Monday, 19 April 2010

Oasis days

We have reached Anxi or Guazhou as it is now called, after only four days riding from Yumen. This has meant a couple of rather too long days in the saddle, so we are all, including horses, ready for a day off. But the weather has changed overnight from icy winter to warm spring, so we have stripped off several layers of clothing and feel a little less like a pair of Michelin men.

Riding through the small oasis settlements beyond Yumen has been very enjoyable as the countryside is quiet and unspoilt and the people friendly but curious. Below is the crowd we attracted at a lunch stop! However we also had our first brush with officialdom. At our first overnight stop Sandaogou we were approached by a very earnest and polite young policeman who required us to sign a registration form – the first time it has happened since I started riding! Then at the next village we were met by a posse of local officials who wanted to examine our passports, know where we were going, how long we were staying etc – I suspect they were just nosey.

On Wednesday we stayed at Bulongqi, where there are the ruins of an old city which French and Cable estimated must have held at least 50,000 inhabitants. All that can be seen now is a ruined citadel and the remains of the old city wall. Unfortunately we found no sign of the treasure which lies buried beneath according to local legend. It would have come in handy. The following day I had planned a slight detour which turned out to be an excellent decision, as it took us along a deserted gravel road for miles through an extensive area of wetland inhabited by a variety of birds, some of which we recognised (herons)and some not. But it was a long and weary day’s ride with no welcoming inn at the end, so we were very grateful to find shelter in the building below, courtesy of local farmer Mr Chen. The black mats are actually cotton seeds spread out to air before planting.
Our room was deep in dust and here is Peng sweeping it out at my suggestion – not a very good one as you can see... Here is the room some time later when the dust had settled….

…and after we had demolished several large bowls of delicious noodles provided by our generous host, shown here with brother in law and replete foreigners.

Zorbee’s Bottom

After ten days calm handling and a return to his familiar routine, Zorbee has now settled down enough to be ridden by Rowena – we have been taking turns to lead him. It looks as if I will have to get used to the following view of his active little bottom disappearing into the distance once more.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Bogged Down and Iced Up

This photo is the result of an aborted detour on Saturday to Hongshan (Red hill) where the Trio evangelised at a fair on a nearby celandine meadow. I had carefully planned a cross country shortcut on Google Earth at home about a month before, but it unfortunately failed to take into account the large Chinese bog in the way. Here are our trusty steeds L to R Zorbee, Bajiu and Shandan, standing disconsolately on a small island of stones while Rowena scouts for an escape route.
Having extricated ourselves from the mud, although we failed to reach our aim, we had an enjoyable off road ride over sandy and rocky hills past a couple of lakes and a gang of surprised Chinese workmen engaged in erecting yet more of the electricity pylons which are gradually enveloping China. We came down into the little oasis town of Chijinpu as the snow started to fall again. There we survived yet another freezing night in an unheated room huddled up in our sleeping bags with all our clothes on. The following morning we had a quick foray in the truck out through the ice bound countryside to Hongshan, the hills looking more white than red with a heavy frosting of snow. It took some imagination to visualise a celandine meadow in the frozen wastes.
Then we were off again on horseback through a bitter wind over the bleak and frozen desert as thin snow began to fall.
It was a cold and weary pair of riders that turned up at the only buildings for miles - a coal depot with no lodgings. And truck had broken down in Chijinpu, though Peng sorted it out during the day. Happily the managers took pity on two frozen foreign women of a certain age. Not only were we shown to a room with bunk beds and a WORKING RADIATOR, but they also gave us an electric fire. A hot shower in the washroom, and a noodle supper in the kitchen, and we were considerably more perky.
L to R. Rowena in her winter tellytubby outfit, Mr Liu who took us in, Mr Zhang who cooked supper for us, another Mr Zhang, the redoubtable Peng. Today (Monday) we arrived at Yumen or Jade Gate, but it was a little disconcerting to see this sign on the way, considering we have just spent six days riding from Jiayuguan.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

They Were Right

It looks as though some of the dire Chinese predictions for arctic weather may have been justified, as this is what we woke up to this morning.
After donning all our thermal underwear and waving goodbye to our Muslim friends (who were even more friendly after we had presented them with a donation towards the new mosque), we set out through an icy blizzard. The horses are still in their thick winter coats so did not seem at all troubled by the conditions.

