Sunday, 22 November 2009

Rain Rain Go Away

After three months of almost entirely dry weather in China, I have really arrived home to Wet and Windy Wales! For non UK residents who are unaware of the battering and swamping from gales and floods we have recently been suffering, this has been the view from my bedroom window for much of the last two weeks. Luckily I managed to wean the last little colt foal just before the weather set in with a vengeance, and he is now dry and warm in a stable.
Added to this I have been laid up with a nasty bout of flu which partly accounts for the gap in posts. But I am feeling much better, and today was interviewed by old friend Shan Cothi for her show on BBC Radio Wales. Below is a link to iplayer recording if you are interested - it should be available for the next week. The interview is towards the end of the programme.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Snow Makers

There was always a lovely view of the Bell Tower from my hotel bedroom window in Beijing, but I woke up last Sunday morning to the following magical sight.

An unprecedented 1st November snowfall had enveloped the city and its surroundings. My jeep is falling apart at the seams, but Peng and I were still able to take the opportunity to have a little jaunt out to the Ming tombs in the afternoon - the snow added an extra sparkle to the ancient buildings.

Unbelievably it transpired the next day that it was all the fault of the Chinese authorities!
A drought in North China just when the farmers were due to sow their winter wheat had led the powers that be to fire a few missiles carrying silver iodide into the sky in an attempt to seed the clouds and make rain. But they had not accounted for an advancing cold front which caused the resultant precipatation to fall as snow. It caused a few plane delays, but the farmers were happy, and everyone else seemed to rather enjoy the unseasonal surprise.

In the evening I went for a farewell dinner with Wutzala and Kubi of the Chinese Equestrian Association and Harry Tse of the Chinese Horseball Federation. Old friend He Guo Sheng, who was our indispensable ride manager on the first trial leg last year, also came with two TV reporters, and very generously treated us to the meal. Unfortunately, apart from Peng, the other members of our 2009 team had already dispersed homewards and were unable to be present.
As it was the first snowfall of the year, the meal had to be hotpot. In this case rather than one communal steamboat, we had individual hotpot burners containing the spicy simmering soup into which we dipped and cooked paper thin slices of meat and vegetables - warming and delicious on a wintry evening.

Replete after the meal. L to R. Guo Sheng, Peng, Kubi, Wutzala, Me, Harry.

Before leaving Beijing I was interviewed for the China based newspaper Global Times. Below is a link to the article on their website.

I am now back in Wales after flying home on Tuesday, and hope to return to China at the end of March to set out again across the Gobi at the beginning of April.
Keep reading - I intend to keep posting at regular intervals - not only ongoing developments, but photos of the Great Wall stage that I did not have room/time to publish before.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Beijing Hikers

As I have had a week kicking my heels in Beijing, I spent one day kicking them in the hills with Beijing Hikers. If you are visiting Beijing or are a newly arrived resident, their well organised hikes are an excellent way of experiencing the lovelier parts of the surrounding countryside, and also meeting people. The variety of off-the-beaten-track hikes are all well away from the tourist trail, to the extent one may need to beware of scratches from pushing through bushes on steep hillsides!

The walks are graded for difficulty, and on this leisurely mid-week Grade 3 hike, we climbed up a pretty wooded valley through old terraced apple orchards to a section of ancient Qin wall on the ridge above.

After admiring the views, which included a stretch of the Ming Great Wall (running along the horizon in the photo above), we scrambled down via a small gorge to a very tasty late lunch at a local farmer’s house, in my case washed down with local beer.

For details see their website

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Desert Diversions

On the three day drive back to Beijing, we spent a day crossing the Tengger desert, although when we struck off the main road into the desert hills, it was not long before we came round a corner to the following sight. With the Chinese eternally reconstructing China from dawn till dusk like busy bees, this sort of setback is a constant danger. But not one that created problems when we were on horseback. Hua looks on while Peng susses the situation.But it was a matter of minutes for the digger to clear a path for us. The Tengger has some varied and beautiful scenery – Hua illustrates rocky desert while I model the sandy alternative.
The first sight of camels actually in the desert generated a ripple of excitement, but this soon wore off after the 20th sighting. But you must agree that they are rather picturesque. The camels in China are of course the two-humped Bactrian - the type used on the Silk Route for centuries.
We did not make it across the Tengger the first day, and ended up staying in a tiny settlement in the middle of nowhere, all squashed into one sparse room with a single candle for light. However the next morning we were able to have a proper breakfast for the first time in weeks. Here is our breakfast steaming away outside the eating house at the next village.

