Riding Horses on the Tibetan Plateau

The next day we woke up bright and early (we were used to it by now), grabbed our luggage, I said goodbye to the kitty and we were off to the bus station. Because we booked the bus tickets through Sims, they thought it was necessary to accompany us to the bus station. I thought it was a little funny since we had made it to the bus station by ourselves via public bus just two days before, but I definitely didn’t mind the “free” cab ride. At the station we were handed our tickets and boarded our 7 hour bus to Songpan. The bus was a little cozy to say the least. There was more than enough leg room (unlike the bus to MiddleMountain), but the seats themselves were very narrow, more narrow than Nate’s shoulders. Good. Now Nate was not feeling very well; The dinner we ate at the Emei Shan monastery had really bothered Nate’s stomach. He didn’t eat anything the entire climb down Emei Shan, and was feeling even worse today. To make matters worse the bus was hot. I had worn leggings because the busses are always normally freezing but this bus had no air conditioning and the windows didn’t open. The only thing that did open (besides the door) was a small “skylight” (more like a submarine porthole) on the top of the bus. Now the problem with this little porthole was that when the bus wasn’t moving very fast, it did absolutely nothing.  Now I was asleep for the first little part of the bus ride, but about a half hour in, I woke up a sweaty mess, barely able to breathe because our bus was so hot.

The bus was stopped, barely moving, in a giant traffic jam. Apparently the new highway that had just been built from Chengdu to North Sichuan wasn’t quite finished yet. We later learned that it was scheduled to open on the anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, but they fell behind schedule. But because it’s China, they opened it anyway and built a detour while finishing the last few tunnels. We were stuck in the detour and it was hot. All at once everyone seemed to be realizing how extremely hot and muggy it was on that bus. Not only was it hot, it felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen. People were fanning themselves, complaining, and staring at the bus driver wondering if there was anything he could do. Nope. And it was torture. And I wanted to kill Nate just a little bit. I was squished between his broad shoulders and the window, I was exhausted, couldn’t breath, we weren’t moving and I just didn’t want him to touch me. I have to say I was a little bitchy/cranky to him for the seven hour bus ride, especially since he was sick, but at that point I was cursing him for being so tall and big and all I wanted was to have my own little space.

Once we started moving it got a little better, but the sun was streaming into the bus, and my window was missing a curtain, so I pulled the one curtain I had and stretched it diagonally, pinning it with my shoulder behind me to try and block out some of the sun. I guess leggings were a very bad idea. I did, however, get to read Hannah’s book, Kosher Chinese, which kept me laughing for… most of the bus ride. Another thing that kept Nate and I laughing was the fact that my legs were so sore from Emei Shan that I couldn’t physically walk down hills or stairs. This meant that getting off the bus was pretty comical. I had to support myself on either side with my arms and pretty much jump/slide down.

Speaking of rest stops, at one point we stopped to get ramen for lunch. I got some ramen and Nate sat there, not talking and not eating because he felt like death. At one point we decided to go to the bathroom. It was a dumpy, gross gutter-style toilet, similar to those in Yunnan, and I waited my turn to use the… trough. When a “stall” opened up, I hesitated, because there was another girl standing there. Was she waiting for that stall in particular? Why did she choose to wait inside if it smelled so bad in there? She then waved me over and pointed to the stall. Okay? I walked over and she stood there staring at me. She continued to watch me as I went to squat down. What the heck?! I mean she couldn’t see anything, but I just couldn’t pee with her watching me! Was she just so amazed that a western girl knew how to use a squatty potty that she had to watch? Did she think white people have blue pee or something?? I don’t know, but I was glad when she finally left, because I actually had to go pretty bad. There you go: an up close and personal look into the most awkward moment of my entire life. Yes, my entire life.

We continued on the bus and eventually, after seven hours, arrived in Songpan. Lonely Planet didn’t make Songpan sound like much, but Songpan is a very cute little town! I almost wished we had a full day to explore, rather than the three day horse trek. I did a horse trek once in high school, it was three days in the Cascades and it was pretty fun. However, I was a little worried about this one. Firstly, it might just be me and Nate, and frankly, I was hoping for a little more company. Nate is great and all, but it would be nice to have some English speaking friends that aren’t Nate for a few days. Especially on our Emei Shan trip, it was really just us all day climbing down that mountain. Let’s just say we both wanted to make some new friends. Secondly, Nate had never really ridden a horse before, besides once when he was really little. I don’t think Nate really knew what he was getting himself into. The reason why we signed up for this particular one, was that Nate’s foreign policy teacher in Beijing told the class that the three day Ice Mountain horse trek was one of the best things he’s done in China thus far.. so here we are! Finally, Nate was really sick, so we were both hoping that he’d make a miraculous recovery overnight.