But it has been an excellent opportunity to try out their wonderful custom made waterproof Lansdown rugs at last when we arrived here at Qing Shui. Apart from Zorbee who was horrified to find Shandan had suddenly turned into a large blue box. But he is not being ridden just yet, and is a tough guy.We are staying in spotless guest house. However although our room has an enormous radiator, it is absolutely freezing, and we are debating whether the proprietoress said the heating was turned on at night or at a certain time of year. Worryingly Rowena says she (the proprietoress) has a mountain of quilts on her bed. I think a little nip of vodka is called for.

Sai Wai


We are off again! Rowena arrived by train on Wednesday morning, and in the afternoon we braved the juggernauts on the horrendous road out to Jiayuguan Fort to set out into the Sai Wai. This is the area beyond the Great Wall, traditionally regarded by the Chinese as a dreadful wasteland inhabited only by barbarians. To be exiled to the Sai Wai was a fate worse than death. However for barbarians such as ourselves who had just survived the Chinese road system, it held no such fear, as you can see from the rather cheesy photo of us setting out from the West Gate cheerfully waving out little national flags.
We had a pleasant afternoon ride along an old earth track through low desert hills, following the line of the ancient Silk route. But being China, it was not long before we found ourselves back on a metalled road running alongside the expressway with excellent views of the railway and a couple of large industrial complexes . As we are taking it slow to begin with, Peng found us a place to stay by an abandoned brickworks about 15kms from the fort - in a walled compound housing a few farming families. Opposite was another walled compound – but much larger, and housing exiled Chinese prisoners banished to the Sai Wai.
Our room was in the middle of the block shown above, and backed onto a straw yard full of sheep and lambs – the little overnight sounds of rustling straw and bleats was quite comforting to an ex sheep farmer such as myself. Less welcome was the constant barking of the many tethered dogs – accounted for in the morning when it transpired that Shandan had escaped his headcollar and had been inspecting the premises. The room was somewhat spartan – its only content being a bicycle and a lot of dust – but it was dry and relatively warm. And our friendly hostess cooked us a welcome bowl of spiced lamb.
After helping turn out the sheep the following morning we set off again.
And eventually arrived at our present destination, Huihuipu. This is a great excitement for me as it was the ‘Muslim tomb halt’ visited by the Trio, and the first stage on their journeys west. It is the site of the tomb of a great Muslim pilgrim, one of three who journeyed from ‘distant lands in the west’. Francesca French and Mildred Cable describe ‘a small, square, mud-built tomb, with domed roof and a crenated border’. This old tomb was later replaced by a larger building, and two years ago by a tall pagoda like tower, the top of which we could see peeping over the hills like a welcome beacon from a couple of miles away. There is a flurry of building activity taking place here at present, with a new mosque in the process of construction (see above photo) together with a new accommodation block for visiting pilgrims. To my delight, Peng organised for us to stay in the current visitors accommodation, a splendid room boasting a sleeping platform covered with carpets and furnished with colourful quilts, and a large stove which has been lit for us so we are in a warm little haven.
The novelty of hosting long distance horseback travellers who also have a keen interest in the tomb means we are being treated like royalty, with endless cups of Chinese tea and a ‘historic’ spicy mutton stew served with enormous bowls of rice. We have had a constant stream of curious but congenial visitors checking over the foreigners belongings (my air bed and laptop are always a great source of interest) and watching them eat (they can actually use chopsticks!).
Here we are with the imam and his gang. They all look rather serious in the photo, but are in fact quite a jolly lot. The chef is on the right by the stove, which constantly has a kettle on the boil.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Money to Burn?

