Hello world, Alex here!
Took a break from posting for a bit – it’s a bit tiring to churn out 1k word posts nonstop, especially when Chinese internet and slow servers conspire against you. In my previous post here, I detailed my time in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan.
Chengdu was fun, but that wasn’t what we came for. We came for mountains, and mountains we would have. Sit tight – this is going to be a long post.
You see, the mastermind of this trip, Chen Ran, had the sole goal (not really) of climbing one of the Siguniang (4 ladies, or 4 sisters, depending on your interpretation), a set of the tallest mountains in the Qionglai Mountain Range in Sichuan. I’m not suicidal nor masochistic, so I (as with the most of us) decided to stay somewhere closer to the ground, and instead trek about the region. There are three main valleys that we could visit: Changpinggou, Shuangqiaogou and Haizigou. Of the three, we visited the former two – we simply did not have time for another trek. With that basic info out of the way, let’s start.
Day One: A landslide’s victory
Our journey starts in Chengdu – we had hired a tour bus for the 13 of us for the next few days, and that would be our only means of transport until we returned to Chengdu. If memory serves me right, we were to board at 7, and we’d start a 5 hour long trip to our lodging in Rilong Town (now called Siguniangshan Town, as a nod to the mountains). Having watched the World Cup match the night before, we were all, understandably, sleep-deprived, and despite the rougher-than-expected ride, some of us started to nod off.
We made our way through Chengdu, heading for the highlands. It didn’t take long for us to leave the city limits, as we blazed through the highways towards our destination. Almost as if the mountains knew we were coming, it began to rain on our way there. Nothing too heavy, it seemed, but I suppose I forgot my geography lessons. Little did we expect this to become a nice little surprise for us further uphill.
As we left the flatter lowlands and began our skyward climb, the valleys were blanketed by a thick coat of mist. The geography nerd had a field day, taking terrible videos and photos through the rain-streaked windows, and indeed, it was quite the visual spectacle (at least for the city dwelling me).
The ride up was hardly smooth, as perfectly paved roads began to give way to still-paved, but less well-maintained road. Our driver, while confident in his driving, overestimated our tolerance for rough driving, and it was not very pleasant for the rest of us in the back.
With the rising altitude came falling temperatures, and the windows quickly became cold to the touch. The air too changed with surprising speed, becoming cleaner and crisper…and much thinner as well, lulling some of us to sleep – which Dan, being a relatively experienced mountaineer, had advised against. We were ascending with considerably expediency, and with that came the threat of acute mountain sickness – much faster than the recommended 300m altitude change per day. Falling asleep would make the change much more apparent, as well as unpleasant.
The bus rolled along, and the trip seemed like it would be an uneventful run. But of course, for me to say this, it evidently wasn’t.
2500m above sea level, the hum of the engine gave way to silence. The rumble faded away. We came to a stop, rousing some of us from our stupor. I looked ahead, through the windscreen, spotting a veritable line of vehicles that continued past the bend ahead. There was a jam.
A landslide, I posited, must have blocked the road. Surely, the rain in the mountains must have been heavy – I had spotted the river, swollen and violently roiling, earlier downstream. We’d be stuck for a while, waiting for the obstruction to be cleared somehow. Dismounting from the bus for fresh air (and fresh it was!), we stepped out into a view straight out from a National Geographic documentary. Soaring ridgelines flanking a rather steep valley, with a foaming river cutting through the vegetation below. A light drizzle, the vestiges of the storm from before, trickled onto us from above.
You could make a religion out of this. (Go watch Bill Wurtz’s History of the World if you haven’t.
After going out and taking videos, we retreated to the safety (and relative warmth) of the bus. To entertain ourselves, Dan broke out his portable speaker, starting a sort of karaoke session.
It was a while before an excavator lashed to a trailer rolled past us. This part of the road was cleared, and the vehicles quickly started up as people rushed to be the first to escape this jam. We got to see Chinese driving at its purest – a brash boldness founded in lightning fast reflexes and mastery of one’s vehicle paired with an unbridled desperation to reach one’s destination, sprinkled with a touch of self-importance – as we fought our way through the jam. Pretty stupid, really.
We eventually reached the site of the landslide – a small chunk of earth (now removed by the excavator) had dislodged itself and made the road its new home. You could see clearly where the earth once was, as there was a still-flowing stream of muddied water flowing out of the wound.
We rolled on for just a little bit more, as traffic started to slow once more, eventually grinding to a halt. Another jam – and as expected another landslide. It was about lunch time at this point, and we were all starting to get both hungry and grouchy – or perhaps simply hangry. There was a small settlement ahead, and our driver, like many of his fellow countrymen, scooted over to acquire a bowl of instant noodles. In retrospect, I should have done the same.