We were met at the bus station by a horse trek guide, who took us to the main office a block away. He told us that many westerners loved to do the horse trek, and showed us the names of three westerners on a list. Awesome! We weren’t the only ones going! We were then lead down the hill to the hostel. We were told that we could stay in the dorm for free, or upgrade to a double. We decided to take the free room, and headed into the hostel, which was basically a courtyard surrounded by rooms. We stayed the night in a room that actually consisted of two rooms and six beds total… and that’s about it. The bathroom was located in the opposite corner of the courtyard, and it was rough. It was basically some sort of run down laundry/storage room with one squat toilet that was disgusting. Funnn!

Our guesthouse!

Our guesthouse!

We decided to wander up the hill to the main street (the only main street) to get some water. We then stumbled upon Emma’s Café. We had read about Emma’s in Lonely Planet, and were given a card from a man on a bicycle getting off the bus, so I figured why not eat there for dinner?! Nate was not in any sort of mood to eat anything except chocolate flavored cracker-cookies, so I went up to Emma’s for dinner. When I walked in the door I was greeted by an Australian man, somewhere around my parents’ age, and his mom. They had just come from his brother’s wedding in the Philippines and now this man was taking his mom around China. He had been to China many times before, and told me that he loved staying in hostels to meet people, traveling the cheap way via bus and train. I commend his mother for taking seven hour bus rides through rural Sichuan at her age- she must’ve been in her late seventies or something. I ordered a plate of spaghetti (SPAGHETTI) and talked with them about where they had been. It was interesting to see how they differed in what they enjoyed most about traveling: The man loved talking with people, especially people very different from himself. His mom, however, loved amazing scenery and old temples. She kept raving about the Tibetan Plateau and all of the yaks.



While I was waiting for my spaghetti sipping on my ENGLISH BREAKFAST TEA, two guys around my age came over to join us. One was from Hong Kong and the other was from Canada. They were cousins and the Canadian boy, who is my younger brother’s age- was traveling with his cousin, aunt and uncle in Mainland China. They had a private driver driving them around Sichuan(sounds so much nicer than a 7 hour bus ride), and they had actually met the Australian mother-son group in a different town! We were all talking and getting to know one another when a group of police officers walked into the restaurant. I think that was the first time I had ever seen policemen in China. I’ve seen more security guards and military men than I can count but no policemen. It’s weird because in America policemen and military officers make me feel safe, but in China it’s the exact opposite. In the US, if a police officer walks into a restaurant no one thinks twice- the only time they scare me is if I’m driving. Even if I’m not speeding I still have a mini panic attack if I see a cop car on the side of the freeway- but this was different. In China, I’ve never really felt like I needed to watch what I said, besides at Tiananmen Square and maybe the Forbidden City, so it was an interesting feeling, having them watch us. The Australian man told me that Tibet is much larger than just the providence; Tibetans live on the Tibetan Plateau, which is in Tibet, most of Qinghai and Northern Sichuan- so technically we were in Tibet! When he was explaining this to me, and said the word “Tibet”, the policemen’s heads whipped towards us- not the best feeling in the world. The Australian man said that since the boys from Hong Kong and Canada looked Chinese, they were probably paying extra close attention to our table- three westerners and two Chinese-looking people chatting away about Tibet in English. At one point Bo Xilai came up, and we really needed to speak in soft voices- especially when saying his name. If you don’t know who Bo Xilai is, and don’t feel like googling it- basically he was in charge of Chongqing and had a “crackdown on crime” as well as promoting a return to “Red China”- decreasing the economic gap between the rich and poor. He was very charismatic, extremely different from the norm of a Chinese politician, and he gathered a huge following. Earlier this year he was in line to take the top position within the Communist elite, when his head of police ran to the US embassy fearing for his life, blaming the death of a British diplomat on Bo Xilai. Bo Xilai was labeled corrupt and placed under house arrest, while his wife, a prominent lawyer, faces the death penalty under corruption charges. I know I did a horrible job explaining it, so definitely feel free to google it if you want, but it’s very interesting because it all happened while I was in Beijing, but it was kept very quiet. The only reason I know about it is from my Sociology class.

