Sunday, 26 April 2009

To the North!

We have cracked under pressure, and are currently tramping northwards to Inner Mongolia, where I hope we will receive a hero's welcome. It is absolutely freezing and we keep getting glimpses of snow capped hills ahead. Happily we passed through the town of Chicheng and were able to stock up on thermal underwear.

Above: Li May and I shared the bed in this bordello like room -note the rather risque wall poster - the one next door was even more graphic.
Me on Bajiu - which way to go? I think we are on the road to Guyuan, but I just follow Li Jing.

Above: A tu lu (dirt track) at last. After hours of jogging along the main road, today we actually rode through some delightful countryside . Everyone is ploughing their fields with donkeys and mules at the moment.

We seem to encounter an inordinate amount of tunnels, and my reflective Charles Owen helmet, and reflective gear from Shires Equestrian have been invaluable for negotiating them safely. Here is Zorbee and I coming out of a kilometre long tunnel this afternoon. Li Jing is above such things, and just rides through without a care in the world.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Rain, rain

On Wednesday night we stayed in the delightful traditional village courtyard house where Wutzala keeps his horse (N40 32' 28.15" E116 00' 53.74") - a little haven of peace. We arrived early and were able to relax, do our washing, catch up with emails, have another HOT shower etc - it is imperative to take advantage of them whenever one can as it may be the last shower one gets for a while! The horses were happily crammed into a little brick shed looking onto the yard - here they are tucking into maize stalks. L to R, Zorbee, Baijiu, Hei Feng, and the unnamed thin horse. He is travelling everywhere in style in the trailer. Woke on Thursday to the sound of rain drumming down. However it soon turned to drizzle, and we set off to the north. Wutzala led us through the mountains on a small dirt track clinging to the side of the hill, and up to a gap through an ancient stone section of wall dating from the Spring and Autumn period. It should have been a wonderful scenic ride, but unfortunately the mist was so thick we could not see anything, and Bajiu, who I was riding, got over excited and pulled all the way - not relaxing. However at least I now know the horses are fitter than I thought. We had an exciting interlude when Zorbee (who I was leading) got a branch stuck in his tail and charged off back down the track - as I also lost him on the main road on Wednesday, Li Jing tactfully suggested he do the leading from now on.

After a superb late lunch (washed down with Wutzala's home made hooch) in a small one donkey town reminiscent of the Wild West, we trotted on to our hotel for the night. This transpired to be a deserted ex AK47 factory (!) with abandoned Soviet style residential blocks set round a small lake hidden away in the forested hills. To my amazement, the horses were led through a couple of little doors into a huge empty auditorium which was to be their quarters for the night. Once a hall for Chinese dignitaries, now a stable for foreign devils.
We stayed in the ancient 1950s hotel which no doubt once housed visiting Russian weapons experts - it had seen better days, and although it had wood panelling, hot shower tanks, TVs and Western bathrooms, the only things that worked (happily) were the flush loos. Even the bedside lights had no bulbs. We stayed in solitary splendour on the top floor, and discovered in the morning that we were locked in until the caretaker arrived! It would have made an excellent location for a zombie movie.

The horses in their unusual stabling, complete with stage - we could not persuade them to give a song and dance act. Below - me on Zorbee sporting my new white Michael Jackson gloves bought this morning for £1.50 in a kind of Chinese Old Curiosity Shop. You can see I look like a creature from another planet, and together with Li Jing we attract a lot of curious stares.
Today Li Jing and I only rode about 16 miles - but WEST at last! Wutzala still appears to be on a mission to send us via the North Pole, and we are constantly being pressured to ride north via Inner Mongolia, although it is likely to add over a month to the journey, assuming we do not freeze to death on the way.
The horses are going like bombs - I think the feeding is getting through to them and they are certainly all on their toes. It is difficult to take photos as I go along as there is a bitterly cold wind sweeping down from Mongolia (!) and the horses insist on going everywhere at a trot. Hei Feng and Zorbee are both pacers, but I have not got the hang of keeping Zorbee at it yet.
We had an extra bit of entertainment when we found an enormous white mule bearing down on us at full gallop, having pulled out its tether - superman Li Jing managed to catch it and tie it to a tree someway down the road where one hopes its owner will eventually have found it.

