitted a couple of photos, but only from a distance. Thankfully I had a long zoom. In general, the Tibetans are very camera shy and it was not a trip conducive to photographing people. But it was conducive to mountain photography, now if I could only get my high altitude exposure settings right…

We exited the valley into the woods and then began a steep ascent that after an hour or two brought us to a small clearing near the top of the tree line. I guessed we were 10,000, maybe 11,000 feet up. The guides indicated that this would be camp, but that we still had someplace to go this day. We unloaded the horses and then resumed our ascent again. We quickly broke the tree line, passing a small farmhouse made of rock that was as much in the ground as above it. Some kind of large ruinous brick structure was just up the hill from the farmhouse. We continued our ascent further by riding along a ridge with a rocky streambed below us to the right. We were surrounded by rocky snow covered peaks of at least 15,000 feet. Eventually we reached a level area and I could see to my right several peaks rising even higher, with one heavily snow-capped peak towering above the rest.

We then ascended a little more, finally coming to an ancient glacier bed that was now just a rock field. The mountain towering on our right was 18,329-foot Mt. Xuebao (Ice Mountain), it’s pointed peak covered with a layer of snow several meters thick with part of that cover having broken off in a recent avalanche. Lesser peaks rose slightly above us. I would roughly guess we were probably at about 14,000 feet but I could be off by as much as a thousand feet in either direction. I do know this: there was no vegetation, only rocks and snow. And it was quiet. Absolutely positively 100% quiet. No sound. Nothing. I was also surprised to see some animal tracks in the snow. Later I also saw tracks that looked like they came from a small cat or something, but I never did see any wildlife on this trek. The reality is that while China possesses spectacular natural scenery it really is lacking in the wildlife department.

We stayed on the rock field for maybe forty minutes, absorbing the spectacular view of the massive peaks around us. We also spent a few minutes yelling as loud as we could, trying to see if we could dislodge the snow from Xuebao several thousand feet above us. Of course we couldn’t. As usual, the trip down was by foot. This was the steepest and longest descent of the trip and thankfully my knee, though hardly 100%, held up, though not painlessly. Other than that, there’d be the odd time I’d dismount too carelessly from my horse sending a sharp pain through my knee (and body), but for the most part I was doing okay.

As we passed near the small farmhouse not far from our camp I saw our previous night’s host. He was very shy in my presence, reluctant to even make eye contact. I don’t know whether his reaction was embarrassment for his drunken behavior or a dislike for me, but the consensus between the two girls and myself is that it was more likely embarrassment. We ate a late lunch followed by a short nap. It began to drizzle and by late afternoon the drizzle had turned to light snow. We huddled inside a tent and with the temperature dipping below freezing, we didn’t have much choice but to make a fire inside the tent. The tent had roof flaps for just this purpose but, like the farmhouse, the flaps only removed enough smoke to keep us from dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. The girls and I played cards while our guides drank whiskey. About ten o’clock we succumbed to sleep. Outside there was a layer of snow an inch or two thick.

I didn’t sleep well. I slept terribly. It felt as if I never slept at all. I’m pretty sure I got an hour or two of rest in the beginning of the evening, but not much more. I awoke at about two in the morning experiencing some real shortness of breath, perhaps a result of the altitude, I don’t know. On top of that, I was having stomach cramps that only got worse in the morning. But one way or another, I made it through the night emerging in one piece the following morning, tired, but breathing.

The last day was the longest. We covered the entire previous three days of riding in one day. When we passed the yak field near where we stayed the first night, a number of young women were out with the yaks. My horse decided to break for the field where we had camped instead of following the trail like she was supposed to. I probably would have controlled the horse better but I had to hold my camera with one hand to keep it from hitting against the pommel of the saddle. With the help of one of the guides, the horse was brought quickly under control, accompanied by generous amounts of laughter from the women in the field.

We retraced our steps to the high ridge where the burial mound and flags were, but then went a different route, dropping into a different valley, following a stream for quite a few miles. The ride got a little monotonous towards the end, aggravated by it being a cold cloudy day with intermittent drizzle. The last three miles involved walking along the highway, as our route brought us out of the mountains several miles south of Songpan. We got into Songpan a little before 4:40. All I wanted was hot food and a shower. I hadn’t showered in 92 hours.

I wrote a few words of praise in the tour operator’s guest book. I didn’t have much choice as the tour operator was so enthusiastically sticking the thing in my face. But pathology labs and stomach cramps aside, it really was a wonderful trip and I do recommend it. Highly.

I returned to the Songzhou Hotel, getting a room for ten kuai less than last time. The rooms were okay. They were reasonably clean and the beds comfortable and warm. For the price I had nothing to complain about. But the two Israeli girls sure did. We happened to be at the reception desk at the same time and the girls began to insist upon seeing a room first. That’s usually a reasonable, almost imperative request, however we had all been at the same hotel a few nights earlier and I didn’t see any evidence of major renovations since then. Personally, I saw no reason to see one, I knew what they looked like and if I didn’t like what they showed me I’d just make them give me another one, the hotel was hardly full.

Well, the girls came back satisfied, paid for the room and were led away. A minute later I followed, my own room a few doors down the hall. As I passed them in the hallway the two girls are yelling at some poor girl about the room, “This isn’t the room you showed us! This is totally unacceptable!” And they continued to rant and rave while the poor girl stood there and smiled, probably having no idea what they were saying, or even what language they were saying it in. I stopped and peaked in their room. It looked fine. I kept my mouth shut, although they were doing exactly the kind of thing that makes more problems for the next tourist that comes through. They were making a big stink over the condition of a room that was identical to every other room in the hotel. So what if it wasn’t the same room they showed you? What do you expect for Y30? That’s $3.75! I took my room without complaint, then headed off for food. There would be no water until 8:00 p.m. so I’d just have to smell bad for a few more hours. As I was leaving, the girls were back at the reception desk complaining about something, probably the weather, the bus schedule, gravity, I don’t know. I never did see them again.

I purchased a bus ticket for the 7:00 a.m. bus back to Chengdu. After a hot dinner I went for a walk around Songpan. Surprisingly the four Dutch travelers were back in town. For whatever reason they cut short their Jiuzhaigou trip by a day, but they loved it, praising it as absolutely one of the most beautiful places they had ever seen. They were returning to Chengdu tomorrow as well, but on the 6:00 a.m. bus. We walked back to the hotel; they were also staying at the Songzhou and found the story of the dissatisfied Israeli girls as funny as I did. As we were arriving, a European couple were there checking in. “Umm, how is the hotel?” one asks.
“You get your money’s worth,” I said with a laugh. Then they asked me if I knew anything about the horse treks. “Just got back,” and I proceeded to tell them all about it and yes, they should do it. They were planning on two days and just as I had them convinced they were making a wise decision, the trek operator appeared. I tried jokingly to hit him up for a commission.


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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.