Anyway, the policemen eventually left and we were free to continue our conversation as usual. Eventually the guys had to leave, and I stayed with the Australians to talk. The Australian man wanted to introduce me to the owner of his hostel, who was also the owner of a small massage parlor next to Emma’s café. The woman was there with all of her kids and she was so nice! She made us cup after cup of Tibetan tea, while we sat in the waiting area by the front door talking about politics and the world. This woman was very interesting because she was Han Chinese married to a Tibetan man, which is very rare. Han Chinese don’t normally mix with minorities, especially “scary ones” like Tibetans. The Australian man had not only traveled all over China, he had also been toIraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia- you name it. He told me that you can only learn so much by reading and watching the news, and he decided that he wanted to discover the truth about the world himself. We had a great conversation about Chinese politics, which then lead to the war in the middle east- it was definitely an interesting conversation. After a while I decided to head back- mainly because I had so much tea I was going to pee my pants. I hobbled/ walked backwards down the hill to my hostel and met up with Nate who was still not feeling well- uh oh. We called it an early night, excited for the horse trek and hoping for sunshine and calm stomachs.

The next morning Nate and I dropped our large backpacks in the storage room and headed to Emma’s for breakfast. Emma is literally the nicest woman ever- she speaks very good English and works very hard even though she is extremely pregnant. Apparently she used to work as a secretary for the horse treking company, realized that all of the westerners wanted somewhere to eat, and opened her own restaurant. Now that’s what I call an entrepreneur. Nate said he was feeling better thank god, so we headed over to the horse treking building to get going. We had been wondering where the other three people were that were supposed to go on the trek with us, because we had the room to ourselves last night. We thought that maybe they had opted to stay in one of the doubles with a real toilet? When we arrived we learned that we had been mislead- it was just the two of us- the other waiguos had left the day before! Great. Three full days with just Nate and our guide as company.

We tried to stifle our disappointment at not making new friends, and followed our guide down the main road. After walking for a few blocks and picking up some food at various shops along the way, we rounded the corner down one of the alleys, which eventually lead us to a giant field with three horses tied up. They were so small! -Almost borderline American ponies. Our Tibetan guide saddled up our horses with our supplies and we were off! My horse’s name was Ilu and Nate’s was Dana (pronounced Dah nah).

The horses!

The horses!

Nate and Dana having a great time

Nate and Dana having a great time

I felt a little bad for Dana, with Nate sitting on top of him. Chinese mountain horses are small, and Nate looked hilarious on top of his tiny little white horse, especially since he had no idea what he was doing. The ride started off easy enough, we rode to the top of a cliff and then… we were told to disembark and walk down a huge, steep hill so that the horses wouldn’t slip…. Uh oh. It had poured down rain the night before and I was still having major walking issues from Emei Shan. Getting down that hill was the biggest struggle of my life. I was trying to go fairly quickly to not fall too far behind, but every time I tried to take a normal-sized step my legs collapsed on me. My quads just did not work at all. There was one point where the hill was so muddy I couldn’t get any footing without feeling like I was going to fall flat on my back.

As you can see, I fell behind

As you can see, I fell behind

Nate yelled at me to hurry up but I told him the only way I was getting down this hill was to sit on my butt and slide down in the mud. It was an option, but not the most favorable, seeing as I only had two pairs of leggings for the three days. Nate was eventually able to use his abnormally long arms to support me as I basically jumped/fell over and out of the mud pit, and continued taking baby side steps down the mountain.

By this point it was getting to get pretty cold. The only two pairs of pants I brought with me were leggings. I thought it was going to be hot?! –But I guess I should have paid more attention to the whole “Ice Mountain” part. I was also wearing my carpis leggings, which was super dumb (My past CYO horse back riding camp counselors all just disowned me) because I cut my calf pretty bad getting off my horse (It’s been a month and there’s still a huge scar). I put my longer pair of leggings on over my shorter ones (awkward, but whatever) and mounted my horse, ready to let him do the walking for me.

Bye bye Songpan!

Bye bye Songpan!



We rode up higher and higher into the mountains. There were amazing views of Songpan, as well as other mountains in the distance. We also had the pleasure of riding through a herd of Yaks. I think I expected Yaks to be something like buffalo, but they are definitely not! Yaks are funny little animals- they’re smaller and shorter than cows, with long black fur; however, their fur is kind of like both my cats, in that it’s pretty short on top but really long on their bellies. They also have short legs and little horns.1783

The babies were by far the cutest: somewhere between a baby cow and a baby goat. Yaks can only survive at extremely high altitudes, so it was really cool that we were up high enough to see them. The only problem about being this high was that it was very cold. My tank top, under armor, sweatshirt situation was definitely not enough, especially when it started raining. It was like Emei Shan all over again, except colder, because we weren’t hiking. I tried tucking my red hands into my wet sweatshirt sleeves, while holding the reins, but it didn’t do much. I guess we should have splurged and bought coats… Right as I was contemplating regretting signing up for this three day trip I heard a gagging noise behind me.