Li Jing with Hei Feng and Ba Jiu braving a long noisy tunnel - it was much darker than it looks in the photo.
Now staying at N40 43' 17.84" E115 49' 8.43"

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Wan is ill

Tai qi on horseback- Li Jing does his morning exercises Photo above - on the road. L to R Me, Peng, Li Jing (unfortunately with pole sticking out of his head) horses L to R. Zorbee, Bajiu, Hei Feng, Yura.

Our driver Wan is ill, so Peng has just taken him off to be met by his family. As this means Peng will have to drive, it complicates matters with riding the horses, so Li Jing has decided to swap his fast horse for the thin Shandan horse we left at the Yihe stud - it will make things easier to handle and at least we can always trailer it if it is finding the work too much.
Annoyingly we are now riding east towards Yanquing as Wutzala has apparently organised a press photo shoot in scenic country to the north east - it will probably add about a week onto our journey but hopefully we will ride up to a northern branch of the Great Wall. Tonight we are staying in a small guest house and Li May and I are sharing the family kang (sleeping platform) with the proprietoress - only £1 each a night.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Hei Feng - Black Wind

Yesterday we decided that the older unnamed bay horse which Peng led on Saturday was too thin to cope with the demands of the ride, and we decided to swap it and have another go with the wild black horse. As a result we bundled the thin horse into the trailer and whisked it off back to the Yihe stud, who must be wondering when they will ever see the back of us. Mr Wang who trains the horses at the stud is a sort of Chinese Monty Roberts, and with his help the black fiend was subjected to a crash course. He soon discovered he had met his match and in spite of rearing, spinning and kicking he was bridled, saddled, ridden, shod and loaded onto the trailer by the end of the day!

He is now officially part of the team and thus now has a name - Hei Feng which means Black Wind. He still has to be handled extremely sensitively, and had another spinning and kicking fit today, but Li Jing, Peng and Wan all rode him without major incident.

Staying in an ancient looking hotel with TV, comfortable beds, western style bathroom with HOT shower, all for £2 each a night.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Zou Ba! We are Off!

After a few hiccups, we are on our way. The first setback was that on Friday we discovered there had been a misunderstanding - I was under the impression that I was only paying expenses for Peng, whereas he thought he was also on a salary! This did not help with the stress of last minute preparations for the big day, but with the help of David and Harry we managed to renegotiate a mutually agreeable deal the next morning. Li May changed her mind and has decided to stay.

We moved the horses to the Yihe stud at Kangzhuang on Friday, and I was able to reclaim and sort out all my horsey kit and fit the horses. We decided to leave the wild black horse behind as we had not even managed to get a saddle on him in time, and early on Saturday morning we set off to the Guangting reservoir endurance ride venue with the three remaining horses. I was riding Zorbee, as I have now named the little bay gelding to go with his busy bee personality. The big steady gelding I have now renamed Bajiu (Bajio) - 89 in Mandarin, as that is what he has branded on his bottom!

The official opening ceremony of the ride went off with aplomb. The respective national anthems were played, speeches made (thankfully not too long) and us three riders were presented with Olympic flags by the President of the Chinese Equestrian Association and a representative of the Chinese Olympic committee. We then paraded around waving our flags to the strains of some suitably stirring music over the loudspeaker, followed by a cohort consisting of members of the CEA. The media were out in force and everyone signed the trailer which was on display again. After the endurance riders had gone we followed sedately, partly as Li Jing could not find his bridle as I had packed it away thinking it was an old one of mine, and partly as our girths were much too loose as I had not had time to buy new ones the day before. Happily Harry Tse came to the rescue with a hole puncher. We had a beautiful ride, initially through the grey countryside past ploughing donkeys and great windmills looming up out of the haze, then along the Guangting reservoir, the late afternoon sun glinting on the small grey waves as we plodded through the sand and picked our way around rocky headlands.

Stayed in a friendly little hotel just past the dam - only £2 a night each, though the washing facilities consisted of a sink in the restaurant.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Horseball Harry

We have now moved the four Shandan horses to a very well run horseball centre for some intensive training. The centre is owned by Harry Tse, a qualified horseball coach who has trained all his staff in natural horsemanship, and it has been a delight to see the horses responding to the quiet handling they are getting. We have got round to riding them all, apart from one black horse that is exceptionally wild - we think it must have had a bad experience somewhere along the line. They were all decidedly unimpressed by the human race when they arrived, but the new Zorbee Mark II (he looks a bit like our first Zorbee) is no longer headshy and is actually enjoying the attention. He is also bombproof and a steady little ride. The surprise was a little bay gelding who we initially thought might be too small to use - he turns out to be a real little goer!