Dismounting once more, we began to survey the area, and spotted the clearest signs of goats – poop. Looking about, we saw goats on a ridge to our right, and heading further up the road we found a goat casually munching grass. Our stomach growled. We looked at the goat, and the goat looked at us.
And it promptly gave no shits, proceeding to munch away at its lunch.
This time, if I remember correctly, we broke out into army marching tunes. We were really bored, so anything was better than nothing.
Eventually, traffic began to flow again, and as we made our way up, we were proven right again. Another landslide further upslope blocked the path, and now just enough of it was cleared for the road to accommodate a single vehicle. This proved to be a problem, because there were vehicles coming from both directions. We slipped through just fine, luckily, and the ride from thereon out was far smoother.
Hours later, we found ourselves in the vicinity of Rilong Town. 4 or so hours behind schedule, we were all understandably famished, and the first order of business once we entered the hostel was to order a meal.
Our hostel was this quaint little place named Shan Lan – literally mountain basket. The lounge was plenty well decorated, with books and games to pass the time – and a guitar for all our musical shenanigans. The rooms were cozy, with the guys taking 6 men rooms with double decked beds, while the girls took a single room with two beds (we were eventually called in to provide the manpower to move the beds together). While waiting for our meal (which I eventually learned was our dinner) to come, some of us broke out the playing cards, while others gathered around a weiqi (or you might know it as Go) board. Yuanlong turned out to have been a weiqi player back in Singapore Polytechnic, and he proceeded to destroy the rest of us in the game while dispensing some valuable guidance.
Dinner finally arrived – and boy it was good. The ingredients, obviously, were locally sourced, and included mountain cows (yaks?), rabbit and pig (of which we spotted earlier). Of note was the beef hotpot, which featured wild vegetables that was picked locally. With the cold starting to seep into our bones, everyone gravitated to it with good reason.
It was a good meal, with one small problem. The numbers didn’t add up. Someone was missing. Timo’s propensity to disappear struck once more. Granted, we were all adults, but no one knew where he had gone, and he had spoken not a word to anyone else. Messages were sent, and phone calls were made but to no avail. Evidently, we’d have to start searching, and soon. Sunset would come not too long later.
We split into small groups, scouting around town for our missing bamboo stick. Surely he’d stick out like a sore thumb – we didn’t dress much like the locals – but he turned out to be quite illusive. Josh, Zile and I head uphill, spotting what seemed like a shrine, and a basketball court on the way, but no Timo.
The search was made even harder by the thin mountain air. We found our energy siphoned out of us in short order, with our SAF-trained endurance rendered null and void. The first 5 steps of the many stairs would leave us gulping air, and reaching the top would entail a stop in the middle. (To clarify, this was more of a problem for me. I have terribly cardio, and being a big boy with big energy expenditure makes it worse. Zile and Josh seemed quite okay). Eventually, having swept our assigned sectors, we returned to the hostel.
Not to long later, Timo strolled in, unaware of the havoc he had just caused.
Anyway, we proceeded to lurk in the lobby, playing games and tunes on the guitar. Typical youth stuff. Good fun. We planned to trek along one of the valleys – Changpinggou – the next day, unaware of what the route had in store for us. If only we knew..
Day Two: Changpinggou
Our second day in Rilong Town would be spent on a full-day trek along Changpinggou (lit. Long Plain Valley). Earlier in the morning, Dan and Chen Ran had already left for the mountains, and would only return the next day. We’d be joined by 小姐姐 (her name is actually Yingjun, but that’s like a super boyish name, and she asked us to call her that so whatever), one of the staff from the hostel, and a couple who happened to be heading the same way.
By this time, the mountain sickness had started to creep in, leaving everyone with mild headaches and fatigue. Somehow, we still thought it was a good idea to go trekking – in retrospect, it was a good choice, because it made my acclimatisation much easier afterwards. Nothing like a shock to the body to get it sorted.
To get to Changpinggou, we had to take a bus from the nearby visitor centre, which in turn required a ticket (which included the price for entry as well). At the centre, while some of us went ahead to purchase the tickets, we also spotted a friendly doggo who seemed more than happy to be the centre of attention. With our tickets purchased, we promptly boarded the bus – I think it might have been waiting for us, given we were among the last to board – and began our short drive to the valley.
Reaching the entrance of this trail, there were a handful of local-run stores selling everything we would need for the hike – from warm food to snacks and even windbreaker rentals. It had rained for the past few days, and it would likely rain again later today, so the storeowners seemed ever more keen to push their wares. There also seemed to be some horse rental service, where you’d get to head through the trail on horseback (although all while the horse was being led by a guide, so it’s not much faster than walking). And with horses, of course, came copious lumps of manure. Our first 500m of walking centred largely around avoiding these landmines.