And here is Peng limbering up with chopsticks ready to tuck in to mutton and potato dumplings – delicious! As this was a Moslem establishment, pork dumplings were not on the menu.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The End of The End

Jiayuguan fort is usually touted as the official western end of the Ming Great Wall, but the wall in fact continues for a few more kilometres to a beacon tower in a spectacular location on the edge of a river gorge. So this morning Hua and I quietly rode there on Zorbee and Shandan to reach the very end of the end of the Great Wall. It was not as easy as we had anticipated as our path was almost immediately blocked by the railway – not a problem in itself as we have hopped across railway lines with the horses before, but this time there was a large fence, no doubt to deter wall followers such as ourselves. We eventually found a floodwater underpass with just enough head room to lead the horses through, and then a bridge to cross the new expressway which also cuts across the Wall. I am sure the Mongols never had such difficulties. Here are Hua and I having successfully reached our objective – you cannot see the gorge cliff which is behind the beacon tower.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Made It!

Here is Peng and I on Zorbee and Shandan, outside Jiayuguan fort which is the official end of the Great Wall. We were met there by local TV, and were allowed to take the horses right into the fort – clattering through the archways and across the courtyards to the bemusement of the visitors. Here I am being interviewed in the central courtyard.
Tomorrow the horses are being trucked back to Shandan stud for the winter, the trailer is being stored in a government yard, Li Jing is taking the train, and the rest of us are driving back to Beijing in the jeep.

Drinks All Round

We have arrived at Jiuquan, which intriguingly means wine spring. In a variation of the water into wine bible story, legend has it that a Western Han general was granted imperial wine by the emperor. Wanting to share it with his troops, he poured it into a spring which conveniently turned into wine. No doubt we will also share a drink tonight as an early celebration in anticipation of reaching the end of the Great Wall in the next couple of days. That is assuming I do not fall off again, though as the whereabouts of the spring now seems to be a closely guarded secret, it will certainly not be in an alcoholic haze.

We have had quite a bit of media attention recently, with a sizeable slot on Zhangye TV news – Bajiu providing light entertainment by knocking over his water bowl – and a troupe of pretty girl reporters from Jiaquan Weekly who considerably brightened up the day for the ‘boys’.
A year ago we were being hounded by the police to move out of our lodgings and drive 40 miles to the nearest ‘foreigners hotel’. With official certification and increasing publicity, things have changed, and now they even appear to want to join us. The photo below shows me giving pony rides to a charming young Jiaquan policeman.
Everyone is amazingly friendly, and we are often given things to eat and drink - from bottles of water to sunflower seeds – yesterday a guy rushed up and shoved two large onions into my hands! Below is Li May holding a box of apples presented to us by the delightful elderly couple we stayed with in Xinhua.

Some cute kids at Qing Shui.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Solve The Mystery

I have recently kept seeing these little pieces of paper weighted down by stones on bridges and culverts. Are they a form of offering to the river/stream as Hua suggests? Or is it some sort of rural messaging system? Suggestions to be written on a piece of paper and placed under a stone on the nearest bridge.

Probably more easy to solve is the identity of these little brown birds which we often see running through the desert bushes. This is when I wish I had a good bird book in the hand.

Trailer trouble and other Topics

Our trailer has been a great asset, in particular for carrying vital horse feed, but the weight of the water tank at the front bent the tow bar on the jeep. Although it has been fixed, it is still a source of concern, and Peng is thus sensibly unwilling to go too far off the beaten track in case the road conditions are unfavourable. I had hoped to follow a small road curving north near a few remnants of the Great Wall, but in view of these concerns we have decided to stay on the old Silk road. This is slightly disappointing, but the countryside is still very picturesque with maize fields or desert scrub backed by mountains, and due to the expressway the traffic is fairly light.Below are Hua and Zorbee posing by a pavilion with the Qilian mountains in the background.The weather has been ideal, brisk and sunny, although yesterday we just arrived at our destination in time to miss a small dust storm at dusk

We have run out of the excellent hay we bought in Yinchuan. The Shandan stud gave us some straw and Peng managed to find a couple of bales of hay en route, but otherwise we have been eking out roughage with maize stalks. Hard feed is however less of a problem as everyone is harvesting, corn cobs are out to dry in front of nearly all the houses, and it is not too difficult to pick up the odd bag of ground maize. And yesterday SuperPeng bought some carrots from our hosts which he can be seen washing in freezing water below
We often stop to graze the horses whenever we find a good patch of grass or little clumps of alfalfa alongside the road. Here is Hua being checked out by the Mandarin orange brigade aka Gansu road maintenance.
Below are three cheerful schoolboys who bicycled alongside us into Xinhua, but were too shy to try out their English.
It was not long before there was a flotilla of schoolboys bantering with Hua.

And even a couple of schoolgirls.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Riding the Wall

For the last five days since leaving Shandan stud and returning to where we left off, we have been riding along the Silk road. This has kept us within a stone’s throw of the Great Wall for much of the way, and we have sometimes been able to get off the main road and ride alongside it, which has been a thrill. The photo below was taken on a ten kilometre stretch that we rode along.

