Ice clings to the pavement like glue set hard. A trap for those unwary walkers. Our breath reveals itself as icy smoke. Our hands are stiff from the cold.
The sun has long ago risen but remains trapped behind ubiquitous cloud. It will be hard to budge, but we keep our fingers crossed it will, if only to help warm our trembling bodies.
We have arrived in Songpan – one of the most interesting ancient towns in Sichuan – and it is bitterly cold.
A place to stay is found. Our bags unladen.
A place to eat, to warm our ever chilling bodies, is found. Our stomachs filled.
Consulting noodle shop owners and wandering tribesmen we make a plan to walk west of town to reach the crumbling, but still standing, ancient wall and the West Gate that sits atop the West slope, guarding the town below and the surrounding valley.
Togged up, in pretty much all the clothes we own, we set out under a piercing blue sky that had miraculously appeared. The road gave way to snow strewn dusty trails. Dusty trails flanked by battered sheds and barky dogs. Very aggressive but thankfully chained. We marched on up the hill – rock in hand just in case – to the soundtrack of ’bark bark, woof woof’.
And then. Realisation. Wrong way. Back down and past the ’bark bark, woof woof’, rock still in hand… We found the right way.
Like the ice we clung to the sheer and windy mountain trails that sat dizzyingly on the mountain slopes. We trudged through snow, the sound of its satisfying crunch underfoot warming our still chilled hearts. We meandered through barren farmland, trying to keep track of the right way, battling a gradually disintegrating sense of direction.
And then. The path ended. We looked around, through desolate tree branches. All we saw was terrace after terrace. No paths. No way up. We should turn back and find the path…
… Screw that. Too far. We’ll scale the terraces. There’s only a couple then I can see the path again.
Clutching the last remnants of plant life we hauled our bodies up the terraces, dust flying underfoot and underhand, clumps of earth crumbling away as we scratched and clawed our way up to the path. Phew. Not again.
A simple paved pathway – glorious in its boldness against the stark landscape – led us up to the West Gate!
We caught our breath and gazed at the fallow-come-fairyland landscape that had become of the valley as winter marched on.
We sat, munching on refreshingly chilled pears, and looked out in silence.
A thing more treasured than anything else in this bustling country. A precious commodity too often fleeting, if it can be found at all.
A bark breaks the silence. We turn. A farmer out with his dog has escaped the winter chores and has made his way to the Gate. We greet him and offer our food. He thanks us and just lights a cigarette. He just wants the same thing as us. Silence.
As time marches on, the chill begins its inevitable invasion through clothes, skin and down to the bone. We leave. And start the descent down the mountain, the fall back to noise.
But we’re not back yet and there is still time for peace and to be enveloped in the goodness of China’s natural splendour.
But then as if flicking a switch we are back to civilisation. Rounding the last mountain bend we are confronted with blood, bones and carnage… Okay, maybe not quite back to civilization.
We were walking above an open air abattoir. Cows lined the sides looking onto the melee that had taken place on their brethren. Blood ran like rivers through the front gate. Bones, a mini mountain, was bunched up against one wall. And chickens ran through the yard scavenging what they could.