Interestingly, there was a temple just before the start of the trail, although we opted not to enter. It seemed like a strange choice to place a temple here. Granted, the entire area does have some spiritual significance to the locals, but the valley was never quite mentioned as a place of particular importance. Seemed like a nice place, nonetheless, but we were here to trek, so trekking we went.
My two years with the SAF have imbued in me a sort of distaste for forests and jungles, and the prospect of trekking through precisely that made me somewhat apprehensive of the experience. The double whammy of dirt and humidity had always made for unpleasant times, after all, and this trail, I figured, would have plenty of it. And indeed, it was definitely wet.
We began our trek, walking along the boardwalk at a leisurely pace. Technically, we had to return to the entrance to catch the last bus by 5, but we weren’t too worried about that – all we had to do was to turn back at around 2, and we should be fine. Stops were frequent, as people broke off to take photos of Instagram-worthy scenes, and in retrospect, it wasn’t that smart – there’d be many more things to photograph further down the trail, but here we were getting excited about little things.
About an hour or so into the walk, we spotted a waterfall in the distance – there were several before then, but they were always quite distant. This one, however, seemed like there’d be a path to it – and a path there was. Further ahead, a T-junction was prefaced with a sign pointing to the waterfall. There’d be two viewing spots – one far, and one near. The group split, with a handful choosing the far viewing deck, while the rest opted for the nearer view. That’s when the suffering began.
You see, Rilong Town alone sat at about 3 kilometers above sea level, and even then, we were struck by the thinness of the air, which whittled away our endurance with terrifying efficiency. Even walking would make for a difficult time, and the headaches and poor sleep from the acute mountain sickness further siphoned our morale. It didn’t help that being the paranoid soul I am, I overprepared, and was carrying in excess of 7 litres of water in my bag on top of my usual stuff. Now, couple that with a slight, but chilling, drizzle, and mankind’s greatest enemy: stairs. Wonderful. I hated cardio with a vengeance (and I still do), and now karma came for me. Trudging up the stairs, I panted so bloody hard that my breath started to smell of iron – I got a bit worried for a bit – and my chest started to hurt. I don’t remember how many steps there were, but it was definitely too many for me – the headache stemming from the mountain sickness flared with surprising intensity, and my head started to spin. After God knows how many steps, I finally reached the top with only one thought in my head.
I hate stairs.
Once oxygen started flowing back into my brain, I could finally appreciate the beauty of the waterfall. The crisp air, the crash of the water against the rocks, the errant droplets that fell upon us instead of the slope – and the dynamism of water against the stoic stone. I sound like a shitty lit student right now, don’t I? I’ll stop now.
Photos were taken, breaths were caught and we proceeded to make our way back down to the main trail.
Cue more walking. Along the way, we’d spot these stacks of flat stones along streams and what not – the idea was that you’d stack these stones, and the height of your stack would translate into the luck you’d get out of it. Knock one tower down, however, and you’d get a heap of bad luck. We eventually stumbled upon what seemed like the largest gathering of said stacks, and someone – I can’t remember who – suggested we try to beat the highest stack. A challenge was issued, and males being males, some of us could hardly resist it. Hiking could wait. Outdoing everyone else was far more important. People scattered off the boardwalk, hunting down suitable stones – some even hoisting torso sized rocks just to give us as much of an advantage as possible. Some very serious engineering was about to go down.
You see, of the couple who joined us, the guy was a designer. You take a designer, challenge him, and give him an engineer to make sure things don’t go too wild? Things happen. The biggest and heaviest rocks formed a base, intentionally uneven to counteract the ground’s own unevenness. In middle section sought to form as flat a foundation for the next section – a flat piece of stone, turned on its side. With this towering spire bolstering our height, we added a few smaller pieces at the top just to flex on the other stacks. Our stack, by ignoring the convention of having all the stones being horizontal, claimed the title of tallest. Was that cheating? No. That was simply being innovative. I think.
With more walking came more photo opportunities. All this time, we followed the river, but now we got to cross it. The river was still rather swollen with all the precipitation from before, but that made for even more Insta-worthy shots. What really got me was the view after we crossed. It’s just the side of the valley after a bit of plain, but there’s something comfortably proportionate about it. Tickles my OCD.