Harry is doing a sterling job of promoting horseball in China, as he wisely identified it as a sport at which native Chinese horses could find a niche. The horses here are all obviously calm, healthy, happy and enjoying their new profession.

As the only local hotel that would accept foreigners was way out of my price league, we are comfortably esconsed at the back with the neighbours, who cleared out a room for us. I had my first really hot shower here, and we eat with the staff in a clean little canteen.

Li Jing arrived today and I was very pleased to find that between my halting Mandarin and his rusty but rapidly improving English (he has been speaking Russian for the last 10 years or so) we can communicate well. This is now important as Li May has decided the trip is not for her and is not coming along. We now have secured an experienced volunteer driver cum mechanic, Mr Wan Yan Shi, who is also a horseman.

I am not including photos here, as I am sending this post via my wireless connection and just tried to download some photos without success! The connection is slow and unpredictable, but better than nothing.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Our Horses Arrive

We are now staying at a hotel and riding centre somewhere south of Beijing, and here are the horses (really ponies) we have been generously been provided with by the Shandan stud in Gansu - they travelled for 2 days on this truck to get here - this is how most horses travel in the East! The lorries don't have ramps - they are just backed up to a bank to load and unload as you see here.
This excting event coincided with a big endurance event at which about 80 horses from all over China participated. The race was run along a very sandy twisting dry river bed. Having spent the whole day being waylaid for media interviews, this was followed in the evening by a press conference for the Long Horse Ride (Sino- British Friendship Ride!) with a roomful of reporters and TV crews. Wutzala was also able to display the official certification we have now recieved from the Chinese Association for Friendship with Foreign Cities. Then a dinner and prizegiving at which I was roped in to present the prize for the champion horse!
And I almost forgot to mention our plush new trailer provided by the Chengzhan trailer company - it has two fold down beds in the stalls, a sink and cooker, an outside point to attach a shower, and an awning for us to drink our Pimms in the evenings - and I thought we would be roughing it!

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Our New Motor

We have been sponsored a posh new trailer and need a 4 litre 4x4 to pull it. After trawling round the second hand car and truck yards, with Mr Peng looking under bonnets and sniffing exhaust pipes, there was unanimous agreement when we eventually found this very reasonably priced Cherokee - old (1994) but perfectly formed. It has even starred in an advertisement! Here it is having temporary number plate fitted.
You may gather from this that I am now in Beijing where it has been all go - Li May, the Malaysian girl who is translating for me, found me successfully at the airport, and then it has been a string of meetings with David Mc Neill, Wutzala, sponsor Harry Tse, the Chinese Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Kubi and of course Mr Peng.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The Big Trim

Yesterday was The Big Trim, not only as my farrier Eirian came round to give twelve pony pedicures but I also as had my hair chopped off. Having worn my hair fairly long for over forty years I feel like I have been punished for collaborating with the Nazis.
The rest of the day was spent moving ponies around to make them easier to manage while I am away. The potential porkers are now in the starvation paddock ready for the spring flush of grass - they looked very pleased with themselves to be in an exciting new field, but the novelty will soon wear off when they realise where they are.

Marieclare Carey-Jones of ITV Wales has just been up to Pumpsaint with cameraman to film me for Wales Today. As they wanted to include mounted interviews and I don't have any suitable riding horses at the moment, Leslie at Cae Iago riding centre very kindly let us borrow a couple of her long suffering cobs to be groomed, tacked up, led around, used as backdrops, and ridden endlessly up and down the road and in and out the entrance.

Here I am on an increasingly confused Ffion who has decided the life of a movie star is definitely not for her. If you live in Wales, the item will be televised sometime next week.

The next excitement (for me at least!) is that my digital voice recorder from Olympus has arrived. On the first leg of the ride I was continually forgetting little moments en route that I wanted to record in my diary. The recorder means I can throw away my notebook and pen, and record verbally as I go along to build up into an audio diary. The recorder can also be used for podcasting and work as an i pod - I cannot believe that something so small can carry out so many functions!
I assume Becky Sampson of expedition equus is now on her way to Japan- she was planning to leave London on April 1st.