Uh oh. Nate was hunched over the side of the horse spewing puke onto the trail. I still feel really bad for that horse. After Nate was done spilling his chocolate crackers, he told us he was fine to continue on… but he was not fine. Every 20 minutes or so he would start puking again- but we kept going, the misty rain turned into real rain, and it got colder and colder. Finally, Nate decided that there was no way we could keep going. We had to turn around. A part of me was a little relieved that I could put on some dry clothes and sleep in a warm bed, but another part of me was worried about losing all of the money I paid. We had signed documents in Chengdu stating that there were no refunds. Our guide asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I didn’t want to do the three day trek by myself, so we could go back and figure it out from there.. I guess. He kept asking me if I was sure… yeah I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go on a three day horse trek with a Tibetan man as my only company. Even though he was married with kids… you never know, plus it would be a pretty awkward three days.

On the way back our Tibetan guide decided that now would be a good time to take a photo of me on my horse. He lent me one of his jackets since it was starting to rain heavily, and took my photo. As he started taking photos and then forced Nate into the picture (hilarious, except not really). He wouldn’t give up until he got one of Nate “smiling”. Torture? Maybe.


On the way back it really started to pour down rain so our guide broke out the ponchos. These ponchos weren’t just any ponchos, they were very thick, heavy, and almost reached the ground on me when I stood up. I discovered this when our guide informed us that we would have to walk down part of the mountain because the horses would slip (again). Not wanting me to take five hours, he decided that the best method would be to grab my arm and basically pull me down the mountain. All I can say was that for about 15 minutes I was dragged down a mountain, through the mud in a floor length poncho- my legs were shaking, but it was better to have the support of another person so I wouldn’t fall on my face. Eventually we made it down the steep part and we were allowed back on the horses. At this point I was starting to get a little sad/ upset. I had spent all of this money to ride horses and what if I didn’t get anything out of it? I was hoping they’d let me go out and ride the next day but I really wasn’t sure.

Eventually the clouds broke, the rain stopped and it became much warmer. We stopped by the guide’s village on the way back, so that his wife could walk the rest of the way with us, to help take the horses back. You should have seen how happy his little daughter was that her daddy wasn’t going to be away for three days! It was super cute. We eventually made it down the mountain (which included about a half hour of me attempting to shuffle down a hill without my legs collapsing and me falling on my face). Nate was starting to act like a real person again, talking and laughing- which made me pretty angry because he was supposed to be sick. So I told him not to talk to me. I was angry with him and the situation and I was having enough problems trying to walk down this mountain as it was. I think he thought it mostly had to do with the fact that I was angry I couldn’t walk and that my legs hurt really bad- we’ll just let him think that. Eventually we made it to the bottom, but we weren’t finished yet- our guide made us stop and take one last picture. I’m putting it in this blog because it’s literally the worst picture in the entire world. I’m wearing the guide’s jacket, eating a piece of bread because it was almost 5:00 and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. I can at least pull off looking happy, but Nate just looks miserable. Please feel free to enjoy this picture/ laugh at our misery as much as you want.

Best picture ever.

Best picture ever.

This is what I had the pleasure of hiking down

This is what I had the pleasure of hiking down

Eventually we made it back and explained to the horse trek company what happened. They told me that they didn’t do refunds, but I could basically do whatever I wanted: 3 day horse trek all over again, two day horse trek or a one day horse trek. We didn’t have time for the 3 day trip all over again, and no one was signed up to do the 3 day or 2 day trip anyway, and I really didn’t want to do an overnight trip by myself: so I opted to do the one day horse trek the next day, and leave the last day for wandering around the city. We were told that we could sleep in the big room again for free, but Nate opted to upgrade us to a double room with a bathroom, since using a squatty potty with stomach issues is literally the worst thing in the entire world. I went up the hill to Emma’s to grab some dinner and ran into Emma and the Australian man. They were both shocked to see me, and I told them what happened. I ended up having dinner with the Australian man and his mom, and we spent the evening chatting (again)- so much for working on my blog!

I was originally going to make this one post, but it’s SO LONG I’m going to split it in half. Stay tuned for my one day horse trek by myself, as well as whether or not Nate and I kill each other.


About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I currently live in China where I'm studying for my master's degree!
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2 Responses to Riding Horses on the Tibetan Plateau

  1. Penny Vederoff says:

    Ah, now I feel better…
    Btw, do white people pee blue? I’ve never looked.


  2. Pingback: Sichuan | Richelle Gamlam Photography

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