Peng and I (accompanied by Mr Zhong from the Jiazhou Trailer company who is supervising the return of the trailer to Shanghai) have arrived in Jiayuguan ready for off, after five days hard driving from Beijing, although this includes time spent at Pingyao, Tumen and Shandan stud. I had hoped to visit Huzhou, where the Trio spent several years before moving out to Gansu, but there was just not enough time. However we spent a night at nearby Pingyao, an ancient town which is now a World Heritage site, and where there was also a Christian mission visited by the women.
We made an obligatory visit in Gansu to the Daoist temple in Tumen which we ‘blessed’ with the horses last October. We had hoped to admire the plaque with our names on that they have put up in ‘horse ancestor’ temple at the side, but irritatingly it was locked and no-one had the key. The last time we visited, the temple was a mass of scaffolding rising from a sea of mud, but below you can see me and elderly temple member in front of its grand new reincarnation. The horse temple is the small and annoyingly locked building to the left.
We also sorted out several bags of hard feed. Compared with home, where I just nip down to W.D Lewis and Sons and pick up a few bags of balanced mix, it was quite a complicated process, involving trips to a small mill which had no grain, so on to another small mill, a dealer in town, and a remote farmyard to buy bran and maize, and then back to the first small mill (the grinding machine in the second mill had broken down) to get it ground and bagged. The photo shows Peng on the left feeding in maize, the mill owner on the right feeding in bran, and Mr Zhong acting as overseer.

I had once again received dire warnings from Chinese friends about the arctic conditions I should expect out in the sticks at this time of year, but it has so far been quite pleasant, though everything was frozen at Shandan stud and we even had a few flakes of snow just as we left. Although hardly fat, the horses are not as thin as I had feared they might be after the long winter, and should quickly pick up with the three to four hard feeds a day they will be gobbling down from now on. As they have not been trained to stand for shoeing, we were forced to let them be shod the traditional way by being restrained in a shoeing frame. I always find this extremely distressing when it is carried out by unsympathetic handlers as we had this time. It does Zorbee in particular absolutely no good to be treated roughly, and negates all the sensitive handling my Chinese co-riders have put in. At least the ever gentle Peng will be in charge of this job from now on.
However we were treated by the stud officials to some top notch hospitality and perhaps a little too much toasting with bai jiu, as Peng went to bed looking decidedly peaky. But the next morning he was up with the lark as usual and off to cram the truck full of straw, which passes for hay out here in Gansu. Hopefully we are now set up to reach Hami in 3-4 weeks time, it being the next place we will be able to stock up with horse feed. The horses will be totally dependent on the feed we are carrying, as there is not even the odd patch of alfalfa by the side of the road as there was in the autumn.
Yesterday evening I noticed that surprisingly for a population that is not reputed to have money to burn, people were setting fire to little piles of banknotes everywhere by the roadside, and even encouraging their children to join in. Was it some sort of mass protest against rising commercialism? It transpired that it was Ancestors day, when the Chinese burn fake money (and other useful things such as very small paper replicas of very large mansions) to send to their dear departed in the afterlife.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Gobi Express or Flying Turkey?

Here is Mr Li of the Jiazhuo Trailer company with the splendid new truck they have sponsored us. I am thrilled to bits with it as it has all the features I had specified, including a full ramp (so the horses do not have to jump in off a bank as they usually have to do with Chinese trucks) a five seater cab (to transport all the team) and a solar-powered plug point (so I can e-mail even in the middle of the Gobi). The cab is air-conditioned and the back has plenty of ventilation for the horses, though its main purpose is to carry feed and water.
The question now is what to call it. In honour of the Trio, I feel we must christen it after one of the trusty mule carts which lugged their baggage and animal feed across the desert wastes – just as our truck will be doing. The carts were dubbed ‘The Gobi Express’ and ‘the Flying Turki’, though the ladies were slightly concerned that the latter might lead to the misnomer ‘The Flying Turkey'. What are your thoughts?