Zorbee is much improved, so we have brought him back into walking work, and it has been a relief to have our pacesetter back in action. On Saturday we climbed over a stunning mountain pass between snow capped peaks, unfortunately cloaked in mist and icy drizzle so photos were difficult. The small, often rough road was almost deserted, thanks to the expressway which siphons off all the heavy traffic. Bleak grassland was grazed by small flocks of sheep guarded by shepherds in enormous identical sheepskin cloaks which appear to be all the rage among the shepherding fraternity in the highlands of Gansu. Along the side of the expressway strange orange plastic bags were strung up – they turned out to contain wild mushrooms for sale by people camped out in little tents.

Below are Hua and Zorbee in front of the strangely named ‘Cosmetic Mountain’ after the rain had cleared a bit.

At Chang Cheng Kou or Great Wall gap, where the expressway ploughs through the Wall, we stayed at the restful courtyard house of Chen Huai, a photographer and local expert on the Hexi corridor (the area in Gansu through which the Silk Road passes) whom we had met a couple of weeks earlier. Great Wall expert William Lindesay has also stayed at his house, so we were in good company! The horses had a huge grassy yard to roam in and were in seventh heaven.

I am constantly amazed at the changes in temperature as we ride. From the freezing conditions crossing the pass for which I was clad in thermal underwear and several layers of warm clothing, today I was riding in a short sleeved top for much of the way!
We are now just outside Zhangye, which is the last major town before Jiayuguan, so we are effectively about to start the last leg – hopefully we will be able to reach the end of the Great Wall in about a week, all being well.

The other piece of news is that now Zorbee is better, Li Jing has just arrived back.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Sojourn at Shandan

We were woken on Wednesday morning by a Big Brother loudspeaker blaring out Chinese news and music over Yi Chang, the No 1 sector town which is the Shandan stud HQ. The stud, which was originally established to breed military horses, used to have several thousand horses in four sectors. There are now only a few hundred horses limited to Sector 1, the other sectors having diversified into enterprises such as dairy cattle and rapeseed oil. Our sojourn turned out to be quite action packed – visiting the newly opened museum, media interviews, and being wined (or rather bai jiued) and dined at the town restaurant, where we were offered yak tendon and pigeon stomach among other delicacies.

Our horses also had a rest of sorts – on arrival they were subjected to a vet check before being allowed to rejoin the other stud riding horses – they were none too impressed either by being disinfected or having a thermometer up their backsides – see Bajiu below.

On Thursday they were reshod with metal shoes by the resident farrier, and saddled up to take part in a Zhangye TV film shoot up at the lake behind the town. Unfortunately the beautiful clear weather of the day before had been replaced by icy sleet, and even though it cleared up a bit, you can see in the photo below of me being interviewed that the mountains were still clothed in mist.

Interview with Zhangye TV

'Main street at Shandan stud Yi chang with backdrop of Qilian mountains'

Hua and Shandan by the lake - both apparently suitably attired for fishing.

The day is rounded off by dinner and drinking games with the media.

Poisonous Stuffed Horse

Here I am in the museum at Shandan stud with a poisonous stuffed horse. The poison is apparently in the preservative and the Chinese sign is a warning – unfortunately too late for me as I had already patted him on the nose, but I have not keeled over foaming at the mouth yet.

And below is a photo of what he looked like before he was poisoned and stuffed. In his heyday he was actually the foundation stallion of the stud, created by cross breeding between local horses and Don stallions. He was rather enigmatically called 00.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


No, not me with the stress of constant arguing with Hua, but our jeep. We had always intended resting up at Shandan stud once we hit Gansu, but as it is a long way off our direct route, we decided to trailer the horses there and rest for a couple of days before returning to where we left off. Unfortunately the road was worse than we expected. After a second trip to fetch Bajiu and Shandan (Hua and I rode along the Silk road to the nearest turn off), the car gave up the ghost about 40kms from the main road and 20kms from the stud. We were in the middle of nowhere on a wide plain backed by mountains, with dusk falling and skeins of geese honking overhead on their way to a nearby lake. By the time the secretary of the stud had driven over to assess the situation (a burst radiator) and a huge tractor had arrived, it was pitch dark – then it was two hours being towed across the grasslands with not a light in sight until we reached the little town at the centre of the stud.
However, thanks to my wireless stick and the solar powered plug point in the trailer, I could e-mail while we were waiting! You can see the weather is beginning to turn chilly.

A new radiator has been ordered and in the meantime we are enjoying hot showers and flush loos at the very comfortable hotel here, which has views of the stunning snow capped Qilian mountains.