By this point, the mountain sickness really hit hard. Frank decided to stop, preferring to just rest at one of the stops, and JJ really looked ill – he was already ill from before, and both the high altitude and physical exertion made it much worse. I had long accepted that I’d be suffering throughout the hike, and my foolish pride made it a bit easier to ignore the pain, so I was sort of fine. SAF really trained me well in this regard.
Eventually, the boardwalk gave way to earth – and the ground became distinctly muddy. Equine landmines started appearing again, and once again we were on high alert should we land upon one. It seems that both paths had merged – the footpath and …horsepath? It wasn’t long before we reached, if I recall correctly, a sort of base camp for one of the nearby mountains. Us NSmen were no strangers to muddy ground, but it seemed the girls were having a bit of difficulty with it (also cos we have much longer legs). There’s this uncanny ground-sense of sort that lets us know where not to step. Nevertheless, reliving the outfield experience was no fun at all, especially with all the lumps of horse manure threatening to ruin our day.
The canopy soon gave way to the sky, as the ground returned to being not shitty. We had reached the base camp. With good views all around, we scattered to rest and snap photos. Snacks were handed out, and there was a store nearby selling basic drinks and instant noodles – the hungrier ones amongst us opted for that. After recharging our batteries, it was time to do what we came to do: take photos. Photos were taken, with some…interesting poses and ideas from the designer couple. Spotting a nearby pond with a handful of rather disk-like stones, an idea was surfaced. Our next activity would be stone skipping. Now, I don’t have pictures or videos or anything like that, but it was kind of stupid how this bunch of young adults were just tossing stones into the pond (not many of us were good at skipping stones, myself included). And it was also stupid fun.
It was closing three by this time, and we had to make sure we didn’t miss the last bus. The fun was truncated, and we began a fast march back to the entrance and also pick up Frank along the way. Zooming through the forest, it dawned on me how much time we wasted on strolling and taking photos. We were so much faster now, easily doubling our speed. It rained again, yes, but this time, we opted to employ our umbrellas and ponchos to ward off the rain – reaching the hostel came first. At some point, we broke out into army marching tunes again; this time it was rather relevant and appropriate.
Chugging along, we found the route slightly less forgiving – all the downward slopes from before had turned against us, and now we fought an (literally) uphill battle against gravity. I detested it, opting to pick up my pace so I could escape this aerobic nightmare. It was kind of embarrassing to have my speed matched by 小姐姐 though. Granted, she’s far better acclimatised to these altitudes that we are, and I was still carrying 3 litres of water on top of my other stuff, but still I have my dumb masculine pride. Revisiting all our previous checkpoints and stops with blistering speed, we finally burst out of the forests panting and cursing. Heading back to the entrance, Lady Luck smiled upon us – we arrived just in time for the second last bus. We couldn’t all fit into the bus though since it was already half-filled when we arrived, so we split ourselves into two waves – the unwell and the tired would go first, and a second wave would follow after. I stayed behind to wait for the last bus to set off, of which it would do so when it was filled. That didn’t take long, given that the people working there were all keen to leave as well.
The ride back was uneventful, as far as I can remember. Then again, I was so tired that I probably wouldn’t notice the end of the world.
Arriving back at Rilong Town, we opted to look elsewhere for dinner – there was a small cluster of shophouses further down, and we thought it was a good chance to try something different. We ended up in this family-run restaurant, of whom Zile had made friends with having drank with them the previous night (Zile has this amazing ability to make friends at the snap of his fingers. It’s hacks, I swear). Dinner was sumptuous – this amazing spread of dishes made from local ingredients. Good stuff (yes, I also don’t remember too much. I was dead tired by then, and I’m pretty sure I’m on a path to early onset dementia.) What I do remember, however, was when the boss offered us their home-brewed alcohol (in retrospect, this might have not been too safe, but they’ve been doing it for years, and she only breaks it out when there are guests). Strong stuff, as with Chinese wines, which made Zile downing it in one go ever more impressive.
Anyway, with dinner done and dusted, we headed back to the hostel, washed up and proceeded to head down to lepak and watch the world cup. With the acoustic guitar now at our disposal, some of us gathered around a table and started a (surprisingly not-terrible) jam, with 小姐姐 popping in to join us. When 10pm came along, the music stopped, and with all eyes on the screen, we watched the matches in Russia.
Sleep could wait. Life was to be lived.
Now, time to cue some random pictures.
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That’s the end of day two in Rilong Town. For my sanity, and your entertainment, I’ve decided to stop writing and just post this 4k word behemoth. Day three can wait for tomorrow. I hope you’re enjoying these posts as much as I’m writing them, because they’re just gonna keep coming. Just like the dang http errors that I keep getting from this website’s servers when I try to upload my stuff. Seriously guys?
Alright then, see you in the next post.