Autumn on the Silk Road

We officially reached the Silk Road a few days ago. I was dreading riding along what I assumed would be a road teeming with heavy lorries, if no longer with camel caravans, which in fact would have caused our modern horses far more worry! But in fact it is not too bad as the new expressway takes the bulk of the traffic – the old road is mainly restricted to local traffic, and there has also been a sandy shoulder for much of the way. The weather is getting much more pleasant - cool, sunny and breezy - and the leaves on the poplars lining the road are starting to turn golden. We caught our first tantalising glimpse of the snow capped Qilian mountains far away to the south, though they have now disappeared behind another nearer rugged range of hills.

The photo shows Hua and Shandan by a kilometre post – now showing the distance from Shanghai along the Silk road.

Monday, 5 October 2009

High Jinks in the Horse Temple

We had an amazing experience yesterday at Tumen, an old town on the Great Wall of China. We arrived in the late afternoon to be pounced on by an extremely over excited gentleman. Apparently an old Daoist temple was being rebuilt nearby, having been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. There had previously been an ancient horse temple on the site and the new temple was also a place to revere the ‘horse ancestor’. It would bring good luck to take horses into the temple under construction, and the temple officials could not believe their luck when right on cue, horseback travellers turned up on the scene. Even more auspicious, our party included a lao wai or foreigner (me). Before you could say ‘Guangyu’ (one of the deities the temple is devoted to) we and the horses were decked in red silk scarves and paraded through the back streets of Tumen. We then led the horses into the temple yard, squeezing under the scaffolding and right into the space reserved for a building for worshipping the ‘ horse ancestor’ . All this to the accompaniment of firecrackers, while Bajiu, Zorbee and Shandan acted as if this was something they did every day and looked suitably bored.

After posing for photos , we led our horses out of the temple and rode off, not into the sunset, but back to our hotel where we were treated to a sumptuous meal washed down with Chinese wine which the over excited gentleman kept knocking over. Apparently the intention is to put our names on a plaque in the temple. So if you are walking along the Great Wall of China and come to Tumen, look out for the temple, which is down an alley to the north of the main street!
Here we all are in the horse temple. L to R The still very over excited gentleman, obligatory ancient 84year old retainer with straw hat, me, local dignitary, Ba Jiu, local calligrapher, Peng and Zorbee, Hua and Shandan.

Li Jing Goes Home and We Arrive in Gansu

Unfortunately Zorbee is lame, and thus Li Jing decided to return home by train early last Sunday morning 27th Septmber. Whether he returns or not remains to be seen. Zorbee had refused to go in the trailer until now, but patient Peng spent ages coaxing him with the help of a bowl of feed and although he is still not exactly marching in, he is gaining confidence every day. As Zorbee was the pacesetter for the other two horses, they have reverted to their somewhat lazy alter egos which has sometimes made hard work of a long day for Hua and me.

The next piece of news is more pleasing - we arrived in Gansu province on Sunday 27th September – the final province we will ride through this year. The area we have been riding through has been largely desert, and we have also been riding near the Great Wall, and sometimes actually alongside it. Unfortunately we have also been forced to spend rather too much time on the main road again, though it is a relatively quiet route.

Hua lost in the middle of the Tengger desert - actually only about 50 m from the main road!

 Riding along the Great Wall!

Monday, 28 September 2009

A Surprise Present from Hami

On Friday we were given a most welcome surprise present by a passing truck driver – a Hami melon! Hami in Xinjiang province is on our route next year, and I had been looking forward to trying its world renowned juicy melons when we arrived there. However we were able to have a pre-tasting when we were presented with one fresh off the truck all the way from Xinjiang. Here is the driver in his truck – Hua has persuaded me to point out the evidence in Chinese on the door that it really did originate from Hami.

Thankfully it did not cause a resurrection of the Great Watermelon Controversy that raged for weeks between Hua and the others – which are the sweetest and so on ad infinitum – I did not previously appreciate that it was a fruit that could raise such high emotions – or is it a fruit? According to Hua it is not.

Vet Visit and Goodbye to the Huang He

Shandan is a bit prone to mysterious accidents, twice unaccountably scraping his back in the luxuriously padded trailer. The latest is that he somehow managed to cut his stifle on the trailer. He is not at all lame, but it was a nasty little cut which needed stitching - so Peng went off to Zhongwei find a vet. As there are no modern veterinary facilities out here in the sticks, Shandan had to be pulled over on his side in the yard and held down for his little operation. As you can see below, the vet made a commendably neat job. And all for only £20! I have a course of injections to give him for a few days, and he took the first one like a rock this morning.

He was looking very perky after a short day walking, so we should be able to step up the mileage again pretty quickly. Here he is with Hua above a bend in the Huang He near Shapatou, to the west of Zhongwei, and still in Ningxia province. This is probably the last sight we will have of the great yellow river that we have followed for so long.